home school writing advice, tips, and information

Monthly Archives: July 2012

I clearly remember the first time I sought out the meaning of a word. I was reading Arundhati Roy’s novel, “The God of Small Things” and was so involved in the world she described that I couldn’t bear to not savor every detail of it.

Usually when reading, if I come across a word I don’t know, I continue to read relying on context clues to help me figure out the meaning. If that doesn’t work, I keep reading calculating that one word is not important enough to stop my reading.

But this time, I stopped, grabbed a dictionary, and looked up the word “viscous.” I read the definition several times before returning to the novel, rereading the sentence with the word in it, making sure the sentence made sense now that I knew the meaning of the word. Then I took a deep breath and restarted reading at the beginning of the paragraph, dropping back into the story, savoring every detail… “Bright plastic bags blew across its viscous, weedy surface like subtropical flying flowers” (119).

This is the best way to expand one’s vocabulary, in the context of being thoroughly engaged with a subject where the word is found. So why don’t teachers, tutors, or writing curricula use this method? Many try but end up creating an inauthentic form for a process that should grow authentically from a learner’s engagement.

So should you teach vocabulary?

A large vocabulary is a predictor of reading success http://www.breakthroughtoliteracy.com/index.html?SID&page=df_sc_reading_s, of an increased ability to articulate experience and therefore of higher level critical thinking skills  , and of later occupational success http://litemind.com/top-3-reasons-to-improve-your-vocabulary/. Hence, hoping for a learner to be motivated to search for the meaning of words may not be enough.

When undertaking the systematic study of vocabulary, there are two elements of a curriculum that need to be considered.

1. Is the vocabulary list thoughtful?

2. Are the exercises generative?

Vocabulary List

Many curricula present vocabulary lists as “grade level” but this is a random list of words which researchers have determined children should know by a certain grade level. This is not authentic learning and tends to be rote memorization of words. You may find that your child or student already knows most of the list and therefore this is not time well spent. If time is to be spent on rote memorization or “drill and kill” then it is important that the list be worth the effort.

Choosing vocabulary that are “academic” or “tier 2” guarantees that the study of vocabulary is well spent. Academic vocabulary are those words which are found in many academic subjects. Words such as “classify” or “monitor” are used in a variety of academic subjects and will be pertinent for a learner to know for all subjects http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=0CE4QFjAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.sci.csueastbay.edu%2Febsp%2Fliftoff%2Fsummer2010%2Fmaterials%2FDay%25206%2F6.3%2520Academic%2520Vocab%2520Tier%25201-3%2520for%2520NASA%2520Lift%2520Off.ppt&ei=Bt4VUP-pNInHrQHK-4DgBg&usg=AFQjCNEZUA_bNGXiHCRyi2OWAaCBa31vLA&sig2=7aIj58nskPa_of7JsY-3pw. There are many great curricula with tier 2 vocabulary exercises in them to help with the teaching of vocabulary. A quick search will turn up many options.

Generative Exercises

When choosing a curricula for vocabulary, be sure that the exercises are generative rather than associative.

Associative exercises are those drill and kill exercises most workbooks are filled with. These require learners to associate the word with the clues given either in the form of definitions, synonyms, antonyms or sentences with a blank to be filled.

Generative exercises require students to generate meaning using the word. Having learners write their own sentence using the word is the most well-known exercise. Others include students answering open-ended questions with the vocabulary word embedded in the question, assuring that the student understands the context of the vocabulary and can generate correct answers given the question. For example, questions such as “What is the best method for parents to monitor a teenager’s social activities?” allows the learner to express an opinion, hopefully increasing engagement, and a clear answer ensures the learner understands the vocabulary.


When I am tutoring a child who is reading challenging literature, my favorite method of teaching vocabulary combines all of the above. I skim the pages to be read for the week and search for words that are tier 2. I ask students to explain the meaning of the word. If they are able to, I keep skimming. If they are not able to, I write it down on a worksheet and ask them to copy the sentence from the book where the word is used (identifying the word in context), copy the definition that fits the sentence onto the worksheet (familiarizing self with the definition), then write their own sentence using the word (generative exercise). When we meet again in a week, I check the worksheet and review the word orally, asking an open-ended question using the word to ensure the student knows the word. The worksheet I created for this is below.

