This post is excerpted from the Language Arts chapter of my book Common Sense Excellence: Faith-Filled Home Education for Preschool to 5th Grade.
For a well-rounded education, your child needs to learn several different kinds or formats of writing. Here are some of the most useful ones:
Lists: These may not seem creative, but they help your child organize thoughts, and serve as an introduction to the venerable outline which he will use in later writing projects. He might write a list of:
- foods he wants served at his birthday party
- things he wants to do during the summer
- kinds of insects he has seen in the backyard
- books he has read this month (let him keep his own school records!)
Red polka dot shirt
Always hugs and kisses
Neat house with lots of toys
Makes yummy cookies
Poems: There are many different forms of poetry: simple rhymes and jingles, Limericks, free verse, haiku, etc. A good poetry anthology is a treasury of examples, but a book on writing poetry will give you specific instructions.
Letter writing: What a practical way to build writing skills and communicate with others! This can start with a preschooler’s simple “I LUV U” notes, and progress to letters to relatives and friends outside of your home. Grandparents always seem to appreciate this, and many children will want pen pals. When my oldest daughter was first starting to write letters, I got rather tired of her asking me how to spell “Dear Grandma” over and over again. I made her a letter writing guide on a piece of sturdy white poster board. It had names of all family members to whom she might be writing, plus common phrases like, “Thank you for the...” and “Please write soon!” and “Love always.” It also had the format for writing addresses on an envelope. If your child is not ready to write a whole letter by himself, you can help him with it. For example, you could have him tell you what he wants to say. You write it out neatly, and he can type it or copy it in his own handwriting. Using attractive stationary is a great incentive for neatness. Letter writing is a project with a purpose! The main parts of a letter are the heading (date and address in upper right corner), the salutation (“Dear Grandma”), the body (the child’s thoughts and ideas), the closing (“Sincerely” or other capitalized phrase followed by a comma) and the child’s signature.
Family newsletter: Send this to friends and relatives. If you do this each year, why not have each child write a paragraph about his or her own life? You might be surprised at what they think is important or not. Family newsletters are often produced on a computer, so this may be a good time to introduce inserting graphics or digital photographs into a word processing file, using a column format, and playing with fonts.
Realistic descriptions: Before you set off on a big writing project, start at the word, sentence and paragraph level. A full writing assignment for a 2nd grader might only be two or three sentences at first. Work at developing the child’s power to describe an object or situation with specific, interesting words. Many writing teachers explain that our words should “show and not just tell.” Painting a vivid picture with words helps the reader imagine it in his head. Instead of saying “I ate some food,” a child should progress to describing what kind of food and how they ate it: “I munched on a crunchy red apple” or “I gagged on that last disgusting spoonful of slimy noodles.” You can make a game out of this. Give him a very general word, such as furniture, and then have him get gradually more specific: seat, couch, green couch, sagging green plaid couch, sagging green plaid couch that is covered with cat hair. This activity helps teach observation and classification skills.
Short story or narrative: This can be something that happened to the child (“Write what you know!”) or a made up tale. One of the key things to remember is that a story needs a beginning, middle, and end. In the beginning, you introduce the setting, the characters, and the start of the plot, perhaps the dilemma of the main character. Then you develop the plot throughout the middle part of the story. At the end, you attempt to resolve the problems and bring closure to the situation. (For a young child, this usually means, “And they all lived happily ever after!”) Meanwhile, back at the sagging green plaid couch: “Tony flopped down on the sagging green plaid couch. Muffin, his plump tabby cat, rubbed against Tony’s blue jeans. Tony reached down to stroke her velvety fur and sighed. At least he had one friend in this world!” Ah, do you see the story unfold? Now, why is Tony upset? What are you going to do to solve his problem? The plot thickens! No, you don’t have to write a whole story right now. It’s OK to leave it hanging; this might just draw your child back for another exciting session tomorrow! You could also start with a plot idea and then fill in the character and setting details from there. If your child can’t think of a story topic, you might want to give a story starter; Harvey Weiner includes several pages of these in his book Any Child Can Write. I once gave my eight year old daughter three random words/phrases (clown, school bus, and flower pot) and asked her to tell me a story about them. I was trying to make it very easy for her by doing it orally. Instead, she giggled, snatched a pencil and paper, and disappeared. A half hour later, she handed me a hilarious tale which she hadn’t bothered to punctuate at all. The words had just gleefully tumbled out on the page. If I had made her do spelling and grammar at the same time, I would have gotten only two or three very dry and dutiful sentences. I’m just glad she had a fun story writing experience, because attitude is everything!
