One of the hardest things for homeschoolers to work on is writing. We all carry baggage from our own education that colors how we see the writing process. There’s always that nagging voice that says that if we don’t subject our kids to something similar, we will fail to teach our kids to write well.
I have homeschooled two kids, one of them a natural writer, the other reluctant. I also teach kids writing at Athena’s Advanced Academy, and my students come in all flavors. Starting with my own kids, and now even more with my online students, I have rejected the traditional approach to teaching writing. In this post, I will discuss writing strategies for younger (pre-teen) children.
The tradition: Focus on shortcomings, follow rules
Traditional writing instruction teaches that writing follows rules, and that the teacher’s job is to show students where their writing fails. Students are forced to write:
- for no purpose
- about subjects they have no interest in
- without an audience
Then teachers look at the product, point out what’s wrong, and tell the students to do it again. The result is bad writing, and kids who hate writing so much they will only produce it under duress.
The new approach: Follow passions, focus on the positive
When I started homeschooling, I took cues from homeschoolers and from special education teachers. Homeschoolers said that integrating learning into life made for deeper, more meaningful work. Special education teachers, faced with kids who have such severe shortcomings, have to focus on their students’ abilities, whatever they are.
I came across the writing of Patricia Zaballos, who blogs extensively about teaching writing and also wrote a handbook on teaching writing. The crux of her approach is, like special education teachers, to focus on the positive.
My approach to teaching writing is an about-face from the traditional. My students write:
- with a clear purpose
- only about their interests
- for an audience of fellow students or a general audience on the web
I am there to guide and nurture them, but instead of focusing on their shortcomings, I encourage what’s good about their writing.
Why focus on the positive?
Everyone who has ever had their writing critiqued in a traditional way carries psychological scar tissue that colors their writing. Writing, though necessary in business and academics, is an art. It comes from someplace more personal than the answer to a long division problem or remembering the cause of World War I. To be told that one’s writing is “wrong” is painful and results in negative feelings about writing.
When critiques focus on the positive, students are encouraged to do more of whatever is good in their writing. They are energized by success to find more success.
What if there is no positive?
Sometimes it’s very, very hard to find something good to say about student writing. But it’s worth delving as deep as possible to find encouragement. One student of mine was a very reluctant, poor writer. I had to struggle to find something good to say, but I pointed out that some sentences made me want to know more about what was happening. He responded by developing those sentences into full paragraphs. His writing blossomed. Within a month he was producing writing levels above his original pieces, and I could help him continue to improve by finding new positive points to encourage.
How will students fix the problems if we don’t point them out?
This is where it’s hard for me to shed the baggage of my own education. I had learned that no one will learn how to write a good paragraph unless we point out that they write bad ones. However, the reverse is actually true. In order to encourage positive development, I point out the very best a writer has produced (even when it’s quite poor). The writer works from her own level to build on her own successes.
I don’t completely ignore lessons in grammar, spelling, and writing structure. But in my classes, I separate these issues from the writing itself. It’s much more fun for students to savage a pretend piece of bad writing generated by me than their own work, which comes from their own souls.
What about preparing for college?
Stay tuned: Once students are preparing to write for college or work, they need a different approach…