Substantive Education

April 23, 2010

Writing a Basic Paragraph

One of these things just doesn't belong here

Once students start reading on their own they will quickly notice that printed materials are divided up into paragraphs.  I found that my own children naturally adopted this practice and only needed a little instruction to point out some of the finer points.  Although there are workbooks geared to teaching children to write carefully constructed paragraphs by filling out graphs, I have found a more organic method works better.

Instead of having my sons fill out workbook pages with contrived writing exercises, we just wrote about what we were reading.  If we were studying flowers in science, we wrote about flowers, if we were exploring the American Revolution, we wrote about it, if we were reading an exciting book…well, you get the idea.  One of the hardest things about writing is getting started and feeling as if you have something to say.  When we give children an assignment to…write a paragraph, they often hit a blank wall and have no idea how to start.  It is much easier when they have just interacted with some material and then are asked to tell about it.

Once your children have had some practice writing about what they are learning,  transitioning to paragraphs is easy.  You can begin to show them how to group their thoughts into cohesive paragraphs. Just as a sentence expresses a complete thought, so paragraphs should be grouped around a central idea.  I use the following to illustrate this concept.

Gather together some random items from your kitchen: a measuring cup, spoon, cheese grater, egg slicer, spatula etc.  Put all of the items in a brown paper bag, and then, throw in a toothbrush.  Now gather your students around and start producing each of the items.  As you do this continue to ask questions…what is this, what is it used for, etc.  Once all of the items are on the table ask; Which item doesn’t belong?  Hopefully they identify the toothbrush.

Next, explain that a paragraph is like this bag of stuff.  Everything in the paragraph should revolve around one theme.  While the items are different, they are all used in the kitchen to prepare food, except for the toothbrush.  Now, when we write a paragraph, we don’t want any toothbrushes thrown in, no random thoughts or unrelated trivia.

As our year progresses, when I come across a random sentences in my students work I ask them ‘Why is there a toothbrush in here?’  They laugh and know exactly what I mean.  It’s a quick easy reminder for them, equally helpful with the elementary kids as it is with the high schoolers.

If your children need another illustration you can use the picture of a house.  First we lay the foundation…or tell what we are going to talk about.  Then we build up the walls…or support what we are saying by explaining further and adding in facts and details, and lastly, we add the roof…which is the summary  or concluding sentence. If children are older and will be moving on to another sentence we show them how to write a summary sentence that transitions to the next paragraph.

Some children are comfortable expressing themselves in writing and naturally begin to move from sentences to paragraphs…others resist this process.  For many, especially young boys, the resistance is not to composing a paragraph, but to the actual process of picking up a pencil and putting it to paper.  They find physically writing challenging.  For these kids, you might want to try writing every other sentence for them.  I’ve found bearing the burden with the child, and taking over some of the writing produces better paragraphs.  The reluctant writer is more willing to put forth a greater effort and write longer, more complex sentences, when they know they will not have to write the whole thing.

Some children are just plain stumped when asked to write a paragraph.  They don’t know where to start.  For those kids, having a pattern to use at first can be quite helpful.  (A word of warning, this pattern is meant to be used as a tool…the goal, however, is to move beyond the need for it.)  First, pick a topic that interest them.  Then have them tell you  three facts about that topic.  Once they have  that done they should be able to write 5 sentences…one introducing the topic, one about each of the facts, and then a summary sentence.  There you have it, a good basic paragraph.  After children have mastered this type of paragraph you can expand the lesson by having them vary the sentence structure or choose more descriptive vocabulary.  (More on this later.)

When looking through writing programs or workbooks you will find that most of the books lean heavily toward ‘creative’ writing.  The pages are filled with topics such as ‘What did you do last summer?’ ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ ‘Describe your pet dragon’ etc.  Some kids love these types of assignments…but I’ve found that those kids are in the minority.  Most of the children I’ve worked with find that kind of writing prompt frustrating and a waste of their time.  The prompts rarely involve anything they want to talk about.  That is why I generally tied our writing into something else going on in our day, whether it be schoolwork, a trip, or a book they were reading.

My second son, Levi, didn’t like creative writing (or reading) he preferred reality.  Instead of writing stories, I would have him choose a page in one of our large Eyewitness books (non-fiction books on a variety of topics) and write about what he discovered on that page.  While he didn’t want to write a fairy tale he was perfectly happy to read about polar bears and then write a paragraph about them.  The point is to get children writing, be flexible about the content.


April 22, 2010

Grammar Basics

Filed under: Uncategorized,writing — kbagdanov @ 9:16 pm
Tags: , , , ,

The following is a review of  the basic parts of speech.  We’ve been going over some of these in my classes.  Once I’m sure students have some of these basics down we can move on to review some of the tricky grammar rules that occur on the SAT and ACT tests.

