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. 

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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.


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.


I vividly remember looking at the B+ on the top of my essay and seeing the A on the top of my friend Kristen’s. I flipped through the five pages of the essay, searching for teacher comments.There were none, no explanation for why I had received a B+.

I promptly made an appointment with the teacher. At our meeting, he flipped through the paper and pointed out one sentence.

“I don’t like this sentence,” he said as he handed the paper back to me.

“I got a B+ because of one sentence?” I asked incredulously, expecting him to either further explain or raise my grade.

Instead, he shrugged his shoulders.

I left the meeting unsure why Kristen had earned a higher grade than I and unsure about how to improve my writing for a better grade.

As a teacher and tutor, that experience has guided my own feedback on student papers.

The best method I have found for giving clear, fair feedback is to use rubrics. Rubrics make clear which writing strategies a writer has mastered and those that need improvement.

Here is an example:

Family Legend Rubric

 

 4

 3

 2

 1

Organization Strong lead that develops readers’ interest, a developed middle that builds tension; and a satisfying ending that provides closure. Either a strong lead, a developed middle or a satisfying ending but not all three. Maybe the middle drags on too long or the ending is a bit abrupt. Organization is rough but workable. Story may get off topic once or twice. Story is aimless or disorganized. It lacks direction.

Paragraphs Beginnings of all paragraphs indented and capture the reader’s interest. Beginnings of all paragraphs indented, have one topic/paragraph. Several problems with paragraphs. Use of incorrect paragraph format.  
The Legend Story gives details about one exciting, funny, sad or unusual historical event and uses hyperbole to create the legend quality. Tell about one specific historical event in detail but not much exaggeration for legend quality. Focus on more than one historical event, none of which have enough detail to give the story a clear focus. Story has no focus and is probably confusing to a reader.  
The narrative arc Narrative includes a hook, exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. Narrative includes at least hook, rising action, climax, and resolution. Narrative includes some elements of the narrative arc. Narrative is missing the elements of a narrative arc.  
Conventions Use of first person form, and correct sentence structure, grammar, punctuation and spelling. Mechanics are good. Errors may be from taking risks, trying to say things in new or unusual ways. Frequent errors which are distracting but do not interfere with meaning are made. Numerous problems with grammar, spelling, etc. make the story hard to read.  

The above rubric gives descriptions for a writing project that has exemplified the expectations of the assignment, and descriptions for assignments that have missed some expectations. What makes this rubric effective is that it ties directly to the lessons that are part of the instruction for writing a family legend: lessons about a hook, the narrative arc, and essential elements of a legend as well as general expectations for mastery of written English conventions.

To create a grading rubric, follow these steps:

1. Decide on four or five specific writing strategies the writer should have mastered.

2. Write descriptions of the “perfect” assignment for each writing strategy.

3. Write descriptions for assignments which meet some expectations but not all.

4. Share with writer so he/she is aware of the expectations.

It is easy to find grading rubrics on-line, but it is best to create one which ties directly to the assignment and the focus of the instructional content leading up to the final draft of the writing project.

In a perfect world, a student or learner will be able to continue to work on a project until it is perfect. I am currently revising, again, an essay I have been working on for 18 months. It’s still not good enough so I keep improving the piece. But, sometimes a writing project needs a grade and serves as a lesson for future writing assignments.

Using grading rubrics to provide clear, specific feedback allows a learner to recognize those parts of the assignment she was successful on, and those areas needing improvement.

When teaching students how to write, clear feedback will motivate students, not leave them wondering why they received an arbitrary grade.