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Conquer Your High School Writing Woes: An Interview with Carol Becker

August 7–11, 2017   |   Vol. 131, Week 10

For many homeschooling parents, getting your high school student to write is like pulling teeth—really big teeth. How can you make writing a joy rather than a burden for you and your teen? Hear the answer from Carol Becker on this week’s Homeschool Heartbeat.

In this podcast, you’ll learn:

  • How to harness the power of pre-writing discussions
  • How your teen can overcome common writing roadblocks
  • What key writing skills your teen needs to develop
  • How to critique your student’s writing
  • How using a personal editing sheet can work wonders for your teen

“Language is fundamentally spoken communication, so a rich oral environment builds a young writer’s success.” — Carol Becker

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For many homeschooling parents, getting your high school student to write is like pulling teeth—really big teeth. How can you make writing a joy rather than a burden for your teen? Hear the answer from Carol Becker on this week’s Homeschool Heartbeat.

Diane Kummer: My guest today is Carol Becker. Carol is my fellow high school consultant here at HSLDA, and she homeschooled her two children all the way through high school. Once her own children left home to attend college, Carol taught English courses to homeschool students for several years before coming to HSLDA. Carol, welcome to the program!

Carol Becker: Thank you, Diane. It is a pleasure to be here.

No more pulling teeth [0:39]

Diane: Carol, for many homeschooling families, high school writing is frustrating and difficult for parent and student alike. What’s the secret to making high school writing a joy rather than a burden?

Carol: Some teens truly enjoy the writing process, but most teens find composition challenging. Removing the burden from writing often requires that parents and teens take full advantage of pre-writing discussions, rather than skipping directly to writing assignments where students stare at blank pages, no concepts materialize, creativity flounders, frustrations grow.

Pre-writing discussions are an important first step to help teens learn how to observe events, connect ideas, detect patterns, and make insightful conclusions. Your teen develops these higher thinking skills by walking through the process with you, the parent. I recommend that you intentionally schedule discussions of this nature in your homeschool. Brainstorm ways to create an environment where these types of discussions can occur, because a teen first needs something to say before he or she will feel comfortable writing it down.

Diane: Great advice, Carol. You know, we’ve all heard the complaint from our teens: “I just can’t write!” What should a parent do when her teen isn’t motivated to write?

Carol: Motivation is a tricky topic. I hope the following analogies will help parents understand how to work with reluctant writers develop pre-writing skills.

When teens conduct a science experiment, they practice observational skills. Most teens observe the obvious—but observing a fuller, more complete picture takes practice. You want to help your teen begin to exercise literary observational skills on characters, temperaments, biases, strengths, weaknesses, situations, symbolism, mood, and others.

When teens study history, we help them tie together events through understanding cause and effect. Likewise, help your teen process the causes and effects of choices, temptations, foreshadowing, cross-purposes, misunderstandings, dilemmas, conflicts, climax, and consequences within a novel, short story, or play.

When your teen studies math, they practice pattern recognition, because this helps solve similar types of problems. Recognizing patterns woven through a literary work helps your student grasp the major themes being promoted and endorsed by the author.

Once your teen comprehends the author’s truth, discuss whether your teen agrees or disagrees with the author. Great literature addresses the human condition, and that is a worthy discussion to have.

On our website, we have [an] archived newsletter called “Literary Analysis: Developing Discerning Readers. This can help parents begin developing pre-writing skills and promote discussions. With practice, all of these pre-writing skills improve over time to transform a reluctant writer into an insightful one.

Common writing roadblocks [3:25]

Diane: Carol, what are some of the most common stumbling blocks that stand in the way of a young writer’s success?

Carol: Oftentimes, a young writer stumbles because he or she can only write using basic sentence structures with commonly used verbs, nouns, and adjectives. Your teen may only feel comfortable writing simple or compound sentence structures. Fortunately, students have been speaking English longer than they have been writing it. Teens can benefit from recording their spoken thoughts using a smartphone or tablet. Then writers can transcribe the recording later onto paper or a word processor. By harnessing spoken vocabulary over written vocabulary, even young students will write at a more advanced level.

Other students are word-poor and need a significant investment to grow in their appreciation of the wealth of English words and ways of expression. Budding writers need to hear English spoken well and with elegance, because teens’ listening skills strongly influence their writing skills. Look for ways to give students exposure to concise yet content-rich sentence structures. We want our teens to become accustomed to hearing poetic phrasing, rich metaphors, elevated vocabulary, perceptive analogies, pertinent examples, and persuasive arguments.

