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The Art of Teaching a Skill or, The Skill of Teaching an Art

By Andrew Pudewa, Inst. for Excellence in Writing,


MORTIMER ADLER, IN HIS PAIDEIA PROPOSAL calling for a return to a classical curriculum, points out one of the major problems of modern education: the confusion of Information, Ideas, and Skills. While Information (facts) is primarily learned through memorization and can be assessed on a percentage-success basis, Ideas are different—they are infinite and can’t be easily assessed with the same mechanical right-or-wrong method. “What percentage of the concept of inflation do you understand?” is a nonsensical question, since the concept of inflation could be studied for a lifetime. Discussion is essential for the development of understanding of ideas and concepts.


He goes on to point out that learning a skill is even more different; it can’t be developed either by memorization or by discussion. It must be practiced. And the modern problem is that we often try, especially in schools, to teach everything like it’s Information, since that’s what’s easiest to assess, and then we end up teaching to the test. The skill of teaching concepts through discussion and the art of teaching skills through coaching can both be easily lost somewhere between the Scantron® form and the PowerPoint file.


My professional training and background is in music. I spent the first half of my adult life as a full-time teacher of violin and young children’s music classes, so I am acutely aware that coached practice is the key to developing the skill of playing an instrument. Others may have experience in dance or sports, cooking or fine arts—things that humans do, and can only learn by doing. Often we link the idea of artistic activity with creativity and self-expression, but here again we are infected with a modernism that actually impedes the development of skills. “If it’s creative, it’s good; if it’s good, it has to be creative,” is the dominant mantra so evident today—a tragedy so often outplayed in the fine arts departments of most universities, where the way to an A is not to draw or paint or sculpt something beautiful, but to do something that no one else has ever done before, no matter how ugly or grotesque.


This, of course, won’t work too well in music. Imagine a method of teaching where we give the student a violin and with cursory directions on how to make a sound, encourage him to “be creative” and “express himself.” The result won’t much resemble music. Twenty years ago, I wrote an article entitled “Why Music May Save the World,” explaining that we music teachers were holding the line, defending the bastion of common sense against the onslaught of deconstructionist modernism attacking the arts.


When teaching music, we prescribe a graded repertoire for the student, and model for him exactly the way to play the pieces. We do this for years, gradually increasing the technical complexity of the material until the student has a solid foundation of basic skills. Then it is appropriate and effective to introduce creative ideas such as interpretation, improvisation, and composition. This should also be the basis for the teaching of writing, a similar artistic skill.


I often hear a well-meaning parent or teacher say to me, “I just want my kids to be able to express themselves in writing.” However, the truth is different: Writing is not so much about expressing oneself as it is about expressing ideas. Possibly, we may someday be fortunate enough to have an original idea worth expressing (It hasn’t happened to me yet, since I’m pretty sure every idea I’ve ever had came from somewhere else.), but until then we should practice the skill of writing the way we practice and become excellent in many skills—through imitation and repetition.


Throughout most of history, the arts of language have been taught through memorization and recitation, reading and copywork. Imitation is critical. Even well-known authors like Benjamin Franklin, Jack London, and Somerset Maugham recorded the benefits they obtained through the practice of trying to imitate existing good writing and re-present already-well-organized ideas.


So I welcome you to our institute, where we provide materials to assist parents and teachers in helping their students develop an excellent foundation of skills by using models, methods, and checklists. Our approach to teaching composition is not only very old (Think ancient rhetoric.), but is more effective than most anything you will find today. We have received literally thousands of letters and messages from parents of students who have used the IEW system for a few years. They usually score well above their peers on standardized assessments, enjoy writing much more than they used to, win essay contests and scholarships, head into the SAT or ACT with confidence, and write papers which win the acclaim of their university professors. These stories are as common among those who struggled as they are from others.


The irony is both sad and beautiful. When originality and creativity are esteemed above all else, basic skills decrease and true artistic expression becomes impossible; however, when basic skills are taught in an appropriate and effective way, creativity flourishes. We at IEW are working hard to restore the lost art of teaching composition, providing tools and techniques you can give to your children so that they will indeed be able to speak and write clearly and confidently in a world that so desperately needs them to do so.


