The following was written in response to an email I received from a mom who is discouraged. She asks what her focus in teaching language arts should be.
Your focus is stated so well, that “they need to be able to express themselves.” Let’s talk about penmanship first, since the purpose of penmanship is that they can write quickly enough that their mind is off letter formation and on the content of what they’re writing (whether it’s taking notes in a class in college or during a sermon at church, or whether they are quickly expressing themselves in an essay). I think that kids are turned off to language arts simply because they do not like handwriting. It is slow and tedious because they never learned to write quickly and effortlessly, or because their hands start to ache.
I like teaching cursive first, because it is so much faster to write with once learned, and younger children learn it effortlessly, before they’re at the age when they need to produce much writing content. My favorite cursive writing curriculum is Cursive First. It is reproducible, and I have used it for my older children several times as a 6-week review of handwriting.
If a certain child just cannot grasp cursive or simply doesn’t grow out of hating handwriting, I recommend teaching him to type as soon as possible. A free program online is http://rapidtyping.com. I would spend several months and have my son type for 30-40 minutes per day (depending on age), so that the skill is learned very quickly. Only when his speed is at least 45 wpm would I allow him to type his school assignments. You can offer this as a motivational goal to a student who hates to write by hand.
After a child has learned basic cursive, I would use copywork and a journal. Copywork must be done neatly and recopied if it’s messy. A journal is a place to begin to learn to get one’s thoughts down on paper. I don’t “grade” journal writing for spelling or handwriting. However, I often set a minimum writing limit, such as “tell me about X in at least 7 sentences.” If a child is typing, have him or her type in a computer-based journal but continue copywork by hand.
Okay, so handwriting is learned for the goal of “expressing themselves,” not as an end in itself. Why do we learn grammar? We learn it so that we can express ourselves with manners. In other words, we speak and write with correct grammar so that others won’t be distracted by our display of ignorance. A second reason for learning grammar is so that we can learn to think logically and to analyze. Diagramming is especially helpful for this. Finally, learning English grammar helps us learn foreign language structure.
To learn to express ourselves correctly, with good grammar, we must hear well-spoken grammar in the home. A Beka sells a little booklet called Oral Language Exercises that is a big help in doing this daily. I also offer a dime to any child who “catches” bad grammar elsewhere, on a sign, in a book, or spoken.
I like teaching grammar, with diagramming and logic, around the fourth grade. My favorite textbooks include Easy Grammar, A Beka’s third-grade Language book, KISS grammar, or First Language Lessons (Level 3). Any of these books makes an easy-on-mom, one-year grammar curriculum. Be sure to include diagramming of sentences. After that, I recommend Daily Grams so that the student doesn’t forget what he has learned. KISS grammar is also set up for easy, daily review. Another year of thorough review of grammar is helpful at the beginning of high school, and I recommend the English Handbook by Bob Jones University Press at this age.
Finally, the most difficult part of language arts is learning to express ourselves on paper. The goal is to be competent at this by the time a student graduates from high school. At that time, you want him to be able to write a 10-page research paper, a 10-page position paper, extemporaneous essays, and to be introduced to other forms of written communication, such as speeches, teaching lessons to young children, story telling, and poetry.
To write a 10-page paper is a multi-faceted project. You must learn to come up with ideas, to research, to take notes, to outline, to consider an audience, and much more. All of these skills can be learned by beginning to write one sentence at a time. After a student has learned to write one good sentence, he needs to learn how to write one good paragraph. Finally, he needs to write an essay (several paragraphs on a single topic), and only then can he begin to write several pages. Most curriculum I’ve seen moves too quickly through this process. I think it’s wise to move very slowly through this progression, perfecting each stage before rushing to the next.
One problem that children have is that they just haven’t lived long enough to have ideas floating in their heads that are begging to come out. For that reason, I think that the best way to cultivate a good writer is to read good books to our children. The elementary years should be primarily concerned with reading (and possibly journal writing or other practical writing, such as letters to grandmother, recipes, or narration).
Young teenagers should then have a unit study on the sentence, followed by a unit study on paragraph writing, then a unit study on essay writing, and then finally a unit study on research and position papers. Allow several years for this and plenty of practice, writing daily or at least several times per week. (This is another good reason to teach typing first.) Be sure his mind is filled with ideas and that he writes about subjects that interest him. An inspiring book on this process is If You’re Trying to Teach Kids How to Write, You’ve Gotta Have This Book, by Marjorie Frank. The English Handbook also contains a section on writing research papers.
If a student is reluctant to write only because of the handwriting or typing involved, teach him to speak instead. Allow him to speak into a voice recorder, as long as he has researched his topic, prepared notes and an outline, and uses good enunciation.
In summary, include the following subjects in your day, spending just a few minutes on each:
1. Handwriting or typing until mastered
3. Journal writing
4. Formal grammar or grammar review
5. Reading good literature
6. Unit studies on formal writing for older students combined with daily practice
I hope this helps! It was really good for me to have to write all this down! <wink>