Articles, Homeschool, Homeschool high school, Homeschool middle school, Writing
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Is Your Student Developmentally Ready for Writing?

is your student developmentally ready for writing? #homeschool #homeschoolmadeeasy

Last year, the magazine Home School Enrichment asked me to take a look at the subject of Writing for homeschoolers. Why is it so hard, and can we make it easier for our students? I believe the answer is a definite YES. Here’s the first article in the series as it ran in the magazine.

Writing is Fun
Understanding the Development of Writing Skills

Frogs are fun,
Until they’re done.
They fly away
And come back another day.

— Leandro, age 8

This poem has become legendary in our house, quoted at the mere mention of frogs, flight, or poetry. And lest you roll your eyes in disbelief, notice that it is now published — an instant classic!

You may not believe this after reading “Frogs are Fun,” but the poet is not naturally gifted in the language arts. He was the only child in our family who labored over phonics, and underlining verb phrases two times apparently causes excruciating pain throughout his body. Though his writing has improved in the four years since penning his poetic masterpiece, Leandro still labors over every sentence.

Despite these challenges, Leandro has taught me over the years that not only are frogs a lot of fun, but writing can be, too. Even if it doesn’t come naturally, writing confidence will develop slowly and surely.

I realize, in retrospect, that my own unfair expectations caused most of my stress over his writing (as well as that of his siblings). I often expected him to achieve something that he was not developmentally prepared to do – like, compose an epic poem on amphibians, for example.

Talking with some local homeschool moms over tacos the other night, we concluded that not only homeschool moms, but even curriculum developers make this mistake.<

However, the positive side of that principle proves true, as well. Students can grow into their own writing style when we give them the supportive training they need at developmentally appropriate times. If we anticipate each new step while giving students sufficient time to practice current skills, writing will develop at its own natural pace. And then writing will be fun.

So, how does a student mature from drawing haphazard scribbles across a page to well-constructed persuasive essays? Students follow this general pattern. Each new skill takes time to practice and develop, and then the student continues to use that skill while adding a new one.

Students build this pyramid of language skills beginning with the foundation in infancy and continuing through adulthood.

Students must develop each new skill at their own pace. Some skills seem to come naturally, while others take much more time to learn. If we keep that in mind, we can help the student (and ourselves!) persist through the process.

1. Listening

Remember your infant’s rapt attention every time you spoke his name? His careful listening to your every word helped him master the intonation, cadence, and rhythm of his native tongue. He learned to recognize subtle nuances from this inborn ability.

As your child grows, listening remains the all-important foundation for writing development. As a student, he still needs to absorb vocabulary, idiom, inflection, and rhetorical technique by listening to those around him. No matter what his dominant learning style may be, he will still benefit from audio books, lectures, radio programs, and sermons.

Many students seem to retain a strong listening ability and find themselves labeled auditory learners. Some, however, never prefer to take in new information that way, feeling more confident using visual or hands-on means to learn new concepts. Regardless, students can still hone their listening skills after their initial exposure to new material, listening for review or entertainment.

2. Speaking

Through toddlerhood and the preschool years, young students practice correct speech. In the early years, parents correct pronunciation and sentence structure to gently teach proper English. The more the student practices good English, the easier grammar class will become in elementary years.

As the student grows into the middle school and teen years, however, proper speech becomes no less important. With growing interest and understanding of the outside world, the student will become exposed to slang, colloquialisms, and even profane language. Loving parents can guide the young person through embarrassing mishaps with simple correction and brief explanation of appropriate expression.

Students grow to understand the difference between spoken and written language during the teen years, as well, and can soon recognize the differing levels of formality for addressing peers, family members, or respected authorities. It takes some experience and even mistakes to learn where those spoken language boundaries lie.

