5 Simple Steps for Using Picture Books to Teach Writing

5 Simple Steps for Using Picture Books to Teach Writing

using picture books

Teaching writing can be one of the most intimidating tasks a homeschool parent has to face. There are so many layers to it that it’s often hard to even know where to begin. We often feel like we need to be a professional writer to really teach our children writing. But I promise you, you already have the tools to guide your child as he learns to write.

You don’t need to be a writer. You need to be a reader.

And by the very nature of being a homeschooling parent, you probably are! You need to be an observant reader. One who can look closely at the words of an author and begin to see the words on the page as more than just information to be learned or a story to be shared. A reader who can adjust her eyes to the ways in which the author weaves the details of the text.

My favorite place to start teaching writing is with reading…picture books! So many of us already read aloud to our children on a regular basis so why not use what we are already reading to teach writing?! Picture books are typically pretty short, so the author has to be very intentional with the words he has chosen. The text of a picture book is full of wonderful examples of the qualities we would like to encourage in our children’s writing.

Inspired by some of my favorite writing resources (listed below) and spending time writing with my children and in the classroom, I have seen a simple rhythm emerge that connects reading and writing and allows the authenticity of both endeavors to shine through.

5 steps

  1. Read the book.  Take your time with the words.  Take it slow.  Allow their rhythm and cadence to pull you in.  For this example, I’ll refer to Owl Moon by Jane Yolen.
  2. Rest.  Put the book aside.  You’ve already started teaching writing by reading beautiful words to your children.  Let it rest.  Let the seeds of the language sprout.
  3. Discuss.  After reading the book and letting it rest, re-visit it the next day.  Re-read it and then pick just one sentence or section to focus on.  This one part of the book should represent one concept you want to focus on; strong beginnings, alliteration, varying sentence structure, describing the setting.  The list is really endless and what you choose will depend on the writer in front of you and the book you have read.  (This step may even come before step one.  You may have a particular skill you want to focus on and choose a book accordingly.)Back to our example….Owl Moon offers so many characteristics of quality writing.  The whole text is so poetic and the words so precise that you can’t help but feel like you are out owling on that winter night.For simplicity of discussion, we will focus how to use the book to encourage our children to use strong descriptions in their writing.  I could choose a sentence like:

“Our feet crunched over the crisp snow and little gray footprints followed us.”

Discuss this one sentence. The author could have said, ‘We walked through the snow and made footprints.’ But instead, she chooses words that paint a vivid picture of exactly what is happening. Keep it simple and direct. Your message may get lost if you over-do it. Let the words of the author have space to speak and guide by example.

4. Practice.  Give your child time to try this out.  Applying what has just been learned is the best way to bring these new ideas into his own writing.  If he is keeping a writer’s notebook, he could pick out a sentence or two that he could re-write, adding more description.

Or you could make it into a collaborative task. You come up with the most boring, non-descriptive sentence you can think of. Something like, ‘We made cookies.’ Together, think of other ways you could say this so that you are painting a vivid picture for your reader.

We baked crispy cookies and gobbled them all up.

or

We licked crumbs off our lips so that there was nothing left of the cookies we made.

or

We rolled the dough flat and pressed little shapes into it with cookie cutters.

As you can see, each of these sentences tells more than simply saying ‘We made cookies.’ And the ways in which we can say the same thing are infinite. It is important that our children see that there are many ways to say the same thing and that they are no right or wrong answers.

However you choose to approach this step, allow lots and lots of time. Don’t rush it. If your child seems to be having trouble applying what he has learned, go back to steps 2 or 3. Sometimes, finding a second or third example is necessary to really allow the child to make it his own. Sometimes, though, taking a break is best, revisiting the idea in a day or two.

5.  Share.  Talk about how this worked for your child (and for you).  This step is crucial!  Allowing for an honest dialogue about how smoothly or not-so-smoothly we bring the skill or idea into our own writing, encourages our children to reflect as well.  It also sets the tone that writing is an authentic task and that we are learning together.  Reflecting together, allows each person’s voice to be heard and reaffirms that the child’s ideas and perspective are valid and valuable.

Even though I approach this process in a very informal, laid-back way, I have found it to be very effective! And fun! The best part is that writing becomes a joint activity, something we enjoy together. And when our children witness us reading and writing alongside them, they will see these as worthwhile, life-long learning.

If you need more ideas about how to use picture books to inspire your children’s writing, check out these resources.

writer's notebookteaching writingteaching nonfiction writing

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Fanning the Flame: Encouraging Creativity in Our Children’s Writing

Fanning the Flame: Encouraging Creativity in Our Children’s Writing

writing notebook

One of my very favorite things to do is share the joy of writing with children. They are so full of ideas and stories. Adults often find themselves envious of the child’s imagination and creativity. Somewhere along the way from childhood to adulthood, many adults feel as though they have lost the ability to imagine and create. How sad this is!

Unfortunately, the step-by-step approach we often take with writing with children seems to smother that creativity and turn writing into a chore rather than honor the art form that it is. I’ve seen children, brimming with creative spark, move from writing for the pure joy of sharing their thoughts to writing what they think others, mainly the adults in their lives, want to hear. The children are looking for the right answer according to the adult.

The child’s writing is no longer an expression of himself, but a reflection of the expectations of the adult.

What if the way we teach writing is all wrong? What if we shouldn’t ‘teach’ it at all? What if our job, as the adults, is simply to mentor our children on their journey as writers?

In What a Writer Needs, Ralph Fletcher says that writers need mentors. Wherever a writer is along his writing path, he needs a mentor who is more experienced than he is. This is good news for all the parents who feel like they can’t help their children as they develop their writing skills. Just by the fact that we have been alive longer than our children, most of us have more experience with writing and can act as a mentor.

But what does a mentor do? Ralph Fletcher lists six traits of a good mentor.

  1. A Mentor has high standards.
  2. A mentor builds on strengths.
  3. A Mentor values originality and diversity.
  4. A mentor encourages students to take risks.
  5. A mentor is passionate.
  6. A mentor looks at the big picture.

The attributes of the mentor are what most parents would say they want for their children, high standards, originality, passion. What better way to encourage these traits in our children than to model them.

We can see that nowhere on this list does it say, ‘the mentor assigns writing topics’ or ‘the mentor grades the writing’ or ‘the mentor picks apart the writing until the original piece can’t be seen and the child is turned off to writing.’

I know that the last comment seems harsh but I have seen it happen again and again. When anyone, a child or an adult, shares his or her writing, that person is opening up a part of themselves. As a mentor, we must treat the vulnerability of this exposure with respect. If we do otherwise, we will not be given the honor of being invited into the writer’s creative space again.

So it is our privilege and responsibility to act as guide, helping our children to build upon the strengths and passion they naturally bring to writing, holding the space for them to authentically express themselves, and honoring that the words and ideas within them are worth sharing.