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On Spelling & Grammar: The More You Know, the Worse You Do

teaching grammar

The Following is an Excerpt from a Yahoo Group I belong to…and my thoughts on why grammar and spelling are not really good subjects to teach.

Hi Gina (and all),

I feel a little like Copernicus (or Noah)…though I assure you a  grandeur-delusion is not in play!

We homeschoolers have so embraced competing with the school systems (and their assumptions) that we drift (or just repeat) all the methods found in schools.  Now, there methods aren’t always wrong, but they are always taught with a team of teachers surrounded by lots of students.  Didn’t we get out of mass-education schools because we thought there might be a better way?

Here’s my craziness—

1.  Grammar is a hindrance to writing, hence it is a hindrance to education.

2.  Spelling is mostly an issue of a BAD HABIT.

I’ll write an article on grammar soon, but just check out Rudolf Flesch’s books and articles (this is the guy who brought phonics back from the dead with “Why Johnny Can’t Write.”  He also originated the readability scale (Flesch/Kincaid).  Flesch rightly points out what they’ve known for years…grammar study hurts writing.  The reason is simple—who can write when they are obsessing on correct use of gerunds and participles?  This is the nice thing about RC (sorry he added an item for grammar years later), he understands that education is for more dependent on the student absorbing learning than it is for a teacher teaching learning.

Good grammar comes from good reading and good writing and good speaking—period.  Good grammar teachers (who ‘don’t hardly ever’ win writing awards) come from studying grammar.  Almost no one uses grammar rules in their writing unless they are marginal writers (yes the exception is someone with the personality of an editor…a rare-and-valuable unique character)!

The SPELLING HABIT is addressed below in a note to Lori.

…………………………………………………………

(NOTE 1)

Hi Lori,

Good questions!

First, on spelling, in our writing course (www.advanced-writing-resources.com ) which we have our own children go through each year; we have incorporated spelling-work into our writing process.  I discovered a few years ago that the difference between good spellers and bad spellers is that good spellers NEVER guess.  So, we train the children to refuse to guess.  The way we pull that off is to allow them to mark any words they are not sure about with an ‘sp’.  The ones they mark JODY AND I correct for them!  We do this because it trains them not to guess.  Of course, any misspellings they make on their own without marking… they have to look up for themselves.

(NOTE 2)

Lorri,

I’m glad you followed up.

Occasionally we do have a child make a ‘commonly misspelled’ list unique to their own challenges…and learn them.  Yet, what we’ve found (even with our not-naturally-great spellers) is that they really do learn to spell once they develop the habit of refusing to guess.  Now, part of the trick is that when one is committed not not guessing, then he will naturally do one of two things:

1.  Find out how to spell the word

2.  Pick a different word that he actually knows how to spell

This second point is really crucial because it deepens their flexibility (and speed) in writing.  When someone can pick from many words at any moment, well their speed and style pretty dramatically increases.  Plus…they don’t misspell (so what if they say ‘secure’ instead of ‘ensconced’!!!)

I still must remind you that this is my own radical design on how to teach spelling, but we see it works as well or better than other system that don’t train a child to QUIT GUESSING.  Of course, forgive me, but I’m not a fan of teaching formal grammar to learn to write well either :) [see  me rant: Is English Grammar Really Necessary ?]

Hope this helps,

Fred Lybrand

www.advanced-writing-resources.com

Myth: Grammar Study Makes You a Better Writer

In a recent conversation about grammar and writing, I made the following point. Hope it is helpful.

