As Ruth Beechick says, we learn to speak by listening and speaking. So the analogy is: we learn to write by reading and writing. This natural method of learning to write is actually the MOST effective way to learn. It isn’t anything new. In Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, he explains how he taught himself to write:
About this time I met with an odd volume of the Spectator. It was the third. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, try’d to compleat the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my Spectator with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them. But I found I wanted a stock of words, or a readiness in recollecting and using them, which I thought I should have acquired before that time if I had gone on making verses; since the continual occasion for words of the same import, but of different length, to suit the measure, or of different sound for the rhyme, would have laid me under a constant necessity of searching for variety, and also have tended to fix that variety in my mind, and make me master of it. Therefore I took some of the tales and turned them into verse; and, after a time, when I had pretty well forgotten the prose, turned them back again. I also sometimes jumbled my collections of hints into confusion, and after some weeks endeavored to reduce them into the best order, before I began to form the full sentences and compleat the paper. This was to teach me method in the arrangement of thoughts. By comparing my work afterwards with the original, I discovered many faults and amended them; but I sometimes had the pleasure of fancying that, in certain particulars of small import, I had been lucky enough to improve the method or the language, and this encouraged me to think I might possibly in time come to be a tolerable English writer, of which I was extremely ambitious.
To summarize, first he found a piece of writing that he thought was “excellent” and wanted to imitate. Second, he outlined the article, “making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence.” Third, he would lay his outlines aside for a few days and then when he came back to them would try to recreate the article by only looking at his outline. Fourth, he would then compare his creation with that of the original, finding and correcting any faults. He continued this process over time, adding the exercise of turning tales into verse. Or after forgetting the original tale, turning his verse back into prose.
Franklin also rearranged some of his outlines into a jumbled mess, and then recreated the whole. This process he felt taught him “method in the arrangement of thoughts.”
Eventually he felt he had attained the level at which at times his own writing was actually better than the original!
There are two points that are very important to glean from the above:
- We don’t teach writing. We teach a child how to focus on writing. We provide him with ways and means to become a better writer. But in the end, the student teaches himself how to write. This is how it worked in our home. My children learned to write by my helping them focus on their writing, providing them with tips for improving, teaching them how to edit their own work. In the end, however, they taught themselves.
- The natural process of learning to write sounds deceptively simple. (What? No grammar workbooks? No essays? What about spelling?) But the process is actually very challenging. It is frankly much easier to fill in a workbook (got that done, check, task finished) than to plug in your brain and coax from it cogent thoughts, words, and phrases that express something unique!
One last point, we only get better as we practice our craft. To become a better writer, we need to write every day. This is true no matter our age.
Using this information, here are 7 lessons you can use as you get a grasp on how to convey the natural writing process to your students. Please note, there is no reason to begin here unless your child already can read easily, and can use his pencil to form letters and words comfortably. You’ll find helps for students of all ages below.
1. Copy words, sentences, and paragraphs.
The choice of what to copy is often best left up to the student. This way they can choose something they are interested in. But we do want to guide them in choosing text worth copying.
2. Outline a piece.
Again, let the student choose, if possible. But have him outline the work. Franklin did this sentence by sentence. You may want to start with a short piece or even a short paragraph.
3. Write from outline.
Using only the outline, recreate the piece of writing. The idea is to capture the full body of the original.
Compare the creation to the original.
- What might have been better said?
- What grammatical mistakes were made?
- What spelling errors cropped up?
The student can repeat this process until he feels he has made steps forward.
4. Write from a model.
What is a favorite poem or short piece of writing? The student can use this work as a model for writing his own work following the same form.
For example, if “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost is a favorite poem, try using that style and format for creating a new work: “Running by the Ocean on a Hot Summer’s Day.”
5. Change the format.
Take a poem and write it as prose. Or take a prose piece and write it as verse. Try to keep the same meaning.
Another option is to write a news story as a short story or vice versa.
6. Rearrange the outline.
Begin by creating an outline of a work. Rearrange the outline (or notes), putting them in a nonsequential order. Put the rearranged outline aside.
Several weeks later, revisit the outline. Put it in the correct order. Then try to capture the full meaning of the original. Compare this to the original.
7. Write with a critical eye.
When the student has progressed in his writing, he may find he is able to take a published work and write a copy that is better than the original.
Task the student with keeping a lookout for works that he thinks he can improve. And then give it a shot!
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