Total Language Plus is an innovative language arts curriculum focused on critical thinking and communication skills.

Tips for Working with Reluctant Writers

 Tip Four:  Read.

How simple is this concept?  Writing and reading go together like peanut butter and jelly.  Skilled writers are readers.  It makes sense, doesn’t it?  An artist learns to draw by first looking at pictures.  An aspiring musician listens to music.  Writers read. 

How can you maximize reading to improve a child’s writing?

Become a reader yourself.  Let your children see you reading-and enjoying it.  This may be the number one thing you can do to inspire a love of reading.

Read aloud regularly.  Make it a part of your family’s lifestyle.  Let the experience evoke “warm fuzzies.”  Cuddle together on the couch.  Make popcorn.  Do whatever it takes to make reading aloud delightful for your family. 

How can you make the most from reading aloud?

  • Stop often and discuss what is going on.  Let the child narrate back the action of the story.  Stop after each major scene to talk about what is happening. Make note of a well-written description or action scene.  Listen and respond to your child’s questions or comments.
  • Don’t make sitting still mandatory.  Let children mold clay as you read.  Or draw pictures.  Or play with Legos.  Or rub your tired feet.  Or wash the dishes.  Or fold clothes.
  • Read with expression.  DO NOT mumble or run words together.
  • Choose books from high quality literature.  You can’t influence a child’s writing for the good if the story being read was poorly written. 
  • If you take turns reading, don’t break at the end of the paragraph or page.  Provide a book for each family member, then stop in the middle of a paragraph-or even better in the middle of a sentence.  This forces everyone to read along, to pay close attention because no one knows when his turn may come.

 Go ahead.  Sit down and enjoy a good book without a trace of guilt.  You’re doing it for the sake of your children!

Tip Three: Validate the Process

Tip Three:      Validate the Process.

We teach that writing is a process, then ask students to follow a five-step procedure.  They’d rather not complete those five steps.  They’d much prefer do it in one step and if all we, as teachers, are interested in is the final product, we’ve provided scarce motivation to follow the five steps (discuss and gather information, write, revise, proofread, publish).

Validate the process by having students turn in ALL the drafts of their assignment, with the “published” copy on top.  It’s a something like the math teacher who insists students “show their work,” rather than just give the answer.

Requiring each draft to be turned in does several things:  first it keeps the student on track.  If he is accountable for only the final draft, he may procrastinate writing until just before the final draft is due.  If he must “show his work” along the way, then he is more likely to follow all the important steps.

Second, it demonstrates the importance of each step.  A child needs to know that his work matters.  If something he does isn’t even looked at, then he is tempted to expend minimal effort.  Turning in the “back steps” says those steps are worth the effort.

Third, it helps the student see how his work has developed which will provide a foundation for more successful writing assignments.  He will gain confidence that the steps work.

How should the work be turned in?  There is more than one option:

  • You may prefer to see the work as it progresses and set a rigid time frame for each step. 
  • You may choose to let the student compile his work when finished with the “published” copy on top.  Underneath that should come the proofread copy, then the revised copy, the first draft, followed lastly by his notes. 
  • You may favor using a folder or binder where all work is kept and is available for you to check at any time. 
  • If a student uses a computer for his writing, then all drafts can be kept in a file.  The student would use the “save as” feature as he works through the steps.

When students understand the value of what they are doing, they are more likely to invest time, effort, and thought.  Encouraging the development of excellent writers includes not only teaching the writing steps, but understanding motivational issues as well.

 Tip Four coming soon.

Tip Two (For Reluctant Writers)



Tip Two:  Discuss first.

I remember sitting with a blank piece of paper in front of me, pen in hand, and feeling paralyzed.  There were ideas spinning in my head, but none worthy of a first sentence.  The ideas swam around, without coming close enough that I could reel them in.

This is when a discussion helps.  Hashing over a topic helps complete ideas.  One can verbally stumble-bumble through half-formed thoughts, but through dialogue see them develop into recognizable opinions or concepts.  The conversation should be give-and-take, with free exchange of thoughts and little or no censorship, as in a brainstorming session.

Start by asking who, what, where, when, why and how questions to direct what type information should be researched.  Even when an essay is opinion based, there must be facts behind the beliefs.

Discussing a topic before writing gives reluctant writers a sense that they aren’t all on their own.  It gives gifted writers a jump-start on the direction they may wish to take.  It reduces some of the re-writing.

For the youngest writers, I jot down phrases to remind them of what was discussed.  For a little older student, I’ll suggest he record any key ideas that spark his interest.  For a high school level student, I’ll focus more on an engaging, thought-provoking discussion and let him decide what, if any, notes he wants to take.

The discussion step may require more than one session.  At the onset, the student may not have enough information to participate in a helpful dialogue.  Set him in the right direction by helping him come up with questions to research.