If you have elementary school kids this is a good list of starting concepts.  You can review by printing up  worksheets or purchasing a workbook…or have students list all the nouns (or verbs, or adjectives) out of a book they are reading.  Even a very young child can ‘bring you a noun’ or illustrate a verb by jumping in place.  Introducing prepositions is as easy as having your child go…under the table, by the table, around the table…etc.   There really isn’t a need to spend a lot of money for these early lessons.

This site has free, printable worksheets

Parts of speech

Nouns – A person, place, thing, or idea.  Make sure kids understand that a noun can be an idea, concept, or belief.  Truth, peace, love can all be nouns.   Proper nouns are naming nouns, like Kelly, Los Angeles, or The Hobbit.  In the following sentence the nouns are bold.

Joseph angrily kicked the soccer ball over the  dilapidated fence.

Adjectives – Words that describe or modify a noun.

Joseph angrily kicked the ball over the dilapidated fence.

Verb – An action word, or a word which shows state of being or occurrence.  (Verbs that show state of being would be words like: is, are, am, was etc.)

Joseph angrily kicked the ball over the dilapidated fence.

Adverb – A word that describes or modifies a verb, adjective, or another adverb. (and frequently ends with an -ly.)

Joseph angrily kicked the ball over the dilapidated fence.

Preposition – a function word that combines with a noun, pronoun or noun phrase to form a prepositional phrase.  (Here is a  list of frequently used prepositions.)

Joseph angrily kicked the ball over the dilapidated fence.

Article – words that make a noun specific…the, a, an.

Joseph angrily kicked the ball over the dilapidated fence.

Pronoun – A word that takes the place of a noun in a sentence.  Pronouns would include I,we, you, he, she, it, they, them etc.  A pronoun must have a clear antecedent…more on this later.

He angrily kicked the ball over the dilapidated fence.

April 13, 2010

Writing Poetry

Filed under: Literature,writing — kbagdanov @ 8:29 pm
Tags: , ,


In honor of National Poetry month (April) my writing classes will be working on poems for the month. We will be reading many different poems and working on writing our own.  To help get everyone off to a good start I’m going to post an article from a past newsletter…most of this was written, a few years ago,  by my son Tim to my son Joe.  (Tim is my eldest, Joe is the baby)  Enjoy.


This is going to be a longer than usual newsletter article. Joseph left his e-mail open on my computer so that I could help him with something and I noticed that he and his oldest brother Tim and been corresponding. Many of you don’t know Tim…he’s 23, has an English degree and enjoys writing poetry. Joseph has recently been trying his hand at poetry and decided to enter one in a contest. He evidently sent some of his poems to Tim to get his opinion. They have since continued writing back and forth exchanging poems and feedback. If you are like me teaching your child how to write (or even read) poetry can be difficult. I found these thoughts from Tim quite helpful so, with his permission, I’m passing them on. (I started to edit Tim’s thoughts to make it shorter…but it wasn’t working so you are getting the e-mail in it’s entirety.)

Hey Joe, first off I think it is great that you are writing poetry, secondly, don’t stop. I’ll start with a few general poetry suggestions (things I had to have people tell me when I started writing), and try to weave in specific things about your poems.

1. Poems, especially if you are just starting to write them, should be narrative (i.e. they should tell a story, the more concrete the better). Pick a subject–a person an object a place–and try to describe that thing as vividly as you can. Tell the story of the thing. Give it a name, a personality. Avoid generalizations. Be extremely specific. Poems about philosophical themes are particularly hard to write well, and harder to make interesting. Poems, as a rule, are about the love of language and how words can work together to make unique new combinations. They are not so much about ideas. Poems convey ideas, but it is always more about how the idea is conveyed than what the idea actually is.

Forget, for now, what you are trying to say; concentrate on how you are saying it. For example, Pockets Empty seems like somewhat of a credo against alcoholism. You have a person in the poem, but he is nameless and peripheral. He is a tool that you are using to make a point. Make him the point. Forget for a moment about trying to tell us how alcoholism is bad, we know it’s bad. Who is this guy? What does he look like? Does he have kids? What does his daughter think he smells like? Who were his parents. Write his story in strange, unexpected words.

2. Don’t use experimental punctuation. Only e.e. cummings is allowed to do that, and even he is annoying sometimes. Make your words and how you use them what is interesting.

3. To be a good poet, you need to read good poetry. Find writers you like, and try to write in their style (not forever, but to learn things). Read: William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda, Seamus Heaney, Billy Collins, E.E.Cummings Eavan Boland, Philip Larkin, Gerard Manley Hopkins, etc.

For example, I really like this poem by William Carlos Williams:

This is Just to Say
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

So I wrote this poem, kind of in the same vein:

Fruit Flies

Ahhgh! Fruit Flies
in the oranges again!
They were stacked
so nicely–a pyramid
in the wicker basket.