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Thoughts on Creativity

By Andrew Pudewa

Today, as perhaps never before, our society purports to value creativity in education. Touted as the solution to economic, social, and environmental problems, creative thinking has become a primary objective for many educational institutions and homeschool families. Especially in the area of writing, creativity seems to be both the key and the goal. “Be unique! Be creative! Be original! Just make it up!” That which appears to engender creativity is considered good; that which fails to do so, is bad. Therefore, activities which promote basic skills (such as copywork, memorization, rote learning, drill) are often put aside in favor of activities which appear more spontaneous (story starters, free writing, journaling, etc.).

I’ve heard parents and teachers say things to children like, “First, just get your thoughts down…” or “Write whatever comes into your mind…you can edit later.” Unfortunately there are two fundamental problems with this approach: 1) It promotes undisciplined thinking and therefore bad writing; and 2) It misrepresents the activity of thinking and writing.

First, consider this: To do anything with excellence, we need two things — a plan and sufficient practice. Very few people ever stumble into doing anything well. This is particularly true in writing, because good writing is organized. Good writers learn to structure and order their thoughts, which means they must think before they write. Generally, human thought is broad and global; we make intuitive associations and logical leaps, which is good because it allows for the formation of new ideas, mainly through the combination and permutation of previously-existing concepts. But then, the logical connections and supporting details must be added, often painstakingly, to help the reader share the understanding of the writer as fully as possible. Without a plan, the writer’s task is exponentially harder. Reorganizing huge chunks of stream-of-consciousness prose into something structured is much more difficult than organizing ideas into an outline; it’s hard for most adults, nigh impossible for children.

So our question becomes: How can we teach children to outline and plan what they intend to write? The answer, somewhat obvious, is novel to many of us today, since it requires an antiquated discipline — imitation. If students practice making outlines from existing materials (source texts that can include facts, opinions, stories, descriptions),

they will learn how to create outlines by taking key words from sentences, facts, elements of an original story, etc. They then can practice reconstructing those ideas from their outline, much the way Benjamin Franklin described in his Autobiography. While some teachers or parents may view this process (of taking notes and rewriting already-existing

content and stories from notes) to be a type of glorified plagiarism, what they fail to understand is that this process is the best possible training for the more “creative” activity of taking “notes from the brain.” To read a statement and choose key words to copy into an outline is essentially the same cognitive activity as hearing one’s own thought and choosing key words to put in an outline. In other words, this sort of imitation is the best possible way to develop the essential skill of “think first, then write.”

The second issue is content. Where do ideas come from? A simple, self-evident truth illuminates the problem: Inspiration of the Holy Spirit notwithstanding, the output of a human mind is generally limited to what’s in it to begin with. We don’t get Chinese out of a brain that doesn’t have Chinese; we don’t get physics out of brain that doesn’t have any physics. Output is limited by input. Things don’t “come to you” so much as they “come out of you.” Ideas don’t appear from nowhere; they are the result of the combination and permutation of previously-existing ideas. Stephen King, certainly

one of the most wildly imaginative writers of our time, explained this in his autobiography, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, wherein he gives examples how all of his ideas came from somewhere — things he had read, heard, experienced –

and then combined and morphed into a new, seemingly unique (and often horrific) idea. So children — and all of us, in fact — are limited in our imagination to our experience. A creative mind is a full mind because it has more “stuff” with which to work. In the terminology of classical rhetoric, the “coming up with something to say” is the canon of Invention. What’s so interesting about that word is another word that shares the same root, “inventory”. To invent something, you have to have some material with which to invent! Therefore, building the database of the mind with ideas and experiences through extensive reading and relevant, interesting activity is the best way to stock up the inventory that will allow for the greatest creativity later on. This fact helps us understand what Einstein meant when he said, “If you want your children to be more intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be even more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” Stories that stretch what’s possible also stretch the imagination and fill the mind with new ideas that can then become seeds for other new, even more original imaginings. And what’s true for fairy tales is also true for art and poetry, science and law.