Listen and ask for clarification rather than monopolize the conversation.  Don’t use this step to preach at your child or try to coerce him to agree with you.  The essay is his to write.  Motivate him by being interested in his thoughts.  Challenge him to explain his ideas with an example or illustration.  If his ideas are immature or illogical, don’t rush to point out what is wrong.  These are his ideas, after all, and you are there to help him put them on paper, not dictate what he should think.

Some students will be more interested in your ideas than their own.  Some may be afraid of being “wrong.”  Thinking takes a lot of energy and not every student cares enough about writing to expend much effort.  In the beginning, that’s okay.  Because you are not recording the discussion word for word, he must still write the ideas his own way.  As he matures, he will care more about his own thoughts.

After a great discussion, don’t let your student weasel out of writing the paper.  He may approach you with the idea that since you now know what he thinks, there’s no reason to write the essay, but while understanding his thoughts is a key point, it is not the only point.  Learning to put his idea on paper is as important as the idea itself.

Tip Three is coming soon!

Book Reviews

I am thrilled to begin a new feature on our TLP website offering book reviews not just for children, but for adults, too.  My first review is for The Flower of Grass by James E. Robinson, an introspective work that will appeal to romantics and realists alike for its honest approach, realistic characters, and intriguing plot.

The Flower of Grass by James E. Robinson

After years of waiting, Jessie gave up on her first love, and married a wonderful man who adores her and is worthy of her respect and admiration.  She doesn’t want to hurt him, but is drawn against her will to see John site Allen who has returned after a 16 year absence.  Jessie cries to God for help, but He seems so distant.  After her mother’s death, Jessie flounders, fighting against the loneliness and confusion that have gripped her heart.  Meanwhile it looks as if John is staying in their small town, and avoiding him forever will not be possible.  John has his own demons to fight:  memories of a cruel father, his inability to help his alcoholic brother, and his own guilt over a selfish lifestyle that has hurt too many people.

The Flower of Grass by James E. Robinson is a powerful love story free from the fluff of contrived situations.  The complex characters are portrayed with honesty–no overblown heroine nor degenerate villain.  Rather, the internal conflicts within the heart and soul of flawed characters will resonate with anyone who has suffered from broken promises and dashed dreams.

Tips for Working with Reluctant Writers

Tips for Working with Reluctant Writers

 Tip One:        Provide A Visual Reward

Picture the struggling writer:  He sits at the table, a blank sheet of paper in front of him.  He swings his feet back and forth, taps the pencil on the table, rubs his head and sighs.  Because he is a compliant child, he sincerely tries to do his assignment.  Because he is an energetic child, he wants to get it done so he can do something involving action.

 Thirty minutes later, he is finished.  He has labored the entire time, but those five sentences take up about one fourth of the paper.  Three-fourths of the page is blank, and his sentences appear insignificant against all that emptiness.  A few lines at the top of the page don’t “look” like much; they certainly don’t reflect the effort put forth to get them there.

Discouragement can be reduced by two simple tactics.  First, have him write on a half-piece of paper.  I’m not kidding.  Cut the paper in half.  Use the bottom half for the next assignment if you’re nervous about waste.  As an alternative, use composition books.  The pages are all ready smaller.  A smaller page has less “blankness” to fill.

Second:  double-space.  The title of his assignment should go on the top line.  Next, skip a line, then he should put “by (his name).”  Skip four more lines before beginning the body of his paragraph.  Then the paragraph should have a blank line between each line of writing.

These two strategies, using smaller paper and skipping lines, will provide a visually rewarding product.  Instead of a few lines at the top of a full sheet of paper, the writing is spread out, giving an appearance of more volume.

Tell your writer that you want him to double-space to give room for your comments.  If you give him a half-sheet of paper instead of using a composition book, tell him you are saving paper.  Both are true statements and will not detract from the encouragement this tip can promote.

He will still swing his legs back and forth, tap the table with his pencil and sigh.  But at least when he has done his best, the paper won’t swallow up his effort.  Visually, the words on the page will be more rewarding.

Tip Two coming soon!

Evaluating Writing

Evaluating Writing

As the parent or teacher, you already know to check your students’ writing for quality of content and mechanics.  What else do you look for? 

  • Is the writing concrete? Look for specific words (“farmer” rather than “man”; “raced” rather than “ran”).
  • Is it clear? Are there ambiguities or inconsistencies in thought or expression?
  • Is it concise? Check for unnecessary words (shorten “in the event that” to “if”).
  • Is it gracious? Christian writing should avoid rude or slang terms.
  • Does the writing contain good sentence structure and proper paragraph construction? Look for run-on sentences, subject/predicate agreement; paragraphs with more than one main idea.
  • Do descriptions involve all five senses?
  • Do homepage original stories have a resolution of the conflict in which the main character plays a significant part? Is dialogue age-appropriate?
  • Do essays flow well and express well-thought-out ideas? Are opinions well-stated and backed up with facts and illustrations? It isn’t enough to state an opinion; it must be fleshed-out with solid reasoning and enough information for the reader to fully understand.

