Substantive Education

January 24, 2009

Easy Writing Exercise Number 5

One of the marks of the truly educated person is not that they can spout off random facts and memorize details, it is that they are able to see the links between areas of knowledge. All knowledge is connected, each discipline we study adds understanding to other related disciplines. The study of philosophy can bring clarity to art or history. Grasping mathematical concepts aids us in understanding science and the world we live in.

In school we are often taught to think in terms of… Algebra, Biology, English Lit etc…and it can seem each class is an entity unto itself. That is a false view of the world however and we should rejoice each time we see our child make a connection between disciplines. It is being able to recognize and develop these connections that leads to progress and gives us fresh insights into problems that have stumped us.

That is the big picture. Working with metaphors is a small, manageable exercise in making connections between unrelated subjects. When we spend time working with words and making up new combinations it helps us to think outside the box, to let our imaginations run a bit and find a fresh perspective. So, while we may do these exercises to help our children develop into better writers, there is a larger goal being worked on here. We are also helping our children pay attention and notice connections. In the words of J.D. Casnig, “The Metaphor reminds us that the universe is full of cousins.”

Okay, enough of that, let’s move on to the exercise. (If you haven’t read Easy Writing Exercise Number 4, you needmetaphor-2 to back up and read that first, it is foundational for the exercise that follows.)

When we did exercise Number 4 we were writing metaphors that were phrases or sentences. In this exercise I would like to challenge your student in two ways.

First, if you have begun to keep a notebook of metaphors, or if you have a list of some metaphors that you have spotted during your hunting in Exercise 4 I want you to go back over that list and highlight those metaphors that are a bit tired from overuse. For instance, a knife in the back, might have been quite clever when first written but now it is a cliche. Once you have identified those make a pact that you will avoid using them for the next 3 months in your writing, instead try to come up with some new fresh metaphors of your own. Revisit Exercise 4, only this time make your list with more intentionality. Look at your list of overused metaphors, identify what is being communicated, and then see if you can come up with a new, fresh metaphor that would work better.

Second, try developing a metaphor through an entire paragraph rather than just a phrase as we did earlier. There are times when a metaphor brings clarity to a difficult subject and it is beneficial to develop it a bit further. In the following lines from Shakespeare we see him comparing our lives to a drama being enacted upon a stage.

“All the World’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances.

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,”

(William Shakespeare, As You Like It. Act 2, Scene 7)

As you can see it would be possible to continue to play with this metaphor for awhile. If you have children who love sports that is an easy place to begin. Compare their life, friendships, or family to their favorite sport or team. A child with a perennially messy room may want to use that to illustrate some other facet of their life. Growing a garden, riding a bike, or doing the laundry could all be used for an extended exercise.

A word of warning to the Type A personalities out there. I would resist getting hung up on whether or not your child is mixing metaphors, simile’s, comparisons, or idioms. Yes, there are differences, and depending on the age of your child you may want to go into them, however, the point of this exercise is to improve their writing by using a new tool. In exercising that tool they may cross a few lines not sticking strictly to the narrow definition of a metaphor, let it go for now. If they are using comparisons to bring clarity and creativity to their writing we’ll call it a success.  (Of course if they are actually using a mixed metaphor you may want to point that out, and if you have no idea what I’m talking about…don’t worry about it.)


January 23, 2009

More Metaphors

Filed under: writing — kbagdanov @ 8:00 pm
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I found this list of metaphors used in high school papers on english@kcc’s blog. Although many of these are technically not metaphors they are still worth a laugh. Only high school students would have come up with some of these…gotta love it.

1. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master.

2. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free.

3. He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it.

4. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli, and he was room temperature Canadian beef.

5. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.

6. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.

7. He was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree.

8. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t.

9. Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.

10. The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.

11. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met.

12. Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut.

13. Shots rang out, as shots are wont to do.

14. The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work.

15. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while.

16. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame, maybe from stepping on a land mine or something.

