home school writing advice, tips, and information

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I can remember when my son took swimming lessons so many summers ago. It was great fun to watch him go from a floundering water baby to a  proficient swimmer. Then several years later, he decided to join the swim team. Suddenly his proficient swimming skills were exposed to be basic, beginner techniques. Sure they were good enough to keep him from sinking, even to get him to win the pool game of Marco Polo, but to be a member of the swim team required that he perfect his swimming techniques, from kicking with straight legs to cupping his hands correctly.

Then this summer, watching the Olympics swimming contests, the beauty of the sport lay in the perfection of the techniques, so much so that the techniques weren’t even apparent.

If we think about the progression of learning to swim, it is very similar to the progression of learning to write, specifically how grammar, or the cupping of the hands, fits.

To learn how to swim, children must be in the water. Likewise, to learn how to write, learners must be in a text-rich environment.  Surrounding learners with text they are interested in and honoring their writing is the first step in teaching children to write. Practice worksheets with corrections to make is like having children sit by the pool and practice the dog paddle, explaining they will get to swim once they can show on the dry land that they know how to do the proper strokes.

Once children begin to write on their own, focusing on grammar lessons which are relevant to their writing will make the lessons meaningful and memorable. The basics, capital letters to begin sentences and end punctuation, is  the beginning of managing grammar in writing. From there the rules and techniques grow more and more complex in direct correlation to the complexity of the writing.

The level of instruction needed to teach grammar within a writing curriculum will be based on the level of complexity of a child’s writing. It may be enough to rely on peer editing, parental feedback and tools found within word processing programs.

Ultimately, though, just like my son had a swimming instructor when he was on the swim team, learners will need an expert in writing to be able to explain the nuances and requirements of grammar.

And yes, there is a place for worksheets to practice grammar. When a student is struggling in his writing with correctly punctuating dialog, I provide a worksheet for him to practice these skills. Once he has practiced enough, the rules and techniques will become automatic. Remember, the worksheet is practice that is relevant to the student writing.

Grammar is important. Can you imagine driving without following driving laws with other drivers who are making up their own rules? Now, can you imagine reading this post without relying on grammar and punctuation to guide your reading?

Proficient writers will want to have a mastery of grammar and punctuation rules. Mastery begins with beginning, then slowly adding techniques toward mastery.

Points to remember:

1. Effective grammar lessons are relevant to a learner’s writing.

2. Effective grammar lessons become more complex as a learner’s writing becomes more complex.

3. Effective grammar lessons are best taught by an expert in the field.

4. Practice is an important part of effective grammar lessons when the practice is relevant to authentic writing.

For some great grammar products, go to the “Help for Parents” page.

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So, it’s officially back to school.

Though many schools no longer follow the traditional school year and begin school after Labor Day, that Tuesday reality sets in that it is a long ten months until June.

Even home-schoolers get back-to-school blues according to Danielle Ali Shah in her blog about returning to homeschooling. But it helps if you keep in mind the “four agreements for home schooling.”

1. Follow your heart when making educational decisions.

The numbers are out and it seems more and more families are choosing to home school their children for a variety of reasons.  It seems odd that this would be news since we have always believed that parents are a child’s first teacher. Parents often lament not following their hearts when making decisions about the education of their children. I pulled my son from a well-regarded public school and never regretted it.

2. Don’t take anything personally.

Unfortunately, many home-schoolers continue to feel ostracized by the established educational community. As a public educator for over 24 years, the one thing I have learned for sure – I may be an expert in my field of study, but I am not an expert in another person’s child and my job as a teacher or tutor is to provide a service for that first teacher and child expert.

3. Find your tribe.

Luckily, many families are finding ways to home school which best meet their needs at home and in community.

4. Always do your best.

This may seem obvious, but it is nice to be reminded that we do the best we can and forget the rest. This is true for parents and for students.

So, as we all get back to school, we relearn to juggle our life commitments with our educational commitments – and look forward to Winter Break.


In the 2007 report Writing Next: Effective Strategies to Improve Writing of Adolescents in Middle and High Schools , eleven strategies are listed as showing statistically proven results. The first of these is to teach students writing strategies. It is reported:

Writing Strategies (Effect Size = 0.82)
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).
The ultimate goal is to teach students to use these strategies independently.

In my opinion, the key to these strategies is to teach strategies “explicitly and systematically.”

What are some steps home schoolers can use to do this?

1. When assigning a writing project, assign the student to read models of that type of writing.

For example, when students are to write “business” letters, we spend time reviewing letters to the editor, letters from companies that come in the mail, and sample “business letters” found on the internet. Likewise, when I am attempting to write a specific type of essay, such as a travel essay, I read lots of these. Usually, I find an anthology of this type of writing and read through it before I even begin writing, but sometimes I first write several rough drafts so my thoughts are on paper, then use the models to guide my revision. In either case, looking to see how others have completed this writing project will help to guide my writing.

2. Use prewriting tools to organize thoughts on topic.

A search for a graphic organizer for a writing type or genre will give students one way of organizing their thoughts. Compare and contrast essays are organized differently than persuasive essays. Graphic organizers will help students understand the difference. Simply type the genre and “graphic organizer” into  google for several examples.

3. Use peer editing for revision.

The simplest but very effective use of peer editing the writer reading the essay out loud to a parent or sibling or friend. The listener’s only job is to write down questions they have while listening. These questions will help guide revisions because they will force the writer to make clarifications or add information.

