home school writing advice, tips, and information

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Many students prefer to study math or science or history rather than read poems or stories. So how do you get them to write?

The best thing about teaching reading and writing, especially when a child is homeschooled, is that the student can learn to read and write by studying anything that interests him or her.

If you are interested in teaching reading and writing through the curricular area your child is most interested in, there is a logical sequence to use:

1. Read narratives about the subject. If you are teaching history, this is easy because all of history is a story. If you are teaching math or science, this may be a bit more difficult. Look through your textbook and find a mathematician or scientist and study his or her story. Better yet, research a mathematical or scientific discovery. If your child does not like to read, you may want to watch Through the Wormhole hosted by Morgan Freedman. This series explores scientific and mathematical ideas in a analytic manner, but each segment is told through narrative. A wonderful narrative about a woman’s experience as a scientist and with her personal experience with science is My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor Ph.

2. Write a narrative about the subject. Allowing a child to write their own story about the subject provides an opportunity for exploring the elements of writing a narrative: character, setting, obstacles and resolution. You may want to take the pressure off by suggesting your child write the narrative in the form of a children’s book. If you check out some books at the library written for children about science such as What is the World is Made of by Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld and Paul Meisel, this will give your child a model to follow.

3.  Read biographies of famous people in the curricular area. Books such as My Inventions by Nikola Tessla provides students with an opportunity through autobiography to see inside an inventor’s thought processes, failures and successes.

4. Write a biography of a famous. Using the book, rewrite the biography in a format for children. The assignment provides the student with an opportunity to choose the most important parts of the biography, synthesize this information and compose the information for another reader.

5. Read research articles in the curricular area. For access to these types of articles, visit a local university or college library, or complete a search on Google Scholar. Type in keywords of interest, then search through the options. At a library, you will be directed to periodicals either in the library or on-line. Google Scholar may direct you to a pay site, but there will also be many article for free.

6. Write a review of the research read. By summarizing the research and then providing a criticism, compliment and suggestion for use, students will engage with research in a way which helps them understand how research is used.

7. Write a research article. The most advanced type of writing is for the student to propose a thesis, research the thesis and then argue for his or her thesis.

By reading and writing narrative, biographies, research, reviews and articles, your child will have learned to write in an area of curriculum which interests him or her.

* For guidelines for writing each type of these assignments, check out my book, Writing With Home. 


Stories, or narratives, are the way most humans make sense of the world.

Nonfiction writing, expository texts, are the way most writers make a living and most college students earn a degree.

Then are we wasting time teaching students to write stories?

In my experience, the most memorable information is told through story. Therefore, good writers must know how to write good stories so when they begin to write about information, they will write about the information in a way that is memorable.

Writing stories or narratives requires several key elements to engage the reader:

1. creating a setting – where? when?

2. creating or introducing the characters – who?

3. describing a conflict – what? why?

4. describing the resolution – how?

Once students are proficient at writing a narrative, these skills can be translated into nonfiction or expository writing which requires several key elements to make the information appeal to the reader:

1. explaining context – where? when?

2. introducing the information – what?

3. creating or explaining the relevance – why? who?

4. describing the application – how?

As you can see, the basic formula for writing about a topic is answering questions. What makes a narrative compelling is the reader’s connection with the characters. What makes nonfiction compelling is the reader’s connection to the information. Where these two genres collide and make magic is when these skills are combined and create compelling characters interacting with interesting information.

Take for instance the book Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder which explains the health care system in a third world country by telling the story of Dr. Paul Farmer and his experiences.

Teaching children to write narratives, then teaching children to write nonfiction can progress to making magic with combining the genres.

If the best writing advice is to “write what you know” then narratives is the best place to start for children because they know their stories. As they learn about the world, they can then share their knowledge with others. Finally, when they have experience with information, and they are proficient at writing narratives and expository, they will be able to write what the industry calls creative nonfiction.


“Form follows function.” –Frank Lloyd Wright

Today I was helping a student write a book review. She had written a rambling summary and a rambling review. It felt wonderful to be able to point out to her that there is a specific form for writing a review. I was able to point out to her which parts of her draft adhered to the genre’s expectations and how to tighten the remainder of the draft to fit a reader’s expectations.

And this is one of the most powerful tools for teaching writing, being able to teach form, formulas, or reader expectations for specific genres.

Providing students with a form for a writing assignment takes the magic out of the writing experience. This can be good and bad.

It can be good in that students who don’t believe they are capable of writing such complicated communications find these pieces of writing aren’t as complicated as they thought.

It can be bad in that students who are naturally creative writers may feel confined by the formula.

But, I explain to my students that formulas are like training wheels on bicycles. They are there to steady the writing/riding and they aren’t necessary once we have our balance.

I also explain that only really good riders pop wheelies or do bunny-hops or ride with no hands. We must become proficient at the formula before we can perform tricks.

A quick search will provide teachers, tutors and parents with graphic organizers for planning to write a variety of genres.

Form truly does follow function. Yet, it is true that this weekend when I was trying to hang a new ceiling fan in my son’s bedroom, the directions more closely resembled the diction of a poem than a recipe for successful installation.


After 25 years of teaching and 25 years of students, I can tell you that the lesson best learned was not one I taught, but one I facilitated by finding an authentic audience for my blossoming writers.

I was in Starbucks and my barista said, “Hey, Ms. M, is that you?” She went on to tell me how she remembered my class because she had a book review published in the local newspaper, a book review she wrote in my class and I helped her submit for publication.

