Teaching writing can be one of the most intimidating tasks a homeschool parent has to face. There are so many layers to it that it’s often hard to even know where to begin. We often feel like we need to be a professional writer to really teach our children writing. But I promise you, you already have the tools to guide your child as he learns to write.
You don’t need to be a writer. You need to be a reader.
And by the very nature of being a homeschooling parent, you probably are! You need to be an observant reader. One who can look closely at the words of an author and begin to see the words on the page as more than just information to be learned or a story to be shared. A reader who can adjust her eyes to the ways in which the author weaves the details of the text.
My favorite place to start teaching writing is with reading…picture books! So many of us already read aloud to our children on a regular basis so why not use what we are already reading to teach writing?! Picture books are typically pretty short, so the author has to be very intentional with the words he has chosen. The text of a picture book is full of wonderful examples of the qualities we would like to encourage in our children’s writing.
Inspired by some of my favorite writing resources (listed below) and spending time writing with my children and in the classroom, I have seen a simple rhythm emerge that connects reading and writing and allows the authenticity of both endeavors to shine through.
- Read the book. Take your time with the words. Take it slow. Allow their rhythm and cadence to pull you in. For this example, I’ll refer to Owl Moon by Jane Yolen.
- Rest. Put the book aside. You’ve already started teaching writing by reading beautiful words to your children. Let it rest. Let the seeds of the language sprout.
- Discuss. After reading the book and letting it rest, re-visit it the next day. Re-read it and then pick just one sentence or section to focus on. This one part of the book should represent one concept you want to focus on; strong beginnings, alliteration, varying sentence structure, describing the setting. The list is really endless and what you choose will depend on the writer in front of you and the book you have read. (This step may even come before step one. You may have a particular skill you want to focus on and choose a book accordingly.)Back to our example….Owl Moon offers so many characteristics of quality writing. The whole text is so poetic and the words so precise that you can’t help but feel like you are out owling on that winter night.For simplicity of discussion, we will focus how to use the book to encourage our children to use strong descriptions in their writing. I could choose a sentence like:
“Our feet crunched over the crisp snow and little gray footprints followed us.”
Discuss this one sentence. The author could have said, ‘We walked through the snow and made footprints.’ But instead, she chooses words that paint a vivid picture of exactly what is happening. Keep it simple and direct. Your message may get lost if you over-do it. Let the words of the author have space to speak and guide by example.
4. Practice. Give your child time to try this out. Applying what has just been learned is the best way to bring these new ideas into his own writing. If he is keeping a writer’s notebook, he could pick out a sentence or two that he could re-write, adding more description.
Or you could make it into a collaborative task. You come up with the most boring, non-descriptive sentence you can think of. Something like, ‘We made cookies.’ Together, think of other ways you could say this so that you are painting a vivid picture for your reader.
We baked crispy cookies and gobbled them all up.
We licked crumbs off our lips so that there was nothing left of the cookies we made.
We rolled the dough flat and pressed little shapes into it with cookie cutters.
As you can see, each of these sentences tells more than simply saying ‘We made cookies.’ And the ways in which we can say the same thing are infinite. It is important that our children see that there are many ways to say the same thing and that they are no right or wrong answers.
However you choose to approach this step, allow lots and lots of time. Don’t rush it. If your child seems to be having trouble applying what he has learned, go back to steps 2 or 3. Sometimes, finding a second or third example is necessary to really allow the child to make it his own. Sometimes, though, taking a break is best, revisiting the idea in a day or two.
5. Share. Talk about how this worked for your child (and for you). This step is crucial! Allowing for an honest dialogue about how smoothly or not-so-smoothly we bring the skill or idea into our own writing, encourages our children to reflect as well. It also sets the tone that writing is an authentic task and that we are learning together. Reflecting together, allows each person’s voice to be heard and reaffirms that the child’s ideas and perspective are valid and valuable.
Even though I approach this process in a very informal, laid-back way, I have found it to be very effective! And fun! The best part is that writing becomes a joint activity, something we enjoy together. And when our children witness us reading and writing alongside them, they will see these as worthwhile, life-long learning.
If you need more ideas about how to use picture books to inspire your children’s writing, check out these resources.