I had a bar of Ecuadoran
chocolate to go with
them. 77% cacao.
Mmm. Right there!
On the coffee table.

You’d’ve sliced them
when you got back
this weekend, and
slurp the juice out.
The chocolate could’ve
slowly melted down
your throat.

But oh! Oh! Those
fruit flies mucked
it up. They’re in there
now, screwing inside
your Welcome Home

Writing is a craft, and like most crafts you learn by emulating others. Then once you know how everything fits together, you can push off on your own. I mean hopefully your emulations contain a lot of your own style, and aren’t carbon copies of others. But Picasso wasn’t Picasso until he could do the classics.

4. Not many serious poets write rhymed poetry anymore. Probably because it is very difficult to write poetry that sounds serious in rhyme (read T.S. Eliot for someone who knows how). Rappers of course would be the exception to the rule. Another reason rhymed poetry is rare these days is that tends to work best in poems written in verse (in iambic something in other words). Writing in verse has gone somewhat out of style, therefore so has rhyming. Writing a poem in meter is one of the hardest things a writer can do. I have only tried it a couple times, and it took forever, and it wasn’t that good, and I got a lot of the meter wrong anyway.  If you want to write in meter, I would suggest writing in a very strict controlled format (try writing a sonnet).

I would stick to free verse if I were you. Use alliteration and assonance and good words as your poetic tools, and leave off meter and rhyme until a later date.
Another side-note: rhyme works really well in comic poems, see Dr. Suess.

5. Structure. I went and looked at the guidelines for the contest, and it strikes me that they are looking for a very specific format (i.e. a long-lined block poems). This is fine, but it might not be the best for your writing to try to write specifically with the contest in mind. Your best work will come when you write simply because you enjoy it. If you try to write in a specific format, according someone’s guidelines, you might not end up with your best effort. For example, I tend to write in short lines. Most of my stuff would not fit the contest parameters. Maybe your best style would be tense, terse, sparse bundles. Who knows? You certainly won’t if you only write for the contest. Long lined poems are hard to write because poems are about compression, saying as much as you can with as few words as possible. Long lines make you subconsciously use unneeded words and phrases.

Remember that in poetry, the line is very important. Where you choose to end a line, what word starts a line, matters in poetry. In prose it doesn’t.

6. Content. I touched on this slightly. Write about whatever you want. Just because it is poetry doesn’t mean it has to be serious. Just make sure of two things: it tells a story and it is written with words in mind.

Be flexible. If you write a poem, and there is only one line you like, don’t be afraid to throw everything out but that one line, or even that one word. Build a new poem around that line or word. It might look very different from the first one.

Most often when I write something, I work on it till I think it is done. Then I store it away for a couple weeks or a couple months, before I read it again. That way I can get a little distance from the writing and detach myself. Even when I really like something I write, most of the time, I don’t like it a month later. Except maybe that one line or phrase or word. Maybe not even that. But if I can salvage just the pieces that were good enough to be striking after the pet status wore off, then I’ve got something worth keeping. And I can rework around the strengths.

So I guess that would be my advice. Write often, but don’t spend too much time on one thing. Write something til its done (that’s important, finish it even if it sucks and you don’t know why). Then move on to something else. Keep writing. Then come back to the old stuff and pick through the wreckage to find what’s salvageable. Every once in a while, you’ll find something. That’s what writing is mostly, failing most often, and waiting for the unexpected surprising good things.

Long, and not very specific to your poems, but that is what I think. Keep writing, maybe even with my suggestions in mind, then send me more stuff. I’ll try to be more concise and text focused next time.

Your rambling brother,

As long as I’ve started this long article…let me go on to show you the poem Joseph ended up writing after reading this e-mail. As you can see he picked a much simpler topic than alcoholism.


Green Bermuda, rangy, unkempt
thicker than Belize.
Rumbling machine, hot, half spun blades,
coughing black pollution.

A cloudless, torrid summer sky
will see ferocious battle.
Valentine prepares pink lemonade, hair pulled up,
cheeks pomegranate red from heat.

Children playing, splashing and racing
in the above ground pool.
I release the sunflower seeds, masterfully cracked,
by the thirties from my mouth.

More antagonized with every failed
attempt to start the mower.
Chuckling Valentine appears with drinks:
Is there any gas?

I look at her with arrogant eyebrows
and open up the tank-
Empty echoes the merciless jab at my manhood.

April 6, 2010

The How and Why of Grammar

Filed under: Uncategorized — kbagdanov @ 11:33 pm

Not having a basic grasp of sentence structure and grammar rules puts students at a disadvantage.  Their writing suffers along with their scores on tests like the SAT and ACT.  In working with students, I’ve realized that there are a few areas that are particularly problematic.  Over this next series of posts, I’m hoping to address some of these issues. The lessons that are to follow are intended for Jr. High and High school students…to hopefully give them the tools necessary to avoid some common pitfalls.