4. Use a checklist for editing.

A checklist forces students to go through the essay methodically to be sure everything is in order. A checklist which  requires students to check for developmentally appropriate writing conventions ensures the student is pushing herself to present a publishable piece of writing. To determine what is developmentally appropriate think about the complexity of the grammar, punctuation and sentence forms being used. For example, if a student is still struggling with writing complete sentences, it is probably not a good idea to require the writing project to include complex/compound sentences.

These are easy writing strategies which can be used for every writing project to improve the writing of your home school writer.


In his article, “Common Core Concerns,” Bob Kellogg states the  Home School Legal Defense Association  policy against national standards. This makes perfect sense.

Most parents choose to home school to avoid the measuring stick used to prod children along in the public schools. To be fair, with 35 students in a class, it is imperative to have a system of measuring progress and ensuring preparation for the next grade level, to keep the conveyor belt of grade level accomplishment moving. But, home schooling is a jumping off of the conveyor belt of preparing 35 children for the next teacher and is an embrace of a unique’s child’s unique gifts and development.

So, can common core standards help home school parents?

As a tutor, I know that looking at grade level expectations, currently in the form of state standards, helps my students and I keep on track with what we aim to accomplish.

For instance, the expectations for writing builds from one grade level to the next. Once students are proficient at writing narratives and summaries, they are then asked to write biographical narratives and literary analysis. Students must be able to write less complex compositions before they are asked to write more difficult ones.

The other useful component of the writing standards is the grade level “writing conventions” included (grammar, spelling and punctuation). Of course, these also grow more and more complex as students move through the grade levels, but there was also an attempt to match conventions with age appropriate intellectual development. As all parents know, rarely do our children match the development charts and maps. Many children seem to absorb proper writing conventions through osmosis, or from extensive reading, and other children must be taught these conventions explicitly with lots of detached practice until they have internalized the rules for writing conventions. Still, a guide for which conventions to tackle when is helpful. It may be best to ignore mistakes in dangling modifiers before learners understand parts of speech.

In both cases, the common core standards can be a useful guide for parents, though should not be taken as a dictum for a synchronized march toward graduation. Even classroom teachers, myself included, understand that standards for learning are signposts and points on a map. The joy is always in the journey, and no journey is completed in lockstep march steps.

To be against the common core standards as a defense to being forced to join the conveyor belt of education makes sense. To embrace they as a map for possible destinations also makes sense.


One reason parents home school is the an opportunity for their children to learn authentically.

What exactly does that mean?

I remember when my own son came home to ask when he would even need to know how to write an essay about a book.

“In college?” I answered.

“Besides school, I mean…” he waited, patiently. I’m sure he was convinced that since I was a high school English teacher and regularly made my own students write essays about books, I would have a better answer.

“The assignment is full of many transferable skills like analyzing themes and critical thinking and -”

He cut me off. “So, never. Right?”

I was tempted to launch into my back up speech about jobs and careers which required good writing skills, but from my experiences with my own students I knew this line of logic would be met with the question: “But essays about books, what jobs will require that I write those?”

Rather than make the case that someday he may become a book reviewer or an English professor who must publish or perish, I nodded. “Right.”

Fortunately, when parents choose to home school, they can allow their children to pursue authentic writing or allow them to write about things which interest them and which are useful to them.

Like Caleb Warner in the article, “Happily Home Schooled,” who explains he is writing short stories and a novel and songs. You might wonder when he will ever write any of these things for a job. Well, if he is lucky enough to become a novelist or song writer… but more importantly, each of these writing assignments falls into the category of a narrative, which is done in any job requiring an employee to write an incident report – most jobs.

Now I admit that I do “guide” the students I tutor to write essays exploring issues or analyzing themes of books, but because the instruction is individualized, the writing assignments are authentic or grow out of the child’s interests and knowledge.

I do have a student who is currently writing a novel, but I also tutor students who write about their own experiences with chronic illness, about their family stories, about the effectiveness of the Israeli West Bank Barrier, and a student who is writing a children’s book.

Authentic writing for Home Schoolers is about helping children to write about what they are interested in and in the genre they are interested in because out of these writing assignments they will learn the conventions of writing.

Here are the steps I take for guiding students to authentic writing.

1. Examine which genre fits the student’s interest and ability. 

For example, a student interested in astronomy may want to write a children’s picture books as a summary for what he knows, may want to write a persuasive essay for why Pluto should be considered a planet, or may choose to write an autobiographical narrative about his first time viewing the stars and why he’s so interested in them. The choices are an endless series of mix and match of interest and genre.

2. Review examples of the genre.

To prepare to write in a particular genre, it is imperative that the writer review how proficient and professional writers are successful. When I teach writing “family legends” I have students read a variety of legends so we can examine the difference between a narrative and a legend.

3. Begin writing but be open to revision of expectations.

Most professional writers have had the experience of sitting down with a writing project in mind only to figure out that the genre does not fit the topic – or at least the treatment of the topic the writer is interested in pursuing. It is a sign of a good writer when she can revise her own expectations to produce the best product.

4. Find an audience.

All authentic pieces of writing have authentic audiences. Whether the audience is a student’s younger sibling, an uncle who works for NASA, the local paper letters to the editor page, or a personal blog, nothing motivates writers like writing for an authentic audience. Usually an authentic audience means someone other than the “teacher.”

Helping your child to write authentic pieces for an authentic audience will help him to be more motivated to write and, hopefully, more successful.


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.