 Sadly, many modernists, in their elevation of creativity to godlike status, allow their pursuit of that end to displace the development of basic skills, which in writing, as in most arts, requires a foundation built upon imitation. So, let us remember the need to build that foundation, and proceed without anxiety that somehow we will fail our children’s creativity. By following the traditional path that we know works, we will more effectively reach our goal of skilled, creative thinkers. A.P.

This article first appeared in IEW’s September 2011 e-Newsletter.

© 2008 by The Institute for Excellence in Writing. It is available at for your personal use or for distribution. Permission given to duplicate complete & unaltered.


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Nurturing Competent Communicators

By Andrew Pudewa

“Good readers will become good writers!” A mantra frequently heard in the lecture halls of academia, echoing along the corridors of Junior High Schools, and boldly preached from the homeschool conference lectern, most often out of the mouths of the more wizened and experienced parents and educators, this statement strives to be a truism. But it cannot be such, because it isn’t true. At least not always. Certainly, it does happen that good readers can become good writers, but to extrapolate from that fact that good readers will automatically, naturally and inevitably become good writers is to warp a truth into an untruth, which when preached long and hard, becomes-if you will-a myth, an unfounded belief.

Further damage is done when this error becomes a basis for a teaching methodology. If encouraging children to read a great deal-combined with opportunity to write creatively-becomes the primary method of instruction in composition, few students will reach the level of success hoped for, and many
will fall short of their need. How do we know this truism to be a myth? Look around. In any family, classroom, or group of kids, count the number of “good” readers; now check the percentage and see how many can be considered “good” writers. Half?One-quarter? Not a majority, for sure. Undoubtedly, the “good” writers in the group are likely to also be “good” readers, but why does one not follow from the other as we have been told? How do we understand and deal with the good reader/poor writer enigma? An astute teacher must ask these questions.

First of all, let us consider the definition of a “good” writer. Competence in composition should mean being able to communicate ideas in understandable, reliably correct, appropriately sophisticated language patterns. Brilliance, creativity and originality are nice ideals, but exist far above and beyond
“competence.” Competence means having baseline skills necessary for success in the academic, business or professional world. Greatly lacking nationwide, competence must now-more than ever before-be the primary goal for teacher and parent. By definition, competent writers are able to use language properly and effectively.

One simple and immutable fact about the human brain is that you can’t get something out of it that isn’t there to start with. Supernatural inspiration notwithstanding, human beings in general-and children in particular-really can’t produce thoughts or concepts that they haven’t first experienced and
stored. In other words, we cannot think a thought we don’t have to begin with. Even the most unique, creative and extraordinary ideas can only exist as a combination and permutation of previously learned bits of information. What does this mean for the writing teacher who desires to nurture competence? If, what we
need is a student who is able to produce “understandable, reliably correct, and appropriately sophisticated language patterns,” then what we must put into the brain are those same reliably correct and sophisticated language patterns. Ah, then reading should do it, right?

Not always. In fact, it’s an interesting observation, but many children who become early readers, independent readers-good readers, often do not store complete and correct language patterns in their brains. Good readers read quickly, silently and aggressively. They don’t audiate (hear internally) each word
or even complete sentences. Generally, comprehension increases with speed, but speed decreases language pattern audiation because good readers will skip words, phrases and even complete sections of books that might hold them back. And to the extent that children don’t hear-frequently-a multitude of complete,
reliably correct and sophisticated language patterns, such patterns are not going to be effectively stored in their brains.

So, what activity will allow children to store these complete, reliably correct and sophisticated language patterns in their brains? Probably the two most important and but least practiced of all “school” activities: Listening (being read to out loud) and Memorization. These two are perhaps the most traditional of all language
acquisition activities, and yet in our modern educational culture, they have become the orphan children of the progressive parents of psychology and pedagogy.

