How to Teach Writing Skills

Diane's Quick-Start Guide

Learn the Essentials of Teaching Writing Skills


Narrative writing is an essential classical skill for composing fiction and nonfiction thought.  Why narrative?  Because every child loves a story, so it's easier to learn, plus it's more entertaining for the audience.  A bit of narrative writing even makes expository and research papers more compelling.  If you want your child to craft remarkable essays, poems, and articles, what writing skills should be in your homeschool plan?

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-- Teach Storytelling --

Knowing how to tell a story is a priceless skill.

Storytelling is an art that we can learn…a craft that involves technique just like sculpting, painting, weaving, composing music, or ballet dancing. Craft involves technique, and technique requires process. Teach your homeschool child the conventional rules of storytelling so that when he masters the basic principles of plot, character, setting, narration, and theme, he can create any number of variations of the simple story while drawing on his knowledge of the fundamentals.

But great storytelling is not just about process and technique. As authors, we teach about life’s meaning thru stories. Think about the greatest stories down through the ages…they all teach something important about what it means to be human, but because stories are collaborative, that is, the teller and listener both bring different experiences to the story, we all come to our own understanding of what the story means. As you tell or read narrative stories, ask the 5 W + 1 H questions to build critical thinking skills.

Storytelling uses conventions or rules, which are simply the mechanics or standard ways of telling the story like having a hero, a villain, or dynamic duo. Nearly 3000 years after the ancient Greeks established the storyteller’s structure, today’s authors are still using this time-tested formula to write a good narrative story. The classical Greek drama followed three movements of action across time to form a linear narrative: the beginning, the middle, and the end.

Teach your homeschool child that this linear narrative means the story progression follows a line, sometimes straight but oftentimes more like an upward and downward arc forward or backward in time. This narrative spine is the central plot point that propels the hero through the story on his quest.

Episodes are discrete mini-narratives or scenes that connect the whole spine together, and these mini stories work together like a chain-link using cause and effect to maintain narrative unity and consistency.

Every great story starts with an exciting event that hooks the audience that page-turners depend on cliffhangers, and that implied questions drive the question “what happens next?” Finally, teach your homeschool child that he must keep the promise he made in the beginning of the narrative story.

How often do you include storytelling in your homeschool routine?

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-- Teach Note-Taking --

You may not realize this, but you’ve already been laying the foundation for good note-taking skills.

Learning how to take good notes in an authentic classical homeschool education goes all the way back to the early elementary school years when you held your youngster on your lap, read an illustrated story book aloud, and asked her to narrate back what she heard you say. Next, when you were teaching her the alphabet, you read her a story, had her draw a picture, then asked her to dictate what she heard while you modeling narrative writing for her by writing down her words. Later when her fine motor skills developed and she began to write, you asked her narrate by writing her own paraphrase or version of the story.

Establish formal note-taking skills when your homeschool child reaches the age of 12 years. Depending on your child’s learning preferences, you might want to get a sketchpad so that he can draw what he learns, or teach him how to outline what he’s reading or hearing. Model the behavior by showing him Roman numeral outlining, branching, bubble maps, bullet points, or the popular Cornell note-taking method. You can also use post-it notes to construct a storyboard of what he’s learning. Incorporate outlining 3-4 times a week since the more practice he gets, the better he’ll be when he hits the classical high school years.

Around the age of 14, teach your homeschool teen how to annotate in the margins of his classic literature and textbooks. Buy him a pack of colored pencils, and show him how to use color and abbreviations to keep track of recurring, important information like themes or key ideas. At the end of a chapter or recorded lecture, have him summarize what he’s learned by reducing his notes to a one page drawing or written narrative abstract. Practice note reduction weekly now while he’s at home, and prepping for college exams later will be a breeze.

Finally, offer free electronic note-taking tools like Evernote, OneNote, or Google Keep to help him organize his thoughts and clip internet data. Whether you take notes the old-fashioned or new-fangled way doesn’t matter; what matters is that you teach your homeschool child how to listen carefully, grasp the main ideas, and store them in his mind as knowledge.

