Overview: Read my best homeschool high school writing curriculum recommendations and tips for how to grade your teen’s writing and how to approach SAT / ACT essays. Note: May contain referral links.
Writing has been a sore spot in my career as a homeschool teacher since day one. It’s hard to be objective about your little one’s poem about a flower; you know what I mean?
And it only gets worse as they get older and the writing assignments become more in depth — and the writing itself becomes more personal. It’s like you’re reading a bit of their heart. How is it possible to take a red pen to that?
And actually giving a grade that has any authority behind it? Forget it! I’m too busy giggling as my teen tries to persuade me via a five-paragraph essay that they should receive an ipod for Christmas. Or I’m battling tears as they describe a favorite event from their childhood.
I’ve often felt like I could not give them any meaningful feedback about their high school writing, because I was too closely connected to them — and therefore to it. Ya know?
Over the years, however, we’ve come across a few gems of curriculum that have helped with this dilemma, and I’d like to share them with you today.
But first, some general suggestions about homeschool high school writing:
Let me first just say that since all of our homeschool graduates who have gone to college so far did successfully complete college freshman writing courses — despite my limitations — I have come to the conclusion that (no shocker here, if you know me at all) high school writing doesn’t have to be that hard.
1) The big thing is just to get the student to write and to play with language. Help them to not be afraid of writing by giving them many opportunities to put their thoughts on paper.
2) Also, make sure they have access to lots of great books, so they are exposed to great writing all. the. time. It does rub off, believe it or not.
3) I will also say for the record that I do think thorough and fairly demanding grammar instruction — yes, into the high school years — is definitely in order. No one can be a great writer who cannot handle grammar and spelling. More on that a little further down the page.
4) When it comes to GRADING the writing, you don’t have to get super specific. These days I often just assign a number of total points for a given assignment and deduct as I see things that are not working — such as poor grammar/spelling, a flimsy introduction or conclusion, not supporting their opinion, poor transitions, etc.
But mostly I am fairly generous; in fact, I have been known to add points for a particularly effective turn of phrase or creative spin. Obviously, in high school there is a certain minimum standard to expect from their writing; but on the whole I want it to be a positive experience so that they will continue to enjoy putting their thoughts on paper.
UPDATE: After writing this article, I discovered an amazing thing called a RUBRIC. More on that in a minute.
Now for some homeschool high school writing curriculum we’ve used successfully:
WriteShop is a homeschool high school writing option that is VERY user-friendly. It helps your teen work on the writing process step-by-step, and it also provides a LOT of support for whoever is doing the grading (that’s you, mom!).
WriteShop provides a rubric (i.e., grading checklist) for each assignment, so there is no more guessing about how to grade your precious little lamb’s writing. I love this, because it removes the subjectivity that we moms tend to have towards our own kids and gives us a very objective way to evaluate their work.
WriteShop also provides UMPTEEN other resources to help both mom and kid feel confident about the writing instruction that is happening in your homeschool.
The high school level curricula for WriteShop is WriteShop I & II. You can see them here: Write Shop I and II for high school.
Also, I’ve written an in-depth review of the WriteShop curriculum for high school which includes two videos so you can see the product and hear me wax eloquent about it, LOL. Click here: Write Shop Curriculum for Homeschool High School.
This course is specifically geared towards homeschool high school students and has been a big help for us. We found it after my eldest, who has a great vocabulary and grammar, received only a so-so score on her ACT writing. I realized it was because she didn’t use the format that they were expecting to see.
Help for High School remedied that. It teaches the student how to write an expository essay.
What’s so neat is the way it’s done. The first several chapters are called “Preparation for Essay Writing”, and they are filled with ideas and exercises designed to get your child to just start writing. Topics are ones the kid is familiar with, such as his own life experiences, and these chapters guide the student in getting something on paper that has creative words and sentence structures. The student also learns to look at different sides of an argument. And one of the neatest things is that they learn to look at their own writing and communicate about it.
The second and larger section of the book gives them the tools they need to craft an expository essay. They learn how to choose a topic and analyze it, how to write a thesis statement, how to design and execute supporting paragraphs, and how to write an effective introduction and conclusion.
The entire course is written to the student, so it is suitable for independent learning — although the parent will need to give feedback on writing samples on a regular basis.
And therein would be my one difficulty with the course: there is not a lot of information for how the parent is to evaluate the student’s efforts. There was a rubric about how to comment on your child’s work, but I confess that I was hoping for something a little more concrete.
I did write the author about this at one point, and she was very helpful. She told me to not stress too much about the grades but to concentrate on looking at the overall quality of the given paper. The examples in the book were A papers, and I could compare my child’s to those, if that was helpful.
I do see this as a valid grading philosophy, but for myself I prefer the objectivity of a rubric such as is found in WriteShop.
These are primarily a grammar curriculum. As I said, I think grammar is über-important, even at this age. (We love this curriculum. See my mini-review here.)
However, they do also include writing. There are several chapters (alternating with the chapters that focus on grammar) that deal with different types of writing — persuasive, descriptive, etc. These contain thorough instructions about how to write each genre.
What I really like is they provide a detailed grading scale for the teacher AND the student. So the teacher knows exactly what to look for, and the student knows what to work towards.
If you are new to Rod & Staff, though, it might be best to start at a lower level. The 9th and 10th grade books might be a bit overwhelming if you have not already been using their grammar curriculum. Their 7th and 8th grade books are both very high level grammar, also, and to my mind they would be sufficient for a solid grammar foundation.
And we know that as homeschoolers we don’t have to be dependent on a number to tell us what level is best for our child. If it is challenging to your high schooler and they spend an appropriate amount of time on it, you can count it as high school credit. :-)
Any of Hewitt’s Lightning Literature courses are a great way to include literature (which is often required by colleges) in your child’s high school curriculum. (I’ve written short reviews on two of their courses here.)
Lightning Literature courses don’t FOCUS on writing, but most of the assignments given require some type of writing. What I like is how creative they get with their assignments. They might ask the student to write a poem about a theme in the book, or describe the setting in their own words, or write a scene from a different character’s perspective. In this way the student is not bored, so they tend to write more creatively and spontaneously.
Again, there’s not much help with the grading end of it; but I focused mostly on whether the child got their point across, used language in a colorful and effective way, and avoided grammatical errors.
More on conquering the SAT/ACT essay:
I confess that when my eldest got that mediocre score on her ACT writing, I was somewhat surprised. I read her essay, and while it wasn’t amazingly fantasmagorical, it wasn’t super poor, either, like they seemed to think.
But the fact is that those scorers truly are looking for a very specific format and for very specific literary devices; and if you don’t do it their way, they don’t like you. Which is ridiculous, really, but we must be practical and realize that these scores, however stupidly come by, are important to colleges, for whatever reason!
So we did a google search on “how to write an SAT [or ACT] essay.” There are a gazillion articles out there that are very helpful with concrete, specific tips for how to conquer the beast. To practice with these tips, I had my kids take a sample SAT prompt and write an essay with a 25-minute timer at least twice a week during the last part of the semester that they took the Bravewriter course mentioned above.
UPDATE: We have since learned even more about how to write the type of essay the ACT/SAT scorers are looking for. Read The Five-Paragraph Essay: What, Why, and How for Homeschoolers for more information.
Teaching writing in your high school homeschool isn’t necessarily easy — but it doesn’t have to be difficult, either. I hope these suggestions have helped!