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Writing: the more you practice, the better you get

The first part of this series (Home-schooling? Yes, you can teach your child to write) addressed many home-schooling instructors’ reluctance to teach their children to write, because they — the instructors — don’t know grammar. Grammar is essential to writing well, they are convinced, so they purchase workbooks for their 6-year-olds that launch into nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions and conjunctions.

While these basic building blocks of language construction are important to learn, they can wait. Plus, an older child can pick them up relatively quickly. What is difficult to pick up without consistent and constant practice, however, is the actual composition process of writing.

In other words, the more you write, the better you write.

And all you need to get started is a pen, paper and something to say.

Throughout our home-schooling experience, writing consisted of sitting down for a set period of time and … writing. Younger children spent 15 minutes, older children up to an hour — daily. Most of the time, subject matter was up to the child, and if they were absolutely flummoxed (“I can’t think of anything at all to write” was, in a young child’s mind, sufficient to be excused from the task) I offered them three choices, one of which they had to pick. Generally, before they opted for this alternative, they found something to write about.

And my job?

It was twofold: first, I identified a limited number of mistakes or errors to correct — punctuation, spelling, syntax — and gently pointed them out. Even if you are not a copy editor (and most people aren’t), you probably read enough yourself to recognize glaring mistakes, along the lines of, “I done it before he arrive.” The more you and your child work together in reading what he has written, the better you both will get.

Secondly, and most importantly, I actually read and absorbed the content, asking questions about things I didn’t understand, requesting clarification on points that were murky. Because the primary purpose of writing is to convey a message, if that message were not conveyed, the child — the writer — would recognize this through my confusion. As your children get older and pursue interests that are outside of your own, your questions for elucidation will become more genuine. For example, while you may be perfectly aware that chickens have wings and cows say moo, you may not know the difference between a rapier and an epée.

My son’s favorite topic was medieval warfare, and I repeatedly asked for clarification of which “he” was being talked about — William or Harold — and whether “they” were the Normans or the English. In this manner, we addressed the matter of pronoun confusion.

Another time, faced by a page of unbroken text that caused my eyes to glaze over, I introduced the concept of breaking text into paragraphs. Between the two of us, we identified the best places to do this.

I know, it sounds like it takes a lot of time, doing all this reading. But if you don’t worry about correcting every single mistake (and there will be many), you can make it through your child’s — or children’s — daily output in a reasonable amount of time. Take advantage, as well, of the other members of your household — an older child can read through a younger child’s work on occasion, and both of them will learn something from it.

This article continues in Part III, You can teach your kids real-life writing. 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 a freelance author and writer of the lifestyle column, This Woman Writes ( She is also the manager of Steve Henderson Fine Art (