Language Arts – Writing for Homeschool

This is a long post. Both the Classical and Charlotte Mason schools of thought spend a lot of time reading and writing, and since I fall somewhere between the two, so do I. It’s an incredibly important skill that will serve your kids no matter what they choose to do. Scientists, doctors, screenwriters, business managers, teachers and plumbers all use writing. So does anyone who posts to Facebook or Twitter. Writing is important. So grab a cup of coffee and a comfy chair, and let’s chat.

Writing

Writing is a far more complex skill than most adults realize. We do it with very little effort, so we forget how much work has to be done to learn it, much driving. Remember how much there was to remember when learning to drive? Speed, direction, the vagaries of other drivers. Yet now we do it while talking on the phone and eating tacos.

Writing involves many skills. First, the student must come up with the original material. In his mind, he forms ideas. Then he must create from those ideas coherent sentences; complete sentences with subjects and predicates. He must write those words down, not only using the mechanics of forming letters properly, but also spelling, grammar and punctuation. This is incredibly difficult.

So we break it down. The mechanics of writing (handwriting), the proper use of words and construction of sentences (grammar), the correct spelling of those words (spelling and vocabulary) and the placement of those words and sentences into compelling stories and accurate reports (copy work, dictation and narration). We teach these disciplines simultaneously, but slowly, allowing the child to relate to the knowledge we’re passing on.

True writing instruction should generally wait until a child is reading fluently at a first grade level, but the building blocks of writing instruction begin much earlier. When you read to your child, either from a school book or for fun, have him tell the story back to you. If he struggles, ask questions. Who was in this story? What did they do? What happened next? Can you tell me the story in your own words? This exercise requires the child to take in the information he’s receiving, claim it as his own, and restate it. It can be difficult at first, but gets easier with practice, and it helps to cement information into the child’s mind. It’s called narration.

Aim to have your kindergartner narrate something to you at least 2-3 times per week, working up to twice per day for fourth graders. In the beginning this will all be oral. In first grade, start writing down what your child is telling you, then let him read it back to you. This helps him see the connection between what is in his mind, and the written word. Sometime around first or second grade (when her writing mechanics are in place) you’ll have her copy what you’ve written. Eventually you will transition to your child writing his own narrations, and they’ll be longer and more complex. (For more ideas about how to do narration, check out this site.)

There are pillars that prop up narration, however. Handwriting, grammar, spelling, vocabulary and reading, reading and more reading.

Handwriting

Handwriting is fundamental to writing, obviously. My favorite handwriting resource is Zaner-Bloser. We started with them when my oldest was in first grade, simply because they offer a national handwriting contest, and my kids are seriously into competitions. We liked it and stuck with it.

Handwriting Without Tears is a popular choice among homeschoolers, and includes manipulatives. Fun!

Alternately, you can make your own handwriting pages. Websites like The Amazing Handwriting Worksheet Maker let you create and print your own.

The key is to go slowly. Ask your child to write just a few letters or lines, but require him to do his very best. Five letters well-written trump five lines that are sloppy. Aim for 10-15 minutes per day. Handwriting practice is usually dropped in my house around 3rd or 4th grade, after learning cursive and when their daily writing is enough practice.

Grammar

We have used several grammar resources. For first and second grade, I use First Language Lessons. It’s very gentle and has short, scripted daily lessons. (NOTE: First Language Lessons now goes through fourth grade! I have only used the first two levels, but intend to continue with them.) Primary Language Lessons is another popular choice.

My favorite grammar texts for third grade and up are by Rod and Staff. They’re Mennonite, so expect lots of Bible verses and pictures of girls in bonnets. If you can look past that, their program is systematic, easy to follow and very rigorous (think fifty practice problems every day. I only assign about half of the exercises, unless a student is really struggling.) Those Mennonite kids may not know how to text, but they can diagram a sentence like nobody’s business. I generally do 3-4 years of formal grammar with Rod and Staff. If I feel my sixth graders have mastered their skills, I move them on to formal writing. If not, they get an extra year.

One caveat – the books are getting more and more dated as technology changes. Feel free to skip the lessons on how to answer a telephone, how to use a phone book, etc. I still feel it’s good to know how to address an envelope, but as time goes on, this may become less helpful.

The Grammar Island books are hugely popular with homeschoolers looking for living books. Our experience with them was less than stellar, but I’m not sure I gave them enough time.

We also love games to aid learning. Mad Libs are classic and surprisingly good at cementing parts of speech in kids’ minds. I’ve been drooling over You’ve Been Sentenced but haven’t actually bought it. We also love Schoolhouse Rocks’ grammar videos.

Spelling and Vocabulary 

I use the Spelling Workout books from first through sixth grade. They’re easy for kids to use on their own and include word searches, puzzles and short writing assignments to reinforce the spelling. There are mixed review about Spelling Workout – I like them, but if your kids are not natural spellers or get frustrated with crossword puzzles, they may not be for you.

The other spelling program I’ve used was called Sequential Spelling. This is a very good, sequential (clearly) program that builds on words rather than working through one spelling rule at a time. For example, in one lesson you might have appear, appears, appearance, disappear, disappearance, disappearances, etc. rather than lots of words with the ‘ea’ sound (tear, dear, dreary, meat, beak, bead, etc.) I do like the theory behind this, and I think the program works well. I dropped it after a year because we were spending 30-40 minutes per day on spelling, and I would rather spend my time on other things.

There are plenty of online spelling programs, some free, like BigIQKids. Some homeschoolers don’t teach spelling at all apart from correcting errors in their kid’s writing. The idea is that enough reading will train them to see mistakes.