17. The ballerina rose gracefully en Pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant.

18. He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.

January 22, 2009

Easy Writing Exercise, Number 4

Filed under: Homeschooling,writing — kbagdanov @ 7:49 pm
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Metaphors are one writing tool that kids have a lot of fun playing with. A simple definition for those of you who have forgotten your high school English class is that metaphors are language that compares seemingly unrelated subjects. Advertising, poetry, newspapers all abound in examples of metaphors. In casual conversation we might refer to an old boyfriend or girlfriend as an old flame, comparing the unrelated subjects of fire and love. Continuing on with that same metaphor love songs are full of fire and romance. i.e. burning love, kindling a romance, fiery passion. In recent news I heard a great metaphor describing Sarah Palin as a pitbull in lipstick.

metaphorThe first step in this exercise is to go metaphor hunting. As you are reading, watching TV or looking at billboards see how many metaphors you can find. Newspaper headlines are actually a great place to look as reporters want to catch your attention with a strong visual to entice you to read the article. As your students become more proficient at spotting metaphors have them start a metaphor notebook. When they are writing they can refer to their notebooks for inspiration and spice up their own writing.

Once your kids have a firm handle on the idea of a metaphor you are ready to being inventing your own. Take a piece of paper and fold it in half. On the left side write a list of concrete nouns…rock, flood, ocean, pig etc. Then on the right hand column list intangible nouns. This will be a little harder for younger kids so feel free to help them out. Intangible nouns might be respect, desire, anger, or hunger.

Once you have your lists see if you can invent some creative metaphors with them. You will probably be using the tangible nouns to give clarity and a visual reality to an intangible noun.

We found respect for the soldiers flooding our hearts.

The young man’s anger solidified into a rock of hatred.

Depending on how well your children are grasping the concept you may need to continue repeating the definition and illustrating with metaphors that you find. Some children find the concept abstract enough that it takes some time to grasp what it is you are trying to get them to do. I’ve had students who were just using adjectives to describe a noun for several weeks and then all of a sudden the light bulb goes on and they understand. If they continue to struggle you may want to make the lesson more tangible. Pull an ice cube out of the freezer (or light a candle and use the flame) and have your children discuss the attributes of the ice, it’s cold and hard etc. Then have them think of something they could compare the ice to. Help them along if they are stumped…a cold stare, heart of ice. Help them grasp how helpful it is when they are writing to give a word like ‘stare’ or ‘anger’ physical characteristics that help the reader experience the word.

As kids become adept at spotting metaphors and making up their own they will begin to get more and more creative. There may come a time you need to reign them in a bit but for now allow the silly and ridiculous. Playing with words, having fun with writing will pay off later.

You can check out an expanded lesson on metaphors for high school writers here, and a fun list of high school metaphors  here.

January 16, 2009

Greek Vases Part 2

Continuing with our discussion of Greek Vase painting…See Part 1 if you are lost.


Greek Vase Priam painter

Not all subjects used for ceramics were gods and heroes. This Hydra or water jug was painted by an artist scholars have named the Priam Painter. In this work we get a glimpse of everyday life. Most women in ancient Greece were confined to their homes and so the daily trip to the water well or fountain was a welcome event. This was a time to gather, see friends, and swap gossip. On this vase we see a group of women with storage jars very like the one they are painted onto. The women are getting water for their homes. The painting has a very geometric pattern overlying it with the Doric columns and detailed boarders. There is a fine balance of vertical, horizontal, and rounded elements. The woman and jugs provide a contrast adding energy and life to the painting. The women’s skin has been painted white, a common convention for female figures that was also used by the Egyptians and Minoans. A bit of reddish purple paint has been to create details on the architecture and clothing.

At the same time the Priam Painter and others were creating their black-figure wares, some painters turned to another process called red-figure decoration. As its name suggests, this was a reversal of the previous method. The figures were now red set against a black background. The dark slip was painted on as the background around the outlined figures which were left unpainted. Details were then drawn on the figures with a fine brush dipped in the slip. The result was greater freedom and flexibility of painting rather than engraving the details. Artists quickly adopted this new method. One of the best known red-figure painters was an Athenian named Euphronios who was particularlygreek-sarpedon-vase known for his study of human anatomy.

