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6 Secrets to Student Success in Writing - Gina Berrios

6 Secrets to Student Success in Writing


Do your students moan and complain when told to write a paragraph? Gina Berrios shares six secrets she uses to pave the road to success in teaching writing.

Can I have a show of hands for those of you with children who moan and groan when told to write a paragraph, essay, or a book report?

I hope I am not alone.

I do not know why some kids have such an adverse reaction to having to write, but I remind mine it is part of their existence as a student… so get over it and write. Problem solved! Ha! If it could be so easy.

Here are some of my tips to encourage writing and, hopefully, ease the burden it can become in homeschooling.

1. Free Writing Journals

My kids have free writing journals. For the early grades, they use the composition notebooks with large handwriting lines and a blank space on top for drawings. By fourth grade, they use regular composition journals. Most days, I give them a journal question to answer with a sentence and a picture. (The number of sentences to write is the same as their grade level.)

Sample questions are: What did you do this weekend? What is your favorite toy and why? What is the weather like today? What is your favorite animal and why?

We correct the spelling and grammar together. When first learning to read and write, most of their sentences are more a collection of letters than actual words. That is okay. I will write the correct spelling of the word they meant. It is never in a harsh, grading way, but a conversation like, “The is a tricky word. It is spelled t-h-e.” Eventually, they will learn the words they write repeatedly.

I also remind them that sentences begin with a capital and end with a period. These are grammar skills that will come in later grades, but there is no harm repeating the rule and making it a habit in their writing.

Some of my kids will write their answer, draw a stick figure, and that is it. Others will fill an entire page and then some with a full color illustration. Either is fine with me. I encourage this free writing, because it starts a habit of writing your thoughts, and it takes away some of the intimidation in later grades when having to write for a purpose.

Journaling is done at any time during our school day. If I am in the middle of teaching one child, it is a great way to keep the other kids working on something that does not require my help. (I keep these journals in memory boxes. They have become treasured records of the daily events in my kids’ lives. They have written about family vacations, birthday parties, holidays, pets, their friends, etc.)

2. Brainstorming

It can be tough for a kid to be told to pick a topic and write a paragraph. It is a skill that must be taught and usually modeled. Seton’s writing curriculum really is exceptional. It breaks down the process into small steps that build in each grade. It builds a solid foundation, so stick with it, and you will see it pay off in later grades!

The first step in writing is brainstorming about a topic. I stress to my kids there are no wrong answers when brainstorming. I encourage them to write down everything that pops into their head about a topic.

For younger kids, who do not spell well, I will write the list for them. (They can get hung up on how to spell a word, and it stifles their brainstorming.)

If they are struggling, we talk about the topic. We visualize it, and the child writes as we talk. I’ll ask questions like what do you see? Hear? Smell? Feel? The goal is to get the mental images down on paper as words. Anything is allowed in brainstorming, even silliness!

3. Outlines

It is difficult to succeed in writing without an outline. It is your road map to follow. If your child forms the habit of creating an outline first, writing will be much easier when they get to book reports and research papers.

We will take the abovementioned brainstorming list and turn it into an outline by looking over the list for a pattern or theme. From there, we come up with the topic sentence and circle supporting ideas from this brainstorming list.

I keep outlines low stress when my kids are first learning this skill. I encourage them to write their topic and three supporting points and be done. Sometimes, the outline writing requires a conversation too.

Rarely do we go right into writing after making the outline. Again, it is a skill to be learned and practiced.

4. Just write!

Once outlines are done and it is time to write, I tell my kids, “Just write. Don’t complain. Don’t negotiate. Don’t stare at a blank paper all day. Just write. Follow your outline and write.”

Sometimes, they will need a prompt from me to get their creativity flowing, so I may help them formulate an opening sentence, but then I back off and tell them to keep writing.

The basic paragraph format is topic sentence, three supporting sentences, concluding sentence. Even if it is the most basic paragraph ever, lacking any detail or creativity, I will accept it as the first draft. The first draft is never the last draft. There are several edits between, but getting that first draft done is monumental. Put it away and edit it the next day.

5. The thesaurus and dictionary

Own one and make your kids use it. It can be fun to mix in as many similes for a word as possible.

This is where teaching writing can be a lot of fun. And this leads to my final point.

6. Make it fun

Occasionally, I work in a fun group activity to help with writing that incorporates all my kids. One I call “Popcorn brainstorming.” We will sit in a circle, pick a topic, and toss a ball around. If you catch the ball, you say something related to the topic and toss the ball to someone else. The rule from brainstorming applies: There are no wrong answers. This group brainstorming can help a child stuck in a writing rut.

Another activity is “Add a line storytelling.” We pick a topic, and I will start with a sentence, “Once upon a time…” then I point to a child, who continues the story with a sentence, then points to someone else. The story goes on and on. This activity is especially fun while in the car or over lunch!

At the start of one summer, my kids asked for an aquarium. I told them to research it, write it up, and present their case to me. They read about aquariums and types of fish. They interviewed the worker at the pet store. They discussed what the aquarium should look like.

By the end of the summer, they presented me with a written report and made an oral presentation, complete with the pros and cons of salt water versus fresh water aquariums, the types of fish, how many fish to a tank, and all the steps involved in putting together and maintaining an aquarium. It was impressive, and I had nothing to do with it. The kids researched and wrote it all on their own.

There will be times when writing is serious, such as book reports and research papers. But for most other assignments, find fun topics that your kids enjoy, and you may find their writing comes to life in new ways.

For my kids that really struggle with writing, I allow them to write about silly things or made up things. One of the best paragraphs I had from my fourth-grade son was an imagined story about his hamster, Rhino. That hamster did so many crazy things in that paragraph; it was full of many descriptive words and vivid images.

A final thought

I recently took my daughter to a workshop encouraging girls to pursue study in science and engineering. There was a Q&A with a panel of female engineers and college professors. One of the kids asked, “What is the best thing I can do now in high school to prepare me for college and a career?” Every one of them gave the same answer: “Be able to write. Know how to express yourself in written word. You will use it in every field.”

Writing clearly and concisely is too important not to give it its due importance in your homeschooling. Even when it may be that dreaded subject for student and teacher, carve out the time necessary and really work with your kids to tackle it together.

One final thought, some kids may have underlying issues that make language arts difficult for them, so be discerning and know when to ask for outside help (the Seton counselors are a great resource).

For kids that struggle with writing, it may be easier to type, rather than write… something to think about.

About Gina Berrios

Gina Berrios
I am a homeschooling mom to six fantastic kids. We live on the beautiful Gulf Coast and enjoy road tripping whenever possible!

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