What Your Student Needs to Know about Writing

Because language is the primary avenue for learning every other subject, you really can’t skimp on language arts in the early years without hampering a student’s academic development down the road. To ensure that a student transitions smoothly from elementary to middle school and high school writing, there are some basic skills and concepts that a student will need to master in the early years and beyond.


The Fluency Stage

The first several years of elementary school constitute what I like to call the fluency stage. Students are learning how to read and write words and sentences with increasing ease. They are becoming fluent in both the written and spoken word.

By the end of third grade, in addition to mastering phonics and penmanship, a student on strong footing in language arts and writing will

  • have a firm understanding of a sentence as a complete thought containing both a subject (what the sentence is about) and a predicate (what the sentence tells about the subject). (She need not know the words “subject” and “predicate,” but she will be able to recognize a complete sentence and to distinguish between a sentence and a fragment.)
  • know and consistently implement the basic mechanics of a sentence. In particular, he will know that the first word of a sentence is always capitalized and that every sentence must end with either a period, a question mark, or an exclamation mark. He will also know when to use which end punctuation and be familiar with the different kinds of sentences (such as questions, statements, commands, and exclamations).
  • be able to recognize paragraphs in a text and understand that a paragraph is a series of sentences relating to a particular point or topic.
  • understand that a word that names a person, place, thing, or idea is called a noun and that specific names, called proper nouns, begin with a capital letter.
  • be developing fluency with capitalization and basic punctuation norms.
  • have plenty of experience writing sentences, preferably through copywork and dictation, as well as from her own compositions.
  • have accumulated many, many hours of hearing books read aloud, both picture books and chapter books. (Even after, and maybe especially after, a student can read on his own, he still needs to hear the written word.)
  • have committed to memory several beautiful prose and poem selections which she is able to recite.
  • be able to orally tell back in his own words a short anecdote, story, or passage he has heard read aloud.

There are many good tools for helping students master these concepts and skills. One I’ve enjoyed using is English for the Thoughtful Child: Volume 1 by Mary F. Hyde revised and edited by Cynthia Shearer.


The Grammar Stage

Beginning around fourth grade, most students are ready for a more systematic study of grammar. In classical education circles, this stretch from fourth through fifth or sixth grade is commonly known as “the grammar stage.”

By the end of fifth or sixth grade, a student who is thriving in language arts and writing will, in addition to the above,

  • know and be able to identify all the parts of speech and all the parts of a sentence.
  • be familiar with the various verb tenses and moods and know how to maintain agreement and consistency across a composition.
  • understand the various functions of nouns and pronouns within sentences and be able to identify the various cases and roles within specific sentences.
  • be familiar with more advanced punctuation, mechanics, and usage norms.
  • know how to format a composition assignment for an academic setting.
  • be able to summarize and amplify sentences and rearrange the parts with ease.
  • be able to summarize, amplify, and imitate stories and passages.
  • be able to identify and articulate the main idea or central fact of a paragraph or selection.
  • be developing the ability to recognize literary elements such as character, setting, and plot.
  • understand how to organize paragraphs and multi-paragraph compositions utilizing topic sentences, transitions, clinchers/conclusions, and titles.
  • have experience incorporating descriptive writing, dialog, and other narrative elements within a composition.
  • be familiar with poetic elements such as rhyme, alliteration, simile & metaphor, and basic stanza forms.
  • have read (and heard read aloud) a variety of short stories, longer fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from different time periods and genres.

Here are a few among the many available resources that I have found helpful in developing a student’s grammatical know-how at this stage: (I wouldn’t use all three at once!)


Middle School & Beyond: Logic & Rhetoric

With their foundational language skills building to fruition, Middle School students are ripe for forays into essay writing where skills of logic and disputation come into play. In the classical trivium, the middle school years are known as the Logic stage wherein students engage in pre-Rhetoric exercises known collectively as the progymnasmata. Then, during highschool, students who have mastered the previous stages are ready for more formal studies in rhetoric and composition.

At An Elegant Word, our summer writing camps are designed to review the basics while stretching students to develop their essay-writing skills at the level appropriate for them. Basic Essay Writing introduces students to the structure of a simple essay, while Thesis Essay Writing challenges students to reach a higher level of argumentation and organization. The Advanced Essay camp builds on the others as students study modern and contemporary masters of different essay forms. In all three camps, we review basics such as formatting, sentence structure and style, principles of organization, and descriptive writing. Which camp is right for you?