Once my kids reach seventh grade we move from spelling to vocabulary. I like Vocabulary from Classical Roots and use book A in seventh and book B in eighth grade. I’ve also used word lists from this SAT Prep site to build my own vocabulary lists. I’ll give four or five words per week and require that my kids look them up and copy out their origin and meaning, then use each word in two sentences.

Formal Writing

If you choose Rod and Staff as your grammar text, you won’t need to add a writing program. There are exercises throughout the book that are enough writing practice for elementary students.

The most common way that Classical and Charlotte Mason homeschoolers teach writing is through copy work, dictation and narration. We’ve already discussed narration; as your child reaches third grade or so he’ll begin writing his own. You will then go over them and correct any spelling or grammar mistakes, and help him write better sentences. If you feel confident in your own writing skills, this is an easy way to teach early writing and folds in nicely with the rest of your curriculum.

Copy work is just as it sounds; students copy a sentence (or paragraph, for older students) from a book they are reading. Choose sentences that use beautiful language or have complex grammar. Copying good writing helps students develop a sense for what their own writing should look like. First graders can start with four or five words, two or three times per week. Sixth graders should be able to handle full, complex paragraphs once per week.

Dictation is the next step. Rather than giving the student an example to copy from, you will read a sentence out loud to them and ask them to write it down. This reinforces grammar, punctuation and spelling as they’ll need to rely on their own skills to get it right. Ideally you should be able to read several words, or even an entire sentence, and then wait for them to write it. This helps them to learn focus and attention as well, but it takes practice! Dictation is done once or twice per week.

If you don’t want to come up with your own material to copy, narrate and dictate, Writing With Ease is a good choice. There are four levels (for first through fourth grade) and everything you need is provided. They also offer Writing With Skill and a creative writing program for older grades. I love this program!

If you’re looking for an all-in-one program, I recommend Learning Language Arts Through Literature (LLATL). It’s a single workbook that includes spelling, grammar, writing assignments and literature to read and discuss. This program is less rigorous than the others I’ve recommended, but may be perfect if you prefer a gentler approach. There is no diagramming and I have found the spelling lists to be quite a ways below my kids’ abilities. The last time I used these I bumped everyone up a grade level and they had no trouble. This does not, however, mean it is a bad program. Quite the contrary, the literature selections are excellent and the books are fun and easy for kids to use on their own.

That was a lot of information. 

I know. Let me see if I can break it down.

  Handwriting Spelling and Vocabulary Grammar Writing
1st grade Short, daily practice using Zaner-Bloser or printed pages Spelling Workout A or other program OR LLATL Blue Book First Language Lessons 1 or Primary Language Lessons or LLATL Blue Book Writing with Ease 1 or LLATL Blue Book
2nd grade Short, daily practice using Zaner-Bloser or printed pages Spelling Workout B or other program OR LLATL Red Book. First Language Lessons 2 or Primary Language Lessons or LLATL Red Book. Writing with Ease 2 or LLATL Red Book.
3rd grade Copy work – his own narrations and good, short sentences. Also a cursive writing workbook. Spelling Workout C or other program OR LLATL Yellow Book. First Language Lessons 3 or Rod and Staff 3 or LLATL Yellow Book. Rod and Staff 3 or Writing with Ease 3 or LLATL Yellow Book.
4th grade Copy work and dictation – his own narrations and good, short sentences. Can continue with a workbook if needed. Spelling Workout D or other program OR LLATL Orange Book. First Language Lessons 4 or Rod and Staff 4 or LLATL Orange Book. Rod and Staff 4 or Writing with Ease 4 or LLATL Orange Book.
5th grade Copy work and dictation – longer sentences and short paragraphs and written narrations. Spelling Workout E or other program OR LLATL Purple Book. Rod and Staff 5 or LLATL Purple Book. The Creative Writer, book 1 or LLATL Purple Book.
6th grade Copy work and dictation – full paragraphs with complex language and written narrations. Spelling Workout F or other program OR LLATL Tan Book. Rod and Staff 6 or LLATL Tan Book. Writing with Skill 1 or LLATL Tan Book.
7th grade Written narrations and dictation and a formal writing program. Vocabulary from Classical Roots A OR LLATL Green Book. None – focus on formal writing program or LLATL Green Book. The Creative Writer, book 2 or LLATL Green Book.
8th grade Replaced by formal writing instruction. Vocabulary from Classical Roots B OR LLATL Grey Book. None – focus on formal writing program or LLATL Grey Book. Writing with Skill 2 or LLATL Grey Book.

What about high school? 

Well, I haven’t gotten there yet. My rising ninth grader will be attending out public high school, so it isn’t on my radar. I can tell  you that using this sequence, my eighth grader has had no trouble scoring As and Bs in her very rigorous classical charter school, and is prepared to enter Honors English at the high school.

That’s a lot of time spent on writing.

Yes, it is. In the classical method (or at least my interpretation of it), reading and writing are the basis of the curriculum. Everything else – history, science, art – serves as material to use while teaching reading and writing. But don’t worry! It really isn’t oppressive. Oral narrations are enjoyable and don’t take much time, and if my kids are feeling overwhelmed, I’ll let them tell their narrations to me rather than write them down. Even with all this to cover, our actual time spend on spelling, handwriting, grammar and writing is about sixty to ninety minutes per day. Make it more fun by awarding stickers and prizes, or having them read their writing aloud to grandparents or friends.

Writing is fundamental to every other area of education. But it can also be fun!

What have I missed? Any great curricula out there that I didn’t mention?

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