Often I hear it posed that ‘grammar study is useful’— and, the reason they say it to me is that I basically challenge this educational assumption.
I actually agree with the point if grammar is approached as a study. If I were to ‘cheer’ for a grammar segment, then I’d put it with the analysis of written work (study it with reading). Frankly, I think about every subject one can study is useful.
On the other hand, my conviction is that the study of grammar as related to developing one’s writing skills is actually harmful. Here’s an example of a summary from a 1999 book referencing a definitive summary all the way back to 1963:
Most language arts teachers do not have many opportunities to explore the fascinating intricacies of grammar in their classrooms, but nearly all of them have to teach grammar. The most pressing questions they face, therefore, are the following: What role does grammar play in writing performance? And how does one teach grammar effectively?
One might think that these questions were answered long ago. After all, grammar has been taught to students since the days of the ancient Greeks. But reliable evaluations of the connection between studying grammar and writing performance are fairly recent. One of the more important emerged in 1963, when, summarizing existing research, Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer stated:

In view of the widespread agreement of research studies based upon many types of students and teachers, the conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms that the teaching of formal [traditional] grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing. (pp. 37-38)

From: The Teacher’s Grammar Book. Contributors: James D. Williams – author. Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Place of Publication: Mahwah, NJ. Publication Year: 1999. Page Number: 45.
We have not improved our grammar-teaching methods…and plenty of studies since then point out the same thing. People learn to write better by writing. People learn to read better by reading. People learn to analyze a sentence or paragraph by analyzing (this is where grammar is cool). If we have instructors or tutors who can show us how to write better, read better, or analyze better…well, then all the better! Of course, in our educational approach we aren’t replacing writing with grammar study (like mass education schools often do).
I know what I’m saying in whacky…but that’s what they were saying about ‘homeschooling’ a couple of decades ago! To quote the Lion from The Wizard of Oz, “Imposserous.” We all get stuck in our assumptions and drag them over from old systems. At one time people where saying you can’t teach without training…but homeschoolers do (successfully, I might add)!
I’m saying your child can learn to write better by not integrating linguistics and grammar into your writing process. I’m saying that you as an adult would write much better if you’d dump grammar and write for how it will sound. I’m saying that you will write much better if you will read better material.
All of these point are the same thing (sort of) Art Robinson was saying (especially originally) when he introduce The Robinson Curriculum. In fact, his audio makes the points pretty nicely (Robinson Syntax and Grammar Audio). The comforting thing is that humans can learn no matter what we do to them…but I would say, if you want to grow writers, they’ll have a harder time when they are bogged down in the pursuit of ‘correct grammar’.
Blessings,
Fred Lybrand

How to Help a Child Think Up What to Write

what to write

The following was my response to an enquiry about a child who doesn’t know what to write during the writing part of the homeschool day.

Even though we don’t yet know the exact details (always best to find them out because each situation is different), I will throw out some additional thoughts to the excellent stuff several of you have posted.

In The Writing Course we explain how we can always write because everything reminds us of something. When kids don’t write it is almost always an issue of fear or control…not an issue of writing. If a child knows that he is just trying to write OK, and he knows that he can’t really think up what he is going to write before he writes it (this is in the course too), then all that is left is to learn how to make use of his own mind’s ability to associate. I show them how to use their own name.

I’ll use my middle name RAY (yes, I am Fred Ray…hey…born in Alabama) and come up with three words:

R – rollercoaster

A – airplane

Y – yarn

So, all I’ll do is start writing something OK involving those things.

Petula was always scared of rollercoasters. Even when she flew over the County Fair in her uncle Ceadric’s airplane and the rollercoaster looked very small and safe, she just couldn’t remember that feeling when she got near the ticket booth. Today was different. She was going to conquer the rollercoaster! Maybe it was the way the kitten played with the yarn, she couldn’t really say. But, she did notice that the kitten fell off the counter three times. After each fall it just climbed up again to win the prize. “If Tinker can keep trying for a ball of yarn,” Petula said in a squinted whisper, “Then I can ride a silly rollercoaster.” With that she grabbed her uncle’s hand and walked toward the booth holding a paper dollar she had gotten from her Hannah Montana wallet.

Well, you get the point. At the very least (if a child doesn’t know what to write) have him:

1. Do copy work (that will eventually motivate him to make up something more fun)

2. Write a description of something outside the window or of a couple of items in the refrigerator.

3. Use some of the other ideas mentioned in this group

God bless,

Fred Lybrand

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oYX6245bVY0

1

You Can’t Test Creative Writing

Now even the UK is up-in-arms about the inadequacy of using standardized tests to access writing skills.  Here are a couple of quotes from an article:

Head teachers fear some pupils in England have been graded incorrectly in a writing test that forms part of their national curriculum tests or Sats.