On this piece done in 515 BC the painting is done on a Calyx Krater. The vase is called that because it’s handles curve up like the flower, calyx. Kraters were used to mix wine and water, the favored drink of the Greeks. They could also be used to cool wine down. The wine would be placed in a smaller vase and then cool water put into the Krater and the wine was then set in the cool water. The idea is similar to our placing champagne in a bucket of ice to chill it.

On this Krater we see the death of Sarpedon. According to the Illiad, written by Homer, Sarpedon was the son of Zeus and a mortal woman. He was killed by the Greek warrior Patroclus during the war with the Trojans. In this depiction we see Hypnos (sleep) and Thanatos (death) carrying Sarpedon from the battlefield. We see Hermes, who is the messenger of the gods and is identified by his winged hat and staff, ready to guide our warrior to the netherworld…another of Hermes responsibilities.

We see once again the importance to the Athenians of balance. In this composition the vertical and horizontal lines take the shape of the vase into account. There are fine details in the clothing, musculature, and faces of each figure.


Greek Vase Pan Painter

We now enter into the Classical Period of Greek Art. Over this brief span of about 160 years the Greeks would establish the ideal of beauty that we still strive for today. The classical period is defined by two events in history, at it’s beginning, the defeat of the Persians in 479 BC, and at the end, the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC. The speed at which art changed during this period is extraordinary. Here we will just be examining the vases of the classical period…in future posts we will examine the architecture of the period and the sculptures.

During the fifth century artists continued to work with red-figure painting. Among the outstanding artists of this period was the Pan Painter. He seemed to be inspired by the less heroic stories of the gods. In this bell krater we see Artemis slaying Actaeon. Artemas, the goddess of the hunt, was bathing and Actaeon happened upon the goddess. She was so outraged she caused Actaeon’s dogs to mistake him for a stag and attack him. Artemis then shoots the fallen hunter herself. We can see the slender and graceful figures have been painted in with delicate details.


Greek Vase - classic period

In the late classical period artists were using the white ground method which was far more complex and involved painting the vases with tempura after firing. Unfortunately none of the murals painted during this period remain, although we have descriptions of them written down. Most of the vases made in this manner were used for non-utilitarian purposes, for example funeral vases. Funeral vases were used for pouring liquids during religious rituals. Most convey sadness and a depiction of the dead person being honored.The paint was to fragile to put on a water jug or something that would be handles regularly. In this example we see two women, the one girl, probably a servant moving a chair.

January 15, 2009

Greek Vases Part 1

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted information for my Art History Class, but here is what we’ve been covering in class the last few weeks on the Ancient Greeks. Today I’ll post about Greek Vases, hopefully tomorrow on architecture. (For those of you unfamiliar with my site, this is a class of Jr. High and High School Homeschool students.)

Following the Mycean and Minoan civilizations the next period of Greek art was the Geometric Period. During this time artists reduced human and animal body parts into simple geometric solids, and their designs were characterized by linear motifs, spirals, diamonds and cross-hatching. You will notice a marked difference from the sea creatures, birds and plants that were common in Minoan vase painting.

greece-1This figure, a centaur, is unusual because it is more than a foot tall and because it has a hollow body that was formed much like a vase on a potter’s wheel and then the artist added solid lines and a tail. The design was painted onto the body using slip. Slip is a mixture of water and clay that fires a different color than the clay it is painted onto. This centaur was discovered at a cemetery broken in half, with half in one person’s grave and the second half in the one next to it.

This next piece is a funerary vase and it shows the complex decoration typical of thegreece-2 Geometric style. In the bands, or registers of the vase we see the process of a funeral. The body of the deceased is placed on its side on a funeral bier (The Greeks had begun the new practice of cremation). We can see the mourners standing with their arms raised to their heads, an ancient expression of anguish, as the mourners literally tore out their hair. The bodies have been reduced to triangles and rectangles. No attempt has been made to show the forms in three-dimensional space. Despite this rigidity, we feel the strong accents of human loss.