In the next post we will get straight to the practical matters, but first I want to lay a foundation.  It is always helpful to have a clear understanding of why you are teaching something, and why you are teaching it the way that you are.  So, before we begin in earnest, let me share some of my thoughts on teaching, and on teaching grammar in particular.

Children learn grammar by listening to us speak.  Yes, at some point we teach them a few special names, like ‘noun’ and verb’, but for the most part kids absorb grammar.  (And the process of listening to a young child pick up some of the finer parts of language is one of the joys of parenting…don’t you just love all the creative, ‘incorrect’ usages they come up with.)  The point is, while we may need a few worksheets to perfect picking the verb out of a sentence, that is not where children gain their understanding.

We gain understanding as we ‘hear’ that certain word combinations just don’t sound right.  Before children are in school they realize that they shouldn’t yell, “Looked over there!”  Young children  may not understand that verbs have tense, but they know that sentence is wrong.   As time passes children pick up the speaking patterns of those around them.  This painless process allow us to transmit the grammar lessons our children need to learn.  Add in a year of solid grammar instruction in the later elementary school year and your kids should be prepared for high school work.

For me, teaching grammar was similar to potty training.  (Stick with me, the analogy is going somewhere.)  I never understood parents who obsessed over early potty training, spending inordinate amounts of time and effort to get their child to do something that in another year or so (more for those boys….) they could master in a week.  Okay, a week might be an exaggeration, but you get the point.  When we pay attention to our child and teach concepts when they are ready for them it’s not just easier, it avoids a great deal of frustration and failure.  This is true for potty training, and for academics.  Whether it’s reading, grammar, or long division, starting the instruction early can often backfire.  Children find, what could be a relatively simple process, to be long, laborious, and difficult…not because the subject matter is that complicated, but because they weren’t ready to tackle it yet.

Always, ALWAYS, keep in mind, you are teaching a child, not a curriculum.  Children do not develop on a nice. neat time-line.  It may seem that way as we look at the list of standards that our government has developed, but those standards and benchmarks are about some mythical sampling of children.  You have a unique person living with you.  Your little boy has his own set of strengths and ways of learning.  Children don’t learn in a neat upward curve, but in stops, starts, circles, and backward steps.  Minds and hearts can’t be forced into a one size fits all mold.  Isn’t this one of the reasons you chose to homeschool, so that you could provide an excellent, individualized education for your child.

So don’t fall into the trap of comparing what your child does with you at home, with what the neighbor child brings home for homework.  Because they are doing 5 worksheets on nouns doesn’t mean you need to.  Endless worksheets serve a purpose in school.  They provide busywork when the teacher needs to work with one group of children, they provide repetition which increases the odds that all 30 of the children will get the concept, and they provide proof that the standards are being met and children are learning. (Well, whether or not they prove that is a question for another time.)  BUT, you aren’t in a classroom.  You know your child.  You have the option of lingering for a while on a concept, of moving on, or of postponing it’s introduction to a later date.

Teaching the abstract concept that, a ball is a noun, takes a great deal of work in 1st grade.  With enough reinforcements and worksheets you can get there, but why?  A short lesson in 4th grade would accomplish the same thing.  The point is, you have options.  I wanted my children to love learning and to master the necessary material to move on from high school to college.   I wanted them to feel successful in their schoolwork, not continually frustrated or bored.  In order to accomplish these goals I waited to introduce concepts until I was sure they were ready, and once a concept was mastered, we moved on.  I occasionally used worksheets for reinforcement or assessment, but I tried to make sure the exercises  served a purpose.

So, what exactly did we do?  In the early years we talked and read to our children ALOT.  I can’t overemphasize the point that this where children acquire their verbal and written skills.  We focused on helping them express themselves verbally, and we focused on developing a love for the written word.  I suspected that my active, easily bored boys would have balked at pages of worksheets, and I was far more concerned with developing their love of learning than diagramming a sentence.  (On the flip side, I know some girls who would love nothing more than to sit and fill out worksheets. They love watching the stack of completed work grow…if this is your child, follow their lead.)  As they began writing sentences they learned some basics; capitalize the first letter, put a period at the end etc.  In later elementary school we did a year of Easy Grammar (with a little Winston Grammar on the side.)  Then in Jr. High and High school they all studied Latin, which solidified their grammar knowledge.

The result…the boys all love to read; they love to write.  They didn’t just survive at college, they excelled there.  No doubt I could have hammered home a few more comma rules, but I’m not sorry I chose to place my emphasis where I did.   So yes, grammar and punctuation rules are important, our children should learn them…and these following posts are designed to help you with doing just that.  But don’t get so caught up in teaching rules, filing out worksheets, that you forget the big picture.

Well, enough of that, on the practical stuff.

Blog at