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Approaching formal writing

This post continues the discussion of teaching writing that I started with Healthy Writing Habits for Children. In that post, I discussed how to encourage younger children to write freely and comfortably by not stressing what is wrong with their writing. In this post, I’ll address the topic that parents are so often concerned with: preparing children for formal writing.

The most natural formal writing to approach with kids is letter-writing, both digital and physical.

First off, let’s admit it: Formal writing doesn’t yell out “this is fun” to most kids. In fact, teaching kids formal writing too early is often what makes them hate writing in general. Traditional schools excel at making kids hate writing, and the more kids they force writing lessons on, the more kids end up hating writing. Then they justify moving formal writing lessons even earlier, because so many students end up poor writers in high school.

One of the things that many people notice about homeschooled kids, though, is that excepting kids with a specific disability, homeschoolers often end up being proficient writers with little instruction.

The less instruction the better

Is this really true? Should we stop teaching kids how to write? Certainly, this isn’t what I advocate. But I do believe that formal writing lessons need to be left until formal writing is a reality in students’ lives, not just something that school makes them do. This doesn’t mean that kids shouldn’t be learning to write, but they should be doing it in the developmentally appropriate ways:

  1. Read a lot of great writing
  2. Write a lot about things they are interested in
  3. Value the creation of narrative in any medium—audio, video, illustration, etc.

Don’t jump into formal writing too soon

How do you know a student is ready to approach formal writing? The answer is pretty simple: When the student’s life demands it.

The first formal writing kids do are things like letters to Grandma, Santa, or the Tooth Fairy. This formal writing is perfectly in line with a young child’s life. The next thing a child might want to do is start a blog about something the child is passionate about. Again, this is formal writing but it draws from a need within the child.

As students progress, they might have to do small amounts of formal writing such as:

  • send an email asking for information about a program
  • send an email to a teacher about a class assignment
  • write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper on an issue they’re passionate about

Parents can encourage students no matter how young to write these communications themselves, with some parental guidance.

Bridging the chasm

But aren’t these simple types of formal writing terribly far from a formal essay? Well, not really. As kids mature, they start to see the need to communicate as part of their education and/or work. You don’t have to teach students the execrable 5-paragraph essay format in order for them to understand how to write.

Kids go through the analytical process anytime they ask for a raise in their allowance or permission to get a new pet:

  1. break the issue into its basic parts
  2. analyze it
  3. offer supporting information
  4. present the conclusion

Although the gap between the daily writing that your student does and formal writing may seem wide, kids are learning a lot that you will be able to draw on once they approach formal writing.

A child who is not afraid of writing will start developing formal writing skills as a matter of necessity, as long as the parents are encouraging and supportive. The first few times my son had to send an email for a formal purpose, I would ask him to send me a draft first. We’d go over it, then he’d rewrite and send. After that, he stopped asking for help with emails.

The first time he had to write something longer than an email for a serious purpose, it was simply second nature to him that he’d write out his ideas, we’d look at it together and discuss it, he’d edit and send it.

Writing assignments encourage the worst writing

The times I’ve had real trouble getting my son to write were the times that I simply assigned something to be written for me, to prove that he could do something. And each time I’ve done that, I’ve regretted it. His formal writing that had real purpose was so much more inspired than anything I ever assigned him.

There comes that day…

Eventually, as students recognize the need for formal writing in their lives, they will be willing to tackle the challenge.

What day is that? When your teen is mature enough to realize the point of formal writing without being told. The other day my son casually said to me, “You never read the essay I wrote for history class, did you?” Then he handed it to me. It was a beautifully written, college-level piece of writing about the history of immigration to the US. Yes, it was assigned writing, but he found a topic of interest to him, broke it apart and found supporting documentation, and presented it to his teacher because it was expected of him in the class he was taking.

The process he went through uses what I see as the three developmental stages in developing formal writing skills:

Developmental stage 1: Write about topics of interest and learn to love communication

Developmental stage 2: Learn to analyze, support, and argue an issue so that you can interact with the world

Developmental stage 3: Learn that formal writing has a real, immediate purpose in your life

Not every student is going to be an inspired, enthusiastic writer. But every student who can learn to communicate effectively can learn to do it in textual form. Our biggest job as homeschooling parents is not to make them hate it before they even start to learn.

Posted in Education, Homeschooling, Writing.

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