Egyptian art, when dealing with death, explored the activities the deceased would enjoy in the afterlife; the Greeks focused on the emotions of those who survive in this life. According to the Greeks the deceased entered a place of mystery that we can not know. There was very little hope offered to the living, which led to an emphasis on the suffering of those left behind by the deceased.

greece-6By the seventh century BC vase painters were beginning to move away from the Geometric style. Painters were influenced by the arts of the Near East, Asia Minor, and Egypt. The Greeks were a sea-faring people and were re-establishing contact and trade with nations in these areas. They now began to use large and open motifs that included both real and imaginary animals, plants, and humans. This came to be known as the Orientalizing style and it began in Corinth, a port city that imported wares from the East. This pitcher is an Olpe, or a wide-mouthed pitcher which dates to 600 BC. You can see creatures painted in horizontal bands against a light background of stylized flowers. These flowers came to be know as rosettes. This is an example of black-figure pottery. It is decorated with dark shapes against a pale background which is the natural color of Corinthian clay. The artist has then incised the details inside the silhouetted shapes with a sharp tool and added touches of gloss, or clay slip to enhance his design.

The following description of Greek Painted Vase Techniques is from Art History by Stokstad. The three main techniques for decorating Greek painted vases were black-figure, red-figure and white-ground. The painters used a complex procedure that involved preparing a slip (a mixture of clay and water), applying the slip to the vessel, and carefully manipulating the firing process in a kiln (a closed oven) to control the amount of oxygen reaching the ceramics. This firing process involved three stages: in the first stage, oxygen was allowed into the kiln, which ‘fixed’ the whole vessel in one overall shade of red depending on the composition of the clay; then, in the second (reduction) stage, the oxygen in the kiln was cut back (reduced) to a minimum, turning the vessel black, and the temperature was raised to the point at which the slip partially vitrified (became glasslike); finally, in the third stage, oxygen was allowed back into the kiln, turning the unslipped areas back to a shade of red. The areas where slip had been applied, which were sealed against the oxygen, remained black. The ‘reds’ varied from dark terra-cotta to pale yellow.

In the black-figure technique, artists painted designs—figures, objects, or abstract motifs—with slip in silhouette on the clay vessels. Then using a sharp tool (a stylus) they cut through the slip to the body of the vessel, incising linear details within the silhouette. In the red-figure technique the approach was reversed. Artists painted the background around the figures with the slip and drew details within the figures with the same slip using a brush. In both techniques artists often enhanced their work with touches of white and reddish-purple gloss, pigments mixed with slip. Firing produced the distinctive black images.

White ground vases became popular in the Classical period. A highly refined clay slip produced the white ground on which the design elements were painted. After firing the vessel, the artists frequently added details and areas of bright and pastel hues using tempera, a paint made from egg yolks, water, and pigments. Because the tempera paints were fragile, these colors flaked off easily and few perfect examples have survived.

francois-vaseThe Greek Potters created only a few vessel shapes. During the 6th Century BC Athens became the dominant center for pottery and trade and we move into the Archaic Period. The Athenians adopted the Corinthian black-figure techniques and at first they continued to decorate the vases with the traditional bands. An important transitional piece is this vase which dates to about 570BC. It is a volute krater, or a large vessel with a scroll-shaped or volute handles and was used for mixing the traditional Greek drink of wine and water. This was one of the earliest known vessels signed by both it’s potter (Ergotimos) and it’s painter. (Kleitias)

Kleitias was a great storyteller and this vase has over 200 figures that have been identified with inscriptions providing an important literary record. The main scene is the marriage of King Peleus to Thetis, a sea nymph. Together they would be the parents of Achilles. The different bands continue to tell more of the story. Even the footed base of thegreek-vase1 vase, which shows small warriors battling cranes, is the retelling of a story dating back to Homer.

Over time the Athenian painters decreased the number of bands and started making the figures larger, until generally one scene dominated the vase. A mid sixth century BC Amphora (a large, all purpose storage jar) illustrates this development. The depiction here is the wine god Dionysos with maenads, his female worshipers. This piece has been attributed to a painter called the Amasis Painter, because his work has such a distinctive style. Most of the Amasis Painter’s work is found on small vessels, so this is an exception. You can see the maenads arms around each other coming forward to present their offerings – a long eared rabbit and a small deer. These signify power over nature.

