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Picking a Writing Program

(written by Dave Marks, the creator of the award-winning Writing Strands series. This essay is excerpted from Writing Strands: Essays on Writing, National Writing Institute, Denton, Texas.)

When I talk homeschooling parents about teaching children to write, they often mention how hard they find it. Itís like thereís a huge empty space out there called "Teaching Writing" and there are no clear rules written anywhere to explain how to do what they know has to be done.

After 30 years teaching writing in schools and 15 years working with homeschoolers, Iíve been exposed to a few ideas that work and many ideas I know donít. There may not be just one way to teach anything, but there are some ideas which, when examined, are ineffectual.

Acknowledging that teaching writing is very complicated, youíd have to agree that a simple solution to such a complicated problem canít work. This should eliminate in your mind all those programs that tell you learning to write is easy or itís simple to teach kids to write. Itís not.

There are some teaching programs it might be wise to ask questions about before you adopt them:

1. You should look at the ideas that suggest kids can teach each other to write. In public school they call it peer reviewing, or group learning or co-learning. Examine the principle carefully before you adopt it for your children. What it says to you is if you take two or more children who donít know how to write and have them help each other, theyíll learn together. The big question is, of course, where does the expertise come from?

The children who are older or more experienced or better at writing might be able to tell the younger, less experienced children some things, but who helps the older ones? What experiences do the older children have at teaching that will assure the right information gets passed on? Do the more experienced children give to the younger ones their misconceptions and mistakes, thereby compounding problems? And, why arenít all children entitled to the help of adults? Each child trying to learn to write needs the careful consideration by an adult in the evaluation of the effort.

2. Youíve heard the proposal that kids should have the fundamentals of language before they begin to write. You may have read that itís like a foundation for a house: "If the foundation isnít sound, the house wonít be strong." The problem with this idea is youíre not building a house, youíre teaching a child to put his or her thoughts on paper for someone else to read. The analogy to building houses just doesnít work.

Thereís much research on the place of grammar in the training of children to write, and all of it shows the naming of the parts of speech doesnít help. I like to use an analogy that makes this clear.

Suppose you were to want to teach your child the complicated skill of riding a bike and you were to use this principle of starting with a foundationólike it is suggested you do in teaching writingóand you were to decide your child would first need to learn the foundations of bikes. You would say to your child, "Iím going to teach you to ride a bike. So, the first thing you have to learn to do is to identify the right peddle by underlining it with one line in these pictures of a bike, and when you get really good at that, I want you to draw two lines under the left peddle. Youíll do this with all the parts of a bike, and this will teach you where those parts go on a bike. Youíll learn about sprockets, spokes, peddles, frames, axles, gears, wheels, rims, brakes, grips, bearings, nuts, washers, and youíll even learn to spell the parts. Then youíll draw a diagram of all those parts of a bike, showing where each part fits. Youíll memorize the definitions of the parts. Then Iíll put you on a bike and youíll be able to ride like the wind."

You recognize that would be silly, but this principle used with the bike is the same one used with the study of grammar with young writers. Kids know the grammar rules that govern the language they use or they couldnít talk and make sense. What they donít know are the names of the parts of speech, and they donít have to know them to write well.

Your children must learn to use standard English, but that is best taught in conjunction with their writing and not in abstracted exercises in grammar workbooks.

3. Some programs might present you with the idea that there is such a thing as a three-sentence paragraph, a five paragraph essay or a seven sentence story. Before you buy such an idea, think about the concept. How many sentences are there in a story? Are these people talking about a plot line, the structure of a paragraph or a paper outline? Everyone knows stories donít have seven sentences. They come in all sizes. All storytellers take a different number of words to tell a story. There are no formulas for this. This may be an attempt to tell you that a very complicated concept and process can be taught with a simple means. It doesnít work.

Sure, sentences, paragraphs and stories have structure and so do essays, but they donít have a specified number of sentences. Thatís just not a reasonable way to teach children how to think about communicating ideas.

4. There are people who might propose a program that suggests if kids keep journals theyíll learn to write. Journals are useful for two situations: Professional writers use them to record scenes, characters, situations, experiences or thoughts they want to save for future use, and professionals use journal writing to break out of writing blocks. They force themselves to write every day in journals until the words flow smoothly again.

Most teachers who teach journal writing do so because itís easy and the kids produce lots of paper, and they think theyíre teaching the kids to write. Most proponents of journal writing suggest the journals not be corrected. "The students should not feel inhibited by the pressures of form." So what are they learning about writing? Theyíre really just reinforcing their errors week after week. Theyíre learning nothing about techniques of communication. They might as well be copying words out of some novel and calling that writing training. In fact, in many schools, thatís what the kids do; they copy page after page and turn them in. Since their work isnít graded or corrected, who cares?

In order to learn to communicate, students needs to have goals, an audience, and a person more adept than they are at word use who can look at their efforts and advise ways to improve them. Itís easy to tell your child, "Write in your journal," but what does it teach your child?

When youíre about to adopt a program for your children to learn anything complicated, you might ask yourself some questions first. The answers to the following questions should eliminate some methods that may not work for your children.

1. What goals do I have for my child in teaching this ability or concept? Do I want my child to be prepared for university work if he or she chooses to attend? If this is the case, you can eliminate those programs that teach things like letter writing and story telling. Colleges and universities wonít ask for that type of writing. They will expect their students to be able to write explanatory and argumentative essays. This means you must choose a program that will teach your children the skills they will need to be able to learn those types of essay writing when theyíre in their high school years.

Examine any suggested program for its end results. Make sure you select a program that will carry your child through a complete course of instruction, right up to college or business entrance. A program advertised as a "good way to start and then switch to a program which is more sophisticated" may be just wasting your childís time and your money.

2. What method does the offered program use to give my child the skills needed? Does the program talk to me or to the child? In other words, who is being instructed? Are you expected to be a writing teacher and teach your child, or does the material assume you havenít been trained that way and the material gives the child all the needed information?

Most of the textbooks used for both public and Christian schools assume there will be a trained teacher there who will have experience teaching the subject. If you donít have that experience, use care when selecting those programs. In this case you need a program which contains all the information your child will need to assume the skills taught.

3. What about the process of evaluation? Does the proposed program assume that youíre so well trained you donít need help with this, or youíre so inept, you need answer keys for checking your childís writing? You must realize there are no answer keys that make sense when youíre checking for the efficient transmission of ideas in writing. If there are keys for answers, check what your child will be learning and see if itís in a skill that will be called for.

4. Writing well is very complicated but is one of the most important skills you can give your child. The ability to give ideas to others with clarity and precision is so important that universities tell us that if students have this ability, they will be able to teach them the rest of what will be needed, but if students come to them not able to do this, those students will have trouble in almost all classes.

So, when faced with programs suggesting your child will learn to write by writing reports about other subjects, think about it carefully. Is a knowledge about Egyptian pyramids what your child needs or is the ability to write about them important? Where is the training in writing coming from as your child is doing such a report? What will the child learn about writing from such an experience?

To organize this complicated teaching job is to break it down into parts that make sense. Think about what is involved in communication and how the skills are given to young people. Examine any program carefully before you select it. Do the people offering it give your child identified skills in controlled increments culminating in planned abilities which will be required, or is a fun-sounding idea being offered?