Writing instruction for homeschoolers can be daunting. The first step is determining what to expect at each age level, and many home educators find themselves asking the same questions: What do I teach, and when do I teach it? Are my expectations too high or too low? How much writing should they be doing, and what should they be writing about?
There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to teaching writing. But there are developmental milestones to keep in mind as you guide your child’s writing efforts and consider a writing curriculum. The following guidelines are adapted from an article by Amanda Morin, author at Understood.org. The suggested activities are my own creation, based on assignments I have given both to my children and to my students when I was a classroom teacher.
Toddlers and Preschoolers:
At this point, little guys are learning the basics. Toddlers will grasp a pencil in a clenched fist and scribble across the page, usually in between bouts of chewing said pencil and trying to write on the family pets (or carpet, or walls…). Toddlers also start to recognize that text moves from left to right, so keep reading to your little ones even if they won’t sit through an entire book.
Pre-reading and writing skills refine themselves as children transition to preschool age. Scribbles take on meaning, becoming representative of letters and numbers. By the end of the preschool years, most children are able to write their own names. Children at this level also enjoy dictating stories to adults, watching intently while you write the words.
Suggested activities: Provide plenty of opportunities to explore writing and expand fine motor skills. Keep board books and writing supplies (large crayons, thick markers, and paper) available. Make letters with sidewalk chalk, sticks and leaves, or even in the sand or dirt. Tell stories with your child and ask him to tell stories to you, making sure to record or write down their ideas.
Where writing in the toddler/preschool years is about experimentation and exploration, writing for the five to seven turns to formation. Can your child hold a pencil correctly? Recognize and copy sight words? Tell simple stories with letters and sight words? Keep in mind that these stories will primarily be more pictures than text.
Children at this level may use inventive spelling, the phenomenon that occurs when a child wants to spell “pig” and ends up writing p-r-g. Essentially, the child substitutes letters she remembers for letters she doesn’t. While it may drive many a homeschooling parent crazy (*raises hand*), inventive spelling is an important developmental step and should be encouraged.
Suggested activities: Play card games that match words to pictures. Hang sight words on the wall, say a word, and throw a ball, shoot a nerf gun, or spray a water gun at the correct word. Make rainbow loom bracelets (or crochet, etc.) to strengthen fingers. Write stories with story cubes.
First through third grade:
With increased fine motor skills comes improved handwriting, making the next step in writing instruction easier. Children in this age range should be able to group common ideas into beginning paragraphs. Their sentences move from simple statements (I like ice cream) to compound sentences (I like ice cream and my sister likes cake). Seven to nine year olds can be expected to start using correct punctuation, capitalization, and spacing between words. This age group can also begin to differentiate between basic parts of speech. For focused writing activities, children at this level can write simple summaries, short reports, and stories with a clear plot line.
Suggested activities: Read about a favorite subject and talk about what you read, then write a summary on your reading. Use storyboarding to create a plot for a fun story, then write the story. Pretend to be a favorite animal and write from its perspective. Write the steps for an activity as though you are teaching someone else to do it, too.
Fourth grade through sixth grade:
The focus in upper elementary gradually shifts from mechanics to content. While grammar shouldn’t fall by the wayside, a child in this age range can learn about and apply the different genres of writing, too. Assignments that ask children to consider their purpose and their audience become the norm (am I telling a story, or am I explaining something?). Your fourth, fifth and sixth grader can write longer stories, pen letters, write persuasive essays and create longer informative reports. This is also the stage at which children learn the steps of the writing process (prewriting, writing, revising, etc.).
Suggested activities: Try to convince your favorite book, movie, or TV character to change his mind about something. Find a cause you feel strongly about and write a letter explaining your opinion. Research an exotic animal or place and create a travel brochure. Pick a subject from science, history or math and write a story inspired by that subject (for a great math-based read, check out The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster).
Seventh and eighth graders build on the basic writing process skills learned in upper elementary and are able to learn more complex grammar concepts. Sentences become more complex as well, as they are able to write sentences that link ideas or show relationships. A middle schooler’s stories are more dialogue and character driven with complex plots and conflict issues. Students at this level are able to write multi-paragraph essays with evidence of critical thinking skills.
Suggested activities: Make lots of lists, starting with a main idea or argument and adding reasons why you think or feel this way. Pick an interesting event, either in history or present day, and write about how this event connects to you our own life or other things you have learned about. Write a new ending to a favorite book, movie or TV show. Find something you are passionate about and tell others why it matters to you, writing different pieces for different audiences (e.g. your parents, your friends, a community leader, etc.).
High school is the time when critical thinking takes center stage. By this point, adolescents should be able to write a cohesive thesis statement (i.e. statement of opinion or argument) and support it with evidence. High school students are able to code switch with ease, adjusting the vocabulary and tone of their writing according to the medium and audience. Ninth through twelfth graders should write assignments such as critical essays, research papers, opinion pieces and creative nonfiction.
Suggested activities: Compare a book and its film treatment, then explain which is better and why. Try writing an I-Search paper. Recreate a vivid memory from childhood in words, using as many details as you can remember. Rewrite a famous scene between two literary characters into a text message or email exchange, then transform it back into a regular conversation.
In the end, learning to write is a task best accomplished when reading and writing are a part of your family’s every day life. The more you read, think, and ask questions with your children, the better they will be able to express those ideas on the page. When literacy is an active part of your family’s experiences, the development of those skills becomes second nature and follows an age appropriate path almost on its own. Celebrate writing, enjoy writing, and let writing instruction take its natural developmental course.