Teaching vocabulary as part of a writing curriculum is important because as writers, the larger our vocabulary the better able we are to articulate the thoughts we have, the clearer our writing will be, and the more concise our meaning will be. Thoughtful attention to how to teach vocabulary as part of a writing curriculum will ensure that learners are engaged and progressing.

Name ___________________

Words From My Readings

Each week you are to keep a list of words you have read but don’t know the meaning of. Write the word down, copy the sentence the word is from in your readings, look the word up in the dictionary, and copy the definition, including the part of speech.

  1. word _____________________

Sentence from book: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Definition: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Own Sentence: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

2. word _____________________

Sentence from book: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Definition: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Own Sentence: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

  1. word _____________________

Sentence from book: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Definition: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Own Sentence: __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

There are many things to consider when choosing to home school a high school student including choosing the appropriate curriculum, choosing knowledgeable tutors or instructors and preparing your child for university.

Luckily, many universities and colleges have programs to help with this preparation.

Our local community college allows high school age students to enroll in classes through concurrent enrollment. Students are required to have a grade point average (GPA) of 2.5 of higher, basically a B- or better, and be in 11th grade.  Students are not allowed to take a full course load because the courses should be in addition to other high school level coursework being completed. This has proven to be a wonderful opportunity for high school home school students to get a taste of college level work and earn credits toward university completion.

Another opportunity universities offer home school high school students are outreach programs. For example, Thomas University offers a Home-school Connections Program (http://moultrieobserver.com/local/x1236702451/Thomas-University-announces-Home-school-Connections-Program). The program offers free concerts, events and exhibits to all age groups and specifically invites high school students to join their book club and creative writing club. High school students, as well as community members, are invited to attend free lectures given by scientists weekly.

Finally, home school students are invited to use the university library and its resources.

I can imagine that one challenge for parents who choose home schooling for their high school age children is being able to provide a rich and diverse experience. Luckily, local colleges and universities are now welcoming home school students to join their activities and are providing parents with one more option.

I think the one fear all traditional educators have about homeschooling is that children are watching television all day. Sure the programming will be Science Channel or History Channel, but the curriculum is passive.

In my own parenting experience, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of mythology my son learned from playing one of his computer games – and if the purpose of education is to regurgitate facts, then video games and television shows may work.

On the other hand, if learning is to be generative, if students are expected to generate their own creative work, solve interesting problems, or engage in academic conversations, then learning also requires students to generate responses in these activities. Playing video games is borderline generative, as my son will explain – he has to solve problems, after all. Activities like watching videos or reading textbooks and completing worksheets are not.

That’s why it was so refreshing to find the website “Weird Unsocialized Homeschoolers” at http://www.weirdunsocializedhomeschoolers.com/2012/07/weekly-wrap-up-the-curriculum-edition/. Kate Bales, the mom, reviews her plans for a well-thought out curriculum which covers all curricular areas, plans best for how to use instructional time, and looks forward to engaging her daughter in generative learning.

You might want to check it out!

There’s a great website, Homeschooling Programs, http://www.homeschoolingprograms.net/homeschooling-programs/ which gives readers basic information about homeschooling programs, such as what to consider when choosing to home school, types of programs available for homeschooling, and resources for homeschooling. This website, and most home school websites, focuses on children of elementary school age.

All of the students I tutor have been at least middle school and high school age. Actually, I have referred some tutoring jobs to  friends because I did not feel competent teaching writing to younger students since all of my experience is grade seven and above.

The trend toward finding alternatives to traditional high school for students is growing.

Many parents choose to continue to home school through high school though it used to be common practice to home school until high school, then find a more traditional approach to ensuring children were taught all the subjects required in high school.Many parents decide to home school using an online curriculum during high school because of the poor quality of the high school in their area. Many parents choose to continue to home school because they want to ensure their children stay excited about learning.

One great resource for navigating homeschooling though high school is Home School Legal Defense Association’s page “Homeschooling Thru High School” at http://www.hslda.org/highschool.asp. The site provides an overview of considerations and frequently asked questions about graduation and university preparation.

