Empowering Young Writers

 One-on-one Laptop Writing Adapted for Homeschoolers

by Rob Wahl, M. Ed.


Part 1 The Reason for Writing
Part 2 Writing with a Computer
Part 3 A Process to Learn Writing
Questions as Organizers Key Links for this article
Downloadable Word Files PDF (View in Browser)
Social Studies Social Studies
Science Science

Performance Standards for Writing

Student-Friendly (and parent-friendly) performance standards.

Types of Questions

Concept (Mind) Mapping

PowerPoint Alternatives










The Reason for Writing

Children and youth can with practice and coaching become great writers. And since the sword, oft-brandished in our day is not mightier than the pen, I suggest writing is a skill to be pursued with passion and purpose. What follows is a short article on developing young writers in the method developed for educational technology in the classroom, but written with homeschoolers in mind. I did not invent this method but I helped to pioneer it through my involvement with educational technology at the provincial and national levels. I have given workshops at conferences in Ontario, Saskatchewan, and BC at the initiative of Apple Canada about this method. The method is actually the brainchild of Dr. Sharon Jeroski with whom I had the privilege to work (and someone whom I am proud to call a friend). She is also the key mind behind the Performance Standards in the Province of BC. To model the writing process I’ve included the mind map I used for this article. It is the graphic you see at the top left of this page. It can be enlarged by clicking on it. We began also with links to all the resources referenced in this article. The goal here is that home learners have a method by which they can together pursue excellence in writing; and excellence in writing is excellence in thinking and learning. Friends the Kingdom of God needs young men and women who can communicate clearly, joyfully and passionately in writing. It is our privilege to mentor them to be the best they can be.

Writing is today one of the key ways that human beings connect with each other. Writing is about me reaching out to you to tell you where I’ve found treasure. For that reason, writing includes a great deal more than handwriting, spelling, grammar and punctuation. Getting all that right can be intimidating. It can also keep children dependent. If it is shameful to write something with technical errors only fools could feel confident to put something out into the world. Grammar, spelling and punctuation are “tool skills“. Tool skills are sub-skills, like what running is to soccer. Tool skills in writing often constitute the form. Whether or not we write “disappear” or dissapear” has little to do with meaning and everything to do with appearances. I’ve even met people with a kind of haughty attitude as though spelling was the purpose of writing. Learning the notes is necessary for music, but who by studying only notes could imagine how a great song of worship can move us into the very presence of God? Through writing, learners connect with one another by opening a window into their minds. They communicate how they have organized their thoughts and turned information into knowledge.

Writing is the best we have to share what we have learned. We cannot create meaningful original content unless we have knowledge and understanding about the topic to share. Whenever writing is muddled so are thoughts of the writer. So becoming a writer is a foundational education skill. It’s a skill that eventually supersedes even exam writing as the way in which learning is recognized and evaluated. So writing should be embedded in almost every other topic. This also saves time because learners are doing two subjects at once. Science, Social Studies, Health, and Career Education are great opportunities to learn by writing. By writing, we also demonstrate learning. We can think of writing as a skill, and the topic as the object of that skill. Writing makes field trips and family vacations meaningful to others. Writing turns everyday business and translates it into art, science, health, and goals for the future. I’ve heard it said that we do not learn from experience alone; rather, we learn from the reflection on experience. I would say this is very true for homeschoolers, who have a great deal of experience but sometimes too little time for reflection. Great writers are great learners. They have the skill to organize and share their thoughts.

Writing best starts from exploration and experience. Most youths feel like they have nothing worth writing about. I like exploring for questions. If we can formulate a good question, we can begin to learn. Trying things, messing around and seeing what happens will often generate questions. The question shows what the learner is ready to learn, so it’s important that the learner actually owns the question. We could also explore by undertaking personal experience. For example, I could take my children skating on a lake. I could take pictures, and back home, look at the pictures and decide how to share the experience. Engaged exploration could include anything from reading a book to paintball wars. Or perhaps it’s adventures in digging a backyard fire pit, only to discover the magnificent plenitude of worms. Whatever the occasion, enter into it knowing that the experience will be unpacked into written form.

The next newsletter will explain how computers help and how they truly make performance standards useful. In the meanwhile, I’ve prepared a table of links to Kid-Friendly performance standards. That link is here, but also on the right-hand side of this post. Until then, God bless and happy writing.




Writing With a Computer

When they invented writing some were against it.  The technology of writing was to be the downfall of oral society. Now it is a necessary skill that takes practice.  I know of few children who relish re-writing their hand-written assignments, particularly after someone has gone over it with a red pen as was the norm for many years. The art of turning a phrase with well-crafted grammar, controlled tense and a consistent point of view, without spelling or punctuation error, is something every parent wants for their children, but few children see the relevance. Such a document created by a youth is rarely a work of a disciplined and precise mind. Rather it is the work of an impassioned mind. It is the work of someone who suddenly finds a voice.

