Writing to Discover: Help for the Whole-to-Part Learner

By Jeanne Faulconer, Chesterfield
Originally published in the November-December 2015 VaHomeschoolers Voice

Helping children learn to write is a challenge many homeschooling parents take on by applying curriculum that breaks writing down into a series of small steps. However, some young children who are prematurely told how to order their words, construct their sentences, and organize their paragraphs can lose their writing voices altogether. They become resistant to writing because so many instructions have been heaped on them. Their desire to please a parent or tutor with “correctness” can mean they’re better off not attempting to write about complicated or interesting things. Being given specific direction to artificially inflate their sentences (like—“use adverbs!”— something professional writers avoid) can result in the loss of children’s confidence in their own words.

If your child has this reaction to this kind of lesson-oriented writing instruction, he or she may be a “whole-to-part” learner. Yes, conversely, some children are indeed “part-to-whole” learners, and they may thrive on the “break-it-down-into-pieces” writing instruction. These kids are often the ones who are traditionally analytical. If you ask them to write an essay, their mind immediately leaps to the major points of an outline, and they know they’ll write a paragraph to support each major point. Other kids may thrive on specific lessons that give them precise instructions for what to do to develop each sentence. They find it a relief and just want to know what to do; then they’ll do it.

However, whole-to-part learners will frequently shut down when they are asked to approach writing in these small bits and pieces. Ironically, parents frequently try to help struggling writers by breaking things down smaller and smaller, until kids completely lose touch with the ways writing can help them develop  their ideas.

The situation is a problem that can be metaphorically described as “too many scales, not enough music.”

When I work with children as a tutor or in homeschool co-ops and writing workshops, I encourage whole-topart writers to feel comfortable writing without any structure or aim at all. I find ways to let them write in order to discover what they think, rather than writing to report on what they already think. Revision, editing, and proofreading should come much later—sometimes even years later  than what parents initially expect.

It’s much more important for these kids to “make music” with their writing at this point. Whole-to-part writers need to be unencumbered by a parent’s desire for early correctness—or they’ll be resistant at best and begin to say they “hate to write” at worst. Instead, we want them to feel comfortable to use writing to discover what they have to say.

Ideas to Encourage Whole-to-Part Writers

Freewriting, Freewriting, and More Freewriting

I encourage young writers to keep a journal with freewriting and to do guided freewriting exercises. Freewriting means writing without worry about spelling, grammar, or organization. The goal is to just get the ideas flowing without censoring oneself with concerns about correctness. Guided freewriting might be based on a specific topic or technique, such as “zooming in” or “zooming out” on a subject or doing an extended observation of an object or scene. You can easily do internet searches for information about freewriting.

I find most parents shortchange time in freewriting because it doesn’t seem to get kids closer to a specific finished product. Patience, please! Kids who haven’t discovered what they think or what they want to write about will be unhappy when given the task to revise thoughts that aren’t sufficiently developed. It sounds oversimplified— but they really do  know what they don’t know.

Narration, Narration, and More Narration

Let your kids tell you stories. Write them down. Read them aloud. Rinse. Repeat.

Illustration and Publication

Encourage your child to illustrate his or her writing and narrations and make books out of the pages. These can be simple stapled or yarn-tied books on plain copy paper, more sophisticated hand-bound books on special paper (a great craft project for you crafty parents with crafty kids), or commercially printed books made by scanning and uploading digital text and images. Don’t take over—let the kiddo’s art work stand on its own.

Poetry, Poetry, Poetry

Parents tend to be interested in getting kids to write short stories and essays. Poetry frequently gets left out, but writing poetry is a perfect way to get whole-to-part learners to feel their way through big ideas in a smaller amount of text. It may be cliché, but if you don’t know where to start, start with haiku. You can easily look up information about haiku writing online.

You Write Too

None of this “give a writing assignment and disappear” to make dinner or make phone calls. Nope. When your child is freewriting, you sit down and freewrite, too. After all, you’re asking your kid to do something full of risk; be a good example and take the risk yourself. Light a candle. Write.

Put on Music, or Don’t

Give some attention to whether music creates a positive writing atmosphere for your child. Many kids really like music in the background and even want a hand in picking out which music to play. Other kids find music distracting. Setting the stage for productive writing sessions should include finding what works well in the “mind’s ear.”

