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?