The Home School Court Report
Vol. XXIII
No. 1
Cover
January/February
2007

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by Dianne Hurst
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Improving Your Teen’s Writing Skills

Writing now comprises its own complete section on the SAT, and yet few of us—even those of us with degrees in English—were really taught how to teach writing. We write, we even write well—but teaching writing? Now that’s a pen of a different color.

Some students, of course, just seem to be born knowing how. Put a piece of paper and a few sharp pencils in front of those kids, go brew a cup of coffee, and voila! A masterpiece fit for the most scrutinizing Freshman Comp professor magically appears before your grateful eyes.

And then there’s the rest of ’em. Where, oh where, to begin?

One suggestion is to begin by having them write. That’s right: by having them write. Sounds too simple, right? It’s actually not. Because we were never taught differently, most of us acquired the belief that Shakespeare picked up a quill and penned each scene from the first to the last in order—without flaw, omission, or correction. Those of us who have written so much as a grocery list know that it doesn’t work that way, and yet many of us expect ourselves and our children to approach academic writing as though it does.

To begin correcting this misconception, put a piece of paper and a few sharp pencils before Miss Freshman Comp’s unwilling sibling. Explain that this exercise will be completely ungraded; the only “rule” is that the student must continue writing something until the time is up. Assign a random (or not so random) topic. Set the timer for 30 seconds or a minute or five—then say “Go!” The student is to stop writing when the timer dings. And yes, he will probably ask you if he “can finish this sentence”—did you ever think you would hear those glorious words?! (Hey, it’s a start!) Repeat with various topics and time limits.

The benefit of the whole exercise becomes null and void, though, if you don’t stick to your word about setting aside your addiction to correction. In other words, allow each “freewriting” to transpire without offering a single negative comment or suggestion for improvement.

You see, the goal here is to help your student overcome her fear of putting pencil to paper (or fingers to keyboard, as the case may be). It is an atmosphere of “perfect love,” Scripture explains, that casts out fear (I John 4:18; King James Version). For the time being, then, you will want to encourage fearless productivity by withholding all forms of critique, however “helpful.” As fear subsides, your teen will come to understand that the place to begin writing is to get down on paper what she already knows and thinks about the topic at hand. Organization of her thoughts and attention to less important things like grammar (yes, I’m serious) can all come later.

What you are doing, in essence, is allowing your teen the freedom to treat his writing like what it is: a process. In doing so, you are helping him (and yourself, perhaps) come to grips with the terrible truth that manuscripts do not appear magically in word-by-word, grammatically correct order. The finished product will naturally require the process of false starts and then writing too much only to have to cut it back and then reorganizing material that seemed to fit yesterday and then rearranging sentences and paragraphs in different sequences to see what works best and then drafting a final manuscript only to realize that it’s not really final after all. (In other words, writing is WORK, but you might not want to use that four-letter word just yet!) But the process has to start somewhere, so encourage your teen to begin at the beginning—that is, by putting down every thought on a given topic as quickly and unabashedly as possible. Use your red pen, meanwhile, to write your grocery list.

Now, of course, Mr. I-Hate-to-Write is at this point hoping beyond hope that freewritings are the essence of this year’s writing curriculum, that his prayers have finally been answered, and that Mom is at last coming to see things his way. Wrong. These freewriting “manuscripts” are, yet again, simply a start, a rudimentary means of generating raw material from which your student will eventually craft a polished manuscript. So what is the ultimate purpose of all these timer dings? Just what kind of a manuscript should you be teaching him to produce during his high school years? Your answer determines where you lead from here.

Some parents feel that the high school diploma awarded to their teen on graduation day should—in regard to her writing instruction—represent mastery of an array of genres: newspaper articles, short stories, business letters, essays, poetry of various shapes and sizes-perhaps even a short novel.

Now maybe you and your student are up for that kind of writing instruction—some are, and the rest of us raise our tattered hats to you—but neither my children nor I were. So where does that leave the rest of us?

I suggest that we defy the lie of “doing it all” by taking our cue from Mary—you know, the sister who sat peacefully at Jesus’ feet, thereby receiving the Master’s commendation for having chosen the “the one needful thing” (Luke 10:40-42; KJV).

In other words, rather than scurrying around like “Marthas” trying to help our students master all sorts of writing genres, I suggest focusing on teaching only one needful thing throughout the high school years: the academic essay. Diversification may be good advice for financial portfolios, but when it comes to this particular subject, it is my experience that the academic essay—taught well and executed repeatedly throughout the high school years—yields the best possible return for the investment. You see, almost all academic writing assignments are simply variations of the academic essay. Even research papers and doctoral dissertations are nothing more than lengthy, well-documented essays. To equip your teen with mastery of this one pearl-handled saber, then, is to equip him to conquer the written demands of academia—right through his doctoral program—with swashbuckling ease. In the heat of his academic battles, your teen will be far more grateful for one versatile side arm well-mastered than an assortment only casually practiced. In fact, trying to coach your teen to be a “jack of all genres” will in most cases lead to the proverbial “mastery of none.” When it comes to helping your teen with his writing, then, Martha, have a seat. Focus on teaching the academic essay and teaching it well, basking in the simplicity of just one needful thing.

