Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What Should My Child Be Writing and When? Part 2: Middle School and High School

I recently gave a workshop on how to teach reluctant writers. The most concerned parents, understandably, were those of children in middle and high school. So, I am going to digress for a moment to address this issue. When you reach high school in your home school and realize that your child can’t or doesn’t write, it’s easy to panic. If you are in this situation, take a deep breath and understand that there is a solution. Here are a few tips for getting your student back on track:

·        Evaluate exactly where your child is achieving based on a recent writing sample (unassisted). For example, if your high schooler doesn’t know the parts of speech, you have to go back and teach them. If he doesn’t put sentences together well, forget about writing paragraphs and papers and revert back to practicing writing solid sentences! Then you can move forward with the next set of skills. Understanding outlining has to come before well developed papers can be written. Sentences before paragraphs and paragraphs before reports. If you feel unable to evaluate your student’s writing, email me as I do offer evaluation services at a reasonable hourly rate.
·        Focus your energy and time on those necessary skills. You don’t have as much time, so make sure that you are devoting significant time to catching up and being consistent to work on writing daily. Most of the students that I work with who are greatly challenged by writing have not had consistency in practice and evaluation. This leads to a lack of confidence. You can’t expect your student to write well if he never practices the skills.
·        Read, read, read – your high schooler will benefit from reading on the highest level possible. Daily reading with related writing assignments is the perfect combination for advancing skills. Be selective about what your student is reading and be sure to point out the value of the written word as your student reads.
·        Integrate writing into as many subjects as possible – any writing assignments that can be integrated into science, history and other subjects will make the skills more relevant to your high school student and offer even more practice as well reinforcement of those skills.
·        Keep assignments shorter – until your student has caught up on skills, give multiple shorter assignments rather than overwhelming both of you with large, stressful writing projects. Make sure that you’re willing to evaluate and grade the assignment before you choose to assign it.
·        Acquire help, if needed if you find that you’re not making the progress your high schooler needs, seek out a tutor or teacher to help. You don’t want your child finishing high school without the life skill of writing well. Feel free to email me if you need more specific recommendations or help with teaching or evaluating writing.