One of the biggest mistakes we make as parents and teachers is to stop reading out loud to our children when they reach the age of reading faster independently. In doing so, not only do we deprive them of the opportunity to hear these all-important reliably correct and sophisticated language patterns, we lose the
chance to read to them above their level, stretching and expanding their vocabulary, interests and understanding. We begin to lose the chance to discuss words and their nuance, idioms, cultural expressions and historical connotations. And they lose something far more valuable than even the linguistic enrichment
that oral reading provides; they lose the opportunity to develop attentiveness, the chance to experience the dramatic feeling that a good reader can inject, and even the habit of asking questions about what they’ve heard. Tragically, because of our hectic, entertainment-saturated, individualistic, test-obsessed and
overscheduled lives, few of us take sufficient time to read out loud to our students, even into their early teens-a sensitive period when understanding of language and understanding of life are woven together and sealed into the intellect.

Because linguistic information is best stored in the brain auditorily, children who have had read to them reliably correct and sophisticated language patterns for many years are much more likely to develop competence in written (and verbal) communication skills. However, there is another no-so-secret weapon in the
sagacious teacher’s arsenal: Memorized Poetry.

There is perhaps no greater tool than memorization to seal language patterns into a human brain, and there is perhaps nothing more effective than poetry to provide exactly what we want: reliably correct and sophisticated language patterns. Although rote memorization and recitation went out of vogue when the
great god of Creativity began to dominate ideology in the Schools of Education, it has stood for centuries, even millennia, as the most powerful way to teach, to learn, to develop skills and to preserve knowledge. By memorizing and reciting, you practically fuse neurons into permanent language storage patterns. Those
patterns are then ready to be used, combined, adapted and applied to express ideas in a myriad of ways. Additionally, because of the nature of poetry, poets are often compelled to stretch our vocabulary, utilizing words and expressions in uniquely sophisticated-but almost always correct-language patterns. A child
with a rich repertoire of memorized poetry will inevitably demonstrate superior linguistic skills, both written and spoken, because of those patterns which are so deeply ingrained in the brain.

What’s even more gratifying, however, is that children love to recite poems they have learned. Seeds of creativity are planted. Language emerges. Poems give words wings. And, if you do have your students memorize a poem, don’t ever let them forget it! Say it once a day, or once a week, or once a month-whatever is
necessary-to make it a permanently stored piece of art. Start with the funny ones; move on to the dramatic. Start short; gradually lengthen. Have fun and be proud of their accomplishments. If you can do that, the drudgery of “rote” learning will disappear, and a great joy of language will emerge.

So then, the one myth is that good readers will automatically become good writers. Not true. Many things about writing can be can be taught directly, but two timeless truths- the two most powerful ways to nurture competent writers-are that we must to read to them, out loud, a lot, even when they could read it
themselves, and to have them memorize great gobs of poetry, thus storing in their brain for life a glorious critical mass of reliably correct and appropriately sophisticated language patterns. – 1-800-856-5815
© 2008 by The Institute for Excellence in Writing. The above article is available at


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Imitation: A Common Sense Approach to “Creative” Writing

by Andrew Pudewa

As in many areas of education, the “skill” of writing has been elevated to the status of “art,” which it rightfully should be. However, this has often been to the detriment of children. Equating “good” with “creative” and “creative” with “good,” many teachers, schools and curriculum publishers have taken an approach to teaching which more or less follows a “hands off” method of instruction. They seek to allow children to “express” themselves on paper without interfering with their freedom and creativity. Although well-intentioned, the “non-instruction” which results from this approach has little chance of helping the child develop confidence and competence in writing, proving particularly unhelpful for the reluctant writer, who most desperately needs to learn basic skills.

In a typical junior high school classroom, it is not uncommon to see students writing in their “journals,” with teachers obediently respecting their “right” to write whatever they wish without criticism or correction; but what is the result of this? Arguably, it is a valuable activity to “freely” express ideas in words on paper, but one must again ask, what are the students really learning? Is this truly the best use of their time during those important formative years?

And what of the child who doesn’t have the maturity to reflect on his experiences, feelings and thoughts about the events of life: Must his opportunity to learn to write become dependent on his ability to think of ideas? How do we teach thinking? How should we teach writing?

Actually, how do we learn to think? Often thought comes to us through “inner speech,” as we hear ourselves “talking” in our head. Very young children will talk to themselves to make sense of the things they see and do. Our thoughts mature as the language patterns we learn as toddlers expand to encompass more complex concepts and their relationships. Without question, some people think more abstractly (thus the existence of the “right-brain” stereotype), but logical reasoning generally evolves from “thinking it through” with inner speech.