Writer’s Planning Form

I added a new, down-loadable “freebie” to help students with their writing projects.  The “Planning Form” can be accessed under the “Free Stuff” button.

Many students like the structure the form provides.  It helps them organize their thoughts and gives direction for the writing process.  The first thing the form requests is a working title.  A working title can help a student focus on what his essay is about and avoid running off in tangents.  One difficulty writers face is choosing a sufficiently narrow subject for their topic; stating a working title helps overcome that.  The Planning Form also helps with self-editing by providing a check list of things to watch for.

Some students find the Planning Form useful, but not all.  A talented writer may not need this tool, but if you are teaching a reluctant student who has trouble getting started and produces sub-par work, the form can help improve his organizational skills and provide a framework for self-editing.

Even more success is achieved when both student and teacher follow the Planning Form.  It puts them on the same page, so to speak.  The student knows specifically what the teacher is looking for, and the teacher has a basis for grading the student’s work.

 I’ve been employing this tool in writing classes for years.  Occasionally students balk at using it, but until their skills improve I usually insist.  Let me know how it works for you.

Writing is a Process

Writing is a Process

            Does your homeschool become a battlefield each time you assign a writing project?  Helping your child understand that writing is a process can diffuse some of the tension and produce better results.

            I teach students to follow the Five-Step Process outlined below.  I also require them turn in all of their drafts, with the final, “published” copy on top.  Turning in all the drafts adds validity to the steps.  If the child thinks the only copy I’m interested in is the final one, then he rushes to get to that final copy.  If I can help him see the importance of each step, then he is less likely to want to skip them.  Skipping steps results in poor quality writing.

 Step 1.  Prewriting:  Plan, research, discuss and organize ideas.

            Sometimes children are reluctant writers, not because they have nothing to say, but because their fingers get tired before the paragraph is finished–and then there is all that re-writing to do.  Prewriting lessens the amount of rewriting.  Encourage your child to jot down notes (not complete sentences) so he can remember his ideas and accurately record the research.  Discussion helps clarify ideas, so engage your student in dialogue before he begins researching the topic and again after the research is completed.  Discussions help provide direction and organize thoughts.  This aspect of writing cannot be over-emphasized.

 Step 2.  Writing:  Put ideas on paper; expand and clarify.

            Composing an effective essay, or even a paragraph, requires both sides of the brain.  However, the part of our brain interested in details fights against the part of our brain interested in creativity.  During the first writing session, tell the “detail” brain to take a nap, go out to recess, get lost–whatever it takes to turn it off.  Details stifle creativity.  During this step, the student writes without paying attention to spelling, word usage or mechanics of any kind.  It is important to get his ideas on paper, so his creative brain gets full reign.  Again, this cannot be over-emphasized.  This step involves putting ideas on paper and nothing else.

 Step 3.  Revising:  Look at work with a critical eye for style and content.

            This step still involves the creative brain; therefore, the student is not looking for spelling, grammar or usage errors.  He is checking to see if his ideas are presented in a logical order, if the paper flows well, if he has fully illustrated his points or if there are ideas that need clarified.  He might re-word his first sentence making sure it grabs readers’ attention or rewrite crucial transition sentences.  He consults a thesaurus for best word choices and rewrites wordy, inconcise sentences.  Here is another place where a discussion can help flesh out problems.

 Step 4.  Proofreading:  Check work for mechanics and usage errors.

            Finally, that detailed part of the brain gets its turn.  Look critically for grammar, word usage and spelling errors.  Read the essay out loud to help uncover incomplete sentences, missing words, poor grammar, etc.

 Step 5.  Publishing:  The final, polished copy.

            For an elementary school writer, this means copied in their best handwriting, skipping a line between writing.  For an older student, this means type-written, double-spaced, size 12 font.  If an older student has been doing all his work on a computer, then he should do a “save as” for each draft. The essay or paragraph is turned in with the final “published” copy on top followed by the previous drafts.

             If this Five-Step approach is followed for every writing assignment, it can eliminate the idea that quality writing is done in one step.  It can set the child up for success and help instill pride in producing a final copy worthy of the effort expended.

Grading Essays

            Grading essays is often as hard on mom or the teacher as it is on the student.  Is there a way to diminish the pain and increase the reward for both?

