Teaching Elementary and Middle School Writing, without a Formal Curriculum



Do your kids love to write? Or see it as a chore?


Although writing is a very important skill to learn, I purposely don't use a formal writing curriculum in our homeschool. And I also don't "require" my kids to write.


I learned through painful experience in the early years of homeschooling that requiring writing was a sure way to kill any enjoyment my kids had in writing. So, instead of forcing my kids to write, I focus my efforts on creating an environment that naturally inspires my kids to want to write in their day-to-day lives.


In this post, I'll share some of the things that have worked well in our homeschool, so that you can use these ideas as a jumping-off point in crafting your own inspired-to-write environment for your kids.


An Environment Full of Words

Getting the environment right is more important than finding the *right* curriculum. When kids see language and writing as relevant and important in their own lives, they will be more inspired to choose to write and learn how to write well.


Read Aloud Daily

Reading aloud is one of the most important pieces to teaching writing. Read alouds give kids a natural feel for what good writing sounds like, without getting bogged down in dull lessons and technical details. I make time to read aloud stories daily, and also read non-fiction books/articles aloud several times per week. This gives my kids ongoing exposure to good writing, and has led my kids to naturally know how to write stories well.



Lead by Example

Kids naturally emulate their parents, so it is important for our kids to see *us* writing if we want *them* to write. This really helps kids to see that writing is a real part of life and makes them more motivated to write.


Can you think of ways that you would enjoy writing regularly? If you can find a few ways to really enjoy writing, you'll be more likely to keep it up. Would you like writing poems, letters to friends, a commonplace book, stories, jokes, journal entries?


I myself don't tend towards creative writing, but I do enjoy writing articles and capturing outdoor moments in my Nature Notebook. More recently, because of the issues arising in 2020, I've found that I am inspired to write letters to local elected officials and write educational information to share online. The more often my kids see me writing, the more often they seem to choose to write themselves.


Early Elementary Years

During the early school years, the most important lesson kids can learn about writing is that it is enjoyable. Their brains and physical development are just getting ready for real writing, so writing during these years should be more for fun and exposure than for quality and perfection.


Image from Journal of Medical Genetics (https://jmg.bmj.com/content/38/11/745/F4)

Mazes, Tracing, and Dot-to-Dots

Building the fine motor control that is required for writing can be really fun for kids with the right resources. Both of my kids enjoyed using Kumon maze and tracing workbooks from around 3-7 years old. (Note: I only like the Kumon workbooks for preschool work; I don't like them at all once they get into grade-school type work as they are too repetitive and suck the fun right out of school.) 

Once my kids were a little older, they enjoyed dot-to-dot pages more than mazes. There are many dot-to-dot printables on the internet, but the best workbook I have found is The Greatest Dot-to-Dot Book in the World. Dollar Tree store also sometimes sells inexpensive dot-to-dot books around August-September.



Refrain from Correcting Their Writing

Remember that writing during these early years should be playful, not exacting. Kids whose writing is frequently "corrected" are likely to soon not enjoy writing and/or lose confidence in their ability to write. If you are like me and have a natural tendency to point out your kids' mistakes while writing, learn how to stop yourself!


My tendency to over-correct my daughter during the early years of homeschooling created in her a fear of failure and a tendency to back away from figuring things out on her own. It doesn't come naturally for me to not point out my children's mistakes, but I have purposely learned to bite my tongue. This gives my children a safe space to learn without feeling that their self-worth is somehow tied into whether or not they make writing mistakes.


Let Them Dictate Their Writing

Often times, children's ability to compose letters and stories runs ahead of their ability to actually write things down. When my kids were younger, they had a hard time writing as quickly as they would think of what they wanted to say. If they tried to write down their thoughts, they would generally give up in frustration because their hands couldn't keep up with their minds.


So, for years, I encouraged my kids dictate aloud to me while I would type/write for them. They would then have the option to trace over what I wrote if they wanted to. This helped them develop their writing "voice" even when they weren't ready to actually write much. 


Trace Their Correspondence

For sending birthday cards and letters, it can work well for young kids to trace their words. You can either hand-write the words for your children to trace over, or type the words on the computer and then print out the page for your kids to trace. My kids enjoyed using both a printing font as well as a cursive font.