Computers can be instrumental in making young children writers. When I worked as Educational Technologist I was sometimes very enthusiastic about technology. Some thought I wanted students to do everything on computers. Students still need hands-on learning experience it was said. I couldn’t agree more. Computers help us learn when we want to improve on the pen.

When I was very young there were still a lot of fountain pens around. They were messy and tested your manual dexterity and penmanship. The traditional cursive handwriting style was an accommodation to the fountain pen. The ballpoint, called a Biro in the UK after it’s inventor, was a leak-proof pen for aircraft pilots. Still costly in the 1960’s they were rarely used by children. Such was the case until 1970 when the disposable Bic pen opened up new possibilities in note taking and writing, particularly for those of us who lacked the artists fine motor control. It truly changed writing. In 1979 I received the gift of a used IBM Selectric, which at 35 lbs. was thought more portable for students. What a breakthrough that was. I learned to compose content right on the typewriter. I could feel my brain making the transition. In 1984 a $5000 Macintosh was out of the question, so I bought a printer with a keyboard that allowed me to see a whole line of text before printing. Suddenly I was an essayist. I earned my first Master’s degree in no small part because I could create content freely with this device. Of course, the laptop PC was a huge breakthrough as well, but my point here is that technology and writing have been changing how we write for quite a while n ow. I’ll never forget the words of a professor in 1985. He said to a class, “After reading all your papers I can tell which of you are using computers. The difference is remarkable, both in content and style“.

IBM Selectric Typewriter

Computers are helpful because we can just blurt out the words in our head. Even a private brainstorm of words can be sorted into an essay. Our brains have limited capacity for attention. We can now focus purely on our message and save the rules of grammar and style for later. Computers are word processors. We use them to shape are sentences and paragraphs so that others understand our message. In the days when writing was done only by hand, it was a skill of the elite. This privilege to express oneself to a global audience with passion and energy is there for our children to embrace. At last, we can all become writers.

Canon Typestar-- Enough to earn a Master's Degree

Canon Typestar– Enough to earn a Master’s Degree

Learning technologies come from two vastly different traditions. The first I want to mention finds its highest expression in the Integrated Learning System (ILS) or sometimes called Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI). They are a delivery system for content and/or skills. They’re intended purpose is that children learn the right things at the right time. They analyze the keystrokes of the learner to maximize progress. Examples are systems such as Plato and Destinations but there are others. They can produce results, but often fail because the normal manner of their use does not acknowledge the social and emotional needs of the learner. Gaining, retaining and accessing information does have value, but that is not how we learn to write for writing is a skill. Instead, I advocate for open-ended software which allows mind mapping, outlining, blogging, hyperlinking, composing and publishing without providing any content. It presents the user with a blank screen and says here is your canvas, now create. The learning process retains that link between teacher/parent and learner.

The Laptop I bought my daughter in ca. 2003

Finally, I do want to stress that I understand that while a computer can be marvelous for writing they do tend to act as a distraction. I remember idealistically hoping that children throughout my School District would begin enthusiastically composing essays only to watch hundreds of hits on the social networking site Meebo. Children were using their newfound computing power to do all the wrong things. For this reason, many teachers and parents have rightfully come to see the computer screen as unproductive entertainment. I disabled internet access; but, learners knew that what they were being asked to do on the computer was less interesting than what they could be doing. We worked hard at it but this was basically this was the major downside of the idea of ubiquitous computing– too much distraction. It’s like doing your homework while watching TV. To stay on task while the online world is doing all they can to grab your attention is a big ask of children. As such for many, there’s still a place for handwritten essays. It seems that for many we have to win their heart for writing before we turn them loose on a computer. I do have some ideas about what to do. This will be the topic of installment number three.




A Process to Learn Writing

A: Overview

In this the final section I would like to present you with a simple way to learn the art of writing, and by writing empower learners. When we consider what learning really is, we want two things. First, we want deep understanding about big ideas. These understandings are nothing if they cannot be clearly articulated. The second is that learning does involve storing and retrieving key information. There is a benefit in the practice and discipline of being able to recall specific information– the capital cities of each province, for example. Stored and retrieved, facts are the raw materials of higher mental processes. But most learners all too often fail to see the relevance of storing and retrieving facts, and when they don’t they either refuse to learn, or file the learning in their mind under, ‘irrelevant things I had to memorize in school’. The solution, therefore, is to work on factual knowledge and it’s context together. So here is a simple step-by-step method anyone can follow.

If I was to learn archery there are those who would have me perfect holding and drawing the bow first. After perfecting my stance, my grip, my positioning, and my draw I am allowed to use an arrow. This method is awesome but requires a lot of maturities and personal discipline from the learner. It also leans toward all or nothing should the method fail. The equivalent in writing would be to learn all of your tool skills: penmanship, keyboarding, spelling, punctuation, and grammar first, and only then begin to write. This would be one possible method, but I would like to recommend something else, the method of successive approximation.

If I were learning archery I would like a brief explanation of how to stand and hold the bow. I would like to shoot an arrow and see where it goes, and then make the corrections to get the arrow to the bullseye. Indeed I would test those corrections out by shooting the arrow again, repeating the process until I can hit the target consistently.

