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Home-schooling? Yes, you can teach your child to write

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When it comes to writing, we can let our children grasp a topic that interests them and run with it. This is Wild Child, an original painting by Steve Henderson.

When it comes to writing, we can let our children grasp a topic that interests them and run with it. This is Wild Child, an original painting by Steve Henderson.

Steve Henderson, Steve Henderson Fine Art

In more than 20 years of home-schooling, I have heard variations on this sentence,

“I can’t teach my child to write because I don’t know my grammar.”

(Actually, the beginning to this particular sentence could be completed in all sorts of ways:

“I can’t teach my child writing/reading/grammar/language/chemistry/biology/any science at all/algebra I/algebra II/any math at all/history/music/art.” There’s a general theme here of doubt in one’s abilities. Frequently the solution, after trying all sorts of workbooks and curriculums that promise results, is to put the child back in a “real” school.)

Many people who are convinced that they can’t teach their children how to write without a strong grasp of grammar don’t realize an essential aspect of writing:

You don’t need to know grammar in order to write well.

I know. I can hear the shock and awe, the snorts, the wondering aloud of what our civilization will come to if we don’t diagram sentences, which is probably a similar result of what will happen to us if we stop speaking Latin:

Life, civilization and writing will go on. As they have.

While in a perfect world students would learn grammar and use that knowledge to write, in the real world of public school, private school and home-schooling, they may or may not learn grammar, but they may do little actual writing. Generally, writing is wrapped around “the research paper,” which devotes as much time to footnotes, bibliographies and 3-by-5 index cards of information gleaned about the lifestyle of Tunisian giraffes as it does to actual writing.

Young children spend hours answering workbook questions — “What is your favorite color? Why?” “Do you have a best friend?” — and parents frequently misinterpret their boredom of the subject matter as a spirit of rebelliousness or an inability to learn.

If you want your child to learn to write, the best technique is the one you used to teach him how to ride a bicycle — you started slowly, with training wheels, stayed close, encouraged much, didn’t laugh or scoff when he fell (or even point out to him that he fell) and told him to bike, bike, bike. There were rules, of course, but they were fairly basic — ride on the right side of the road, wear easy-to-spot clothing, keep your hands on the handlebars, be aware of traffic and don’t do anything stupid.

When you teach your child to write, keep these points in mind. For a young child, it’s OK to use training wheels; with our young children, that meant they could either transcribe a poem or story, or they could write something very short, simple and easy, the subject matter of which they chose themselves. Frequently, that subject matter revolved around one of our many farm animals.

What a young child — under 10 — produces will look wobbly, because they’re just starting and there are so many factors to keep in mind. Spelling will be abysmal, punctuation non-existent, lettering inconsistent. There are so many things to correct that if you focused on them all, the child would give up in discouragement and never straddle a bicycle seat again. So remember that encouragement part. Limit yourself to just a couple things to correct, and spend most of your time reading the actual content of what your child wrote. Writing is communication, after all, and your child has a story to tell you, a piece of information to impart, or a joke to share.

Nobody likes writing in a vacuum, which is pretty much what those workbook questions are, because, whether or not the child consciously recognizes this, he knows deep down that nobody is interested in the answers to these questions anyway. The same goes for that blessed and requisite research paper of the older child — unless you express genuine interest in the results of all the child’s hard work, he’s going to have a hard time writing something interesting, engaging and informational, which is supposedly the purpose for writing the research paper in the first place.

The author of this article has published "Grammar Despair: Quick, simple solutions to problems like, ‘Do I say him and me or he and I?’" to help people write, and teach writing, with confidence.

Carolyn Henderson is the creator of the lifestyle column, This Woman Writes (www.ThisWomanWrites.areavoices.com). She is also the manager of Steve Henderson Fine Art (www.SteveHendersonFineArt.com).