Teach your kids to write the perfect paragraph

In the curriculum world, I notice there is an obsession with good writing. The problem with the curriculum is that it tells you WHAT to write, which is exactly the problem with school, telling you what to learn. The best way to learn is to do what interests you.

By the same token, the best way to write is to write what you feel like writing about. Part of learning to write is learning to identify what you want to write about. No one writes as well about a proscribed topic as they do about a topic that percolated to the top of their head.

So, if you are not focusing on prompting a kid with a assigned topic, then what will you focus on? Probably you should focus on getting out of the way. But here are three things to think about as well:

1. Focus on rhythm. Good writers write like they talk. Which means any word you don’t say is a word you can’t write. (Think: utilize.) Good sentences have a believable cadence. And some fragments. Verbal speech has an intuitive cadence and it’s disconcerting to read writing that does not have that same cadence.

A child intuitively writes in the cadence of their voice if you don’t bug them about spelling, grammar or topic. Writing in one’s own cadence is nearly impossible to teach after you bang it out of a kid. (When I was in graduate school for creative writing, over and over again we heard people say writing programs don’t teach writing, they give good writers a space to write.) So it’s not worth teaching a kid spelling or grammar at the expense of cadence.

(Anyway, there is spellchecker, and who ever heard of a kid who wrote and read every day who didn’t end up having good grammar?)

I learned to write a standard paragraph from The Important Book. The book teaches the rhythm of a paragraph, which is what you need to feel, in your brain, after you learn to feel the rhythm of a sentence.

2. Demand an insight. The Stanford Study of Writing shows us that kids write better when they think there will be a large audience. One reason is that they feel the need to tell the audience something new, that the audience will care about. It’s not enough to just report on something. A kid intuitively knows that they need to be interesting. And what is interesting to the kid will feel interesting to other people.

So the kid writing the paragraph has to learn something from writing it. Not a fact, but an insight about relating to the facts. So, actually, it might take five paragraphs to get one good paragraph. Which, actually, is how good writers write. I tossed out five paragraphs from this post, for example.

What I learned from this number two section is that facts are a path to a paragraph, but in the age of the Internet, they are not enough for a paragraph. Facts are commodified, and no kid will spend their life writing facts. Kids will spend their lives writing opinions, insights, and plans. That’s what people get paid for in the age of the Internet.

3. Originality doesn’t matter. There is nothing new. Nothing that has not been said before. So the only thing you can do is say it in a way that is unique to you. This is true for kids, to. Don’t falsely encourage them that their paragraph about lions is interesting. They will only feel that it’s interesting when there is a personal angle they added.

Take a look at the photo up top. It’s from my photographer friend James Maher. He took a picture of my two kids. Pretty standard. But he took one picture that is head-on and in focus and one picture that is my son in some other world, out of focus. The photo is interesting because it combines two standard things we would not think of combining that way.

Teach kids to do that. It’s not enough for kids to list facts. Demand that they have at least two things in their paragraph that will combine in an interesting way.

Kids should take other peoples’ ideas. Since the whole point of good writing is a kid learning to infuse themselves—through cadence, insight, and  background—in the writing, it doesn’t matter if they start with someone else’s idea or not. For example, I stole the headline for this post from Practical Homeschooling. I thought to myself: I could write that advice much better than they did.

12 replies
  1. Caroline
    Caroline says:

    This is very good advice. I’m seeing it in action for the last 4 years of homeschooling and we are having good results.

    Believe it or not, the curriculum we follow recommends a very similar method to the one you suggest here. It also recommends not teaching formal grammar because “it gets in the way”. My child is never given a topic but writes a page or two on something of interest. She learns form and function by reading good books.

    In my state, we are forced to annually test homeschoolers. She is 12 and this year she tested nicely in all areas, but in writing she scored on a 10th grade level.

  2. another Lisa
    another Lisa says:

    As soon as I read this post I had to did up a bunch of old emails from my youngest sister. Each filled with spelling errors, run on sentences, grammar errors, fragments etc…. But the stories she told often had me laughing so hard my eyes would fill with tears. An editor could fix the errors if she ever wanted to do something with her writing. My other sister coincidentally an English major gets all the technical stuff correct, it’s perfect, but she can’t tell a story thus she should never be a writer and fortunately she is not, where as my youngest sister could easily be a writer.

