home school writing advice, tips, and information

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A common concern among parents who home school is whether or not their children are performing at grade level. But what does that mean, especially for writing?

There are tools on a computer which will calculate the grade level readability of a text. But, is this what we want for our aspiring writers? Is it as simple as running the text through a calculator?

Parents can reference the state education grade level expectations, but these are different from state to state. What if as a parent you want to prepare your child to attend an out of state college? Will your child be ready to compete with students from that state?

Luckily, the government is publishing national standards, expectations that all students are held accountable for. The challenge with these are that they are descriptive and can be interpreted in a variety of ways.

The other challenge is to keep our perspective when evaluating writing.

A common practice for public school teachers is to grade each other’s student papers as a way of staying objective. I am guilty of seeing Vanessa’s name on the top of a paper, thinking about how hard she is working and how much her writing has improved, then grading the paper with those biases in mind. Now, think of the bias we might carry for our child’s writing.

Add to these challenges the complexity of different writing assignments, the nuances each requires to be effective. Language must be used much differently when a child is writing a narrative or story compared to writing a persuasive essay or a research paper. The specific needs for each type of writing must also be accounted for when deciding if a child is writing at grade level.

With all these considerations, there are three steps to making sure your child is meeting grade level expectations for writing assignments.

1. Look at sample writing for grade level expectations. The Reading and Writing Project  has sample student writing for all grade levels. The California High School Exit Exam provides student samples and scoring with a clear explanation of why each paper received the score.  Reviewing other student writing and how these samples were scored can help a parent to provide valuable feedback on his or her child’s writing.

2. Begin the writing assignment with clear expectations. Reviewing samples of writing can be helpful for writers as it gives them a target to aim for. Be warned though, it can also act as hurdle for some writers who will feel overwhelmed with trying to compete with the example. To solve this, I use professional writers as samples, not other students. If we are working on writing personal essays, I might review Joan Didion essays. By looking at these essays, there is not the pressure to write like Ms. Didion because she is a professional, but we can still use the essay to review for structure, use of language, and conventions.

3. Finally, allow for time between revisions so the writer has time to contemplate changes and improvements. Many of us believed that writing happened in one session. We showed up to class with paper and pencil, were given an essay question and turned in a completed essay an hour later. What a shock when we found out that writers spend days, weeks, months, sometimes years to write an essay. Some of the best writing advice is to put your writing in a drawer for at least two days, a week, or even more before trying to revise. This might be difficult with a school schedule, but writers can write on Monday, then work on reading other writing samples and practice with writing conventions then return to the writing piece on Thursday and Friday for revisions.

Helping writers perform at grade level is important for many reasons: to ensure they are prepared for university, to help them keep pace with their peers, and to provide them with appropriate instruction. By teaching them how to write by using examples, clear expectations, and models, all writers will be able to successful complete writing assignments.

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One of my favorite stories is about some well-meaning advice from a friend.

I was at a barbecue lamenting to another friend how difficult it is to give baths to my large dogs. She, too, owns large dogs. We had already run through everything we’d tried and were winding down the conversation with an exchange of pet groomers’ prices and phone numbers when the host of the barbecue walked up and chimed in.

“Have you tried chaining the dog to a fence?”

She must have seen one of many reality shows about pet groomers which clearly shows well-behaved dogs connected to a post while being bathed. Unfortunately, I did not own a pet bathing station and chaining my dog to the fence meant that he could then dance away from me every time I approached with a hose. I wondered, unfortunately out loud, if that worked with her dogs. She admitted she didn’t have dogs and I was not invited back to another barbecue at her house.

The point is, there are many people who are happy to offer advice when they have no experience to back up their opinions. And… there are many blogs about home schooling written by parents who are in the thick of it, who are home schooling and are happy to share their experiences and wisdom with the rest of us.

One such mother is Dianne McLean, owner of the website Home Education Council of America, who shares some great advice, such as how to home school children as they enter secondary education.

As a tutor, I appreciate her advice: “… don’t think that just because you chose to homeschool, that you are required to do all the teaching.  The beauty of homeschooling is exercising your right to choose, not forcing undue stress upon yourself.  If you are juggling many children, then take a look at what subjects you can possibly trade with another mom – or even still, pay someone if you are unable to reciprocate in services.  Some states vary in their laws, but there is always a way!”

Finding the right writing curriculum may be the first hurdle, much like securing a dog for a bath may be the first step in bathing the dog. Unfortunately, even with a secure dog, the right person for the job is very important. Thus, finding an expert in the curriculum subject and in instructional strategies may be the best approach for teaching your home school high school student.

You may just need to swap prices and phone numbers with a friend who has been there.


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!