English is not one of my greatest concerns, with the possible exception of grammar, because the girls and I all love to read and write. Thank you for reminding me that I do not have to grade or look over their papers using a general rubric or standard, just hold them to what I know them capable of. Another one of the blessings of homeschooling! Now if we could just feel that relaxed with math....
That's right! Your standards are perfect for them!
Assistant to The HomeScholar
Dear Lee, I just read this post from a friend. It is written by a Prof. from Hillsdale College. I edited a bit here and there, but thought the other moms might enjoy his insights.
To an ever increasing degree, students now arrive in college with poor writing skills. I do not mean to say that this is true of all of them.
And, frankly, I am not sure that it is worth the bother — for not very many of them show marked improvement in the course of the term, and when I teach them later in upper-level courses they make the same errors. The reason for this is, I suspect, that good writing is a matter of habit — and it is hard to get out of a rut. If I took the bullwhip that I keep in my office (yes, I really do!) and made generous use of it in class, I might have an effect. But, otherwise, not.
Put simply, to improve one’s writing one has to really want to do so. One has to bear down. One has to edit one’s own prose. One has to recognize bad habits and change them. With regard to grammar, this can easily enough be done — if one really wants to. The grammatical errors one makes fall into a pattern. If you can identify the pattern and become self-conscious about your prose, you can gradually substitute good habits for those that are bad. But, I repeat, one has to really want to do so — and a fair proportion of college students are too lazy to bother (albeit a smaller proportion at Hillsdale than elsewhere).
Diction is another matter. It is next to impossible to get someone who habitually misuses words to use them correctly. The obstacles are simply too great.
Think about it. Every case is unique. When a student misuses a particular word, I can correct the mistake. But that correction is good for that word and that word only. If the student is serious and intent on improvement, he will use the particular word properly in the future.
But what if he misuses all sorts of words? Lots of students do just that. How can one overcome a host of bad habits? Here I despair.
There is a moral to this tale. At 18 years of age, students are a bit like old dogs. It is hard to teach them new tricks — not impossible, mind you, but hard. Their habits have been formed.
If, then, you want someone to learn how to write with precision and vigor, you have to start when they are young. We turn our children over to the school system when they are six, and we recover them and ship them off to college when they are 18. Twelve years is a long time, and in those 12 years our schools often fail abysmally in the relatively simple task of teaching students how to read and write.
It is easy to see how this happens. Our public schools are, in fact, exceedingly expensive day-care centers, and the teachers who pretend to teach there are — how shall I say? — not the brightest bulbs. Ask any respectable college professor the following question, “Which are the undergraduate majors that the dummies choose?” You will get a finite list — communications, business, psychology, sociology, and, yes, education.
I do not mean to say that all of those who major in these fields are dim-witted. That is certainly not true. I do mean to say that, on average, they are far less gifted than those who major in math, biology, chemistry, physics, philosophy, English, classics, and history.
Here is my guess. The average junior-high and high-school English teacher cannot write with any greater precision and vigor than the freshmen I encounter in the classroom. Most, in fact, are far less capable than are Hillsdale freshmen. And what they do not know they cannot teach.
There is one other dimension to this problem that also deserves mention. Where do young people learn proper word use? I would guess, from watching my children grow up, that they learn it from reading books in which the language is deployed with precision and vigor. How do we learn to speak? From hanging out with our parents and listening to them speak. If our parents are articulate, we are apt to be articulate, too. At a certain point, books take over where parents leave off.
But, you might ask, what happens in households where there are no books? What happens in households where the television is always on? What happens if the children have computers and spend their free time playing video games? You know the answer — and the answer points to a conclusion that we should all draw. If you want literate, articulate children, you have to ditch the television, bar video games, limit access to computers, and get a library card. Good writing is learned early on. Formal teaching — especially, the study of Latin and the diagramming of sentences — helps a great deal. But nothing is as significant as good reading… and lots of it. End of sermon.
As an English teacher in a private Christian school, I find some flaws in your approach. You are completely correct in saying that students need to write--not just a little, but a lot. However, your approach to feedback is limiting. Not just ANY feedback will produce a better writing product. Practice does not make perfect--only perfect practice makes perfect. I have a fair number of previously home-schooled students come to my classroom. Very few of them are really good writers. Their parents gave them feedback, but feedback is not the only element needed. Modeling, focused grammar and an expert perspective to understand individual needs is needed. A teacher who has a background in literature also helps students to focus on understanding many aspects of literature, not just the plot and characters--those are easy. To appreciate literature, more must be understood in order to understand culture and what makes great writing great. Some home schooling parents are capable, and to them, I give kudos, but I've seen too many home schooled students hand me writing that is a jumbled mess, but they think they deserve A's because the papers are creative, and after all, their mothers read the work and helped them edit their writing. Never mind that pronouns are misused or the organization is nebulous at best. Furthermore, the reason I use a rubric is to give the student the expectations in advance so the student can understand exactly what is expected. Of course, a rubric helps me to be equitable with all my students, but that is actually a secondary purpose. So I disagree. No, not just anyone can teach high school English.
I totally agree on this approach to writing instruction, from my perspective of 33 years as chair of English in a quite successful (and expensive) private school. One can't exactly teach them how but one can give them enough practice for them to discover how.
You might also like this article on High School English: A "Grouch Free" Guide to Grading
Thank you so much for this encouraging post! Many times I feel I am not doing enough (or I am not doing it as well as they do in public school), but the method you described is the way we tackle the subject of English in our home. Thankfully, my husband is able to take on the responsibility of editing the writing assignments for the most part. Thanks.
Thanks for the encouragement! I totally agree with you. I do my best to just help them write a good paper... always have. Make sure they have good grammar and good punctuation so that everyone can understand what they write. I encourage them to write and type, and I believe that is the best thing we can do for them in English class, in addition to reading.
Thank you, Lee! Even though this is how I've done English for middle school I've been contemplating how that will change or need to change for high school. Good to know it doesn't have to! It has also been the best way to get my daughter to write without fear of me tearing her writing apart.
Another sigh of relief.
Thank you for your question!
There is a good book on writing prompts that you can start with, called "501 Writing Prompts." You can read more about it in this blog post:
It sounds like you are really struggling to find a fit with curriculum. I have an article about choosing curriculum that may help:
For people who don't really know where to begin looking, I like to point people to Sonlight Curriculum because I find it to be the easiest to use.
Could you please tell me where to get ideas from to give my daughter to write about? She is not motivated in any of her subjects. I really need help. I am feeling like a failure. I want to continue home schooling, and I know I can help her in her Christian walk, but when it comes to HS classes, I am not sure.
That's very encouraging! My son is a great writer and had he stayed in public school he would of been in honors English this year! I feel confident to teach English. Math! now that's my weakness,and my kids too! They don't even want to look at it! We're more of a Lit. family than that of math and science.
Have you seen my blog post about literature analysis?
I'm not saying that blog post has the answer, but it may help you to feel better about literature - at least a little bit :-)
I like what you said about teaching highschool writing. I do that with my teens, although I usually assign a mark as well.
What really bothers me, though, is teaching literature. I learned so much in highschool lit classes (phenomenal teachers) and cannot see a way to give my children the same benefits.
Thank you Lee ~
You have no idea how much this has set my mind at ease. I've started high school with my son and hold onto my extra measures of grace by the day!
This is interesting and very encouraging. To follow the majority of the group would mean using a formal English program from day one. I like the idea of "proofing" my children's papers, and have seen that by giving my children good, solid books for reading that they are beginning to write well also. We have not yet used any official English program, and are progressing well thus far. Thank you for your insight.
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