Middle School: Typically grades 6-8, these years are those in which some kids lose track of writing. They write for assignments but the focus isn’t on mastery. It’s vital that skills continue to be honed and if possible, writing becomes more comfortable. During the pre-high school years solidifying strong writing skills in preparation for the higher level writing in high school couldn’t be more important. You shouldn’t assume that your student has specific skills just because he is a certain age. Taking the time to evaluate your student’s true abilities is vital to moving forward. Skills and strategies at this age include:
·        Sentence structure and paragraph formation – before you work on any writing projects for these grade levels, make sure your student has a firm grasp of how to write solid sentences and form paragraphs including articulate topic sentences and relevant supporting sentences. Strategies: 1. Use books of various types (novels, textbooks, etc) to show your student different sentence structures (varying lengths and complexity). 2. Have your student start out writing a simple sentence, then discuss how to change the sentence into a more complex style. 3. Give specific topics to your student for practicing writing sentences and help him expand those sentences into paragraphs.
·        Paragraph transitions – this is one skill that often gets rushed through in writing education, but the ability to transition between paragraphs should be practiced over and over. It doesn’t come naturally for most students and many parents don’t focus on it because it’s frustrating and sometimes parents aren’t confident teaching this concept. Strategy: Make sure your student understands transition words. Click here for a list of common transition words and when to use them.
·        Note taking – if your student started this skill in late elementary school, as recommended, then continue it with more challenging content. If your student hasn’t previously worked on this skill, then you’ll want to start simply with short single paragraphs. Strategy: Integration of subjects works well with note taking by practicing this skill using material from history, science, literature, etc. For example, have your student read 1-3 paragraphs in science and then make a bullet list of important concepts recalled from reading. If there is a tendency toward copying directly from the material, have your student close or cover the book before note taking. 
WHAT NOT TO DO: Assign a writing assignment for every set of notes your student takes. You do not have to assign a writing assignment just because you’re having your student take notes. The notes themselves may be the complete assignment and they’re worthwhile because they will reinforce important concepts and be useful for studying as well as improving writing and comprehension skills!
·        Outlining – If your student already understands how to outline with a web design, move on to traditional (using Roman numerals, letters and Arabic numbers) outlining. Be aware that students who are more graphically inclined tend to be more comfortable with web outlining so the move to traditional may be a bit of a challenge. Students who are more structured thinkers usually do better with traditional rather than web outlining. Strategy: After practicing note taking in another subject, such as a history, science or literature, have your student create an outline from his notes (not from the book). Be sure that your student has taken a significant amount of notes in order to outline at least three main sections. 2. Consistency is key in outlines. An outline should contain all single words, all phrases or all complete sentences. I don’t typically recommend complete sentence outlines for middle school students because they’re more likely to copy sentences and not understand the overall concept.
WHAT NOT TO DO: Don’t give up! Outlining is very frustrating for some parents and students. It’s one of those wonderful skills that truly improve with practice.
·        Report Writing – in middle school, a basic report of 3-5 pages provides practice for all of the previously mentioned skills. Three to four well written reports per year provides continual use of the skills without being overwhelming. In middle school, students should use 2-3 resources for their reports. These resources could include textbooks, other books, magazine articles and online sites. However, I strongly recommend that you train your student to use a variety of sources. It’s easy to skip a trip to the library and rely on the internet, but it’s essential that students learn to use various materials. A brief resource page as the end of the report with the author and named material (book title, website URL or magazine title) suffices. In high school, students will have more detailed resource pages.  Strategy: Let your student help choose report topics (all or some) from his different subjects. Consider any of the following:
§         A science topic that is new or of particular interest
§         A favorite historical character or event
§         An invention or discovery from science or history
§         A favorite or new author of a book from literature
§         An artist or musician that is being studied in history or fine arts.
Even if your student is helping choose the topic, be sure to direct him to select an assortment of different report ideas. Some students want to only write about people or one particular subject. The more diverse the topics, the greater the opportunity for learning! When grading reports, I usually count them as a test grade for my students since they encompass so much time, energy and many skills.
·        Creative Writing – if your student has already been exposed to poetry and short stories in literature, creative writing will be much easier to teach. If those areas haven’t been covered, you’ll want to read poetry and literature for a semester before tackling writing creatively.
WHAT NOT TO DO: Expecting your child to write creatively without sharing an abundance of poetry and literature with him is unfair. Remember that reading and writing link just like walking and running. If a child tries to run before walking, he’ll spend a lot of time falling. If a student tries to write creatively without having read and studied examples of creative authors and poets, he’ll spend a lot of time frustrated.
Once your student develops a sense of understanding concerning creative works, he can move on to writing creatively. Begin with smaller assignments and work your way up to more challenging, lengthier projects. Some ideas to consider include:
§         Studying rhyme schemes in poetry and have your student write poetry with similar rhyming patterns (haikus, sonnets etc)
§         After reading a novel or short story, have your student do one of the following:
1.     write a different ending
2.     add a new character
3.     create a lap book to present the literary aspects including a plot map, character analysis, themes, conflicts, vocabulary, figurative language and a book review.
4.     design a book cover and write an overview for the back of the book.
5.     focus on the genre of the book or story (historical, science fiction, mystery etc) and write an outline of another story idea in that same genre
6.     compare and contrast two books in chart form or as an essay
§         Have students respond to photos from a newspaper or website writing what they think might have occurred.
§         Create comics – this idea works particularly well for students who are reluctant writers. The student should focus on the content of the writing as well as the artistic design of the comic.
·        Self-editing – One of the most overlooked skills in middle school, this habit can change the level of success that a student experiences throughout all of his years of writing. The best habit a student can develop for self-editing is reading his work aloud. I promise you, I will read this article aloud before publishing it. It’s one of the easiest and most effective ways to self-edit. Another tool that’s proven to be effective is a basic self-editing checklist, adapted to specific writing assignments, such as the one on Epi Kardia’s Tools CD. As well, your job will be easier as your student becomes a more proficient writer! J

