Rebooting Writing

Halfway through my tenth-grader daughter’s fall semester, we made significant changes. We set aside the literature and social studies programs she had started the year with. Together, we chose an alternative—Sonlight’s 20th Century History and Literature curriculum. The variety of books in Sonlight’s program have provided a wonderful challenge and led to some great discussions. The most daunting aspect, though, has been the writing.

The Sonlight Student Guide outlines two or three writing assignments each week. When I realized how many hours my daughter spent staring at a blank computer screen, I knew it was time to intervene. I had failed to teach her the basics of writing. From prior experience, I knew that the curriculum which had empowered my son to write may not be the best option for her. What could I do?

Over Christmas break, email freebies drew me to the Institute for Excellence in Writing (IEW) website. Having received a free 3-month premium membership to their site, I began watching a series of training videos for parents—Teaching Writing: Structure and Style.

Honestly, the IEW program had completely intimidated me in the past. I was always searching for the perfect resource that would teach my kids to write—not a program to teach me how to teach them. And the program seemed so expensive! If my free membership had not included the videos, I may not have started watching them.

After watching fifteen minutes of the first video, I was hooked. I enjoyed listening to Andrew Pudewa enthusiastically explain a practical, step-by-step approach to teaching writing.

Before long, I realized that I had never taught my kids the foundational skill of taking notes. I was intrigued by the idea of having the kids start by creating keyword outlines from a source text, using three words from each sentence. Afterward, students test their outline by retelling the passage using only their notes. Then they write their own paragraph from the outline. Because it seemed so simple, I was sure I could teach my kids that way.

Middle School Writing

My twin eighth-grade daughters were first to try out the method. Excitedly, I printed a source text (included with my premium membership) for them to outline. I encouraged them to underline or circle three keywords in each sentence and then write them down. While one girl struggled to figure out exactly how to choose keywords in a lengthy sentence, the other quickly completed her outline. I helped the struggling twin by reading the sentence aloud. “What are the most important ideas in the sentence?” I queried. Within minutes, she had completed her outline as well.

Next, it was time to test their outlines. Could they retell the passage aloud using only their notes? My speedy outliner easily informed me about fungus gnats, an unusual insect from New Zealand. Delighted that she had followed the public speaking tips I had not even taught her yet, I complimented her as I shared Mr. Pudewa’s tips with both girls. When her sister took a turn, she too made a conscious effort to look up when speaking. What a quick and painless public speaking lesson!

High School Writing

With a sigh of relief, my high school daughter set aside her Sonlight writing assignments. It was time to start over, rebuilding a foundation for writing. But is tenth grade too late for a writing reboot?

Knowing her resistence to completing the exact same lessons as her younger sisters, I intentionally chose a different passage for her to outline. I worked with her one-on-one while her sisters were out of the house. When I introduced the concept of creating a keyword outline, she was quick to catch on. As she dictated the keywords to me, I played the role of secretary, jotting them down. It was a good opportunity to model the procedure.

She effortlessly used the outline we created to retell the key ideas to me. After I gave her a few pointers on public speaking, she put her outline away.

Making Progress

Since the girls had done such a great job with their outlines, I knew they were ready to begin unit two. The next morning, I asked them each to write a paragraph of their own using only the outline they had created. Because blank-screen-sydrome is a serious issue for one of them, I required all the girls to write with pen and paper, just as Mr. Pudewa recommended.

While they were busy with their writing assignments, I worked through my own. Completing a similar exercise myself may help me teach it more effectively. I may eventually submit my work to become a registered instructor for IEW.

Reading through a passage based about elephants, I made my own keyword outline. Then I started working on my rough draft. Imagine my surprise when one of my twins suggested an improvement when I was just two sentences in to my paragraph!

What’s Next?

I am beginning to feel confident that I can teach my children to write well. Now that we have begun working with IEW, I have dumped the writing assignments that came with our other curriculum. Although they are terrific and thought-provoking, it is more important for my kids to learn to write well. One of my girls desperately needs help with writing. According to Mr. Pudewa, there is no such thing as helping her too much.

I was thrilled to learn that the premium membership costs just $99 for the first year, then $39 to renew in subsequent years. Since it includes all of the training videos and teacher accreditation materials (which cost $189 separately), it is worth every penny. All the teaching resources I need are included. If I have trouble teaching a writing concept, I can show the girls one of Mr. Pudewa’s video clips. They may enjoy his instruction as much as I do.

Looking ahead at some of the later units, I feel a bit intimidated right now. Will I really be able to teach my daughters to creatively retell entire stories, summarize and organize information from multiple sources, and even write literary critiques? Using the systematic IEW materials, I may have to work just as hard as the girls. When my daughters can efficiently and insightfully write anything life requires them too, I will know that rebooting our writing program in 2019 was the right thing to do.