One of the finest of all of the Athenian artists is Exekias. He signed many of his vessels as both the artist and the painter, the inscription would read, Exekias made me. He was an expert of the Black figure method of vase painting and we can only be amazed at the details he was able to bring to life using this method.

greek-vase-21Exekias took his subjects from Greek history. On this amphora he recounts an episode from the Trojan War. Ajax was a fearless Greek warrior, second only to Achilles in braverly. After Achilles died, however, the Greeks choose Odysseus to be his successor over Ajax. Along with his sorrow over losing his cousin Achilles and humiliation in being passed over Ajax prepared to commit suicide. Other artists frequently showed warriors after they had died, but Exekias chose to show Ajax as he prepared to die. He has set aside his helmet, shield, and spear and is crouching beneath a tree, planting his sword upright in the dirt so that he can fall upon it. There is balance in how Exekias has designed his work with two upright elements, the tree on the left and the shield on the right, framing and balancing Ajax in the center. The lines of the tree and the shield curve gently inward following the graceful line of the vase. The entire composition focuses our attention onto Ajax and his concentration on his work. It is a sad and greek-vase-31poignant moment.

On this next vase, also created by Exekias, we see another unusual scene. When portraying gods and heroes, most Greek painters showed them either in battle, victory, or death. Here we have a Achilles and Ajax taking a break in their tent for a game of dice. Notice that Ajax’s shield is the same one as in the vase above. While they have set their shields aside they each still hold their weapons. The symmetry on this vase is also very graceful, reflecting the lines of the amphora. The details on the clothing are delicate and intricate. The two shields provide a frame for our heroes intent on their game. Neither Ajax nor Achilles would survive the Trojan War.

Simple Writing Exercise No. 3

pigOne of my favorite books is The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka. If you haven’t read the story you need to get a copy from your local library…or buy it. It’s a keeper. It’s the story of the Three Little Pigs told from the wolves perspective. Full of laughs and twists that you missed in the original, this retelling brings new life to the story.

I use this book in my creative writing classes and it’s one of the most rewarding classes I teach. Each year I’m amazed at the stories this one book generates. (One year I had a student tell the story of the Three Little Pigs from the perspective of a worker at Home Depot who was selling them the building supplies and listening to each of their plans.) After reading the book we make a list of other fairy tales that everyone is familiar with. As soon as we have a good list we begin to talk about the different characters in the story and how the story would be different if someone else were telling it.

Can you imagine Cinderalla told from the evil step-sisters perspective or perhaps the Giant telling us about that criminal Jack who climbed a beanstalk and broke into his house. Using this book as a guide children can create great stories out of stories they are already familiar with.

For many children telling a story from a different perspective can be quite challenging. At first you may just get a retelling of the original story with very little deviation. The idea of telling a story from another’s perspective may take several illustrations before they catch on to the idea. If they just don’t seem to get it, don’t sweat it, just put this exercise away for a time and come back to it down the road. That’s the nice thing about homeschooling, we don’t have to stick to a strict timeline and this exercise is fun in 4th grade or high school so don’t push it if it isn’t making sense to your child. Just enjoy the story and move on.cheese

After you have finished your story you may want to follow up with another book by the same author that involves the retelling of several other fairy tales. I’ve found that it’s best to save this book for after your child is done with their story. The Stinky Cheeseman uses so many different fairy tales that students could get frustrated that the author has used up all the good stories and they can’t think of another one to tell.

January 14, 2009

Simple Writing Exercise No. 2

Filed under: Education,writing — kbagdanov @ 10:53 am
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This exercise involves a basic knowledge of grammar. If your children have enough grammar knowledge to identify a noun, verb, and prepositional phrase then they are ready for this.

I would suggest doing this exercise with something your children have already written: a book report, a story, or a summary of a history lesson. (Or you could start out with the example below…) Explain to your child that varying how a sentence begins will add interest to their writing. When we first learn to write we generally are taught to think in terms of a subject followed by a verb that might have a direct object. The boy kicked the ball. There is nothing wrong with this, but as you can see in the following example when all of your sentences follow a similar pattern it can sound too simple.

