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You Can Teach Your Child to Write - Just Don't Rush It!

Part 2: Dictation, Composition, and Evaluation


Don't forget to read Part 1!

Dictation Sharpens Writing Mechanics


When the child has gained skill in copying and narration, it is time to begin working with dictation. If you prefer to work with carefully planned and sequenced lessons, there are several good writing curricula such as Imitations in Writing and Language Arts Through Literature that use dictation as a foundation. Otherwise, you can simply choose a brief verse, rhyme, or quotation from a good book and dictate it to the child. Allow him plenty of time to write, then go over the paper with him, helping him to evaluate and correct the piece. You may be shocked to discover that the neat, careful handwriting the child has developed over the past few months of copying has almost completely disappeared! As the child turns his attention to capturing on paper words he cannot see, he will be distracted from his former focus on careful letter formation. Don't be alarmed - this is normal and with encouragement and practice will soon correct itself.

Continue practice with dictation, increasing the length and difficulty of the dictation pieces until you feel that the child has mastered the skills involved. Once the student is comfortable with dictation, he will be able to use writing as means of communication, not only in birthday lists and captions for his drawings, but also for letters and stories. If you would like to provide supplemental practice in recognizing and correcting errors in punctuation and grammar, the Great Editing Adventure and the Editor-in-Chief workbooks are good resources.

Composition: Creative and Expository Writing

Next to the doing of things that deserve to be written, there is nothing that gets a man more credit, or gives him more pleasure than to write things that deserve to be read. Pliny the Younger (circa A.D. 62-113)
The essence of writing is to know your subject. David McCullough (1933-)

Once your child has achieved fluency in copying (penmanship), narration (mental organization, sequencing, word choice), and dictation (spelling, punctuation, proof-reading), he is ready to add the skill of composition. This is the writing stage in which the student pulls together all the skills he or she has learned, and applies them to either creative or expository writing. Creative writing, which includes the composition of poetry, stories, and personal essays, usually seems to come more easily to girls than to boys, and it is a skill which has limited use in the adult world, except for the talented few who will become published writers. Expository writing, on the other hand, is useful in many situations throughout life. Expository writing includes reports and articles, descriptive, informative, and persuasive essays, and other non-fiction writing. The composition stage begins earlier for some children than for others, but most students are ready to begin sometime in the middle grades.

There are many textbooks available for teaching composition, but it is possible for a motivated student to become an excellent writer using what I call the 'Ben Franklin method.' In The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Franklin relates how, after his father pointed out his lack of "elegance of expression," he taught himself to write more elegantly and expressively:

"About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator - I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try'd to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned then into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language" (35).
Franklin apparently pursued his self-education in writing during his early teens, and this is a reasonable age for students with a strong foundation in reading and dictation to begin working with more challenging assignments. There are several points to remember when teaching the composition stage of writing:
  • It is not a speedy process - a completed composition sequence includes establishing a topic, gathering and organizing information, creating a rough draft, evaluating and improving the rough draft, and presentation of a final draft;
  • Much of the writing process is mental - leave time for brainstorming, and mental organization of ideas;
  • Work with the student's natural learning style - some students enjoy visual organizing methods such as mind maps, others like the structure of an outline, and some prefer to do most of the pre-writing process mentally;
  • It is not necessary to go through the entire composition sequence with every assignment, particularly if the student is writing frequently for other class work;
  • Integrate writing lessons with other subjects by using the composition sequence for history, literature, or science topics;
  • Early composition assignments should be brief - don't spring a five-page essay assignment on a student who is accustomed to dictation of no more than a page at a time;
  • The writing process can be made less painful for reluctant writers by permitting them to choose topics they find interesting;
  • A rich vocabulary is best developed through reading good literature, but extra instruction can be useful. Vocabulary from Classical Roots is by far my favorite of the available vocabulary workbooks series.

Evaluating Writing Assignments

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell. William Strunk, Jr. (1869-1946) From The Elements of Style.

The evaluation process is very important in helping the student learn to write. Ben Franklin apparently evaluated his own writing, using published writing as a standard of comparison. I would not expect most students to be motivated enough to do that, but parents can learn to evaluate by reading extensively. If you are not comfortable with your skill in evaluation, you may be able to find another homeschool mom or a friendly English major to evaluate your student's work and provide feedback. You can also seize the opportunity to improve your own skills, and learn to discern good writing by reading books such as On Writing Well by William Zinsser, Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White, or Evaluating Writing by Dave Marks. Writing is the most permanent form of communication, and when you take the time to improve your own skills, you demonstrate to your students that you believe writing is important.

Finally, remember that the process of teaching writing does not begin with composition, but with reading. Without adequate input, a student cannot be expected to produce quality output. In order to avoid frustrating students and causing them to feel that they hate writing, you must provide plenty of information in the form of books to read, plenty of practice with the mechanical skills of copying, narration, and dictation, and plenty of time for the development and organization of ideas. It is just as difficult to wring water from a dry sponge as it is to extract meaningful writing from a child who has not been saturated in the written word. As a homeschool parent, you have the opportunity to gently shepherd your child into a world of literary delight, so relax and enjoy the process. You can do it!

Don't forget to read Part 1!

Find great deals on books at Half.com. Building a home library is an important step in helping children learn to read, and used books are a very inexpensive way to begin. Enjoy!

Click here for an extensive list of writing resources from Amazon.com. The link will open in a new window.


© 2002-2010 by Janice Campbell. Adapted from an article that first appeared in Regional Roundup, October 1993. Most of the resources cited are homeschool products that are easily available online (just Google search for them). Janice Campbell is an retired homeschool mom, writer, and speaker, and the author of Transcripts Made Easy: The Homeschooler's Guide to High School Paperwork, Get a Jump Start on College! A Practical Guide for Teensand the Excellence in Literaturecurriculum for grades 8-12.

If you would like to reprint this article in a support-group newsletter or magazine, you may do so, as long as the article is printed in its entireity, including the copyright notice and credit paragraph. I just request that you send me a copy of the printed article for my files. Thanks!

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