I especially appreciate the advice that parents might want to hire a tutor. As a tutor, I tell parents to be thoughtful about two things. When hiring a tutor, be sure that he 0r she is going to be responsive to your needs as the parent guiding your child, and be sure the tutor has the required knowledge of instructional strategies to meet the needs of your child. Referrals from other parents or from home school associations is a good way to find the right tutor.

Home school programs are no longer just about young children being taught by their parents, but now includes young adults learning the skills necessary to succeed in the larger world.

Another school district has decided to offer an online curriculum option (http://www.livingstondaily.com/article/20120712/NEWS01/207120321). I’m all for online learning just as I am all for finding what works best for each student. As a matter of fact, I have applied for a grant for my public school classroom to purchase what is considered an e-course in writing. But this all reminds me of…

Many years ago, my husband, Bill, went to the doctor. He had been sick for awhile and kept thinking that it was a virus and if he rode it out, it would go away. It didn’t so he finally got an appointment with a doctor to see what was up. When he got home, he was a bit concerned. He had a prescription and planned on taking it, but he was still a bit worried.

“The doctor had this book, like the encyclopedia of medical symptoms.” Bill’s eyes narrowed before he continued. “I told him my symptoms. He flipped the pages and would ask questions like, ‘Is it a dry or wet cough?’ then flip some more until he came up with a diagnosis, wrote me a prescription and sent me on my way.”

He held up the prescription bottle like it was snake oil.

And isn’t that what an e-course does? At least the smart ones. You do some work. It has a program which will diagnose where you are having trouble and it sends you on a path to practice those problems until you “get it”.

The trouble is the program is flipping through a book, its program. Bill could have looked up his symptoms and diagnosed himself, like many of us do today on the internet. But we still end up going to the doctor to get confirmation and a course for getting better. Only a person trained in the field is able to do this.

As I said, I think on-line courses are great, but not a complete picture. To really improve in any area, you have to go to someone who knows more, who can diagnose what is going wrong with your writing.

This week I am attending the Tin House Writing Conference because I need help. Some of my essays are not getting accepted for publication. Something is wrong, and my workshop leader – Stephen Elliott – pointed it out to me immediately. Okay, many things were wrong, but the major thing – he saw it right away and told me the course to take to make it better. (He didn’t solve my acne or my aching back.)

If you are going to use an online curriculum with your child, student, learner – be sure to augment it with a tutor, someone who is an actual audience reading your child’s writing, someone who has enough experience to see exactly what is ailing a writing project, and someone who can send the writer on a path to making things better.

Improving one’s writing is always what we want, as writers and students. A tutor or writing teacher will always send you on the path to improvement.

Today in the Star Tribune, Asha Anchan examines the approach of some home-schoolers to “unschool” in her article, “The DIY Approach to Education” http://www.startribune.com/local/161685515.html. It’s an interesting look at the idea that children do not need a set curriculum to be able to “learn”.

As a public school teacher, I recognize that the reason we work with a curriculum is to be sure that we have met the needs of all students through exposure to key concepts the powers that be have deemed important for future success. Remember, in the public arena, teachers are no longer in charge of their curriculum. Instead state standards and common core standards dictate what we need to teach and curriculum companies put together books to ensure that we teach these concepts.  Then students are tested to be sure teachers have taught these concepts to our classrooms full of 30 – 40 students… but I digress.

As a tutor for students who are homeschooled, I do not work through a set curriculum. I basically use the technique of”unschooling” my pupils. Does this mean I let them write what they want? Of course. As a writer myself, I get to write what I want. Granted, sometimes what I want to write is something that will earn me money – and it’s important for students to write sometimes for a grade, but still, I tailor all my writing to projects I want to complete, money or no money.

Yet, I do have goals in mind. As a trained public school teacher, I know that if my home-schooled pupils ever transfer to the public school, there will be certain expectations for them. I also can’t shake the notion that all students should have certain aptitudes, especially when it comes to writing.