The storage of solid language patterns in the brain is of utmost importance for the development of excellent speaking and writing skills. How is this done? Obviously, by imitation! In the same way that as young children, we say what we hear, as young students, we should write what we read.

This idea is not new. From the old-school “copybooks” to the increasingly popular “Benjamin Franklin” method, imitation has been a common sense approach to teaching for centuries. Memorizing great chunks of Latin oratory, students in ancient Rome used imitation to master the skill of rhetoric. Only in the last 20-30 years has the great god of “creativity” in art upstaged the tradition of imitation in building a foundation of skills. Did Leonardo da Vinci advise his students to “express themselves” on canvas? No, he had them copy his Mona Lisa, and there are dozens of Mona Lisa imitations today to prove it. Did the great ‘cellist Pablo Casals suggest that his students choose their own bowings, fingerings and dynamics in the Bach partitas they played? No, Casals had them imitate his style with absolute precision, and only when every nuance of their performance was absolutely identical to his, did he say, “Now you know enough to do it differently than me.” Why teach writing any differently?

Throughout the U.S. and Canada, schools and administrators, parents and legislatures are concerned about the poor showing of students on writing assessments. They are perplexed. New curriculums, revised textbooks and increased classroom technology have not improved results over the past two decades. It seems confusing, but why should we be surprised?

Being so much a product of their environment, the children themselves will prove the efficacy of the teaching method they have endured. Recently, education and language arts experts have been scrambling to devise rubrics, models and processes, strategies and applications to help children quickly develop the abilities they currently seem to lack. Although these various state standards have been moderately successful in helping teachers specify the capabilities children should have, they have done little to assist the teachers in nurturing these skills in their students. Perhaps a look to compare the methods of the present with those of past is in order.

The State of California Language Arts Content Standards, Grade 4, Section 2.0, which is termed Writing Applications (genres & their characteristics), suggests that by the end of fourth grade, students should be able to: 2.1. – write narratives on incidents that: (1) relate ideas, observations, and/or memories (2) provide a context to enable the reader to imagine the world of the event or experience. (3) use concrete sensory details (4) provide insight into why this incident is memorable.

How many adults could do that, let alone teach a child to do so? Very few. The only method of effectively teaching this would be by example. Reading a sample or two would not be enough. For almost all ten year old children, it would be best for them to first practice on someone else’s narrative (preferably a well done autobiographical excerpt), taking key words from key ideas and re-writing that person’s experience (perhaps several times with several samples), before they would even begin to internalize the nature of “concrete sensory details,” or intuitively know how to “provide a context to enable the reader to imagine the world of the event.” Very, very few children could meet this “writing standard” using one of their own memories or experiences without having had the opportunity to first read and write about incidents in the lives of others which already fulfill these requirements.

Perhaps it will take another decade of frustration with assessments and standards until we realize that what is now being done in schools does not work as well as the common sense methods that were used centuries ago. Writing is indeed an “art,” and should be taught as art has classically been taught, with step-by-step guidance, continuous practice, and plenty of opportunity for imitation.


Andrew Pudewa is the director of The Institute for Excellence in Writing, which offers live courses and videotaped seminars on writing for children, teachers and teaching parents. More information about Mr. Pudewa’s teaching schedule and products are available at: or by calling 800/856-5815.

Copyright 2013 by Andrew Pudewa. All rights reserved.


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Common Mistakes and Some Options for Teachers

by Andrew Pudewa, Institute for Excellence in Writing

We’ve all suffered it at one time or another: Frustration about writing assignments. Either on the receiving end, or perhaps now on the giving end, there can be a few distinctly discouraging aspects to teaching and being taught writing. The tough questions include:

What to correct and how to give a grade?

  • How much help is too much?
  • Isn’t the assignment clear enough?
  • Why don’t students find their own errors?

Because we are so much a product of our environment, our style of instruction often becomes a reflection of how we were taught, and consequently the “sins” of our teachers can easily be passed on to our own students if we are not diligent in evaluating and honing our teaching skills.

