Teaching Children to Write: Grammar

I have been thinking about how to teach children to write. Especially how to control a sentence when you write creative fiction, and that means grammar and mechanics.

Two of my kids have been homeschoolers this year. They are both reluctant writers, though my eldest has elaborate ideas and stories that he plays with even when he doesn’t write them down. And, he has an intuitive understanding of narrative structure that makes me jealous.

Part of my difficulty in determining how to teach them the myriad of skills involved in writing well is that I have spent much of the past two years training myself out of habits I saw my eldest being encouraged to develop last year at school, especially in his creative writing. He was being taught to add adjectives and adverbs to develop descriptions; I was teaching myself to replace my adjectives and adverbs with more specific nouns and verbs.

I found myself wondering whether there was another way to teach writing that didn’t require so much unlearning – or whether this really was an age appropriate way of learning to write.

Some people believe writing must be taught very formally and others believe that writing well develops naturally from reading good literature. I am conviced there is a third way.

In the fall, I took a course that introduced me to Breaking the Rules: Liberating Writers Through Innovative Grammar Instruction by Edgar H. Schuster. Schuster suggests a wonderful approach to learning grammar, an approach built on the assumption that we absorb grammatical rules as we learn to speak, so grammatical instruction is about refining and articulating an understanding that we already have.  In the book, he lays out both why he thinks this is the best way to teach grammar, but he also provides teaching examples. He also provides examples of how to discuss “rules” of grammar that are frequently broken in published works.

For example, sentence fragments. He encourages teachers to look at sentence fragments in literature with their students and ask how the fragment works, what impact it has on the reader. And then, to look at sentence fragments that confuse a reader or hinder understanding in some way and ask why the language works that way. He aims for a functional understanding of grammar.

This appeals to me. Grammar is the how of linguistic communciation, the structure of language, written and spoken. For most people, the application of grammatical understanding is what matters.

So, I have been teaching grammar in the context of writing. Our early assignments were retelling Aesop’s Fables. We would read them together, discuss the narrative elements of the story and any interesting sentence structures, and then he would write the story in his own words. I would mark up the draft using professional proofreaders’ marks, and we would discuss the revisions. Grammar lessons came up as he needed them, but no more. It is clear to me that his functional understanding of grammar has improved through this approach.

But, there are some formal rules and some vocabulary related to grammatical analysis that I would like him to know. So, we play Mad Libs. We read books about grammar and why it matters, like Eats, Shoots & Leaves. I am looking for my copy of Breaking the Rules, which got misplaced in our move, for more analytical activities.

But, my son’s favourite grammar and punctuation activity is proof-reading my work. The satisfastion he gets when he finds an error is worth any momentary embarrassment I may feel.

I have heard a lot of horror stories of how sensitive children stopped writing when a teacher said something critical of their work. I am wondering how we can support children as they learn to wield the magical power of words.

Do you have any stories of things your teachers did right when it came to teaching you to write?

6 thoughts on “Teaching Children to Write: Grammar

  1. I always loved words. My dad taught me to read at a very young age, and read to me every night before bed. It was a real treat when he took me to the bookstore every Saturday to pick out new reads for the week. He gave in to my “Please, let me just finish this chapter,” at bed time just enough that I knew he liked that I was reading, but that it was a gift to read.
    I wrote stories and poems from kindergarten. My teachers were always very encouraging, and told me how much they enjoyed my writing. In first grade, I even had a poem published in the school bulletin. My family made a big deal about it, photocopying it a million times, and telling me to keep it up.
    It’s much different when you have a child who isn’t particularly fond of writing, I’m sure. I think it’s important that they are encouraged. It’s a great opportunity to use their imaginations. Prompts are also helpful because they can be tailored to match a child’s interests.
    By the way, I DO think it’s age appropriate to use adjectives and adverbs in school. It’s kind of a crutch to help them to be descriptive and bring their work to life. It’s also the way that children tend to speak. Huge, super fast, gigantic, yummy… As vocabulary increases/improves, we find other ways to make our stories interesting and lively.
    As for vocabulary, we used Vocabulary Workshop in high school. Those books are awesome, and I’ve been searching for them recently. I may have to purchase them again. My brother probably sold mine to friends. 🙂

    • Kate Arms-Roberts says:

      Thank you for sharing your stories.
      I do think that using adjectives and adverbs heaviliy when younger and getting more specific as you get older makes developmental sense. I know that my kids tend to take any suggestion and turn it in to a rule, so I am trying to make sure I teach them in a way that leaves room for future development.

  2. JenLM says:

    My friend Kathryn is an amazing writing teacher. She had ALL of her 7th grade students participate in NaNoWriMo this year. And she is all about having them write, write, write every single day without worrying about grammar, spelling, capitalization, punctuation, etc. Her philosophy is that kids need to get used to getting their ideas down on paper and not dwell on the idea of “is this perfect?” as they’re going. Her students write constantly and edit things on an as-needed basis. Not every piece of writing gets read by an adult and graded (and thus, validated).

    I will admit that I struggle with this. When I get kids to write in my math class and walk by a paper where they didn’t capitalize the first word in a sentence, I think to myself “how can you ever EVER even LOOK at a sentence without a capitalized first word without wanting to fix it?” I mean, I physically twitch if I have to look at that. And if a kid asks me how to spell a word, I’ll stop and spell it for them, but Kathryn says “oh, just write it how you want and keep going” because she doesn’t want their train of thought interrupted with worrying about that sort of detail. They can go back and figure out how to spell that word later. She keeps telling me (and I’m starting to believe) how important it is for them to just get their ideas on paper and worry about the details later… or not. Because getting them to love writing and clarify their own thoughts through writing are her top priorities, and after that she’ll start working on the rest.

    So I say all this because particularly if you have a child who is a reluctant writer, maybe more free writing opportunities could free him a bit from worries about getting things out perfectly. It sure goes against every fiber of my instinct, but I’m starting to get it.


    • Kate Arms-Roberts says:

      The Young Writers Program from the NaNoWriMo folks is fantastic. It clearly helps many writers who are stifled by perfectionism.

      Thank you for mentioning it. I don’t think it is possible to spread the word too widely about that program.

  3. “…so grammatical instruction is about refining and articulating an understanding that we already have.”

    That’s very interesting, and I’m pretty sure I agree. Schuster’s book sounds worth checking out. Language is an innate ability, kids learn it naturally, so grammar rules can be sort of a confusing contradiction…at least the way it’s taught nowadays, as a set of absolute rules that limit the writer’s choices. My dad, Fred Lybrand, developed a writing course (http://www.advanced-writing-resources.com) that helps with how to teach children to write, and it’s certainly helped me improve by learning by writing, rather than worrying about grammar rules. I’m pretty sure what I’ve been taught by my dad lines up with what you and Schuster are getting at. I was homeschooled, so my dad was my teacher, and he also taught me not to be afraid of criticism, like you mention right at the end of your blog. What he taught me, which is included in his course, was that everyone starts out writing okay, and with feedback and helpful criticism, we can grow into successful writers. Also, that even if we write something not very good, that doesn’t reflect on us as people. I am not the story I’ve written, I’m me.

    Thanks for the insight.

  4. Kate Arms- Roberts says:

    Thanks for sharing your experience. Your dad’s program looks very interesting.

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