So, how does this translate into “unschooling.” The student and I discuss what he or she is interested in and then we craft a writing project geared toward helping the student further explore the topic. I set up the parameters by guiding the student to selecting the type of writing which would best fit his or her interest and skill level.

One of the key elements of making a writing project successful is choosing the right genre for the project. The expectation is that younger students understand narratives (stories) because they are used in so many other genres of writing. Writing a narrative requires that students be able to summarize and describe, both essential elements of all other genres.

Once the student has mastered narrative, we work toward mastering persuasion and compare/contrast essays. These types of essays require that students analyze subjects and explain their ideas. Finally, we move onto complex essays which include literary or research analysis.

And this is where a writing curriculum fits in. Following a curriculum for writing a persuasive essay is so much easier than attempting to muddle your way through it. Setting up clear expectations for the assignment using a grading rubric http://www.rubrics4teachers.com/writing.php, using specific examples for models, providing ways of thinking about drafting an essay with graphic organizers or outlines http://www.eduplace.com/graphicorganizer/, and reviewing key transition words or vocabulary used in the genre is the curriculum. It’s possible for anyone to hobble together this curriculum, but it makes more sense to use one already thoughtfully put together – hopefully by an expert.

Does using a curriculum contradict the idea of unschooling? That’s like saying using a GPS contradicts driving.

In the online New Zealand newspaper, “Nelson Mail,” the topic of whether or not home schooling children is effective was raised and answered in the article, “Fear home school can’t make the grade.” http://www.stuff.co.nz/nelson-mail/news/7226245/Fears-homeschool-can-t-make-grade

Though in New Zealand there are no government checks on home schooling and the curriculum, the discussion boiled down to the same thing  – learners got individualized curriculum and attention meeting their needs and interests.

I especially liked the example of the parent who had hired a tutor for his son to learn Danish before his trip to Denmark. According to the dad, “Once you get to a certain level of knowledge where you can’t provide those resources… that would be the time that you get somebody else in.”

As a writing tutor myself, I have appreciated being able to individualize instruction for students who are learning to articulate their opinions and ideas in writing, but have also appreciated the parental involvement.

The other interesting idea was that home schooled children fail to be exposed to other cultures would lead to a “narrow world-view.” This struck a chord with me because I used to also believe this as a public school teacher. But, what I have found while working with home schooled students is that they are no different from their same age peers in trying on different identities and finding their place in the world. If anything, in my experience these students have a stronger sense of self than students in the public school arena. Students in the public school arena often give in to negative peer pressure, whereas home schooled students are not faced with this negative pressure to conform.

The article points out many of the misconceptions about home schooling and makes us realize that home schooling faces the same misconceptions beyond the United States.


Effective Writing Strategies


In case you are out of the loop with edu-speak, the latest trend is that all strategies be “evidence-based.” What does that mean? Quite simply, for any strategy to be evidence-based there must be several studies completed which prove its effectiveness. With the internet and computers, this is getting easier and easier to do. A program is written to scan for all studies completed measuring the effectiveness of strategies then a meta-analysis is completed to rate the effectiveness of each strategy. The great thing about using “evidence-based” strategies for teachers and tutors is through the research they can be sure the strategies they use with students are the best. The only thing to be aware of – every student is a unique learner and what works the best for large groups of students may not be the best approach for your learner.

In 2007, Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools – A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York was published which outlined the most effective strategies for teaching writing. You can see the full report here: http://www.all4ed.org/files/WritingNext.pdf. Below are the highlights from the report and quick explanations.



Page 3 – writing skill is a predictor of academic success and a basic requirement for participation in civic life and in the global economy.


This point seems self-evident, unless your learner is a math-wonk or science-brain. But even in math and science, and if your learner doesn’t seem university bound, writing is a basic requirement for participation in the work-place (think incident reports and writing cover letters) and civic life (think writing letters to the editor or emails to family).

Being able to write proficiently allows learners to master all concepts, to think about their thinking and to explain their thinking to others.


Page 7 – …although reading and writing are complementary skills whose development runs a roughly parallel course, they do not necessarily go hand in hand.


