Catholic Homeschool Articles, Advice & Resources

Teaching Writing Skills

by Erin Duffy

The first thing to realize when teaching a child to write is that writing is a skill. Obviously, the gift of a natural talent for writing is a significant factor in determining whether your child will be the next G.K. Chesterton, but it isn’t the primary factor. Even G.K. Chesterton had to learn the skill of writing. The nurturing of a budding Chesterton requires practice, patience and encouragement.

Writing is, by its very nature, difficult for everyone. Every educational deficiency, every insecurity, every fear of a person somehow seeps through the lines of words and sentences. But, ironically, the only way to lessen the painful nature of writing is by writing.

Keeping a Journal

A student of writing must write every day. Perhaps the easiest way to facilitate this practice is by encouraging your child to keep a journal.

A journal is a notebook in which the child writes about specific events or ideas, or it may be a place where he fights out personal battles, or reflects on particular people. The important thing to remember about the journal is that it is a place for practical writing. It is a place for the child to perform some mental calisthenics. Writing in the journal gives the child practice in putting on paper the ideas which are floating in his brain.

The key to the successful use of the journal, though, is not to interrupt this process by insisting on correct grammar, complete sentences, or the perfect word. Just let him practice. Let him become accustomed to the written word, its powers and its deficiencies.

Have your child carry his journal with him on daily excursions to the store or the park. Invite him to write about what he sees. The next time the dinner table becomes the scene of a political discussion, ask him to present his perspective on the issue. The next time he finds himself in the midst of a family argument, have him write about the situation.

Make Writing Positive

One word of warning: never treat writing as a punishment. A child needs to see writing as wings, as a way to soar above the world and capture it. He should never be made to feel that writing is a shackle which confines him to room and desk.

In addition to hours of practice on your child’s part, the teaching of writing takes years of patience on your part. Because writing is a skill, your budding author is going to produce what, in your well-read eyes, is quite horrid. Oftentimes you will be perusing stale stories of one-eyed monsters terrorizing small towns or long, tedious descriptions of roller-coaster rides which lasted only forty-five seconds—replete with grammatical errors, punctuation errors and misspellings. But, remember: patience, patience.

Prodding and cajoling your child when he is learning to write will only make him more fearful of writing and perhaps cause him even to resent it. Through patience and encouragement, you can coach your child, and cheer him in his literary endeavors.

When you are helping your child to write, remember how you felt when you were learning to write. If you do, both you and your child shall come through this learning experience intact.

Practical Considerations

The paragraph is the building block of formal rhetorical presentation. In order for a student to be able to create good solid essays in high school, he must master the paragraph in junior high.

The key to a good paragraph is the topic sentence. The topic sentence states what the paragraph is going to discuss. Each topic sentence is composed of two parts: a “subject” and an “attitude.” The subject is that which the paragraph speaks of—“my dog.” The attitude of the topic sentence is the assertion the paragraph wishes to make about the subject—“is very playful.”

With the topic sentence “My dog is very playful,” the writer has a solid foundation upon which to build the paragraph.

One important thing to remember: a topic sentence can not be a simple statement of fact. Take for example the sentence, “The grass is green.” What could one possibly write to support that assertion? A self-evident statement of fact needs no explanation.

Once you have reviewed the topic sentence of your child’s paragraph, review the supporting details in a paragraph. There should be at least three supporting details in a paragraph. For example, returning to our playful puppy paragraph, we might discuss 1) the puppy’s affinity for shoes, 2) his relentless tormenting of the cat, and 3) his rather wild battles with throw pillows on the living room floor.

These supporting details provide the topic sentence with validity, with proof. But they are only as successful in accomplishing this as the writer is in making these details come to life. A good phrase to remember is “Show, don’t tell.” Show me how the puppy chases shoes; don’t just tell me he does.

Ending Well

An often-overlooked aspect of the paragraph is the conclusion. (Yes, even eight-sentence paragraphs should have concluding sentences!) The concluding sentence of the paragraph should restate the ideas presented in the topic sentence. In other words, 1) tell them what you are going to tell them; 2) tell them; 3) tell them what you told them.

Once you have determined that the content of the essay is adequate, then review the grammar and mechanics. Don’t let the review of grammar and mechanics take precedence over your review of content. There is no sense worrying whether a sentence is correctly punctuated if the sentence doesn’t belong in the paragraph in the first place.

Finally, avoid putting a “grade” on your child’s writing. Of course, you need to grade some assignments in order to arrive at a quarterly average, but carefully thought-out comments and words of sincere encouragement will accomplish far more than even a high grade.


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