Ah, but I can hear you asking about little Freddy, who might just be a budding playwright or poet. Won’t you die of guilt if you fail to fuel Freddy’s gifting? Perhaps, but I think it far more likely that Freddy will, even without instruction from you, gravitate toward his giftings, and, by God’s grace, toward mentors who can inspire him to pursue excellence in his given field.

Unless my aging memory fails me, the only instruction in writing poetry that my 16-year-old son, Jacob, ever received from me was the short elementary school unit on limericks and haikus that he overheard me teaching his sisters about a decade ago. Yesterday, though, when I called upstairs to see what he was doing, he said he was writing. I didn't ask, but I’d bet my HSLDA membership that he was writing poetry—a genre that seems to ooze from him with remarkable ease.

How did Jacob learn to write poetry? I haven’t a clue. All I can figure is that it is an inherited gifting, shared also by his Uncle Mike, a published songwriter and musician (who unfortunately shared also in Jacob’s genetic struggle with the imposed structure of academic essay writing!). Yes, Jacob and Uncle Mike are both excellent poets, and Mike’s skill has even been a source of income. But he had to get through high school and college before those doors opened up for him. And to do that, Uncle Mike had to write innumerable papers and essay test answers.

So will little Freddy be handicapped if you don’t get yourself in a huff trying to teach him to write in every genre? Probably not. But he will almost certainly feel slighted if he cannot approach his academic writing assignments with confidence.

So just what is an academic essay? Undoubtedly, more than a few mystified students and parents have been launched into 12-step programs trying to resolve that very issue! Picture, if you will, the cross-section of a house. (If you’re not already too traumatized by the arbitrary demands of gnarled old English teachers, you “should” be seeing a roof supported by two outer walls and, preferably, one or more interior bearing walls.) The roof represents the author’s opinion about a given topic, expressed in one carefully worded sentence called a thesis. The walls represent arguments or illustrations that support the thesis. The roof itself must be of good quality, of course, but even the best of roofs will cave in if the supporting walls are not of adequate strength.

An academic essay is, in skeletal form, a roof supported by two or more walls—that is, an opinion supported by two or more points. If there are three supporting “walls” for a particular thesis, then a basic essay will generally be comprised of five paragraphs: an introduction, one paragraph devoted to each of the three supporting points, and a conclusion.

The most practical book I have found to explain the academic essay and then guide my students step-by-step through the process of essay writing is a little gem called The Lively Art of Writing by Lucile Vaughan Payne. Although Payne does not incorporate the idea of freewriting in the way I have found to be so helpful to students, she does an exceptional job of guiding the reader through the stages of essay production in a delightfully readable fashion.

One reason the academic essay is such a wonderful one-size-fits-all writing curriculum is that it requires so much clarity and organization of thought—the same clarity and organization demanded by everything from essay test answers to debate speeches to research papers. For teens who are natural organizers—often the same students who produce those magical masterpieces with nary a shred of instruction—the task of organizing thoughts is easy. For the rest of the family tree, though, the task is, well . . . messy!

So this is where the homeschooling writing instructor is often of the most value: simply by being available to help the student talk through his ideas and the points he wants to make. Good writing is, after all, nothing more than clear thinking put on paper, and it benefits almost all of us to talk through our thinking with others in order to attain clarity.

In fact, when I teach writing classes, I suggest that the kids ask their parents if their essay topic can be the subject of an evening’s dinner conversation. The whole family then becomes involved in offering illustrations and suggestions to the student, helping him first expand upon and then sift through his thoughts until he can state his opinion about the topic and settle on three or more supporting points. In our family, last Sunday’s car ride to church was an all-family dialogue with my son about an English paper he needed to write; by the time we arrived (admittedly, it’s a long trip!), we had helped him settle on his statement of opinion and the points he could use to support that opinion.

This process is called the “prewriting” stage of production, and, like the foundation of a building, is tedious and unattractive and highly underrated. As such, prewriting is not a process that naturally attracts teen writers, yet is as critical to an essay as research before a debate tournament or practice before a big game.

Remember teaching your toddler-turned-teen the little song about the wise man building his house upon a rock? Sand foundations are quick and easy to build upon, you taught her, but they just do not hold up under the scrutiny of the winds. In the same way, an opinion based on less-than-solid points may look good at first glance, may even be presented in a grammatically perfect fashion, but will upon closer examination “come tumbling down.” If you want your teen to build upon that rock foundation that you hummed about, you’ll probably need to pick up a pickax yourself and enter into the prewriting process with her. At this stage of production, availability—even while riding in the car or preparing dinner or folding laundry—is the greatest ability you can offer your teen.

In fact, with the first few essays, you may want to participate in the entire process with your teen, producing an essay together from beginning to end. And if there are several students that you are teaching to write, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a group essay or two, either. As iron sharpens iron, friends sharpen the thinking of friends.

