Writing Instruction, Step by Step

For many homeschooling families, writing instruction is a perpetual source of stress. Parents may not feel competent to teach writing because, like many adults today, they were never actually taught to write themselves; their teachers simply handed them a blank sheet of paper and expected them to produce original writing without the benefit of explicit instruction. Children often do not enjoy writing because—well, let’s be honest: writing is hard work. As a result, writing instruction often falls by the wayside, or families hop from program to program, looking for the magical unicorn that will make writing fun and easy.

Such a creature does not exist. However, writing isn’t all that different from other pursuits. Like learning to play an instrument or a sport, it’s a matter of mastering a sequence of skills that build on each other, step by step. Improvement is often slow and incremental, but with practice—lots and lots and lots of practice—it does happen.

Explicit, sequential writing instruction is not optional, at least not if you want your child to be a competent writer by the end of high school. Creative writing warmups (“free writes”) will not prepare students for academic essays. Charlotte-Mason-style oral narration is an excellent start for young children, but it’s not sufficient on its own to develop good writing skills. The essay prompts in your literature curriculum provide much-needed writing practice, but they do not substitute for dedicated writing instruction. Formal writing instruction should begin no later than grade 3 (grade 1 is better) and run all the way through grade 12. In fact, I would go so far as to say that writing instruction forms the backbone of a well-thought-out ELA program.

Thankfully, well-structured and effective writing curricula are readily available—I recommend Writing & Rhetoric from Classical Academic Press and Susan Wise Bauer’s Writing with Ease/Writing with Skill. The Core Knowledge Language Arts program balances rigor with age-appropriate expectations for student writing, all in the context of a content-rich curriculum. The Killgallon Sentence Composing Approach makes a good bridge during the late elementary and middle school years.

Perhaps the most flexible option is The Writing Revolution. TWR is not a curriculum in itself, but rather a set of strategies that support writing across the curriculum. It can help parents reinforce what their children are learning in a dedicated writing program and apply those skills in every content area. That’s why I’ve made TWR exercises a key part of my world literature curriculum, Exploring the World through Story. However, because TWR is aligned with the Common Core Standards, the authors expect children to write multi-paragraph pieces earlier than I think is wise, so I’ve adapted their pacing to prioritize practice at the sentence and paragraph levels through grade 5, reserving essays for middle school. (Parents of my vintage, who long predate the Common Core, may wonder why this is controversial, as essay forms were routinely taught in junior high in the late 1970s and early 1980s.)

What follows is the K-8 sequence that I am using as I develop EWS. It’s what I recommend to parents who want a middle ground between the unrealistic expectations of the Common Core and a laissez-faire approach that assumes that children will learn to write through a combination of parental cheerleading, good books, and pixie dust. Note that the skills listed are by no means the only ones that should be taught or practiced. They are simply the focal points for each year, just as long division might be a major instructional focus in 4th grade math.

  • Kindergarten: Oral responses to comprehension questions
  • 1st Grade: Oral narrations (with and without prompts)
  • 2nd Grade: Transition from oral narrations to brief written narrative summaries
  • 3rd Grade: Sentence variation
  • 4th Grade: Paragraph formation (topic sentence, body/supporting sentences, concluding sentence)
  • 5th Grade: Paragraph expansion (examples, explanations, elaboration, evidence)
  • 6th Grade: Three-paragraph essay (intro/body/conclusion)
  • 7th Grade: Four-paragraph essay (compare-contrast, pro-con)
  • 8th Grade: Five-paragraph essay (thesis statements)

By taking the time to practice sentence- and paragraph-level composition in grades K-5, middle school students can easily see how to expand simple paragraphs into essays of increasing length. They enter their high school years prepared to move beyond the five-paragraph formula and develop a more flexible and creative approach to writing. Strong foundational skills allow them to take full advantage of classical offerings like logic and rhetoric.

While I don’t know of any one writing curriculum that follows this pacing, the best programs will teach these skills and structures explicitly, and content-area curricula like EWS provide the extensive practice necessary for children to master core writing skills.

Just remember: students can’t practice skills they haven’t been taught. They need explicit, step-by-step writing instruction to become confident, competent writers.

Copyright 2021 by Andrew Campbell, PhD. All rights reserved.

Andrew Campbell is the author of The Latin-Centered Curriculum, Living Memory, I Speak Latin, and Exploring the World through Story. Dr. Campbell is a veteran homeschooler and has worked as a classroom teacher, private school administrator, and independent tutor.