Is it time to include note-taking in your child's homeschool curriculum?

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-- Teach Paragraphing --

Paragraphing is the process of dividing writing into discrete units of thought.

Once you’ve established the good learning habits of narration, dictation, and note-taking, it’s time to teach your elementary homeschool child how to write a great paragraph. If you need a refresher, there are lots of teaching resources in the library and on the internet. Elements of good paragraphing include the topic sentence, a variety of supporting sentences, hooks, clinchers, transition words, and stylistic flourishes.

After you’ve taught him the formula for good paragraphing, don’t make him start writing from scratch. Give him an illustrated children’s book or chapter book to paraphrase. Before he starts reading the excerpt, tell him that he’s going to read it, turn the book over, and write his own take on the reading, using the basic paragraphing formula of a topic sentence and 2-3 supporting sentences.

Another great classical education teaching tip for writing a narrative is to imitation. The ancient Greeks and Romans did this all the time. The wise master would assign the young apprentice a portion of classic literature like Homer’s Trojan War epic, The Aeneid, and have the school student select a passage to imitate. Look for one that uses good paragraphing elements, and have him copy it down, substituting his own action verbs, quality nouns, and descriptive modifiers.

When he masters the paraphrase and imitation, lift the composition restrictions and assign him narrative writing assignments that come directly from his own imagination, experience, or research. Give him contextual writing prompts from whatever literature, history, science, or other topics you are currently studying in your homeschool.

Does your child know how to write a good paragraph?

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-- Teach Poetry --

Poetry is not just for hopeless romantics.

Before we get to why you should teach narrative prose, let’s talk about poetry. Many homeschool parents shy away from teaching poetry because they didn’t learn it themselves in school, but don’t deny your child the creative thrill of writing poetry and verse. Did you know there is a difference between poetry and verse? Poetry is the expression of thoughtful ideas in relatively few words while verse is the rhythmic patterns of putting together stressed and unstressed syllables with or without rhyming the sounds. Once you learn the basic terms, types, and elements of poetry, you’ll find that teaching this narrative writing variation is a pleasure and one that your homeschool child will enjoy.

So what do you need to teach your child about poetry? Introduce her to the ancient poetry of the Bible, most commonly found in the sacred Psalms, and less frequently in the songs, chants, and acrostics of the Old Testament narratives and prophecies. Have her copy passages so that she gets a close look at the mechanics of the verse, then give her time to memorize.

Like the Old Testament which was read in community, the ancient Greek and Roman epics were meant to be heard. Not only do these epics make great classical reading, but they also give opportunity for great classical speeches. Take turns reading the epic out loud, and then have her memorize selected portions for later delivery to the family around the dinner table or at a small social gathering.

Greek dramas are too bawdy and tragic for memory and recitation, but Elizabethan plays, especially those of Shakespeare, are a definite must-have for your homeschool study of poetry. Host a friendly poetry book club meeting, and assign character parts for reading aloud, or if time permits, performing the dialogue. Teaching Shakespeare’s sonnets are also fair game if you have older kids.

Church hymnals are another good resource for teaching poetry as they usually have rhyming verses, plus you get the added benefit of learning theology. You may have a future songwriter in your family, so allow her to write her own song lyrics, too, using the conventions and rules of good poetry. And if you’ve got an entertainment buff, assign scripts from contemporary theatre plays or movies for a close reading.

Teaching poetry and verse can be very rewarding, refreshing, and inspirational, so make sure you include a dose in your homeschooling curriculum plan.

What's your favorite poetry?

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-- Teach Prose --

Unlike poetry, prose is narrative writing in its ordinary form, without metrical structure.