Allow Scribing and Keyboarding

Kids who struggle with the mechanics of handwriting should be encouraged to have other people to “scribe” for them (see Narration, above) and to use keyboarding as an alternative to handwriting when they are composing. Even in a large co-op, I have had classes in which half of the kids were using an adult to “scribe” their freewriting and compositions. (Some prefer their own parent and some want somebody else’s parent; there are usually enough volunteers to go around.) This usually changes as kids get older and become more able to “write” and “compose” at the same time. However, during the time scribes are needed, there is no substitute for liberating the young writer from the limits of his or her handwriting.

Read Aloud

Read poetry, essays, stories, novels, and articles aloud to your kids. Make sure your reading aloud is in an environment where they can pay attention. Active kids may only be able to pay attention when playing in the sandbox, coloring, building stuff, weaving, swinging, or doing a craft. There is no substitute for reading when you want to encourage writing.

Create a Peer Group

Find some way to get young writers together. Call it a writers’ workshop, story circle, or co-op class, but no matter what you call it, give the kids time to share and discuss what they are working on. Help them learn positive critique skills that focus on the content of the writing and specific things they notice about one another’s work.

De-Emphasize Editing and Revision

If it doesn’t negatively affect your child’s desire to write, go ahead and work on revision. You’ve probably got a part-to-whole learner—or—your child has successfully navigated the early stages of finding a voice and discovering what he or she thinks.

However, if you sense that the tedium of revision is making a child resistant to the act of writing, it’s time to back off. It can wait until your child is ready. Kids can finalize their learning of punctuation and sentence structure even in the middle and high school years.

Another option is to just take a more incremental approach. Instead of insisting a child polish everything to perfection, collaborate on making some improvements together, gradually raising the standards as the child’s comfort level increases.

A great option is for your kids to do editing and revision practice on other people’s work. We know there are enough stray apostrophes on convenience store signs for a lifetime of practice with possessives and contractions. Help your kids notice and understand mistakes in sentence structure, punctuation, and usage—but on practice sentences and paragraphs someone else has written. As kids gain confidence, they will begin to apply these standards to their own work.

Back Off on the Outlines

I’m a professional writer and editor. I’ve written for magazines, newspapers, advertising, public relations, radio, tele- vision, and the Internet. I have written everything from technical manuals to poetry and enough essays to wallpaper a few barns. And I don’t always use outlines. In fact, a lot of times I don’t use outlines at all—or I don’t use them at the beginning of my process. Parents who are using a part-to-whole approach often want kids to think up an outline and then write to it (that’s what so many curricula advise!) But many writers don’t work this way, much less kids. Insisting on an outline can paralyze a whole-to-part learner.

You think he’s being balky, but he doesn’t know what he thinks yet. Let him write first. Many writers discover their outlines in their writing.  They even  discover their thesis statements that way—through the act of writing.

If you’re using a formal writing curriculum, it may include techniques that work both for whole-to-part writers and for part-to-whole writers. On the other hand, after reading this, you may find that it’s mostly a “break it down” curriculum that works best or part-towhole learners, which may or may not be a fit for the writers at your house.

The approach I’ve found that most nearly matches my own instincts as a writer and homeschool mom is Bravewriter—bravewriter.com.  We’ve never used any of the Bravewriter classes in our family, but I have evaluation clients who have used the classes and been happy with them.

However, I have for many years used techniques also described in Bravewriter materials, something I’ve realized probably comes in part from a common ancestor—Peter Elbow’s book—Writing with Power.  Elbow coined the term freewriting,  which I first encountered when I was a teen writer myself.

Amazon’s description explains, “From students and teachers to novelists and poets, Writing with Power reminds us that we can celebrate the uses of mystery, chaos, non-planning, and magic, while achieving analysis, conscious control, explicitness, and care in whatever it is we set down on paper.”

If your curriculum or approach is working well, then you’ve found a good match. However, if your child is resistant to writing or has hit a plateau she’s unhappy with, then consider whether she’s bamboozled by a part-to-whole writing curriculum.

Maybe you need to celebrate the uses of mystery, chaos, non-planning, and magic to help her find her voice and write.

About the Author

Jeanne Faulconer is in her eighteenth year as a homeschool mom. Her oldest sons are college grads, and her youngest is a homeschooled high schooler. Jeanne conducts evaluations to help homeschoolers meet Virginia’s annual evidence of progress requirement. She has taught writing at elementary, middle school, high school, community college, and university levels.

Originally published in the November-December 2015 VaHomeschoolers Voice.

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