Conventional wisdom has held that if a person is an avid reader, he will be a good writer. It is true that there are many learners who learn good writing skills through reading; they absorb the rules and talents implicit in the writing of others. For other learners, though, writing skills and strategies must be made explicit. Making writing skills and strategies is much more than learning to place a comma in the right place. It is learning the rhetorical moves writers make to communicate a point to their readers or audience.


Page 8 – While readers form a mental representation of thoughts written by someone else, writers formulate their own thoughts, organize them, and create a written record of them using the conventions of spelling and grammar.


The key here is that written conventions: spelling, punctuation and rules of grammar, help readers understand a writer’s point. Likewise, writers must master these conventions to avoid their readers misinterpreting their message. Sure, you can hire an editor to fix all those things, but only if the editor understands your intent.


… although writing and reading are both vital aspects of literacy, they each require their own dedicated instruction.


This reiterates the idea that being a good reader does not necessarily make a learner a good writer. Dedicated instruction in writing is important to teach the forms of written expression, the rhetorical moves used by writers to enhance their message, and the specific conventions needed to ensure reader understanding of written expression.


Page 9 – Proficient writers can adapt their writing flexibly to the context in which it takes place.


Reading and responding to a writing prompt appropriately is a discreet skill, a skill that can be taught. Good writers have the ability to write a variety of forms for a variety of purposes to fit the context of the writing situation.

For instance, it used to be that college application essays were about “Why should we admit you?” Today, colleges require applicants to write a unique essay for each their application, and to demonstrate creativity. Some writing prompts include: What have you undertaken or done on your own in the last year or two that has nothing to do with academic work? (Northwestern) or Select a creative work — a novel, a film, a poem, a musical piece, a painting or other work of art — that has influenced the way you view the world and the way you view yourself. Discuss the work and its effect on you. (New York University). You can find 100 examples here: http://www.hpregional.org/departments/english/mhassenplug/100%20topics.html.


…it [writing] is a skill that draws on the use of strategies (such as planning, evaluating, and revising texts) to accomplish a variety of goals, such as writing a report or expressing an opinion with the support of evidence. Second, writing is a means of extending and deepening students’ knowledge; it acts as a tool for learning the subject matter.


Writing as a tool for learning the subject matter is a time-honored tradition. E.M. Forster famously said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” Translation = writing down your thoughts helps to clarify what you think, or what you know. Keeping notes, organizing those notes into a plan, writing an essay or report then revising the text to make sure your ideas are clear is set of complex cognitive skills. This is why writing instruction is so important.


Page 15 – Teaching adolescents strategies for planning, revising, and editing their compositions has shown a dramatic effect on the quality of students’ writing. Strategy instruction involves explicitly and systematically teaching steps necessary for planning, revising, and/or editing text (Graham, 2006).


Specific strategies for completing specific writing assignments help learners to understand explicitly how to be successful for each writing situation. For example, a basic book report requires simply that the learner summarize the contents of the book, answering the questions of who, where, when, what and why. Whereas, a book review, while containing a summary, also requires that the learner make evaluations and support those evaluations. Finally, a literary analysis of a book requires the reader to summarize, create a thesis about the literary value of the book, and evaluate the success of the book based on the thesis.

This is just one example of how responding to reading a book can require quite different strategies for planning, revising and editing work.


…specific types of writing tasks, such as writing a story, or a persuasive essay… explicitly teaching adolescents strategies for planning, revising and/or editing has a strong impact on the quality of their writing.


Again, the research shows that the most effective strategies for teaching planning and revising of a writing project must be specific to the writing task. Writing a story requires much different planning and revisions to be successful than the planning and revisions for writing a successful persuasive essay.


Page 16 – [Effective writing instruction is]…characterized by explicit instruction of writing strategies and self-regulation procedures (e.g., self-assessment, and goal- setting), as well as individualized instruction and criterion-based learning.


Teaching writing is not only about the teaching of evidence-based writing strategies, but also include teaching learners to assess their own writing (self-assessment) and goal-setting.  Helping learners recognize their strengths and weaknesses and areas for improvement engages learners in metacognition (thinking about their thinking). Having students set and reach writing goals creates habits for writing that will carry them throughout their writing life. Finally, individualized instruction that is “criterion-based” or based on specific expectations, with a skilled teacher or tutor, is best.