Picture journal: Show your child a picture (photograph, masterpiece painting or simple illustration) and ask him to write about it: what he sees, what may be happening, what the people in it may be thinking, etc. You could also use a series of pictures, such as snap shots he took on your last vacation, and ask him to write a short narrative or even simple captions. Many families use acid-free archival quality albums, colorful background papers, plastic templates and special markers to create beautiful lifetime memories with their children. Another option is for the child to draw pictures and then write the text to go with them.
News report: Answer the 5Ws and the H: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How? Check your facts. Write a spiffy headline. How about doing a whole neighborhood or home school support group newspaper?
Biography or autobiography: The word biography, translated from the Greek, means life-picture. An autobiography is a self-life-picture, and can be an expanded personal narrative covering the sequence and flow of the child’s life thus far, rather than a single event. If your child likes to read biographies of famous people, he might want to write a simplified version about one of his favorites. Create V.I.P. page forms with spots to record the name, their claim to fame, when and where they were born, what their childhood and/or family life was like, a quote, other interesting information, and a list of books they have read about the person.
Factual report: This is the format which most extends into other areas of the curriculum, such as history (“Living in a Sod House on the Frontier”), geography (“Let’s Explore Italy!”) or science (“All About Bobcats”). A kindergartner might start out with one or two sentences: “A turtle is green. It has a hard shell.” A first grader could write one paragraph, a second or third grader might do up to a page, and an ambitious older elementary child might complete up to two or three pages. A longer factual report is usually divided up into sections, requires an outline, and has a short bibliography of resources used; it obviously takes more planning and more abstract thinking. If your child is producing this report using a computer, teach him how to import pictures (maps, photos, diagrams, etc.) from an Internet site, CD-ROM encyclopedia, digital camera or scanner.
How-to Instructions: Your child gets the chance to be the teacher with this format of writing! “How to Eat a Bowl of Spaghetti Without Getting a Red Face” or “How to Make and Fly Paper Airplanes” could be useful topics for this age. Here are a few things to remember when writing how-to instructions: Essay: Also known as an persuasive piece or opinion piece, the essay gives your child a chance to speak her mind. In a one paragraph format, the first sentence can tell her main point, the next few sentences can expand on it or prove it, and the final sentence can restate or summarize it. If the essay is longer, the first paragraph will state the thesis, the middle paragraphs will cover each supporting point, and the end paragraph will summarize the writer’s opinion. Don’t worry if you never get to this format in elementary school, as it will resurface in high school. However, if you have an ambitious writer in your house, it never hurts to prepare ahead of time! One of the best motivations for essay writing is when your child wants to persuade you to do something or buy something. Then you say, “So write me an essay on why you think I should take you to Sea World next week!” This is another fine example of writing with a purpose!
- Be complete. You know all of the steps and ingredients in your brain. Make sure they all make it to the paper.
- Be sequential. Don’t skip back and forth between steps. People will be doing them exactly as you write them.
- Be consistent. Each of your steps should be presented in the same basic sentence style, which will usually be a command.
- Be flexible. If there is an optional way to do a step, and it can be explained simply enough, add it in.
- Be interesting. Find a way to spice up what could be a dull list of instructions.