In this metaphor the archer is the writer, the arrow is the writing and the target is the performance standard. The bow is a pen or computer. It is this constant attempt to measure up to performance standards through which learn. We hit the target by writing and editing until we meet the standard. There are a few simple ways to apply this metaphor to writing that is geared toward writing on a computer but can also be done without a computer.

The first step is to gain some sort of experience. It could be looking at an image, walking a field trip, doing a church project, conducting an experiment, listening to a talk or reading a book. Learners should enter into the experience knowing they will be writing about it.

The second step is to scaffold the learner. Scaffolding is a way of helping the learner without doing the writing for them. The goal of scaffolding is to teach the learning process. Scaffolding allows the learner to do more than they can do alone but provides just enough help to make sure the learner isn’t frustrated. Scaffolding allows a structure to be built inside. Once the structure is built the scaffolding is removed and the building stands alone. In like manner, we must provide learners with the support they need– whatever it may be– but without creating dependency. You set up a scaffold when you sit together and discuss the process of learning so that everyone knows what to expect. Learner and support work through the process and master it by practicing together at first but with increasing independence. Bear in mind that the goal here is not that the learner can write but that the learner can follow the steps that will eventually allow them to learn to write.

The third step is to create a concept map based on the experience in the first step. At the outset, do keep this simple. You might shoot for five paragraphs including a single organizing idea, three supporting ideas, and a conclusion. For this, I recommend any software you enjoy using. Inspiration is older, dated software, but still works well and is easy for learners to use. Learners should spend long enough creating a concept map that they become familiar with the scope of the work. The concept map should become an outline although it may be possible to skip this step depending on what is being written. If an outline is needed but difficult, a great way to get a detailed outline is to use PowerPoint or its alternatives. But stress to the learner that PowerPoint is an outline. Creating the content this way can be fun and rewarding. It can be 70% of the work, but we must not stop there.

The fourth step is to create paragraphs that follow the outline. These paragraphs will then become the first draft of an essay or personal narrative. The writing should be rapid, relaxed, unstructured and without regard for any details that can be addressed in the editing process. The focus should be on the details of the content, writing things down that are detailed, supported with reasons, clear and logical. Part of this step is a quick initial edit to correct obvious problems of paragraphing, grammar and spelling, adding reasons where required and making the sentences complete so the thoughts are logical.
The fifth step is to put the product to the test by self-evaluating. This is done by finding the square on the performance standard grid that best describes how well the learner thinks they met the standard. This is a key area for support. A good place to offer a reward like time for a favorite recreational activity if the one supporting agrees with the learner’s self-evaluation. The self-evaluation is of no use if it does not generate a plan to edit the document to achieve a goal from the performance standard. This usually involves looking to the next column to the right along the same row.

The sixth step is to edit the document to meet the selected goals. This can be as much or more work than the first draft. The resulting re-drafted document should show improvements in all areas of the performance standards. There should be at two or three self-evaluations and edits before the work is considered complete.

I hope you find this process works for you. To learn it might lead to a number of learning skills that will last a lifetime. Don’t forget to take that scaffold down slowly but surely.

B: Writing Activities
  1. Prewriting: It’s very important to find things to do that stimulate creativity. In order to write you need to have something to say. Gathering objects and organizing them, brainstorming, and clustering are some good examples. If you can do all this while using a computer then it will be easy to reflect and organize the thoughts later. If you need an outline, PowerPoint works well at that stage. It’s not really a finished product but it’s a great way to structure thoughts.
  2. Take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.
    • Don’t edit while you write, just write. Just spill the beans. If you empty your junk drawer onto a trampoline, that’s perfect. On computers turn off your spell check and grammar check. You can turn them back on later for editing but learners need to focus on creativity.
    • Remember that there are types of writing. The list includes journaling, storytelling, descriptive writing, poetry, opinions, and research. Daily journaling is just as valuable as daily spelling or math. Just keep it up. When you run out of topics, it’s an opportunity to learn and try things. Go exploring for writing topics. Try the different ways to write. You can even team-write with your kids. So they write a sentence and you write a sentence. Make it fun.
    • Remember there is a range of possible presentations to shoot for including newsletters, newspaper articles, brochures, posters, graphic stories (comics).
    • Work on style at this point.Find out about writing dress-ups, openers, and decorations. Learn about the thesaurus when there are weak words. Make different types of sentences by using your punctuation to combine and separate them into clear thoughts. Learn about paragraphing. What’s the topic, say it. Finish the paragraph with a clincher. Feel the mood and tone.
  3. Fix up the mess: Editing: Turn on the spell check. Check each sentence and paragraph for clear thoughts and messages. Discuss the grammar and look up the issues that seem to come up online.
  4. Don’t forget to evaluate. Use Performance Standards but also do your own evaluation. Leave yourself a message for next time.

Obviously, it’s going to be a challenge to get into the habit. I certainly suggest moving slowly but steadily. I think you’ll find it was a worthy adventure.