Language is fundamentally spoken communication, so a rich oral environment builds a young writer’s success.

Diane: Carol, how can parents help their teens defeat these writing roadblocks?

Carol: Being a good reader helps with writing skills, but often teens pass over unfamiliar vocabulary, skip long sentences, or ignore descriptive sections when they read silently. Unfortunately, entertainment media and technology do not demonstrate nor encourage patterns of expression worthy of emulation.

Parents can make headway by choosing simple things like reading good books aloud, borrowing CDs from the library, and watching good dramas. Hearing the expression and cadence of well-written prose helps students develop both a writing voice and style. A side benefit is that students need to hear elevated vocabulary pronounced and used correctly.

Spending time one-on-one with a parent has a profound impact on a student’s appreciation of our language and his or her ability to use language effectively .Practice describing things creatively. Play with vocabulary. Tell stories. Ask students to summarize things such as events, trips, articles, concepts, movies, or shows. Homeschooling students have a unique opportunity to benefit from both quality and quantity time with their parents.

“Where do I start?” [5:44]

Diane: Carol, one question that we receive from many parents is, “I know my teen needs help with his writing skills, but where do I even start?” How would you respond to that?

Carol: Organization is the first writing skill to develop, because it is the foundation for all other skills. Most parents find organization easier to teach as well. Begin with techniques to write well-organized paragraphs.

Many teens have only learned one or two methods to develop paragraphs, but expository writing can use such diverse organizational models such as analysis, causation, classification, comparison, contrast, definition, description, evaluation, example, illustration, time order, problem/solution, process, prominence, or proposition. So take plenty of time to develop expository paragraph proficiency.

Diane: When it comes to a student’s writing abilities, Carol, what are some good goals or benchmarks that parents can shoot for in the high school years?

Carol: I recommend that parents begin by assessing the writing skills their teens already possesses and build[ing] from there. When I tutored public school students, I developed a technique I call Color Mapping. I also used this method with the English classes I taught for homeschooling students, because color can help students understand the content and organization of both paragraphs and papers. You and I have explained this concept in an archived newsletter entitled “Color Mapping Paragraphs and Essays,” which parents can find on the HSLDA website.

Once teens understand the organizational aspects of paragraphs, I recommend that parents teach how to organize an essay, and this brings into play new skills, such as outlining a paper, building arguments, and crafting a thesis.

Students who plan to attend college will benefit from PEAK (that’s P-E-A-K) Paragraphs, which stands for Point, Evidence, Analysis, and Key, as well as PEAK (that’s P-E-A-K) Essays. Hotlinks to these resources can be found in the “Color Mapping” newsletter.

I encourage parents to continue assigning paragraphs to beginning through advanced students, because teens can hone new paragraph skills in between working on beginning, intermediate, and advanced essays. In essence, good writing is a blend of both logic and creativity, which means students need to harness both of these faculties to write well.

Critiquing your student’s writing [7:55]

Diane: Carol, one area of high school writing that can be tricky for parents is evaluating their students’ writing. We hear from parents who say they know good writing when they see it, but aren’t sure how to nurture that excellence in their teen. Do you have any guidance for them?

Carol: Often, students get into the habit of reading and rereading their papers to fix organizational problems, so spending time teaching outlining skills and color mapping organization will resolve this part of the editing process. 

Next, it’s time to turn your student’s attention to grammar, punctuation, style, and voice. A poorly organized paper can’t be fixed by enhancing a writer’s grammar, punctuation, style, or voice; however, a well-organized paper can significantly be improved by refining these four areas.

If organization addresses the what, when, and why of composition, then grammar, punctuation, style, and voice address the how of writing. Fortunately, parents can purchase curriculum to cover common grammar and punctuation problems. Parents and teens can also search online for writing resources that discuss particular problems. Consider developing a grammar practice exercise that addresses an issue.

Style and voice are more esoteric ideas. A writer’s style principally addresses sentence structures employed. A writer’s voice essentially captures vocabulary chosen along with usage of active, passive, and subjunctive voice.

The most important word in any sentence is the main conjugated verb. Employing better, more descriptive main verbs is the single most effective method to improve the quality of any sentence. I encourage parents to show students how to use dependent sentence structures and elements such as adverb clauses, adjective clauses, appositives, and a whole slew of phrases. I recommend that students use these techniques to write more concisely rather than inflate simple sentences.