Page 17 – Setting product goals involves assigning students specific, reachable goals for the writing they are to complete. It includes identifying the purpose of the assignment (e.g., to persuade) as well as characteristics of the final product.


These goals include a clear writing prompt which declares the writing situation, the needed written response and the intended audience for the assignment, as well as clear expectations for the final product. A great way to be sure your learner has access to both the purpose of the assignment and the characteristics of the final product is to use the “test-released” writing prompts and accompanying grading rubrics from state tests.

In the state of California, sample writing prompts and sample student responses are available for learners to use as guides for their own writing. http://www.cde.ca.gov/ta/tg/hs/documents/studyela08sec6.pdf . Using these writing prompts and rubrics helps teachers and tutors to define the writing situation and the expectations.


The use of word-processing equipment can be particularly helpful for low-achieving writers. …may be especially effective in enhancing the quality of text produced by low-achieving writers.


The use of technology not only motivates advanced learners, but also aids learners who struggle with writing. In my experience, showing learners the tools to help them with spelling and watching them use the program to free themselves to worry more about creating an engaging story or persuasive argument is, well, priceless!


Page 18 – …Pre-writing engages students in activities designed to help them generate or organize ideas for their composition. Engaging adolescents in such activities before they write a first draft improves the quality of their writing. Pre-writing activities include gathering possible information for a paper through reading or developing a visual representation of their ideas before sitting down to write.


Offering learners a variety of methods for pre-writing allows them to find the strategy that works best for their writing style or for the writing assignment. Teaching how to outline, how to free-write, how to use graphic organizers or thinking maps, or how to write from the end gives learners a assortment of tools to help them prepare to write.


Page 19 – encouraging cycles of planning, translating, and reviewing: stressing personal responsibility and ownership of writing projects; …encouraging self-reflection and evaluation; and offering personalized individual assistance, brief instructional lessons to meet students’ individual needs, and, in some instances, more extended and systematic instruction.


Though there will be times when learners must write a composition on demand, teaching writing is more about teaching the process of writing, of creating a finished product which has gone through several cycles of writing and rewriting and ending with editing. Teachers and tutors must focus on the needs of the individual learner in the process of writing a specific, unique product to help that learner reach her full potential.


Page 20 – The study of models provides adolescents with good models for each type of writing that is the focus of instruction.


This seems to contradict the idea that good readers are automatically good writers. Actually, if teachers or tutors can explicitly use models of good writing to teach explicitly the rhetorical moves made by proficient writers, this allows learners to model these specific rhetorical moves within their own writing.


Page 21 – …traditional grammar instruction is unlikely to help improve the quality of students’ writing. Studies specifically examining the impact of grammar instruction with low-achieving writers…yielded negative results.


Do not make the mistake here that learners don’t need grammar instruction. The key here is “traditional grammar instruction” which includes “drill and kill” worksheets. What has been proven to work are mini-lessons focused on the needs of the learner and the specific writing assignment. So…


…teaching students to focus on the function and practical application of grammar within the context of writing (versus teaching grammar as an independent activity) produced strong and positive effects on students’ writing.


Of course, this requires having a proficient instructor who is able to identify the needs of a learner in the context of the writing assignment.


Page 23 – Writing proficiency develops over time. … As they become more proficient writers, students gradually move from “knowledge-telling” to “knowledge-transformation” (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987, p. 5 – 6 ).


This is the movement of learners writing to show us what they know to writing to express what they are learning to writing to express what we should know. This is a magical transformation that is possible for all writers with the application of these “evidence-based” practices.


In conclusion, this is an important meta-analysis of what works for writing instruction. If you want to examine the “Eleven Elements of Effective Adolescent Writing Instruction” in order of effectiveness, it is found on page 4 of the report. Learners who have instructors who are versed in these evidence-based strategies or who have writing curriculum which makes these strategies explicit will find success on their writing journeys.


Works Cited


Graham, S., & Perin, D.(2007). Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools – A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York.  Washington,DC:Alliance for Excellent Education.