            I think so.  Regardless of the age of the student, adhere to the following steps for an almost pain-free, grading experience:

  • Before allowing the essay to be turned in, make sure your student has “polished” it to the best of his ability.  The student should understand clearly that writing is a process involving both sides of his brain, therefore multiple drafts are necessary.  Do not waste your time evaluating an essay that has not been carefully prepared.  When the essay is turned in, insist the prior versions be included, with the polished copy on top.  Most essays will require at least two prior drafts before the final copy is ready.  Having the student turn in those copies validates the time he spent on them-like when the math teacher wants to see how the problem was solved, not just the answer.
  • The polished copy should be double-spaced, whether handwritten or typed.  You need room to make your comments and save your eyesight.  Do not accept an essay that does not have a blank line between lines of writing.
  • Know that you, as the evaluator, will have to read the essay more than one time to accurately grade it.  The first time through, look for positives and note them with a pen in an easy to see color, but preferably not red.  Think green or even purple.  Find the gems in the essay and comment on them.  You might say things such as “excellent word choice,” “I love this word picture,” “great idea,” “outstanding organization,” etc.
  • The second time through, find the errors and underline or circle them lightly in pencil.  Do not ignore any mistakes, even if the essay is riddled with faults, but don’t make comments on the errors, just note them.  Choose only one or two errors to address verbally.
  • Discuss the essay with the student using the sandwich approach.  Begin by pointing out something he did well, and praise him for it.  End with something he did well.  Your praise at the beginning and end are what holds the “sandwich” together.  Consider how messy a peanut butter and jelly sandwich would be without the bread.  Begin and end with praise!  In the middle, the peanut butter and jelly part, discuss one or two items that need improvement; ignore the rest of the errors.  Don’t even mention them.  Do make sure your student knows how to improve the one or two mistakes you’ve chosen for him to work on.
  • Tell your student that you will be looking specifically for these two weaknesses in the next essay, so he should proofread carefully before he turns it in.  Stay true to your word.  For the next assignment, follow the same steps by first finding what is good about the writing, then looking for the errors.  If the mistakes you asked him to work on are present in this essay, he must rewrite it.  If they are not present, recognize the improvement in a way meaningful to him and choose another weakness to tackle.
  • Find a way to showcase the essay.  Post it on the refrigerator.  Read it aloud at the dinner table.  Make a copy to send to Grandma.  Do this regardless of the age of the student.  Keep the work posted until another, better one comes along to replace it.      

            In my next blog, we will focus on common writing errors and ways to help overcome them.

Grading Homeschool High School

So, you’ve bitten the bullet and decided not to end your homeschooling journey after junior high.  You are entering the high school years and some of the things you embraced about homeschooling are being challenged, such as not giving grades.  High school is a different animal, but not necessarily a scary monster.  You should write course descriptions and keep accurate records.  And, yes, you should give letter grades.  A transcript doesn’t carry much meaning to prospective universities if it doesn’t have grades.

Relax.  First of all, know that each school district sets its own policies regarding grades.  Sometimes principals set the grading policy for their schools; some schools allow teachers to set their own grading standard.  Some teachers break down grades into the A- and B+ levels; others use a simpler 90% and above is an A; 80% and above is a B, etc.

 What does this flexibility mean for you?  Choice.  You decide how much effort you want to put into giving grades and how specific you wish those grades to be.  There are pros and cons to both, but you are not bound to follow someone else’s standard.  Decide what will work best for your homeschool and carry it through all four years of high school.  Make your decision and stick with it.

 Do not, however, succumb to the temptation to pad your child’s grades.  Determine what he must do for each subject to earn an “A” and do not give him a grade he has not earned.  Teach him that college professors will not care how much effort he put into his project or how late he stayed up studying for the final.  The professors will have grading standards and will stick to them.  You are doing your child no favors if you grant a higher grade than he has earned.

 Nor are you being fair if you are such a perfectionist that the smallest error results in harsh consequences.  Set a standard that is fair and enforceable.

 For example let’s look at a high school study for Total Language Plus.  When you write your course description, include your grading plan.  You might say that grades will be given based on accuracy, neatness and timeliness.  Daily work (vocabulary, spelling and grammar worksheets) will be awarded points for being completed neatly and on time.  The accumulated points will contribute to 20% of the grade.  30% of the grade will come from scores on spelling and vocabulary tests.  Essays will make up 50% of the grade.

 Now, make it clear what your student must do to earn the grade he wants.  One straightforward method uses this standard:

90% and above = A     80 – 89% = B     70 – 79% = C     60 – 69% = D

 A more complex grading system usually follows this break down:

97% and above = A 

94 – 96% = A-

91 – 93% = B+

87 – 90% = B

84 – 86% = B-

81 – 83% = C+

76 – 80% = C

73 – 75% = C-

 In my next blog, I will discuss grading high school essays.

Barbara Tifft Blakey