It also polled members in one local authority – Lancashire – where 47 out of 48 respondents reported “serious inconsistencies” in the way different papers were marked.

In June, a review of Sats by Lord Bew recommended the creative writing test should be scrapped and children’s creative writing skills assessed by teachers.

See: Head teachers angry over Sats creative writing marks

Of course, they are running into the same issues we face with our own SAT writing section.  It is genuinely improbable that we will ever create a standard way to judge writing quality through a mechanical method.  We attempt it with the supposed ‘rules of grammar and punctuation’—but if you spend any time studying and reflecting, you will realize that such things are not standardized.  Actually, it is impossible to create a static set of rules for a fluid thing.  Language continues to adapt and adjust and grow.  Sorry, that’s just how it works.  Language may be the only truly democratic thing on the planet (Thank you Rudolf Flesch for this point!).  A writing course could be the answer, but wouldn’t it need to foster freedom instead of crush us by its rules?

If English had a static set of rules then wouldn’t we all talk like Shakespeare?  Well, methinks I doth protest too much 🙂

Language is indeed fluid, and creative writers come up with even more cool-and-unique-to-the-moment ways of communicating things.  You can rest assured that Shakespeare wouldn’t have written with the same ‘grammar’ if he were alive today.  Or, stated plainly, if he had—we wouldn’t know who he is!

Isn’t it time for all of the stuffy grammarians to recognized excellence in writing on the basis of some other set of criteria rather than their own ‘approved’ set of rules?  N.B. –  I didn’t say, “Give up on excellence in writing.”

My suggestion?  Go back to sound.  Recognize language is an instinct in the same way music is an instinct.  Pay attention.  If people like a song…maybe there is a reason.  If people like a writing style…maybe there is a reason for that too!  In fact, could the reason be that it just sounds cool, whether it is grammatically approve or not?

What if we permissioned (cool use of a verbifying a noun that I’d get a D for in school) our own children to write, at least occasionally, in a way that just struck them as sounding great?  What new writer with a new style might we gift to the world because of our kind empowerment to write in a fresh way (it will also possibly become the new ‘good writing example’).

Recently I ran a few of my sentences through a popular grammar-fixing software program…and I did poorly (a D 🙂

Next, I ran Faulkner and Hemingway through the same program…they did worse than I did!

Maybe the other experts will figure it out and we can have the creativity perfectly programmed out of us.  In the meantime, why not join my expertise and help a generation of writers by encouraging them to write with their instinctive ear for what sounds how they want it read?  Curse the rules…full Grace ahead!

Write well and write free,

Fred Lybrand

P.S.  Thoughts?  Comment away…let’s think together.

P.P.S.  If you found this helpful, you might want to know I have a whole curriculum available to teach children how to write by sound (instinct): It’s called The Writing Course

How Do I Grade My Child’s Writing?

Weekly I get a note or a question that sounds like one I received today, “Biggest challenge—being able to correct my student’s writing myself. I know what sounds good, but I am not a writer.”  What great honesty, and how common it feels to all who don’t see themselves as writers.  If you know what sounds good you are about 80% there already.

Of course, my conviction is that most of the punctuation and grammar training is killer our joy and effectiveness in writing.  I feel, sometimes, I’m on a one-man-mission to help people return to the love of writing [you can see my rant against grammar in the article called Why Studying Grammar Hurts Writing].

As a parent you have great motives and surprisingly wonderful insight on your child and his or her writing.  Frankly, you taught them to speak…not too shabby for just hanging around and discussing what’s for supper and why the neighbors don’t like you!

Here’s what you can do about correcting a child’s writing:

The Best Way to Give Writing Feedback

Well, that’s the idea.  You have so much to offer…but really, it is when your child starts correcting him or herself that everything jumps to a new level.  In the meantime, you are far more helpful than you think.  We even have our own children grade each other from time to time (it’s that helpful)!

 

Hope this helps,

 

Fred Lybrand

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