Matt kicked the ball. The ball hit the window before Jacob could catch it. Matt and Jacob tried to hide under the porch steps. Mother found them and sent them to their room.

If you underline the first word of each of these sentences you will see that they all begin with a noun. Ask your child to choose one of the sentences to rewrite only this time they must start the sentence with a prepositional phrase or a verb. They may have to add more details to make the sentence a complete thought.

Before Jacob could catch it, the ball hit the window. or Hiding under the porch steps Matt and Jacob waited to see if they were going to get caught.

By changing how a sentence begins we are forced to rework it and improve it.  As children learn to mix up how they begin a sentence they will naturally move into more complex sentence structures which will add interest to their writing.

I would suggest that as your children write you occasionally ask them to underline the first word of each sentence and check to see how they are doing. If they have begun nearly every sentence with the subject ask them to rewrite 2 or 3 of the sentences.

If you have done Exercise No. 1 with your children this would also be a good time to have them revisit that exercise by replacing three common words (man, said, house) with more specific, descriptive words (knight, whispered, hut).

January 13, 2009

Simple Writing Exercises No. 1

Filed under: Education,Homeschooling,writing — kbagdanov @ 5:24 pm
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This simple exercise can be done over and over again with a wide range of ages

Write the sentence, The man walked into his house. on a piece of paper.

Now, have the following conversation with your child about the sentence. That sentence is too vague to work well in a story because every person reading it has a different idea of the man and of the house. When we write we want the picture in our head to be communicated to the reader so that they are picturing the same thing. When I read the sentence I pictured a tired, grumpy farmer shuffling into his farmhouse after a long day in the field. What did you picture? Hmmmm… not the same thing. Well, when we write we want to choose our words carefully so that our audience can see what we see.

Help your child come up with a list of words that could be used instead of man (farmer, hippie, clown, doctor etc.) and a list of adjectives that could be used to describe the man. (scruffy, handsome, old etc.) Do the same thing for the word walked and the word house. Once you have your lists its time to play.

Now have your child come up with several clear, descriptive sentences about the man walking into his house. By playing with the lists you should be able to come up with several different options. Generally, the more ridiculous and silly the sentences are the more younger children enjoy them. That’s fine, it gets them playing with language. You can challenge Jr.and Sr High School student to recreate the sentence so that they create a mood that is creepy, sad, or joyful.

That’s it. Don’t drag out the exercise. I’ve generally found that kids aren’t ready to quit and want to ‘do another one’. It’s your choice, but stop while they are still interested. Over the next few months continue to pull out this exercise, just mix up your starting sentence.

Some other ideas to try… The dog greeted it’s master. The girl dropped her toy. The car drove by the restaurant.

The child got on the ride. The family ate dinner.

January 5, 2009

3 Keys to Great Writing

Caleb with our newest family member, cousin Hope

Caleb with our newest family member, cousin Hope

Imagine, if you will, a family that has just had a new baby. These new parents never talk to the baby and somehow manage to keep the baby from most conversation until he is about two years old. At two, they decide it is the correct time for baby to begin to talk. Each day, for fifteen minutes, they have talking lessons. They don’t speak to the baby the rest of the time. These well meaning parents spend a lot of money and research and find the perfect talking curriculum. Unfortunately, they quickly become frustrated with their child’s inability to speak.

Now If these parents came to you for advice I’m sure you would be horrified that they hadn’t been speaking to their baby all along. It is likely you would tell them to dump the complex ‘talking curriculum’ and just start conversing with their child. You would reassure them that teaching him to talk is really not that complicated and if they would just start to make conversation a regular part of his environment, he would absorb (learn), most of the necessary skills. These well meaning parents might be shocked. Surely it can’t be that simple. After all, there are speech therapists and experts, people who have degrees in how to teach babies to talk properly. This is of course a ridiculous scenario. Yet, don’t we have a tendency to do the same thing when it comes to teaching our children to read and write. Do we complicate the process with too many expert opinions and complicated curriculum’s.