  • Print Clearly - This is a nice, basic printing font.

  • Learning Curve - This is a cursive font that works fairly well. Because of the way the letters are designed in this font, there is a small amount of correction needed after printing (such as inserting the leading swoop at the beginning of a word), but nonetheless this is the best font I have found for printing customized cursive pages.

Read Aloud While They Trace

It can work particularly well to read aloud while your kids trace their letters/compositions. This facilitates a time for kids to sit and listen, and keeping their hands busy helps ensure read-aloud success.


Late Elementary and Middle School Years

Towards late elementary ages and into middle school, kids can be encouraged to become more independent with their writing. It is still a good idea to hold back from "requiring" writing, but with positive encouragement and meaningful opportunities many kids will move into writing more on their own during this time.


Remember that different kids mature at different ages, kids don't tend to mature linearly in all areas at once, and that some kids may be ready for independent writing earlier or later than others. This is natural and totally fine.



Penpals

Who doesn't like receiving letters in the mail? Having penpals has been one of the biggest motivators for my kids in practicing their writing semi-regularly. *I* have a penpal, too, who is the mother of my kids' penpals. This has been a fun way to enjoy writing all together.


Typing Club

Typingclub.com is a free website that worked well for both of my kids in learning to type. As an added incentive, my kids were promised email accounts once they learned how to type. My son, especially, enjoyed typing lessons when he was ~8-9yo, and ended up doing over 100 lessons in his free time.


Email Accounts

Like penpals, email accounts can be especially motivating for kids in using writing as a way to keep in contact with others. My kids have email accounts through which they can communicate with family members. (For security, I set up their email accounts to forward all email they receive to my own email account.)



Spelling Games

Just as with math, games can be one of the best ways to learn spelling without it feeling like a chore.

  • We regularly play spelling games such as Quiddler and Scrabble as a family. My kids are free to join us in playing these games, and are free to team up with the adults as desired.

  • Spelling bees, just for fun, are another engaging way to practice spelling. My kids enjoy having impromptu spelling bees, wherein we take turns asking each other to spell words. The kids get to use dictionaries and encyclopedias to test me and try to stump me, and they can also ask that I spell words backwards (I always struggle trying to spell "Lamborghini" backwards). This keeps it lighthearted and fun. Spelling bees are also great for skills practice while driving!

  • Hangman is another spelling game that my kids enjoy. In this classic game, one person comes up with a word or phrase, and the other person has to guess the right letters to solve the puzzle before the man gets hanged.

  • The "What is this?" game is another fun way for kids to practice spelling. For this game, I draw a scene or item on a draw erase board and mark a few things for my kids to spell as they answer the question, "What is this?" This game is usually played right after our Breakfast School time, and often my kids will then want to draw things for me to guess. And when I ask, "Do you want to do more, or should we move onto our morning chores?" you can bet they often choose to do more. :)



Proofreading and Pointing Out Grammatical Mistakes

Using others' writing is a good way to teach kids about grammar in a non-pressured way. When there are errors in a book I am reading aloud, I will sometimes stop and point it out to explain the issues. For instance, I will trip over a sentence that needed more commas, and then go back to show my kids the issue. This helps them learn the ins-and-outs of grammar over time.


I also sometimes ask my kids to proofread my own writing, which helps them see what the process of editing looks like. My 13yo daughter, especially, seems to really enjoy proofreading my writing.


Writing Stories

Story writing is another way for kids to learn to be proficient at writing. At younger ages, and with kids who are reluctant about writing, give them encouragement by offering to transcribe the stories for the kids.


For older kids, story writing can be pursued more independently. Both of my kids have become interested in writing and typing stories this year. They write and type their own stories, as well as collaborate on stories. I have to make sure to be available for the frequent "how do you spell...?" questions. Through story writing, my kids' spelling has improved leaps-and-bounds over the last few months, without any academic pressure or requirements.


Let It Be Free-Flowing

If your kids are like mine, their interest in specific activities and subjects will naturally ebb and flow over time. Some weeks my kids choose to do something involving writing almost every day; other weeks, they may not do any writing. This is totally okay and normal. By making sure to provide plenty of opportunities for writing, I know my kids will come back around to it even if they aren't writing daily or even weekly. It's all good.




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