Teaching Children to Write the Natural Way

My daughter Louisa has kept her school journals since she was 4 years old. What a treasure they are now! A whole childhood recorded.

I would like to share with you some of the things we’ve done in our homeschool that have really worked so well over the years. Teaching my children to write  has been a joy to teach, and any mother can easily do it without any expensive program.

I start when a child is very young—before he can even write his name—and we begin keeping a journal. I like the idea of this habit because it will help your child develop into an articulate thinker and writer.  And it is important, creating a history for generations to come.

I start by having my little child stand beside me while I type on the computer. I ask him to tell me about something, some event that has happened recently. It can be seeing a butterfly, or getting a bloody toe, or any thing significant or insignificant. At first, the going can be a bit rough, but as you practice this habit of writing as your child dictates to you, he will be on the lookout for ideas and will come to you and ask you to “write in his journal”.

So, you type while he talks. Keep it short (children can go on forever). I say something like, we are going to fill the page halfway, or set some other limit. I leave a blank half page at the top so he can illustrate his story when it is printed out. Of course, you don’t have to type it, you can write it out in handwriting (printed neatly, not cursive).

When you are able to teach your child to write his name (about age 4), he will have the motor skills to advance to the next step, which is tracing. Using very wide lined paper (5/8” spacing), have your child dictate one sentence that he’d like to tell about. You write the words in yellow marker (highlighters work well) or light colored pencil. It should be clear to see. Then you give him the job of tracing your very neatly lettered sentence using a dark colored marker or fat crayon or pencil. With this exercise comes the awareness that thoughts are put into words on paper using letters that he can make himself. At first, this is slow going, and if my child has a lot to say, I type out the rest, or write it in dark letters that he won’t have to trace. A sentence is plenty for the first while.

As you child advances in learning phonics—recognizing the letters and their sounds—and in his ability to write letters, you can leave some very easy words blank. For example, if you child dictates to you, “We have a cat.”, you could write in yellow marker, “We have a —.” leaving space for the word “cat”. As your child traces his sentence, he can sound out the word and fill in the easy word “cat”. Naturally, during this period of learning, he is going to be held back from long journal entries by the fact that the going is slow when you are learning to trace or write the letters yourself.

The next step, after the “fill-in-your-own-word” thing, is to sit down with your child and ask him to write as much as he can of his sentence. This is where you teach him that every sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a period. When he comes to a stumper, you write that word on a separate piece of paper so he can copy it. I never make my children look up words in a dictionary to discover their spelling at this point. We are trying to teach them how to write without too much discouragement. The slicker the process, the better for all.

Your child will stay at this level of writing until he is 6 or 7 years old, lengthening his journal entries from a few sentences to the front side of a page. At this point, I introduce a Spelling Dictionary and help him learn how to use it. If he comes to me needing the spelling of a word, I flip to it in the Spelling Dictionary for him and underline it. It doesn’t take long for a child to become independent in using it before asking for word spellings. But, there will still be some words you will need to write down for him to copy. Common ones can be written into his Spelling Dictionary.

The reason I don’t let my children “guess-spell” is that it forms a first impression of the spelling of the word, and if it is wrong, it can be hard to undo. I tell them that I would rather write the word for them to copy, then have them have to write it onto their spelling list because it is misspelled. We use pencil, or erasable pen, for journal writing. When their entry of the day is done, I go back with them and check over it, and have my student correct his errors. Misspelled words go on a spelling list, that they practice daily and test on Friday.

These journals they are creating will be the record they pass on to their children and grandchildren. They are a keepsake, a personal history, a book of remembrance, a treasure. We want them to be perfect. Each year, at the end of December, we take that year’s journal entries and have them spiral bound at the printer. This only costs $1 or so, and it creates a treasured book that my children are proud of. This makes their writing meaningful and makes them eager to do their best, day by day, year round. I give them 2 pieces of colored cardstock to make the front and back cover for their journal, and then the whole thing is bound together. You can add their photo to the cover and have it laminated or have a protective plastic overlay page put on the front cover. These are so precious that the printer admitted to me that he had to just pause and read a few entries!

All the while, the children are illustrating every journal entry. I encourage the use of crayon or colored pencils rather than markers, as they tend to disappear in a matter of years, particularly the washable ones. We have even used oil pastel chalks and watercolors for their journal illustrations. By the time a child is 8 years old, he has experimented in many art mediums and made hundreds of original creative drawings.

About 7 or 8 years old, I introduce the concept that each separate thought or idea gets a paragraph to itself. I teach them to indent each paragraph with 2 finger spaces. This is the beginning of paragraph writing. As I teach it, I remind my child to stop and think, “Is this a new idea? If it is, remember to indent!”. It is best to keep a close watch as this concept sinks it. Nobody likes to go back and erase and rewrite a whole sentence just to indent!

Around 8 years old, or whenever they express an interest and their manuscript printing is nice and neat, I teach them cursive. Then journal entries must contain at least one cursive sentence. As their skills improve, I require longer entries, and more of the writing to be done in cursive.

This process continues, writing daily in personal journals, until they hit the teen years and want a private journal. At this point, they often want a topic to write on, as their daily doings will be recorded in their own private journals. The book my daughter Julianna created called, All About Me, is a good writing tool for this age. This is a write-in workbook that gives interesting personal topics to write about. When the book is finished, your teenager will have their personal history written! Another useful resource is the card deck called Kids Talk. Each card presents a concept or incident along with thought questions. These can be just the flash of writing inspiration that your student might need.

As long as my children are writing, I continue to check spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc. Research has proven that children learn best in the context of their own writing. Rather than do workbook pages, I want them to learn to edit and correct their own work, learning in the process! If you are rusty on these skills, and fear that you cannot correct their work, there are good English handbooks such as Everything You Need to Know About English or Writer’s Express, that can help you out.

It has been amazing to me how this daily plugging away at journal writing accomplishes so many things: neat penmanship, English skills, mechanics of writing, plus drawing skills while recording a personal history, and making a treasured keepsake for now and for future generations. I’d say this is one of the best things we’ve done in our homeschool!
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Note: I organized this process into a program called K-5 Journal and Language Arts Program .

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