So now, at last, you have before your bloodshot eyes a completed essay penned by one of your very own offspring. What now? Well, pick up a red pen, of course—and use it to write Proverbs 16:21b in bold, clear, scarlet letters on the tablet of your own heart: “Pleasant words promote instruction” (New International Version). It is at this stage, you see, that many a student becomes a casualty, his will to write stabbed by his own mother’s pen. He has worked so hard to please you, first obliging your zany timer exercises and then exhausting his overworked brain thinking of points to support his opinion (as though that is difficult for a teen) and then getting it all down on paper.

It’s not that we set out to extinguish our teen’s desire to write, of course; it’s just that Saxon does not produce answer keys for such things as essays and we’re not sure what to “look for” when we’re grading. By default, then, we gravitate toward the most objective things possible: grammar and spelling and punctuation. Now I have nothing against good grammar, mind you, but now is not the time or the place for such a “hobgoblin of little minds” (Ralph Waldo Emerson, essay, “Self-Reliance,” 1841). Our teens are somehow born knowing that many awesome writers and thinkers couldn’t tell a pronoun from a participle if their lives depended on it, and so resent it when we approach their manuscript as a compilation of grammatical parts. Now is the time to think big thoughts and see big pictures.

Wielding a pen of a different color, Dianne Hurst enjoys helping local teens master the academic essay. She is pictured here with her husband, Chuck, and son Jacob.

To illustrate the kind of evaluation that should (and should not) be taking place here, imagine an architect rolling out before your eyes the first laborious draft of the floor plans for a house that you have asked him to design for you. Imagine further using that appointment to discuss the color of fixtures that should be used in the bathroom or the brand of cabinets for the kitchen. It doesn’t quite seem appropriate, does it? Fixtures and cabinets are necessities in a home, of course, and such attention to detail will come in time; the focus at this point, though, should obviously be on the floor plan. That room-to-room flow is, by and large, what the house is.

In the same way, the first “finished” draft that your student “rolls out” for you should initiate a consultation that focuses on the big picture. You see, what you are after at this point is good thinking that has been appropriately organized so others can appreciate the brilliance: Is the thesis clearly stated? Do the supporting points adequately validate the thesis? Are those points mutually exclusive and, if so, is each adequately explained in its own body paragraph? Do the thoughts flow logically from one to the next?

It is so difficult for most of us to keep our grammatical ink in check that I suggest evaluating this initial draft on only two things: (1) that the thesis is appropriately worded and appears in the proper places in the essay; and (2) that each body paragraph has an appropriate topic sentence and concluding statement. You would be, in essence, examining only eight sentences of a three-point paper.

Once those structural issues are acceptable (right away, for some students), it’s time for another consultation with your budding “architect” to evaluate the logical flow of each paragraph, one by one. Does the introduction gently lead the reader into the thesis statement? Does the content of each body paragraph adequately support its topic sentence? Does the conclusion properly conclude?

Again, what you are focusing on is the thinking, the logic, the flow of thoughts. During this process, problems like fragments, run-ons, and various other grammatical issues will, of course, surface. It's okay at this point to note them, but until the “final final final” draft, I suggest keeping those mistakes a side issue that has little or no effect on the student’s grade. Remember, writing is a process requiring numerous visits back to the drawing board. The trips are inevitable, and you can help make them as pleasant as possible by awarding numerous small grades at checkpoints along the way. By the time you receive a “final” manuscript, then, there should be very little need for much red ink-—but if there is, bleed to your heart’s content!

Now there’s an interesting phenomenon about evaluating manuscripts produced by your own kids that you’ve probably already noticed: when you evaluate their writing, they feel like you are evaluating them. Not so, it seems, with math or science or even grammar. But with writing, every red mark may feel to your student like a critique of who she is as a person. She has, after all, invested so much of herself in that final manuscript placed fearfully before you.

With some teens, your relationship can remain intact, red ink notwithstanding; with others, though, you won’t want to risk it. If you sense that evaluating your teen’s writing is adding stress to your relationship, you may want to consider delegating the task—of teaching writing or of evaluating essays or both—to someone else.

In other words, you can sometimes most help your teen’s writing skills by letting a carefully selected instructor be the “bad guy” in your place. I just suggest making sure that the instructor you choose is thoughtful enough to evaluate your teen’s writing on the basis of his thinking rather than on his grammatical expertise. Good writing is, yet again, good thinking.

Remember the paper we helped my son “prewrite” in the car last Sunday? You may be interested to know that that paper was not for me but for an instructor we have employed (with our wishes for the best of luck!). My son is a delightful young man, but it just wasn’t working for him to learn to write from me—and that’s my area of expertise! (I think I just heard a cross-country collective sigh of relief!) It sometimes doesn’t matter how much you know about helping your teen learn to write essays as it does how the electricity flows between the two of you when your red pen touches his heart. It’s just not worth a blown fuse.


About the author

Dianne Hurst—wife of HSLDA's Chuck Hurst—is a former college writing instructor and the author of the Advanced Training Institute’s Sentence Analysis curriculum. On occasion, Dianne now teaches the academic essay to local homeschooled teens in a painful-but-soon-over-with two-week format that has proven highly effective. Chuck and Dianne homeschooled their three children.