Other students have told me that they remember their letter to the editor that was published, winning an essay contest, getting poems published in an anthology, and other experiences of sending their writing out into the world where it found an audience beyond me, the teacher.

Today, with technology, finding an audience for student writing is even more exciting.

Magazines: With publications like Teen Ink and Stone Soup, young writers can submit their stories, poems and essays to be published for others to see.

Newspapers: I wouldn’t overlook writing letters to the editor about a community concern, challenge, or celebration or to respond to another’s letter. This exercise not only gives writers a community audience, but is also an exercise in being an active citizen.

Blogs: Many students today have begun their own blogs. Some blogs are about personal experience and talents such as this one by Jacqueline. Other students have helped with family business blogs, such as this one done by Julian.

There are so many easy, free programs for students to use for blogging, this can be an easy way to gain an audience beyond the teacher, tutor or parent.

Whatever form finding an audience might take, the lessons learned in the public forum about writing and reading are valuable and unforgettable.


Recently my mom showed up to my house with several pieces of construction paper in hand. She handed them over, explaining she was cleaning out a closet and thought I might want them.

One was an art project I made in third grade, a melted crayon mess of a collage. Another was a fill in the blank story I had “written” and illustrated.

Originally I had made these projects as gifts for my mom. All these years later, she was giving them back to me – and what a gift.

But, as children grow older we tend to expect them to grow into healthy consumers and purchase gifts for everyone, rather than make gifts.

As a teacher and tutor for adolescent writers, a favorite project I have students complete is a “House on My Street” book. Using Sandra Cisneros’s book House on Mango Street I have students write short vignettes about their home, their family, their neighborhood, their pets, or whatever areas of interest they feel compelled to write about. Once all the vignettes are completed, we work on revisions and edits, then put the short chapters together in a book form, with the student adding a cover, back cover, table of contents and art for each chapter. Art can be creative, photographs, or some other visual to augment the chapter.

Finally, students dedicate the book to a loved one, and they now have a keepsake present for the holidays.

As parents, a new pair of socks are nice and all, but a creative piece of work from our child is the best gift of all.

I’ve posted a grading rubric below in case you want to use the idea.

Your Life

Vignette Memoir

You will be writing your memoir much in the same fashion as Esperanza in House on Mango Street wrote hers. Using the Free-writes completed in class as a starting point, you will be writing 15 vignettes on the following topics. Once all “chapters” are in final form, you will be adding art and formatting the book to look professional. Final stage will be binding the book.

Grading Checklist

Binding (5)                              ___

Cover (5)                                 ___

Back cover (10)                       ___

Title page (5)                           ___

Dedication (5)                         ___

1: Your Home (10)                  ___

2: Your Family (10)                ___

3: Pets (10)                              ___

4: Neighborhood (10)             ___

5: Favorite Holiday (10)         ___

6: Best/worst day (10)                        ___

7: Favorite toy/game (10)        ___

8: Friends (10)                         ___

9: Traveling (10)                      ___

10: Clubs (10)                         ___

11: Songs (10)                         ___

12: Other relatives (10)           ___

13: Your future (10)                ___

14: Your choice (10)               ___

15 Your choice (10)                ___

Pride in Presentation (10)       ___

Mechanics (10)                        ___

Remember that the chapters listed are general guidelines and need not be in this order and must not bear these titles. Be creative.


I love this new article in The National Review, “The Last Radicals”, especially the part where Bob Wiesner reminds everyone that the first “home schoolers” were hippies.

I also appreciate how he points out that home schooled children tend to be free thinkers. He points out that free thinking is not always appreciated by public school teachers. I feel special in that I definitely enjoy the free thinkers in my classroom.

I remember when my son was a toddler and my husband and I were relating a story about his free thinking tendencies. A close friend who happened to be (and still happens to be) an elementary school principal looked concerned.

“Those aren’t qualities that will be appreciated at school,” he said gently.

I was glad my son would not be an easy student. Of course this did not always work in my favor as he grew older and questioned me.

But then, we reap what we sow and I am happy to report that my grown son is such a free thinker that he rarely agrees with me.

The steps any parent or teacher can take to create “free thinkers” include:

1. Always play the devil’s advocate. Make children explain their reasoning and challenge them with counter arguments. Nothing engages a child’s reasoning skills than having to explain their opinions and ideas.

2. Ask lots of questions rather than providing answers. “What made you think that?” “How would that work?” “Why?” The last question is the most fun because it feels a bit like payback from when the child asked the exact same question… 🙂

3. Teach children to accept ambiguities. When I was a kid, my mom had me create Pro/Con lists when I needed to make a big decision. These lists taught me that there was no right answer, only better answers based on my perspective. It helped me to be open-minded and to take responsibility for my decision.

Living with a free thinker is not always easy. There were definitely times when I had to resist the strong urge to answer “Because I said so.” But, in the long run, I know my child is better prepared to face the changing world as an adult.


The best thing about home schooling, learners are free to complete writing projects which are meaningful and relevant to them.

In a classroom full of students, the teacher must create a lesson which meets the needs of all students. With one-on-one instruction, the learner and parent or tutor get to create lessons based on learner interest, learner experiences, or specific writing needs.

But there may be those times when the learner is wondering what he or she should write about. There may be those times when the instructor wants to use a writing project to prepare the learner for larger or more complex projects to be completed later.

A great resource for writing project ideas is the National Writing Project website. On their resources page they have links to 30 writing ideas. There are also tips and research for instructors.

It’s a great site to explore and for those times when teaching writing for home-schoolers presents a challenge.