Teach Writing with Focused Reading

Homeschooling, Teaching Writing  /   /  By Jenn Stefaniak
Stone Soup Magazine
Sept/Oct 2016

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When I first started homeschooling, I spent days scouring the Internet for ideas on teaching writing, and whoa, was I hit with barrages of information. It was overwhelming for sure, but I managed to weed out some good ideas.  The frustrating part was that most of what I found was just that—concepts, with little to no guidance in how to apply them at home with my children.  Consequently, I spent many hours working out how to make those big ideas come to life in our homeschool.  Focused reading is one technique I refined to teach my children the three Rs of great writers. My goal then is to share insights into the process of focused reading so that you might find it useful in your homeschool too.

Despite its name, focused reading is not a “learn how to read” program. It’s a “learn how to write” tool. The idea behind focused reading is to use mini-lessons to teach kids to read like good writers do, to see techniques writers use and learn to use those techniques in their own writing. There are essentially three steps to focused reading:

1. Choose and gather

2. Read and see

3. Practice

Choose and Gather

This step is the foundation of focused reading. Choose a skill to teach and gather examples of that skill in use. Over the course of the year I generally teach aspects of word choice, sentence and organization style, and punctuation. However, the skills I choose are more specific. Under the category of word choice, I might focus on strong verbs for one lesson and interesting adjectives in another. I then gather two or three brief examples of that skill in use. Model pieces are three or fewer paragraphs for prose and forty lines or fewer for poetry. Although I include examples from professional authors, it is important to show them pieces from other children because it helps them see that the concept is not over their heads, that it is possible for a young person like themselves to also use the technique. 

Finding professional writing examples is easy; all I do is peruse my kid’s bookcase. At first it took some time to flip through the books to find examples, but it was well worth it.  Now that I’ve been doing this for a while, I’m in the habit of noticing examples even when we are reading for pleasure or content. When I do, I label it with a sticky note for future use and have reduced my preparation time overall. A book by Marcia Freeman called Models for Teaching is a useful resource to get started as it provides short lists of example texts for target skills. However, I had to do quite some exploring to find good children’s writing. In the end, I return over and over to the same sources: children’s magazines like Stone Soup provide high quality examples of stories and poetry. Likewise, the Write Source website offers models of children’s writing (grades 1-12) in different genres, including nonfiction. Don’t forget that siblings and other homeschoolers are also a great source from which to learn. 

Read and See

Once your models have been gathered, it’s time to read and analyze how the target skill is used. I begin this step by letting my children know where the passage came from, who the author is, and what the context is. I also provide definitions of unfamiliar vocabulary.  They read the passage silently; then we read it aloud.  I encourage them to pinpoint the skill themselves through discussion questions: What did you like about this piece? Why? What did the author do to help you feel (see, hear) that way?  Why do you think the author chose to do it that way? Could he or she have done it differently? What didn’t you like? Why?  The first goal of discussion is to help them see the specific tools writers use to get their message across. More often than not, children respond with general comments about what they read: “I liked it,” or “It has a lot of action.” Questioning, however, prompts them to identify specifics.  If my children still struggle with finding key points, I give them more specific questions, such as “what words does the author use to show action?” The second goal of discussion is to help the children see that the author made specific choices when using the skill.  This reinforces the idea that techniques can be used in different ways by different writers, including them.

Practice

The final step is for the children to use the skill in their own writing. I frequently kick off focused reading by having them write a short journal piece, providing topics that are conducive to later incorporation of the focus skill. Personal narratives, for instance, encourage the use of description (active verbs, colorful adjectives) and time order skills (transition words).  After the mini-lesson, we return to the piece so they can work on incorporating the skill into it. Of course, it doesn’t have to be done in this order, and sometimes they write the piece after our discussion. Also, practice doesn’t end once the lesson is over. The kids continue to incorporate the focus skill in other journal entries over the course of one to two weeks.

A focused reading lesson takes thirty minutes to one hour.  If we don’t get everything done because we have a longer discussion or they want to write more, I just continue the lesson the next day. This process has proven successful for us, as I find my children transferring what they learned in the focused reading workshops to other writing projects as well.

Not sure which skills to teach? Tune in next week for more information.

About the Author

Jenn lives in Massachusetts and is a homeschooling mom to her two children, Luke and Lia. In her spare time, she teaches writing at a community college, reads voraciously, hikes, runs, and generally spends as much time as possible outside with her husband and kids.

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