Slouching mediocrity: I already KNOW how to write…

broken pencilParental angst about writing instruction for their homeschooled children fills my email inbox. Somehow parents know that math and science and history are SO much easier to deal with: Answers are either right or wrong.

Children take personal offense, though, when mommy tells them that their paragraphs were wrong.

As a writing teacher, I totally get it. In order to maintain a good relationship with their children, some moms who are not as sure about teaching writing will hire someone else, go to some other source, for help. That’s wise, for parents who just are not comfortable. I maintain that there is a right attitude and a wrong attitude about teaching good writing skills. Let’s take a look at some who misunderstand.

Some parents exhibit a lack of understanding of just how important good writing can be. I wish I had a dollar for every time a parent told me, “We believe a good reader will turn out to be a good writer, so we just expose our child to good books, and we know that when he is ready to write, he will be great.” This is like learning how to cook by eating at gourmet restaurants. Surely you know a lot about good food, right? So cooking like a chef will be a breeze.

Reading a lot of great books will help you in countless ways (see a previous blog about that). Exposure to the timeless classics expands the vocabulary, broadens the reader’s world, allows him to make connections to literary allusions in other works, enhances critical thinking skills, and more. It may also help improve one’s writing simply because his vocabulary is so greatly increased. The practice of imitation in Rhetoric uses pieces of great literature so that the student copies, by hand, the words and thoughts of great writers. Doing so will enhance a student’s grasp of the grammatical flow and thought process of the writer.

However, just absorbing the words in a great book will not translate to making a good writer. It’s not as if he will read and read and then suddenly *poof!* he is automatically a good writer. Not at all.

Similarly, other parents have told me that writing and writing week after week has improved their children’s writing skills. Does he get feedback on his writing, I ask? Well, no, but he is writing. But then how do you know he is improving if he has no guidance, no direction, no correction in his writing?

So there are two elements in growing a good writer: the practice of writing, and guidance in writing. If parents are not comfortable doing that at their own kitchen table, I advise them to find someone who is able to do that for them. Interview that person: what are his or her qualifications? What standards does he use? What experience does he have? I often suggest finding an English major currently in college who wants to earn some extra money, or an English teacher who is retired or a mom at home now.

There is a plethora of online writing classes these days; if you go that route make sure you are getting what you pay for. Will your child get regular, guided, personal feedback on every piece of writing, aiming him toward better writing on his next assignment? Some online organizations just don’t offer that kind of personal service. They are good at assigning but not so good at grading. Remember: no feedback = no growth. Since I teach at an online school I can recommend a very good one to you–just email me and we’ll chat. 🙂

I’ve encountered other kinds of misunderstanding about writing from homeschooling parents. One is that parent who had a bad experience back in third grade with a writing curriculum and was then afraid to try anything again. My advice: don’t give up. (See my post about schooling with excellence.) Keep trying to find that next writing curriculum. Find someone who can help you if you feel lost. Don’t just pass that off as something your child will never be able to do well. Short of a learning disability–and often even with one your child can do well–there is no reason he cannot learn to write at a college level while in high school.

Another comment comes from the parent who tells me that her high school child has joined a “write a novel in a year” club. Someone hands out information on how to write dialog and how to create a good couple of characters, and off the child goes to write a novel. The instruction is vague at best, and the product may be a sweet little story, but this child has not learned college-ready writing skills.

Or the parent who wants to make sure her child is doing “every kind of writing.” Somewhere someone told a parent that her child will be a good writer if she learns every kind of writing. By that I assume they mean journalism, poetry, compare/contrast, opinion, persuasive, short story, and whatever else I may have left out. Let me get you straight on this one: All that is great to know. However, the one basic skill a high school (and even a junior high) student needs in his tool box is Expository Writing: the essay that proves a thesis. College-level writing.

What are those college writing skills of which I speak? The expository essay presents an idea in a thesis and then proceeds to argue that thesis–prove it–with support through an essay. Call it a five-paragraph, ten-paragraph, or twelve-page paper, that is the writing skill your child will need to be ready for those college-assessment tests. Teach him how to incorporate and cite quotes, how to prove his thesis with argumentation, to introduce and conclude well. Teach him to do it in a paper or in an essay. Teach him to do it in a timed format (40 minutes and then 25 minutes, for example), because those college-assessment test writing portions are timed. If you can’t do it, then ask someone to do this for you.

Think of it this way: Your child wants to be a musician and picks up an instrument to play beautiful music. Instead, out come horrid sounds. Give that child lessons and theory; teach him how to play scales and chords; teach him the classics of the masters on that instrument. Then he can go and play all sorts of other types of music on that instrument to his heart’s content. Just as in writing. Teach that expository essay, and that child will be able to do all sorts of other kinds of writing as well, with practice.

See related blogs here and here.

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6 Comments

Filed under Biblical Worldview, Education, Grammar, Homeschooling, Literature, Parenting, Rhetoric

6 responses to “Slouching mediocrity: I already KNOW how to write…

  1. Pingback: Daring to be mediocre | Writing Rhetorically

  2. Pingback: Moving away from mediocre: Read good books | Writing Rhetorically

  3. Pingback: Home Schooling in High School means pursuing excellence well | Writing Rhetorically

  4. Pingback: Homeschooling with excellence means seeing reality | Writing Rhetorically

  5. Pingback: Homeschooling is not unschooling | Writing Rhetorically

  6. Pingback: Homeschool: Plan the High School Career | Writing Rhetorically

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