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Why "Writing Instruction through Guided Analysis"?

INTRODUCTION: Guided Dialogue as a Methodology

Modern grammar and writing methodologies tend to swing between two extremes. On the one hand, you have grammar programs that spend a week on nouns and then move on to a week on verbs and then move on to a week on adjectives, etc., with no connection to writing instruction. Students master the definitions and identify the parts of speech in sterilized, simplified sentences. On the other extreme, you have writing programs that focus on journal writing and quantity of output. The quality of the written expression is subordinated to the amount written. Children are encouraged to write reams of stream of consciousness paragraphs with inadequate boundaries controlling their written communication. This view of writing instruction is that simply putting as many words on paper as possible develops strong writing skills.

From my educational viewpoint, both extremes leave students floundering. The goal of education should be to empower. We want students to understand the framework required for effective communication and that the English language has rules controlling how it works and how it should be expressed. Mastering those rules ultimately empowers students to be able to express themselves effectively. When students control the language that they use, they know precisely how to utilize language to say exactly what they mean. They understand how to structure a sentence, a paragraph, a report, an essay to convey the thoughts they possess.

How do we achieve the goal of teaching students the boundaries that exist for effective communication? It is not by ignoring the structure of our language as encouraged by journaling and stream of consciousness writing. Yet, it is also not achieved by drilling grammar definitions and pages of fill in the blanks. The goal is achieved by providing students with a solid understanding of how words work together to form strong sentences and how sentences relate to one another to form strong paragraphs and ultimately how strong paragraphs work together in a complex piece.

Over the years of teaching my children how to write, I developed a discussion-based method for instruction where I sit with my students and we analyze word by word or sentence by sentence how an author wrote a specific piece. How did I arrive at this teaching methodology?   It simply boils down to my academic background with its focus on Bloom's taxonomy and how children develop higher order critical thinking skills. CHILDREN ARE CAPABLE OF PROCESSING FAR MORE COMPLEX INFORMATION THAN THEY ARE CAPABLE OF PRODUCING.

Most children's grammar and writing textbooks teach students concepts with examples on the same level that they are likely to produce. Sentences are simple in structure. Parts of speech are taught with sentences tightly controlled to only allow for the patterns that specifically follow what is being taught. Subjects and verbs are taught with sentences like The dog jumped, The cat meowed, or The bird sang. What does that approach end up doing?   It teaches kids to search for patterns instead of mastering the concepts. When students are confronted with complex sentences which in no way resemble the simple, controlled sentences in their grammar or writing books, they are lost because the information no longer fits the expected pattern.

Because I want mastery of concepts instead of reliance on simple patterns, I have always shied away from simple knowledge-based education with the repeat back to me exactly what you are told objective. My educational goal is to teach children not only the base knowledge required but to move them beyond simple knowledge to analyzing what they are doing and to synthesizing the whys of what they are learning. Once they have internalized the whys, they are empowered to use the tools they possess at their will.


What are my objectives for this writing curriculum?

In my more than two decades of homeschooling, I have never found a single writing curriculum that I have liked. My hope is that parents will be able to garner helpful information in how to approach teaching specific skills and concepts, even if the actual implementation of this curriculum needs to be modified to meet their students' needs.

Children can be taught from complex materials even when they are only in third or fourth grade. The writing they study does not need to emulate their own level of writing. The goal should be for them to emulate writing that pulls them toward a higher level of coherent expression. Through Socratic type dialogue, children can be encouraged to understand how words are powerful and how they, as writers, control the words they use. Words are their tools. Getting children to think about the complex ideas being presented by asking them guided questions means that every question they answer correctly is a concept they are beginning to incorporate into their thoughts. Mastering complex concepts means they are one step closer to controlling their expressions.

This entire book is written informally as a hypothetical dialogue. I have attempted to recreate the teaching strategies I have used with my own children. If read as a "How To" book, a teacher will see how I scaffold, or support, students during initial learning and gently wean them off the supports. They are taught step by step the skills they need to accomplish a given task. Mastering the development of those skill leads not only to effective communication, but also to confidence in communicating.

Obviously the structured week by week format is contrived. I do not teach my children nouns for two weeks, verbs for two weeks, etc. As in everything in our homeschool, how long we spend on a concept is completely dependent on the individual I am teaching. Some kids fly forward. Some kids need to park in the same place for an extended period. I hope you will offer your own students the same opportunities.

The concepts taught in this curriculum are easily adapted to most materials your students are already reading.  If your child needs more practice, use this book as a resource sample. Take materials you have access to and adapt them to meet your teaching needs and give your student the opportunity to blossom with skills that come from real understanding.


How is this course structured?

This course is divided into three sections. Each section addresses skills that I believe are vital for children in the 3rd-5th grade range: writing strong sentences, writing cohesive paragraphs, and writing simple paragraph reports from notes. Each section in the book builds on the skills taught in the previous section. The course may seem deceptively simple at the beginning, but the amount of material covered increases each week as the children continually add more and more skills to their writing treasure chest. If children are mastering the concepts at the pace presented, the workload should not be overwhelming. If a child is becoming overwhelmed, it is an indication that the curriculum needs to be put away for a while, and parents should pull in additional resources until their child has confidently mastered what is being taught.

The first section of the book focuses on mastering the basic parts of speech and what constitutes a complete thought. The instruction is not simply focused on what is a noun or what is a verb. Students are asked to think about how individual word selections create different images. They learn how to select precise words to convey the exact images they mean to express. Children learn the essential elements of a complete thought. They are immersed in vivid descriptions to copy and analyze in order to learn how to replicate writing which moves beyond the simplistic, The boy ran fast, The dog barked loudly, or The cat climbed the tree.

The second section focuses on understanding how sentences work together to form paragraphs. Through analyzing paragraphs which were written specifically to engage their imaginations, students study the basic structure of  paragraphs, the topic sentences and the supporting details. They learn to identify the main idea of each paragraph as expressed by the topic sentence. They study how each supporting detail in a paragraph expands on the main idea by giving more information precisely on that topic and not unrelated topics. Students then take the pre-written paragraphs and create simple outlines from the paragraph details. Next, students transition to writing paragraphs using provided topic sentences and outlined supporting details. Eventually, as the scaffolding, or support, is removed, students use provided topic sentences to create their own supporting details for their outlines. Students ultimately progress to writing independent paragraphs based on those outlines.

The third section builds directly on the skills they mastered in the previous section. Students are provided short non-fiction excerpts and are asked to think about how the selections address given narrowed topics. After reading through individual articles, through guided dialogue, students are asked to consider sentence by sentence whether the information is directly related to the narrowed topic they have been asked to focus on. As they go through the selection, they learn to take notes directly related to their main idea. After they gather their notes, they create an outline just like they learned to do in the previous section. They are assisted in creating a topic sentence which addresses the main idea supported in their outline. The course concludes with students writing simple paragraph reports from the outlines they created from their notes.

As you can see, students are guided step by step through the process of mastering the essential skills required for effective writing at this level. The program relies on the interactive dialogue between the parent/teacher and the child. This is not an approach that will be successful if a child is expected to complete the assignments independently with the parent only grading the final product. The final product is the result of the directed questioning which enabled the student to internalize the process and own it so that they in turn could express effectively what they were thinking.

I hope your children blossom and grow as writers through treasured conversations just as my own children have.


Karen Parkes