3. Memorizing

Depending on maturity, children begin memorizing poems, verses, and other sayings sometime between age 3 and 5, and they continue to memorize with relative ease throughout childhood. Memorizing greatly expands their understanding of language. By memorizing Scripture and morals, children internalize answers to life questions that they will ponder in maturity, words that will come back to their conscious with greater meaning. They also learn to appreciate vocabulary and construction outside their normal speaking patterns. These examples will aid them in broadening their own writing style later and expressing their deeper thoughts.

4. Reading

Sometime between the ages of 5 and 10, most students achieve the milestone ability of reading independently. Now the bulk of literature and knowledge unfolds to the student for his own learning and enjoyment. At first, that enjoyment remains the primary reason for perusing picture books and easy readers. During the mid-elementary years, students begin fact checking their elders in encyclopedias and relishing trivia and riddle books. By middle school, young people begin to recognize major literary devices and underlying themes which they will explore further in high school. Teens recognize that what they read has deeper meaning than just the words on the page, though they struggle to express such ideas themselves.

5. Writing

The ability to put pencil to paper requires the student to simultaneously think about many complex processes at once. He must know what he wants to say, visualize how that would look in written form, anticipate spelling and grammatical issues, hold his writing implement correctly, then make small motor movements to correspond with all that information. It’s mind-boggling anyone can sign their name, after all that!

Thus the early stages of writing seem so slow. Considerable thought goes into each stroke of the pencil. Most students start slowly with tracing and copying simple words before even copying complete sentences. This copy work is invaluable training many students continue to practice into the teen years to cement good language and writing habits

After becoming comfortable putting letters on paper, the student may venture to write original thoughts. Sometime in early elementary, most students write simple, hesitant sentences. A few precocious learners may even write short stories, but most don’t feel comfortable writing more than required for a few years. That’s ok; writing feels scary when the student is unsure what to expect from himself.

When the student feels more confident in his ability to write a few simple sentences of his own, he’s ready to practice accepting correction. This is also a difficult stage for the student; he just dared to put his words out there, and someone tells him they are not right! Parents can help by focusing on only one or two issues at first rather than inking up the entire piece. Small suggestions like, “Let’s make sure all the sentences begin with a capital letter!” offer a do-able improvement that can boost his confidence. He then sees himself making measurable improvement. Over time, more editorial suggestions can be added as his tolerance for critique increases.

Sometime in late elementary or middle school, the student begins to analyze the grammatical structure of the sentence. Though most elementary students can identify the subjects and verbs in a sentence, they need more mental maturity to recognize the difference between a direct object and a predicate nominative, or to differentiate between a phrase and a clause. By holding off on heavy grammar until the student nears middle school, parents help young writers develop confidence without the burden of complex analysis.

When the student can recognize the different types of sentence construction, he can then use his knowledge to fashion excellent sentences and paragraphs. He has already begun writing simple paragraphs before this point, but as his grammatical understanding increases, his paragraph form will clearly improve. Now the student uses parallelism when appropriate, maintains consistent tense and voice, and varies his sentence structure. He expresses a clear topic sentence and echoes his thoughts creatively in his conclusion. By late middle school or early high school, most teens can consistently write a strong paragraph.

High schoolers then learn to string their paragraphs together logically to present academic essays, research papers, persuasive articles, and speeches. Whether they enjoy the process or not is more a matter of taste than ability; if the stages of development have followed steadily, teens now have both the tools and the experience to complete the assignment successfully. During high school and college, they continue to receive instruction to hone their techniques for academic writing and to master the nuances of expression in their chosen profession.

By early adulthood, then, the young person has developed the important disciplines of listening, speaking, memorizing, reading, and writing. The process of handwriting and even typing has become natural, and the rules of grammar and punctuation are internalized. Writing skills, then, will continue to develop through adulthood as he continues to practice his communication skills.

Until someday, after years of fighting the urge, he quits his day job and becomes a writer. He may even see an article published in a national magazine.

But it will never rise to the greatness of “Frogs are Fun.” You can’t improve upon a classic.

This article first appeared in issue #76 of Home School Enrichment Magazine.

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