Note: If your middleschool or highschool student has not yet mastered grammar, punctuation, and usage, it’s not too late! Easy Grammar Plus is a comprehensive resource that is especially easy to use. After you’ve got your feet wet with that, why not add Jensen’s Punctuation?


Write What Is Beautiful: A Cure for Formulaic Writing Instruction

“Before giving a youth the rules of good style, let us tell him first never to write anything which does not seem to him really beautiful, whatever the result may be.”
               -Jacques Maritain, Education at the Crossroads, p.44


A group of acclaimed authors are raising concerns about how creative writing is taught in UK schools, The Guardian reports. The concerned writers claim that “primary school teachers are steering children towards ‘too elaborate, flowery and over-complex language.’” This is a valid concern, especially when the writing instruction ingrains bad habits in stylistically tone-deaf students.

The authors, who are drafting an open letter to the education secretary, wisely point out the twin dangers of teaching writing to a test and of teaching writing in a literary void. It does students no good when we evaluate them for a writing product when we should be focusing on their process. We do them no good when we praise them for creative production when they have merely been doing syntactical, like musical, scales. And we harm students most when we ask them to produce creative work yet fail to provide them with any masters to imitate. Truly beautiful and compelling writing comes from readers. And when stylistic exercises devolve into strict rules about what makes good writing, everyone loses.

While the letter writers accurately take issue with these disturbing trends in writing instruction, they need not throw the proverbial baby out with the bath water. There is a healthy tension between helping students expand their stylistic and syntactic range, on the one hand, and habituating formulaic and overly flowery writing, on the other. Vocabulary and sentence structure variation happen more naturally for some students than for others, but all can benefit from exercises that increase awareness of and proficiency with a growing toolbox of structural and stylistic options. Assignments that require practice in these areas are helpful when treated like the playing of scales in piano lessons: playing scales is not playing a musical masterpiece, but it may be a necessary step toward developing the proficiency needed to eventually play a musical masterpiece. In the same way, vocabulary, structural, and stylistic exercises should be treated as practice in developing fluency in a growing variety of writing forms and styles.

All writing instruction should be undertaken with the goal of developing the student’s ear to be able to both recognize and also imitate beautiful prose and verse passages within a wide range of style and genre. To accomplish this end, it helps to have a teacher who knows good writing when she sees it. Does the writing teacher read widely and well? Does she have good literary taste? Can she point her students to exemplary writing? Can she herself turn an elegant phrase? In short, does she have discernment and aptitude? A teacher with an ear for good writing will pass this ability on to her students through her example and enthusiasm. She will hold the balance between formulaic practice and fine-tuned elegance.

While some individuals may have an in-born affinity for writing, everyone has the capacity to recognize beauty. Good writing instruction stirs this capacity and awakens in the student a growing hunger for the good, the true, and the beautiful in the written word.

Play with Your Words!

Play with words



Words can be stuffy, as sticky as glue,
but words can be tutored to tickle you too,
to rumble and tumble and tingle and sing,
to buzz like a bumblebee, coil like a spring.

Juggle their letters and jumble their sounds,
swirl them in circles and stack them in mounds,
twist them and tease them and turn them about,
teach them to dance upside down, inside out.

Make mighty words whisper and tiny words roar,
in ways no one ever had thought of before;
cook an improbable alphabet stew,
and words will reveal little secrets to you.

~Jack Prelutsky, The Random House Book of Poetry for Children

Tutor words to tickle you this summer at one of our Writing Camps!




Chew, Sharpen, Carve

Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider. Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested [. . .] Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man.

Sir Francis Bacon, “Of Studies,” The Essays


Chewing on delectable books this summer? After filling up on wholesome, chewy reading, “conference”—or discussion—helps us think on our feet and sharpen our minds for action. Then writing requires our sharpened minds to thoughtfully reflect, to articulate ideas using careful wording and a logical structure, to carve an elegant argument or description.

Reading, speaking, writing—these three go together and build on one another. When writing, we draw on what we’ve read, on our conversations with others, as well as on our own experiences. To write well, we have to understand and think clearly. We also have to know how to use words and sentences effectively. This is what Sir Francis Bacon tells us when he says that writing makes us exact. Writing is the culmination of all our reading, thinking, and speaking. It is a test of our precision.

So gnaw on some tasty nuggets of literature this summer and then come join us for mind-sharpening discussion and fine-tuning of your writing skills at one of our Writing Camps.