Diane: Not many teens like being told what they did wrong. Do you have any tips for parents on critiquing their student’s work not only constructively but also graciously?

Carol: There are several ways parents can critique their student’s work constructively and graciously. I required my writing students to submit a first copy of their composition for review. As part of that review, I answered the question, what does this writer do well in this paper? Taking time to describe a writer’s strengths makes it easier for your teen to accept guidance on certain weaknesses. I evaluated the first copy by the same standard I would employ to grade the final copy. I wrote advice on the first copy, so teens would know the areas that I think needed fixing. When I gave the evaluated first copy back to the student to rewrite, a week later, the student submitted the final copy, which I graded. Employing this method meant that the first copy review helped the student write a better final copy.

Using a personal editing sheet [10:26]

Diane: Carol, many students complain about having to revise their papers or spend extra time polishing something they see as done. How can parents teach their children to embrace every step of the writing process?

Carol: Well, your primary goal is for students to see their writing improve over time. Progress can significantly help motivate teens to polish their work.

To accomplish this, students need to take ownership of their own writing foibles, and all of us have writing eccentricities and common errors. The key is to recognize these mistakes, search for them, and weed out known problems. This discipline helps students see a definite end to the polishing process.

To help students understand their writing quirks or outright mistakes, I recommend the use of a personal editing sheet. Here’s a method I used for my teens: When I hand back a graded English paper, I ask each student to take out a blank piece of paper and write down 5 to 10 things they would do differently on their next composition. Teens must be specific about each item listed.

When students submit the first copy of their next paper, this personal editing sheet must be on top. Its purpose is that each student knows exactly what specific problems to search for and fix before they hand it in.

In my review, I basically ignore problems listed on the personal editing sheet. This is a known issue that the student is aware of and can take full responsibility for fixing. You can jot down a note where you see one of these known issues.

When students submit the final copy, the personal editing sheet must again on the top. When I grade the paper, personal editing sheet mistakes do affect their paper grade. I find it easiest to give a separate grade for paper organization, one for style and voice, and one for grammar and punctuation.

Over time, students recognize their own mistakes and have an incentive to search for them before submitting a paper. Self-editing is a powerful tool.

Diane: In your experience, Carol, what are some of the best options for high school writing curriculum?

Carol: Finding services and curriculums that best suit your teen is important, and you and I have listed good writing resources on the HSLDA Homeschooling thru High School website: Parents can find online expository writing courses with feedback on assignments and periodic teacher conferences; they’ll find a selection of semester or 8-week workshops covering specific writing skills; they’ll find methods to train students and parents to think deeply by asking and answering thought-provoking questions; they’ll find self-directed programs that focus on learning how to think, argue, and develop a student’s own writing style; they’ll also find resources to teach style, voice, grammar, and punctuation.

And of course, the Patrick Henry College Writing Mentorship Program links students to PHC writing mentors. Parents have great flexibility to tailor this service to best suit their teen’s needs.

Diane: Thanks, Carol. It’s been a pleasure talking with you this week. Teaching high school writing is not an easy thing to tackle—but if anyone can do it, homeschooling parents can! Thanks for tuning in, everyone. I’m Diane Kummer, and I’m cheering you on.

Carol BeckerPhoto of Carol Becker

Carol and her husband Jim homeschooled their son in grades 1–12 and their daughter K–12 using a variety of teaching options. The Beckers’ son has a master’s degree in Information Technology and a B.S. in Systems Engineering, and their daughter earned a B.A. with Highest Distinction in French. As a High School Consultant for HSLDA, Carol relishes the opportunity to encourage and equip homeschooling mothers because they are raising the next generation of leaders.

During Carol’s homeschooling years, she established two homeschool co-ops. The first encompassed History, Geography, and Drama and ran for eleven years accommodating students in grades 2–12. With a B.S. and M.S. in Engineering, Carol also has a passion for science, which led her to form and direct a science co-op when her son entered the high school years. She successfully guided a group of dedicated mothers and homeschooled scholars through Physical Science, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics.

Convinced that homeschooled students must develop and hone analytical writing skills, Carol has shepherded two different groups of homeschooled students through a three-year original high school English program consisting of Composition I with Literature, Composition II with American Literature, and British Literature. Carol has tutored writing students from middle school, high school, and community college. She has also taught Algebra 1 & 2 and Geometry.

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