Unlike math, history and science, writing does not consist simply of a set of facts to be learned and manipulated; it is an art, and should be taught more like art. Think about piano or violin.  Do we expect perfection immediately? Not at all. We expect wrong notes. We expect awkward expression. But through a process of modeling, listening, practicing and reviewing specific, graded techniques, anyone can learn to play violin or piano.  Writing is similar.  Modeling when teaching art is not only effective, but absolutely necessary.

In music lessons, do successful teachers correct every position problem, every rhythmic error, every wrong note all at once?   Certainly not. They point out one or two specific areas for improvement and assign practice goals to address those problems. As one technique improves, another gains the spotlight.  Put simply, good teachers know the secret of the “one point lesson.”  With this in mind, let us consider some mistakes which are so easy to make when teaching writing.

#1 Overcorrecting. This is perhaps the most common and dangerous mistake, especially for elementary and intermediate level children. Many of us might recall the experience of getting back a red-mark plastered paper.  Did we look at it and think, “Wow, look at all these great corrections. If I carefully study the teacher’s marks and really try to remember these things when I write my next paper, I’ll probably get a better grade. I can hardly wait!”? Unlikely.

More commonly a child looks at the paper and each red mark makes him feel: “I’m wrong…I’m bad….I’m stupid…I don’t know anything…I’ll never be able to do this…..etc.” Or perhaps we received a paper with no corrections or comments but simply a “C+/B-” at the top and no explanation as to why the poor grade. That’s another cause for hopelessly thinking: “I’m lousy at this and have no idea how to do better.”

How then to correct?  Think of “editing” rather than correcting. Every good writer has an editor (and few good editors are accomplished writers). The purpose of editing is to prepare a piece for publication. Compositions should be marked on specifically and only for the purpose of helping the child create a finished product which will be as correct and fluent as possible.

Fortunately, the child will, in the process of rewriting or typing your suggested changes, semi-consciously internalize those corrections, thus learning by example and imitation, rather than by direct instruction. Every child needs an editor, and parents often need to know what that means. They must adjust their role accordingly.

The difference between a Mom and an editor is that an editor gives corrections without a lecture attached.  An editor does not give grades; he helps prepare a piece for publication. He is an assistant rather than a teacher.  With children, your goal is to help them produce a finished product they can be proud of and teach by “editing” not “correcting.”

#2 Holding back help. In our syllabus, we overcome the problem of “I don’t know what to write about” by providing content through “source text.” This is the equivalent of teaching music by assigning specific pieces to learn and practice.  First we provide content to use, teaching the “how to write,” before charging into the “what” to write. But even so, children hit blocks.  As we work through the syllabus of stylistic techniques, we might easily hear children complain: “I can’t think of a which’ clause.” “I forgot what a “prepositional opener” is. “An -ing opener’ just won’t work in this paragraph.” Does this mean we have failed? Of course not! It simply means that that technique is not yet easy and fluent.

Some teachers, meaning well, might think: “It won’t be fair’ if I help too much. I shouldn’t just tell them what to write, it wouldn’t be their own work.”  There’s truth to that statement, but let us not forget our purpose and goals: To model structure & style, teach through application and develop confidence and fluency. It is OK to help a child past a block, even so far as dictating to them two or three possible “which” clauses, and allowing them to choose one and use it.  Did they think of it themselves? No–but so what? They chose one, they used it and in the process of using it, they have learned.  You may have to “spoon feed” some examples many times, but ultimately, they will start to think of possibilities on their own. Children who read a lot will be more likely to come up with the words and constructions needed for success with the stylistic techniques, but there’s nothing “illegal” about teaching by providing examples and options. It is especially important for reluctant writers. How else will they learn?

