Curriculum can be so darn intimidating! All those workbooks on grammar, sentence structure and punctuation seem to be calling on your guilt if you don’t buy them. Will unschooled kids learn grammar even if you don’t directly teach it? You bet! Are workbooks the best way to learn it? For most kids, a big NO!
Kids learn to write by reading. We live in a world where children are exposed to language everywhere around them and see thousands of words and phrases every year. Kids see enough print in the course of their lives that they begin to copy it and use it properly through their own meaningful writing. Just think of all the things that kids copy, model and emulate from everywhere else.
Why are kids in school such bad writers even by high school? Well, for one thing, many children don’t get the chance to read very much while attending school. In school, the early grades attend the library for about half an hour once a week. They are allowed to take out one book or maybe two at most. (Can’t have those kids losing all those school library books!) The home educated child reads anywhere around 10 to 100 books per year. The average number from my informal poll of homeschooling parents was 50 books in a typical year that the typical homeschooled child read. Families would visit a library once a week and take out up to 100 books a week or the maximum limit the library would allow. With exposure to that much writing, how can a child not get used to proper sentence and paragraph structure.
In the later grades, children in school do not have time to read what they choose to read. They are ordered to read from a small list of titles provided. They slog through it if not interested. Keen readers will read outside school and they probably write well despite being in a classroom, not because of it. They will make time to read outside of school and activities because they love books.
Children eventually learn spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence and paragraph structure, openings and closings, thesis statements, examples and essay structure just by writing, and writing when they are motivated to do it – when they really have something to say, such as writing an opinion letter to a newspaper or writing to a politician about an unpopular law, or contradicting a troll on Reddit, or even a letter asking for world peace (and the latest popular video game) to Santa. Motivation to write is key, just as I am writing this blog post now. Motivation has passion behind it, and when kids are motivated to have their views expressed, they are eager to learn how to express themselves in a manner that people will listen. Being ordered to write a book report in school on a topic they are feeling lukewarm about is not motivating, nor is producing an essay on a stance they really don’t care about is not fun either.
Good writing is something everyone progresses at. At first kids’ letters may be backwards, their word usage wrong and spelling bad, but with autocorrection everywhere now, they have a pocket electronic “teacher” telling them the correct way to use it. Nobody likes to be verbally corrected by a person, so don’t correct children’s writing. Encourage them to get all their thoughts out on paper and then encourage them to go through it again the next day with fresh eyes. They will self-edit and get better and better at it the more they do it.
Of course a small minority of kids are just really bad spellers and need a text editor, because no amount of direct teaching can retrain their brain if a child is not motivated to learn. The learning won’t stick, but the child’s ability to write might become non-existent because they are self-conscious about their spelling and grammar. For the most part, children’s brains are really good at picking up and practicing skills such as writing without being taught because the brain is always processing new information and progressing. As their brain matures, they naturally increase their vocabulary by participating in family and peer discussions, and playing word games such as wordle, Scrabble and Quiddler. Online conversations also help build vocabulary.
What children won’t learn is the names for grammar, such as an “Oxford comma,” or an “onomatopoeia” word. However, once kids get past grade school, no one will ever quiz them about that again in their lives. Even my child who is an English major learned them once and forgot about the “names” of various parts of speech and grammar. She uses them but doesn’t remember what they are called and doesn’t need to. Children can choose to use a possessive noun without having to know what its name is, just as they use fractions all the time without knowing which is the numerator and denominator.
Here is an example of my child’s writing at age 12. And here is her Master thesis:
She only had one formal English class in grade 11 which was online and mostly self-taught anyways. My kids started learning how to spell by writing in cheatcodes while playing Starcraft. They got further in the game that way. Eventually, they learned how to spell because I quit typing in the codes for them every ten minutes. They had no formal English classes until the teen years. One of my kids took a grade 8 English class and my 3 other kids began their formal English Language Art education in grade 10 which is considered high school. One of my kids is not a big reader due to a learning disability. They were still being taught the five paragraph essay in Grade 12 through this “Essentials In Writing” book. All of them managed to write essays, reports and research abstracts in university.
I was a product of public school and although I was taught grammar, punctuation, and sentence structure through workbooks, I was still not a good writer. I am another example of what schools can teach, but it won’t stick if not useful. My first year English professor at university was the famous Canadian author, Warren P Kinsella, and he wrote on my first submitted essay, a huge D+ blazing in red ink, with the comment, “English must be a second language to you,” as he failed me in the course. I had to take a remedial English writing course which still didn’t help. I finished university and got better writing at writing in topics that I was interested in. I have now written five books and with two of them bestsellers, I have probably sold more books that Mr. Kinsella. I hire excellent editors. Not everybody needs to know everything or be great at everything. The big five North American publishers run every manuscript through four individual editors to catch 99% of the errors. In fact, it is not recommended that writers edit their own work. Everyone needs fresh eyes on their work to point out things not seen.
If your child hates grammar, spelling, and punctuation workbooks, have no guilt in throwing them away. Your child will learn to write and write well. And they might actually love the process without someone correcting them all the time! Trust in their desire to learn and their brains ability to progress to excellent writing. Write on!