The Time Has Come . . . For the Five-Paragraph Essay

It may seem odd that I have never taught writing as a formal subject to my children, especially as my own experience with the research paper and the five-paragraph essay was a happy one, but such is the choice I have made as a homeschooling mother. They have all been avid writers most of their lives. Daniel began his storytelling career in the oral tradition, following me around as a toddler and regaling me with long adventure tales starring himself. When they were eight to ten years old I started the kids on a typing course; they began committing their stories to the hard drive and never looked back. They have each finished at least one novel-length manuscript, and for a while they produced an informative and entertaining newsletter with their friends. They wrote poetry and song lyrics as well. I occasionally looked over these projects and offered stylistic, grammatical, or spelling corrections and suggestions as needed. But until recently, they have never made any formal study of writing.

Have I been remiss? Some may think so. When Daniel was a lad of eight or so and I was a young and impressionable homeschooling mother, I came across a book, written by a public school teacher, designed to teach essay writing to third graders. The book looked promising, and in those days I was more easily wowed than now by educational materials in general, and suffered from a fear of inadequacy that often manifested itself as a drive to have my children do everything early. So I bought it and dug in.

The charm of the book soon wore thin, and common sense asserted itself. Breaking down the process of writing a five-paragraph essay into a pablum theoretically digestible by a young child began to seem needlessly laborious. Why, I asked myself, should I spend precious hours trying to teach an eight-year-old boy how to write in a format that was introduced to me in high school, when there is little enough time in the day for the educational endeavors he actually enjoys? Why do I persist in this belief that earlier is better? Why not wait until he reaches high school age, tell him how to write a five-paragraph essay, and then let him have at it?

That, dear reader, is what I did. I chucked the book and trusted my instincts.

Based on my own experience, I believe the best way to teach children to be good writers is to expose them to good writing. Not only style, but also grammar and syntax, are thus absorbed on a cellular level.

I let them read, and I let them write. From a young age they were vicariously acquainted with the concepts of critique and revision. Every other week for sixteen years, I attended the meetings of the Circle of Christian Authors. Typically, members would bring copies of a passage, usually limited to ten double-spaced pages, to distribute to other members. We’d read aloud, mark our copies, and talk about what worked and what didn’t, what was misspelled or ungrammatical or awkward or overdone or just right. Then I’d bring home all the copies of my own stuff, sit down at the computer, and make changes. After I finished, I’d place my pages in the special basket under the desk to be used as scratch paper or printed on the opposite side. My kids read these pages, sometimes incidentally, sometimes deliberately, and saw the comments and corrections of my fellow CCAers. Sometimes longer manuscripts or complete novels were sent home with me for evaluation, and often the kids’ opinions were solicited as well. The opportunity to read and critique such works in progress, and later see their suggestions used in a finished work, signed by the author, was indeed precious.

My thinking was, let them develop a love of writing and a readiness with pen or keyboard. Let them learn without constriction or fear. When the time comes, they will adapt to the required forms.

So now the time has come, at least for the elder two. I bought a book called Essay Writing for High School Students, by Alexander L. Terego, which was written with the SAT, the ACT, and college admissions essays in mind. The cover advises, Learn an Innovative Approach: Thinking Around the Box. The metaphor is an apt one: the form should be respected, particularly when grades are involved, but should not stifle.

Daniel and Anna went at the exercises in contextual thinking with zeal, and I have been treated to several marvelously clever satirical essays, manifestly not suitable for the SAT. A discussion of tone was in order, and we had it. Naturally all this talk about satire led me to bring out Steve Taylor’s boxed set, Now the Truth Can Be Told, and from there it was the work of a moment to proceed to Jonathan Swift. The work of Andree Seu and C.S. Lewis were also discussed.

I have every confidence that my children will learn to strike the appropriate tone in whatever writing projects they may encounter and will perform admirably on the SAT, as in their greater lives as writers. Writing an essay, if you do it right, is a journey of self-discovery. It is gratifying to watch my kids experience this.

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