  3. Bec Oakley
    Bec Oakley says:

    So many big ideas here, and really useful links.

    I love that the internet is teaching kids to be better writers, to learn to be interesting if they want to be heard above the noise. I love fragmentences. I love that I don’t have to teach them that fragmentences are wrong. I love that I can use made-up words like fragmentences.

    I used to think my kids weren’t interested in writing, just video games. Then today my son was telling me about the video game company he and his brother are going to set up when they’re older. His position is going to be called Head Storyteller, because “every good game starts with a good story”.

  4. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    This post ( http://menwithpens.ca/dont-write-like-you-talk/ ) discusses #1. The caveat is you can write like you talk as long as you can talk – really talk – i. e. verbally communicate effectively. The author (Taylor Lindstrom) cites this advice from essayist Christopher Hitchens which she described as hated advice. So she wrote an amendment to the hated advice – “Write the way you talk – if you can speak persuasively, eloquently, and clearly.”

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Oh. I’m not sure I’m going for that. Look at As I Lay Dying. Beautiful writing. Beautiful story. Ineloquent speaking. Also, Room — a more current (and totally amazing book) has a narrator who has stunted verbal skills.

      The trick with writing with a cadence of stunted verbal skills is to be consistent. Which is, again, about rhythm.


  5. Nicole
    Nicole says:

    So many things popped into my mind as I read this post!

    1. One thing that I find glaringly missing in this list, except for a brief mention in a parenthetical passage in number 1, is that kids learn to write by reading–reading things they love and things that make them want to read more. That’s the one thing that made me want to write, and made me want to be good at writing: reading.

    2. Speaking of number 1, I totally believe that if I would have listened to my teachers about what makes “good” writing, I wouldn’t care about writing now. I write like crazy about things I care about, and part of the reason is because I made myself learn to not make myself feel guilty over occasionally starting sentences with “and” or throwing in an effective sentence fragment here or there, instead of learning to avoid those things, like my teachers intended. But still, old training dies hard, and now, as a teacher, I have to force myself not to point out such “errors” when I grade papers, even though I technically should, because I’m grading “academic” writing. But “academic” writing does its best to stomp out any voice, especially if it’s “good,” and that’s why it’s so excruciating to read, and why seasoned professors, who are supposed to read and write for a living, hardly ever read what their colleagues publish–they make their grad assistants do it.

    Three, I’ve met several “creative writers” who went to grad school for creative writing. One of them is my best friend. Her degree didn’t make her a great writer; she was already that. It just helped her make connections. Meanwhile, the ones that started a creative writing program as terrible writers finished the program as terrible writers, mainly because they had a good story to tell but they couldn’t get it out without sounding stilted and boring. And creative writing professors only tell the really great students that they suck, while they tell the terrible writers that they’re great, because writers that are better than them are competition in an already ridiculously oversaturated market; everyone wants to be a writer. So the terrible creative writers got told over and over again that they’re wonderful at what they do. And what did they do after they got their master’s in creative writing, and couldn’t get anything published because they were terrible? Law school, of course.

    Four, your section about adding personal angles to writing (and education in general) is a cornerstone of some of the teacher training going on in lots of universities, especially when it comes to teaching culturally and linguistically diverse students. Lots of teachers are being taught that the best way to teach concepts is to integrate personal knowledge and understandings. This sounds like a “duh” kind of thing, but it’s actually really difficult to teach teachers to do it, because, of course, their default setting is to teach as they were taught. And most teachers are white, English-speaking, middle-class women, who went to school with all other white, English-speaking, middle-class children and white, English-speaking, middle-class teachers.

    Phew, sorry for the word vomit. :)

  6. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    I homeschool my three kids, and we mostly read old books. They read, speak, and write with nuance beyond their years, and I’m convinced it is because they’ve developed the “accent” of good writing from listening to classic literature. The most painless way to learn! :)

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