Writing is a skill that allows us to communicate effectively and persuasively, if we know how to make use of it well, and apparently reading a lot does not equate to writing well. I learned this the hard way, when I realized my son (who is a voracious reader and somewhat advanced in math) was clearly struggling to express himself verbally both orally and in writing. If I asked him to summarize a story we read, he’d skip entire parts of the tale, and focus on the most minute, irrelevant details instead, details which often have nothing to do with the main plot of the story. If I asked him to write an outline, he struggled with choosing key ideas or the main theme, and his outlines and reports were disorganized and lacked clarity. There were issues with grammar, spelling, and missing words (because he couldn’t write as quickly as he thought and didn’t reread what he wrote), and he resisted editing the first draft, checking for errors, and having to rewrite it.
It was a huge struggle. It is a huge struggle.
I’m not going to pretend that we are past this now, because I didn’t even realize my older son found writing challenging until around the middle of the fourth grade. He’d be asked questions on social studies and science class exams that required a short essay answer, and he often not only didn’t fully answer the question, he would sometimes digress about something only tangentially related. It hasn’t even been six months since I realized we could use some intervention to head in the right direction, and I’ve been searching for help ever since for both boys. I want my sons to be able to clearly express thoughts on paper, and to answers questions accurately and completely, in a way that a reader could understand. They need to learn to stay on topic and organize their thoughts, so I sought out homeschool programs to help them at home.
Homeschool Writing Programs for *Everyone*
These are the writing programs we are working with:
1. IEW Student Writing Intensive– The Institute for Excellence in Writing explains why a good reader does not necessarily equate to a good writer here, and ways to start helping children have the tools to actually create good pieces of writing. To start with, reading aloud to children is soo, so important. It allows them to hear sophisticated language patterns and learn new vocabulary, which is important both for language development and reading comprehension, but also for them to write on their own. For reading aloud to be most impactful, read stories to children that are about two years ahead of their reading level, because children’s comprehension is more advanced than their reading skills.
Memorizing poetry is another way to help children store quality, beautiful language. As Andrew Pudewa explains, we can’t get something out of a child’s mind that isn’t there to start with, and memorizing poetry, beautiful language, and strong vocabulary furnishes the mind with quality words that they can then use in their own writing. Imitation is a great way to become an expert in something, and in fact in many arts and crafts, students learn first by imitating excellence, mastering it, and then creating their own original work.
Finally, we are huge fans of the Student Intensive Writing DVDs that Andrew Pudewa teaches directly to children. I’m not the best teacher (the reason I don’t homeschool- the failing is my lack of patience), but Mr. Pudewa is an excellent, engaging teacher, and my son loves watching his humorous videos teaching writing. We average about one dvd every one or two weeks, so my son is not overwhelmed, because the goal is to build a strong foundation of clear thinking, correct spelling and grammar, and beautiful writing… the goal is not to get it done on a schedule. We plan to continue through the entire syllabus, which usually take about a year for homeschoolers, but will probably take 18 months to two years for us since we are doing it on a slower schedule. In the short time we’ve been working on this (we are about to start dvd 4), my son has gotten into the habit of looking for note-taking keywords so he could rewrite a story in his own words, or summarize a longer story in a report. We are still working on this because outlining an involved, multi-level novel and selecting the key ideas can be really difficult, especially for a nine year old, so I plan to take our time. We will work through this little by little so he can grasp each concept well and build his confidence. He always loved writing his own graphic stories (think Diary of a Wimpy Kid), and I felt like my expectations were killing his love of writing, and it’s time to bring it back on track with an effective and fun writing program.
2. Writing With Ease Because my sons weren’t sure how to summarize stories with multiple story lines, and sometimes struggled with comprehending more complicated texts, remembering language, and narrating something they heard in their own words, I also wanted something that gave them specific practice in these areas. I realized they needed practice holding ideas in their head long enough to transcribe them to paper, in the order they happened, and both neatly and without glaring spelling or grammatical errors. This is where Susan Wise Bauer’s Writing With Ease comes in… it’s a writing program that focuses on formulating narrations, practicing holding sentences in the mind long enough to write them down, and writing summaries that are logical and comprehensive.
I am working through Level 2 with my younger son (who is doing great), and tried to start with Level 4 for my older son (against the advice of a staff member at Well-Trained Mind Press, who suggested I start with level 3 even though he is starting fifth grade). I was worried Level 3 might be too young or easy for him, but I was assured it wasn’t, and she was right, so I ended up purchasing Level 3 and am saving Level 4 to work on next year. It’s important not to choose a book based on where you want your child to be, or their age or “grade”. It’s frustrating to both a parent and child to work through material he is struggling with a great deal, and after learning about the zone of proximal development, I realized the best way to teach my children is to start where they are, and add on new skills incrementally (with my help) that they then practice and master on their own, before moving on to more difficult concepts. This is where I failed in the past (and left my sons feeling defeated)- I would expect them to either 1. be able to master new skills on their own, or 2. be able to grasp ideas and skills a few levels ahead because of their age or grade, even if they didn’t have a foundation yet to build these new skills on.
If we use the right level of each book, and work on each skill 5-10 minutes a day, they will slowly stretch new brain muscles and create new skills in a way they can handle and feel great about (and no fighting with me, Mrs. Unreasonably Demands Too Much). It is better to work with an easier book teaching some things they know and some new ideas they can start to master, mixed together, than a book that provides completely new, foreign concepts that they struggle to understand. Incremental learning within the zone of proximal development is working for us, so these programs- each focusing on different aspects of writing, so they work together wonderfully- at the right levels are perfect for us.
Going forward, I also plan to work on “First Language Lessons” (to master grammar) and “Writing With Skill” (to improve writing skills further), but not this year. One step at a time. I’m already so happy with their improvements and am grateful for the honesty of the staff member at PHP who told me frankly I was being too ambitious with a harder workbook for my son. Moving back a step and working on each skill a bit at a time is bringing back joy to my sons when it comes to writing.
This entire upcoming year, we will be working (between the two boys) on copywork, narration practice, dictation, reading comprehension, spelling practice, and vocabulary with the help of both programs, as well as dressing up their work with quality language. Friends, I will update you on how we are moving along with each as the year progresses, but at present I have high hopes and feel like I’m already seeing incremental progress, which makes me so happy ♥︎