“Writing Is a Refining Fire”

CSIRO [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

CSIRO [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Writing is in the rewriting [. . .] the necessary re-envisioning of the piece. In fact, when I write there usually emerges both a death and a resurrection. I begin a piece. I find it dies on the page. It isn’t what I had hoped. It falls short. It falls flat. It goes nowhere. Then I find a new beginning somewhere embedded in the piece and start writing into it again. [. . .] Writing is a continual reworking [. . .] a refining fire until all the elements come together in a unit.
—Diane Glancy, “After the Fire of Writing: On Revision,” A Syllable of Water: Twenty Writers of Faith Reflect on Their Craft


Like most things worth doing, crafting a work of beauty takes tenacity. This is true of any art form, the written word included. Perfect paragraphs do not simply drip from our pens without effort or revision.

Diane Glancy describes the value of peer critique in the writing process:

Making constructive critical comments on the work of peers develops self-editing that is a necessary tool, a tool to be developed alongside the craft of writing. For me, it is the vital part of writing. Years ago, I was in a group of beginning writers. We critiqued each other’s work. I learned the value of receiving critical comments. And providing critical comments for others helps me criticize my own work. The editorial faculty is required after the fire of writing.

Muscle up this summer with An Elegant Word as we hone the intellectual virtues of honesty, courage, humility, and tenacity in the Thesis Essay camp.

Do You Like Sentences?

A well- known writer got collared by a university student who asked, “Do you think I could be a writer?”

“Well,” the writer said, “I don’t know…. Do you like sentences?”

The writer could see the student’s amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am twenty years old and do I like sentences? If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, “I liked the smell of the paint.”  —Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, Chapter 5

Whether you’re just beginning in your appreciation of sentences or already a sentence enthusiast, the summer is a wonderful time to sink yourself deeper in the aesthetic delight of words elegantly arranged. Both budding amateurs and established aficionados can enjoy the hunt, the thrill of chasing down just the right adjective, noun, or verb that will bring a phrase to life and make a sentence sing.

This summer, become a verbal acrobat bending plain, boring syntax into exhilarating contours. Enliven your vocabulary. Amplify simple clauses. Learn syntactic gymnastics.

Enroll in one of our Summer Writing Camps today!

Good Readers Make Good Writers

When, as enthusiastic university students, my girlfriends and I asked poet and Nobel Prize laureate, Seamus Heaney (may he rest in peace), what he would advise aspiring writers, his answer was simple: “Read!” His answer is universally affirmed by writers, educators, and researchers alike: Reading (and being read to) is the number one indicator of a successful future writer.

As a writing teacher, I often suggest reading books—paper back, hard back, digital books, audio books—and not just silently by oneself. Family read-alouds are enjoyable and valuable in so many ways. Folks often get more from a book when hearing it aloud, and no one is ever too old to enjoy hearing a good tale.

Another reason read-alouds and audio books are such a great idea is related to the fact that language is primarily spoken and heard and only secondarily written down. When we write, we are writing what sounds good “in our head.” If students will listen to great poetry, stories, speeches, and essays frequently and repeatedly (for example, why not listen while doing chores, exercising, riding in the car, resting in bed, etc.?), they will start to lock the sentence structures and rhythms in their memory. When it comes to literature, repeat listening is great. Once the patterns are in, they will naturally start to come out in the student’s speaking and writing. This cycle of listening and imitating is how we first learned to speak our native language, and it is how we learn to write with an elegant voice.

Narration—telling back orally what we’ve heard—can also help quite a bit with observation, comprehension, and memory. Likewise, orally discussing books and passages may be the most important and effective way to develop comprehension and thinking skills, two very important aspects of high-level writing.

A healthy diet of books includes a breadth of classic literature from different genres and time periods, with large helpings of poetry, the King James Bible, and great speeches. The King James Bible—regardless of one’s religious persuasion or opinions regarding biblical translations—is also classic literature and is foundational to our English language and cultural heritage.

Memorization and recitation of beloved poems and prose passages cements the verbal patterns even more firmly while providing the scholar with a long-lasting source of joy. Poetry—and poetic prose—is, after all, a sensual thing meant to be heard and enjoyed for the way it sounds, the way the words feel in the mouth, as well as for the images the words evoke in the mind. Before television and movies, before even books and the printing press, there were poems and stories recited around the hearth. These poems and stories still give us life.

“Nobody but a reader ever became a writer.”

-Richard Peck

HT: Sally Clarkson for the video link.
If this topic interests you, you might want to check out Andrew Pudewa’s article, “The Arts of Language,” on the Institute for Excellence in Writing website, which spells out more fully how listening and speaking are the foundation for reading and writing. (There is also a corresponding audio download here.)