#3 Unclear assignments. This is perhaps the most frustrating problem for children, whose basic nature it is to want to know exactly what is expected of them. “Write a 3 page story set in the 1800’s; be sure to add plenty of descriptive words.” Ugh! How about this: “Write a paragraph about a friend; include three specific details.”  Or perhaps:  “Write a two-page book report on “Little House on the Prairie.”  These types of assignments are tough for children, especially those who don’t really like writing, because they are vague and open-ended. Most of us would prefer an  assignment which is as specific as possible, perhaps like this:

Write a six paragraph story set in the 1800’s.  It could be the Old West, the South, during the Civil War, or in a foreign country. The first ¶ should describe the setting, the second ¶ should introduce one or more of the characters. In the third ¶, create a problem for one of the characters, using ¶ four and five to have them solve the problem. The last ¶  should give a little bit of epilogue and hint at a message or moral. Each paragraph should have the following stylistic techniques: -ly’ word, who/which clause, dual verbs, dual adjectives, an adverbial clause and a prepositional opener. The title should repeat key words from the last sentence. Write a first draft in pen and do not erase. Take it to your editor before typing your final copy.

Given structural and stylistic guidelines like this, students can know more precisely what the finished product should look like, which  promotes enthusiasm, gives confidence and encourages sincere effort.

#4 Over-Expectation. How many of us might be guilty of saying (or thinking): “You had that word on your spelling test just a few weeks ago.  How could you spell it wrong in this story?” “And can’t you be a little neater?” It is, without question, difficult for anyone to catch their own mistakes, but while striving to keep a student motivated, it is important that we, as teachers, not forget this fact: Spelling, Handwriting and English Composition are very different neurological functions. These activities don’t even happen in the same areas of the brain. Not that spelling and handwriting are not important– they are.  But they are very different activities than English composition, which is the logical combination of words into acceptable patterns.  For many young children, writing neatly requires full concentration. For many, stopping to determine the correct spelling of a tricky word can derail a whole train of thought. Adults often find it difficult to “do everything at once” when it comes to spelling, neatness and composition.

Separate complexity.  Allow children to focus on one aspect of writing without expecting them to do everything right the first (or even second) time.

Finished products should reflect excellence, but not instantly. Always look for something to compliment–a good point to reinforce–first, before pointing out a careless error or awkward expression.  Success breeds success, and you, the teacher must be the coach, not the judge. With practice, repetition, age, maturity and motive, most children will grow to produce work that is well-written, correct and neat.  But don’t expect it to happen all at once, yesterday.

Teaching, like writing, is an art. We practice; we improve. Just as we try to guide our students to be effective–while avoiding mistakes–in writing, we must likewise endeavor to recognize and avoid the most deadly errors when teaching. Certainly none of us will become the perfect teacher, but if we continue to strive toward that goal, all will benefit: parents, teachers & children alike. A.P.


Andrew Pudewa, is the Director of Institute for Excellence in Writing

8799 No. 387 Road, Locust Grove, OK 74352 – 800.856.5815


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Motivation: A Motivating Force, Stimulus, or Influence: Incentive, Drive

By Andrew Pudewa, the Institute for Excellence in Writing

To accomplish difficult tasks, motivation is absolutely necessary. No one doubts the need for motivating students, and methods of inspiring them to accomplish a teacher’s goals are numerous. On one extreme, there is fear: “Do this or die,” while on another, huge reward: “Do this and you win a million dollars.” When motivating children to write, however, there are some significant principles that must come into play because the fear of death impedes learning, and ultimately, material reward becomes ineffective. Some children write for fun; reading what they’ve written is its own reward. They embrace the idea of journals, and, inspired by their dreams and future, they write because they have a mission: to become writers. But these students are rare. Most children, especially those for whom writing is difficult, don’t have an instinctive inner drive to write. Typically the desire must be developed, and often the teacher’s biggest challenge is creating and maintaining that motivation.

For most of us, the basic reason for writing lies in Audience. We write a letter because we believe that someone will read it. We complete an assignment because it will be read and graded. We submit an article to a publication because we hope it will be published and appreciated by many. When there are readers, writers will work. Naturally, a positive response from the reader—be it parent or teacher, publisher or public—will motivate the writer to continue presenting his words on paper to his Audience. This approval is in fact the most effective form of motivation that exists. Therefore, let us consider a few ways to help build children’s motivation to write by developing Audience, first at home, then in community, and finally in the larger world.