High School: Before even considering high school writing, make sure that your student developed a solid grasp of the middle school writing points previously noted. As a writing teacher, organization and self-editing usually present themselves as the greatest challenges for my high school writers. Transitioning from middle school level writing to high school level also causes issue with some students as they want to relax in the simpler writing of younger days.
·        Essay writing – covering the five basic essay styles (narrative, expository, descriptive, persuasive and comparison/contrast) is essential for high school students, particularly those who are college bound. Most high school writing and literature courses require the ability to write these essays. The ability to write these essays also allows for greater opportunities to respond in writing for both history and science high school courses, providing for subject integration. Epi Kardia’s Essay Styles curriculum offers solid coverage of these essay styles.
·        Research papers – I strongly recommend that students write at least two research papers during high school of at least 10 pages in length. This process should not be rushed and each step of the process (topic selection, researching and gathering materials, note taking, outlining, writing, multiple rewriting, footnoting and citing resources) should be given appropriate time. For some students, this may be a year long process while others may only need 4-5 months. Research writing offers a tremendous opportunity to integrate subjects. Selecting topics that relate to material being studied in history, science or literature enhances your student’s learning experience. For a comprehensive, step by step instruction guide to research paper writing, check out Epi Kardia’s The Steps to Writing a Research Paper.
·        Responding to Literature – whether you’re studying novels, plays, poetry or short stories, high school students should analyze and explore fictional works by various authors. High school students tend to do this best when the literature is grouped according to style, geography or time period. American literature, British literature and World literature should minimally be studied and extensive writing should be incorporated in the forms of essays, book reviews and reports.
·        Responding to Non-fiction – as your student studies science, history and other subjects, writing assignments will help your student not only present how much he has learned, but it will also reinforce what was learned. Incorporating written assignments such as research papers, essays and reports increase your student’s writing skills and material comprehension.
·        Speech writing – I believe that every student should take Public Speaking in high school. This course not only provides essential verbal communication skills, but it also teaches students to write in a succinct and powerful manner that can be utilized throughout their adult life.
·        Business writing – practicing writing cover letters and resumes will put your student a step ahead when college rolls around. Also, if the opportunity arises, developing a strong letter to the editor of your local paper, responding to emails and communicating in writing with other adults all provide precious practice for necessary life skills.
·        SAT writing – practicing for the SAT essay gives your student a way to not only score better on the test, but it also allows for practice in very focused, precise writing because of the limitations of time and space. As well, the ability to outline and organize thoughts quickly is an excellent skill that a student can use throughout his entire life.
·        Personal writing – adults often have to write personal emails and notes. Having your student write personal correspondence such as thank you notes, cards of prayer and encouragement or simply having a pen pal, provides great practice for informal, but intelligent written communication. This is often overlooked as a high school skill.
·        Self-editing – In high school, the goal is for students to edit their work without having to be told. In early high school years, using checklists or reminders, by building in time for self-editing, consistently can lead to older students more naturally as they write. Older students tend to realize the benefit of self-editing and how time is saved when they don’t have to complete as many drafts of an assignment. As students edit their own work by habit, you’ll see them also apply that habit to personal writing as well.
·        Collaborative writing – this type of creative writing can be exceptionally fun for high school students while teaching them to write fiction. For homeschoolers who are not utilizing high school courses, this writing may be done via email with other students. Basically, one student starts a story and as it is passed around, students add another paragraph that continues the story in a logical and intelligent manner.

This is a brief overview of essential skills for students in 6th-12th grade. It is not a comprehensive list of what could be taught, only the minimum of what should be taught. If you struggle with teaching or evaluating your student’s writing, check out Classes by Beth to see if I offer a class online or locally that might appeal to your family.

God bless you as you endeavor to teach your children to write!

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