The Latin word root means “straightforward,” and teaching narrative prose is the natural follow-up to teaching how to write a paragraph. Once your homeschool child masters the basic paragraph, you can teach him how to string them all together into one cohesive fiction short story, novella, or novel, as well as the nonfiction essay, research paper, or news article.

One of the major goals of classical education at home is to raise critical thinkers who can write compelling narratives using expository and persuasive techniques, regardless of whether the prose is fiction or nonfiction in nature. Expository writing exposes or explains something or an idea using how-to steps or descriptions and is meant to inform or teach. Persuasive narrative usually includes arguments, backed by hard and implied evidence to support the logical, emotional, and ethical appeals; the purpose of persuasive writing is to move the audience from the current understanding to a new reality.

In order to write narrative prose, your homeschool child needs to learn how to come up with related ideas, a technique known in classical rhetoric as invention. Then he organizes or puts these ideas together in a line of rational thought. For creative writing like the short story, that thought would follow a spine propelling the hero forward on his quest. Teach your homeschool child how to write the storyboard: the exciting event, the rising action, the climax, the falling action, and the final suspense.

For essays, he’ll start with a hook and introduction then have a body made of 3-5 points, transitions between paragraphs, and perhaps citations to support his points. Don’t forget to teach a variety of paragraph styles like definition, comparison, or anecdotal. To end the essay, teach your child to echo the opening hook by referencing directly or indirectly the idea delivered at the beginning of the narrative exposition.

For the research paper, invention and presentation take a more formal, exact route beginning with lots of research to come up with the debatable idea. Teach your teen the difference between primary and secondary sources, and show him how to read massive amounts of material quickly, taking good notes along the way and organizing them for later use. More and more writers are including narrative, that is stories, in their research papers and technical writing as part of the body of evidence. To write the research paper, include a:

  • thesis statement
  • taking a position pro or con
  • arguing and defending the case with evidence and logic
  • including references like in-text citations, footnotes, and a bibliography

Prepare your homeschool teen now for college by assigning a few research papers during the high school years.

Are you including prose writing assignments in your weekly homeschooling plan?

 

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-- Teach Journalism --

Journalism is a form of prose with rules about writing current news.

Many homeschool parents opt-out of teaching journalism as part of narrative writing, but you really should consider news writing for your high school student, especially if you want to raise a young adult who appreciates all the complexities of living in a global 21st Century world. You can include journalism during the Junior or Senior year as an English credit on the high school transcript.

In order to teach your homeschool teen the foundational narrative writing skills for hard news, soft news, feature news, and opinion (editorial) pieces, you’ll need to start with a writing stylistic convention unique to journalists called the inverted lead.

Most people who read newspapers or Internet news feeds are in a hurry, so they scan. Journalists use an upside-down triangle to communicate the most important ideas first, using the 5 W questions (who, what, why, when, where) and the 1 H question (how) to begin the narrative. One great way to teach the inverted lead is to assign real news articles and have your teen try to answer all 5 W and 1 H question. Your student will be shocked at how many writers fail to make the grade!

Teach your homeschool teen how to find newsworthy ideas by reading magazines, internet news sites, newspapers, watching documentaries, listening to radio programs, and following the nightly news on television. Use those note-taking skills to gather the facts, interview witnesses or experts, and cite references. Study the Associated Press style guidelines, and consider starting a blog so that your teen can begin to build a published public portfolio of narrative nonfiction news articles.

When writing the news, you need to verify the credibility of sources, so have your teen research how journalists are able to stand behind the truth of their story. Don’t forget to emphasize the importance of being an ethical, law-abiding reporter and the privileged Constitutional position of the press in a democracy.

Finally, teach your teen how to write under pressure to meet deadlines by assigning daily narrative writing prompts. I know it may seem severe, but 300-500 written words a day is not impossible if you’ve taught your teen the basic elements of quality journalism. (If you’re interested in teaching journalism but don’t have the time or skills, why not let us teach your high school journalism class?)

Writing about news using the rules of journalism forces your child to grapple with the big ideas of current events.