Teaching Your High Schooler to Write

Classic writer’s block is that crippling paralysis that strikes when we’re expected to come up with eloquent, edifying words—typically, under a time limit. But a different kind of writer’s block can strike homeschoolers seeking to meet the demands of high school level writing. Clearly, writing skills are vital for college preparation as well as for life, but for some, just trying to get started can bring on that vexatious paralysis. However, with a little forethought and the courage to just “plunge in,” you can successfully teach writing to your teen.

Set Goals
While it’s unrealistic to cover all possible types of writing in a single year, you can certainly set measurable, high-priority goals for each school year. For instance, does your student need to write longer essays? Does his or her style need polishing, with more sentence variety and concrete, specific words? Is this the year to work on inserting higher level vocabulary and more sophisticated examples? Or would you be content if your student finally conquered a raft of common errors in punctuation, spelling, and grammar? Whatever your goals, communicate them to your student and set checkpoints to reach these goals.

Teach Writing as a Process
The best pieces of writing don’t flow effortlessly out of the pen (or keyboard) without passing through some important stages, each of which must engage the brain. Teaching your student the typical pattern of these steps can remove some of the frustration from essay writing. First, prewriting involves brainstorming, planning, and outlining ideas before beginning a draft. The beauty of prewriting is that it can be done anywhere and at any time—ideas may pop up when the student least expects them. The next step, drafting, means capturing ideas in approximate form (but still a far cry from a finished essay), while revision requires polishing the content, style, organization, and mechanics of the piece. To help a student suffering from writer’s block, you may need to walk through the prewriting stage together, moving steadily from the spark of an idea to the rough outline and then to an expanded outline with specific useful examples. “Freewriting” exercises—asking the student to write anything at all for five minutes—can serve as a warmup to get creative ideas flowing. Two of my favorite resources, The Lively Art of Writing by Lucile Vaughan Payne and Writers INC by The Write Source, help writers and teachers break down the overall task of essay writing into manageable parts of a process.

Use a Rubric
To turn the subjective task of grading an essay into a more objective, goal-oriented task, try using a rubric—a check sheet of characteristics you’re looking for in the finished essay. The rubric I have developed over the years includes sections for content, organization, style, and mechanics. Content includes using examples and quotes appropriately and developing the topic sufficiently. Organization involves proper use of thesis statements, topic sentences, and transitions, as well as inclusion of a strong introduction and conclusion. The area of style encompasses sentence variety, fluidity of phrases, and use of concrete words and other style elements. Finally, mechanics deals with the proper use of grammar, punctuation, spelling, capitalization, and formatting. If your student refers to the rubric while writing, these categories won’t come as a surprise, and he or she can work toward mastery in each scoring area.

Branch Out
At the high school level, writing should take a decided turn away from “reports” and toward thoughtful, opinion-laced essays that present and support an arguable thesis rather than simply spouting facts or rehashing plot lines. Types of writing to cover include descriptive, narrative, comparison/contrast, and cause/effect essays. In addition, assign thoughtful and compelling persuasive essays, as well as longer research papers on a topic of choice. You can also experiment with creative fiction, memoirs, and technical writing to break up the steady diet of expository essays. And be sure to include some practice with college application essays so that as senior year approaches, your student will be familiar with this task.

Use Literature as a Springboard
Literature-based essays can encompass most of the essay types listed above but also come with some specific goals. Uncovering themes, symbols, and author techniques is a key focus, and much of this will arise after discussing the literary work. When developing these essays, the student should use examples and quotations from the work of literature to support the points being argued. Above all, instead of just retelling the story, the student should analyze how the author conveys themes or develops characters. It’s helpful to give the student a list of possible prompts ahead of time so that ideas can flow during the initial reading of the literature. Windows to the World by Lesha Myers is an excellent guide for literary analysis, providing a wealth of help and examples for supporting literary essays with quotes, examples, and the student’s own commentary.

Tackle Timed Writing
To prepare for SAT and ACT essays, as well as for in-class essays at college, students should become comfortable with outlining, drafting, and basic proofreading within a narrow time frame. Understandably, this is nerve-wracking, but practicing these skills repeatedly before performing “for real” can help tremendously. The Institute for Excellence in Writing’s High School Essay Intensive has an excellent unit on the SAT timed essay, with teaching tips and valuable practice.

Revise, Revise, Revise
Diligent revision is the mark of a skillful writer and should be neither skipped nor skimped. Require a revision of each essay, and two or three revisions for complex assignments such as research papers. Teach your student to proofread essays slowly and deliberately while seeking out mechanical errors, as well as areas where points don’t flow logically, where dull, vague words predominate, or where sentences lack variety. One third-grader I tutor says “revive” instead of “revise,” and indeed, an essay that has been revised has been “revived,” or given new life. Free from the deadly trappings of wordiness, fuzzy thought, and mechanical errors, it communicates the student’s ideas with vigor and vitality.

Phone a Friend
If your student is not taking a writing class outside the home, you might occasionally ask another parent to look at an essay and provide feedback. Knowing that a non-family member will review certain papers, the student may put forth more effort and may accept suggestions and criticism more readily.

Find Real-World Applications
Whether or not your student demonstrates a flair for writing, discovering practical or artistic applications of the writing craft can make a huge difference in his or her motivation. Writing for newsletters, essay contests, local newspapers, blogs, or online magazines can be a fruitful and fun way to hone skills and to enjoy “being published.”

Finally, Write, Write, Write
Ernest Hemingway said about writing, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” And one piece of advice that has stayed with me since my own high school years is “The only way to become a good writer is to write, write, write.” Over the years, this has proven to be absolutely true. While mastery is elusive, improvement is guaranteed if your student keeps practicing and keeps producing. And in the end, encouragement and consistency can be the most effective tools in your writing teacher’s toolbox.

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