At home, and for the young child, the most important Audience is the family. Some families are able to nurture a powerful enthusiasm for each other’s accomplishments. Feeling joy in seeing what their children (or brothers and sisters) have done, these families are rich with smiles, words of praise and appreciation. Refrigerators become the public posting place to acknowledge artistic accomplishments, and parental smiles are worth more than a mint to a young child making her first serious efforts in facing a new challenge. Sadly, the parent’s initial excitement over the child’s accomplishments may begin to wane, as the need for correction gradually increases. The cute, unconventionally fresh expressions of the child are not quite so amusing when they are considered awkward or wrong in comparison to an adult standard. In our effort to teach children “correct” writing skills, we often forget that they still benefit from frequent huge smiles, joyful hugs, and enthusiastic genuine compliments. As parents express appreciation for the child’s efforts, others in the family can catch the habit of appreciating and acknowledging one another.

Some successful families have developed specific ways for building the home Audience. A section of wall space can be set aside to “showcase” the best writing of each child for the week or month, possibly accompanied by illustrations or coloring. How about taking a half hour or so one evening a week to let each family member read aloud something they’ve recently written or worked on? This type of “family forum” gives each child a built-in deadline, a reason to do their best, and an appreciative Audience at home, all of which are vital components in motivating children to do their best work. Additionally, a publication like “Our Family News” (which could contain stories, poems, artwork, reports, and more), would not only help you overcome the stress, fear, or guilt associated with the dreaded “Holiday Letter,” but could become a way to periodically provide an Audience for children’s writing that extends even beyond family and into the larger community. Most importantly, it would give you an opportunity to do the single most powerful motivational activity: demonstrate the importance of writing by working on it together! Successful families know that to effectively encourage children to write often, it must become a cultural thing—a normal part of life.

At a certain age, having your stuff up on the refrigerator just doesn’t cut it any more. The Audience must expand beyond the home. Peer appreciation, carefully directed, can have a strong and positive effect on motivating the young writer. Visit any school classroom and what is on the walls? Children’s work. Universally, kids love to read what other kids have done; it’s an encouragement and a comparison. Skillful teachers give frequent opportunities for children to share their work, either in full class forum or small groups. While many schools have newspapers which sample the creative efforts of various students, some teachers even publish a class “Magnum Opus” or “Great Work” as an end-of-the-year collection, featuring the very best story or essay from each student. For homeschool students, a “writing club” may provide some of the positive peer influence that extends beyond the family. With the explosion of technology, a web page to showcase the work of a family or club allows for an ever-expanding Audience, potentially reaching the ends of the earth.

Why write, really? Ultimately, it must be because someone has something he or she wants to communicate. Eventually, assignments like stories, essays, book reports, and research projects must give way to self-imposed goals; adults write for a purpose. We write to educate, enlighten, entertain, persuade, assist, convert. There are problems to address and joys to demonstrate, hopes to elicit and dreams to inspire. If your children have become confident and competent with the basic skills of putting words on paper in an organized and interesting way, you will see them jump at the opportunity to use these skills to make a difference in the lives of their friends, be effective in their work, and serve God. It then becomes your job to help students find work that requires writing, opportunities to write to local officials or newspapers on issues that matter, reasons to correspond with prison inmates or friends with problems, and ways to submit stories with a message to publications with a purpose. They can even self-publish booklets or newsletters. In the end, students will continue to write as
they see the potential to make a difference in the greater Audience of the world.

Presenting techniques and creating assignments while giving gentle correction and criticism is vital for success, but beyond that, the teacher must know how to motivate children to continue to practice their skills. Writing is much like music; you can know what to do, but until doing it has become natural, fluent, and relatively easy, the ability does not truly exist. Depending on the age and aptitude of your children, motivating them may be a simple matter or a Herculean task. A variety of tools will be needed, but more than anything else, you will want a continuous, genuine, and penetrating smile. Although your students may eventually want to write for their peers, or to change their world, you, the teacher and parent, are their first and most important Audience.

Andrew Pudewa is the founder of The Institute for Excellence in Writing, ï 1-800-856-5815

© 2008 by The Institute for Excellence in Writing. The above article is available at


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