We all know the process babies go through when they learn to talk. Ideally babies are surrounded by a loving family who continually converse with them and cheer over their every attempt to communicate. We know that a baby learns language skills by being around conversation. We don’t teach a baby sentence structure, but by three they can put together a rather complex and grammatically correct sentence. They have learned, by example, without much conscience effort on their part. We accept this as the natural way of things. We know that children begin to acquire critical language skills even before they are physically able to speak.

We can draw several parallels between a child learning to speak and a child learning to read and write. I think if you incorporate these into your school day, over time, you will observe a great improvement in your child’s writing abilities.

We are often like the above parents when it comes to teaching writing. We mistakenly think that writing begins when our child is five or six. Whether we are aware of it or not, we have already been laying a foundation for their writing in their early years. Just as an infant needs to be surrounded by conversation a child needs to be surrounded by good books…great writing.

Key One to growing great writers: Children become good writers when their environment is filled with good writing. I know, you are sick of the mantra, but I don’t think it can be emphasized enough. Reading good books to our children, taking them to the library regularly, buying them books of their own, and encouraging their own reading, is the best foundation we can lay for them to become proficient writers. A child who has been read to daily will have assimilated (learned) much of what he needs to know to write. Just as a baby absorbs the way we speak, our children will be absorbing how to tell a good story, illustrate a point, or give instructions. All of this learning will be done with very little effort on their part. So, the first and most important step in teaching your child to write is reading to them and introducing them to outstanding writers. After you have done this, the rest of the process will be greatly simplified.

Key Two to growing great writers: Children need lots of time and opportunities to write, and this writing needs to have a purpose. Just as an infant is forever playing with sounds and saying the same word over and over our children need practice and time to play with language. Now I sympathize. I can hear many of your now saying, “but my kid never wants to write.” While I would like to have all our schoolwork be fun, the reality is, some of it is work. However, while not all writing assignments may be fun, they should have a point.

Don’t load your kids up with busy work just because they need practice writing. When writing has a purpose, it is much easier to get excited about it. For instance, writing a paper about the last field trip that will just be going into a file of mom’s may feel like busy work, but a letter about the field trip to Grandma gives the assignment some purpose. Having your children make up shopping lists, take down messages, write out invitations, or write a story to be published in the monthly newsletter gives the writing activity a sense of purpose and focus. We all put more effort into something if we have an audience, so make sure that most of your child’s writing has an audience.

Key Three to growing great writers: Provide a safe environment with plenty of realistic praise. Would you want to write a poem and share it in front of our next parents meeting? Realize that the same insecurities that you feel at that prospect, your kids feel too. Writing exposes us, so we need to make a safe atmosphere for our children to write in. We need to help them see that they have something worthwhile to share.

Remember when your child was learning to speak and you cheered over each new sound and word, how you would try to get them to show off in front of friends and relatives. Well, do the same thing with their writing. When they write a clever poem or story make a point of sharing it. Let them hear you bragging about their writing to other adults. When your child was an infant and mispronounced words you still cheered them on and applauded their attempts. Isn’t it obvious that if you talk up how well your child is doing in writing and what progress they are making that they will in turn feel more confident and positive about the writing process? That they will be more likely to improve?

Now, a serious word of warning. Your praise must be realistic and earned. You can almost always find something to praise, and with an elementary school child I think you can praise just about every effort. However, children are not stupid, they will quickly figure out if you are gushing over their work when it is undeserved. They will come to distrust your opinion if you praise everything they do, even when it is an obviously poor effort. So be honest in your praise. This is especially important as your children get older. If they are handing in written work that is obviously beneath their capabilities then you must call them on it and demand a rewrite. Kids are quick to find ways to wiggle out of the hard work and while we need to praise their abilities that is not the same thing as letting them off the hook when they are not handing in their best efforts.

So here it is in a nutshell. Fill your children’s lives with great books, provide as many opportunities as you can for purposeful writing, and be sure to provide a safe environment and to praise their efforts.

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