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How to Use Literature to Teach Writing

How to Use Literature to Teach Writing will show you how to use good books to teach your kids the intricacies of writing

The definition of a wordsmith is a skilled user of words.  One of the reasons Charles Dickens is my Dead-Author Boyfriend is that he was, indeed, a skilled user of words.  Luxurious, meaningful, true words.  The kind that rarely get used in today’s mass market writing world.  The kind that a lot of kids today have replaced with acronyms and misspellings.

But you want your kids to be wordsmiths, don’t you?  Or to at least grasp the concepts that go along with it?
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Teaching Plot Structure: 5 Types of Plot

Lesson on Types of Plot is part of a 3-part series on teaching plot structure to kids. Includes a free printable

In the last couple weeks, we’ve covered the 3 types of story and the elements of plot. To wrap up my series on teaching plot, let’s talk about the different types of plot that occur in stories.  If you research types of plot at all, it won’t take but a minute to see that the experts disagree on just how many they are.  3, 5, 7?  36?

I think  most of the 36 could be boiled down to one of 5-7 plot types, but it’s fun to look at plot with a more detailed mindset.  I’ve heard it said that nothing original has been written since Shakespeare (and since so many of our current books and movies are based either on his plays or on fairy tales, I’m not saying that’s wrong).

But everyone has a different voice and a different idea of how the plot type will unfold.  So even though it seems like there are a million plot lines out there, let’s take a look at how closely our favorite books fit into just a few different types of plot.
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How Reading Counters Meanness

I have a story for you.  It’s a story about a little girl who loved to read.  When she was very young, she saw all of her family–mother, father, brother–always immersed in books.  Her father and brother read wonderful stories to her from those books.  She begged to be taught to read herself and finally her brother taught her because she couldn’t wait until she was in school to get to read stories herself.

austen reading by the window

Years passed.  Friends came into her life.  They laughed at the books she always carried, but they also asked what each story was about.  The girl began to write stories of her own, trying to match the wonder she found in Raggedy Ann stories and Nancy Drew mysteries.  She never stopped writing stories or reading books.  In high school, all her teachers encouraged her to become a writer.  With knowing smiles, they allowed her to read her own book when she should have been paying attention in class.  She discovered new authors without assistance–Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Jane Austen.  She began to understand history in a way she wouldn’t have otherwise.  When stress or meanness came into her life, she had a place to go, always.  She always had a book.

Last week, my beautiful husband was sick.  He had bronchitis, sinusitus, and an upper respiratory infection.  He was not feeling well at all, and he stayed home from work the whole week.  This meant I ran more than usual, hopping into the car to go to the store and pick up this or that for him.  Apparently it was a bad week for everyone around here, because about 80% of the people with whom I came into contact were grumpy and mean.  Or condescending and mean.  Or annoyed and mean.

high five

If you’ve been reading me for any length of time, then you know that I believe that the most important human trait is kindness and that I practice it every moment.  When people are mean to me, I have to admit,  I get confused.  If I am being polite, friendly, kind… why the hell are people responding to me this way?  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t take a lot of guff, and when a situation calls for strength, I find it.  But if the cashier at the gas station stares a hole through me because I’m taking too long to put my change away, am I supposed to stare back?  Attack her, either verbally or physically?  Well, no, the situation calls for none of those things.  I don’t know what’s going on in her life to make her so impatient–I don’t even know her name–so why would I pull out my cranky card?

get well card

After one particular similar situation, I left the store and climbed into my car.  My brain was still trying to assess the event and I was feeling confused and a little hurt and a little offended and a little like, “Why the f— did I come out in public again?”  I put the keys in the ignition and looked down at the console.  There sat my Kindle.  Ready to be turned on, the text-to-speech option almost blinking at me with its serenity.  And I smiled.  And I forgot the meanness inside the store as I remembered I had a beautiful story to listen to on the way home, and I didn’t know that woman.  She didn’t even know my name.  In an hour she will have forgotten me.  In 2 minutes, I would forget her.  I turned on my Kindle, put the car in reverse, and smiled as that wonderful robotic voice began to read to me.

I had a book.  I always have a book.

This.  This is why we want to engender a love of reading in our children.  Sure, there are other reasons–to promote literacy and good speech, to help them learn about the world, to give them knowledge.  But the single best thing about a book is that it takes you away.  I’ve said it before, but I fully believe that teaching our littles to love reading gives them a healthy form of escapism and could save them from trying other, more dangerous ways to escape.  Sure, I could have come straight home and poured a stiff drink to shake off that incident.  It probably would have relaxed me.  But by the time I got home I would have been stewing in it for 15 minutes, blowing it up in my head, letting my feelings hurt even more.  I might have needed 2 drinks at that point. haha

reading escape


Instead, I had immediate succor.  Something that relaxed me and made the incident seem as trivial as it really was.  We want that for our kids, don’t we?  Because no matter how much we want to and how hard we try, we can’t protect them from all the mean people in the world or all the temporarily mean moods.

There is nothing more relaxing than falling into a good story and staying there until your brain is ready to deal with your problems.  So read to your littles.  Read in front of your littles.  Have your littles read to you.  Read, read, read.

Some day, when they’re pulling away from the store with an oncoming headache, they will thank you.

Love wins,


Teach Them to be Wordsmiths

As we meander through Asia this year, I have happened upon a book that is perfect for our purposes, quite by accident.  I knew this book existed, but it hadn’t occurred to me to include it in our studies.  Fortunately, the Fates were with me, and we have begun reading Memoirs of an English Governess at the Siamese Court by Anna Leonowens.  The book the King and I is based on.  Fabulous.  I got it for a couple bucks for Kindle, and since the Littles’ tablets are hooked to my Kindle account, we can all read along together.

King and I

When I came across it, I had no idea the luxe world of words I was getting us into.  But I am quite satisfied with the result.  See, Anna wrote her memoirs in the mid-19th century.  The century that gave us Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, and the Romantic poets.  A time when the only form of long-distance communication was letter writing and authors were True Wordsmiths.

Credit line (HTML Code): © Iurii Sokolov | Dreamstime.com Title: Old love letter Description: Love letter and antique quill on a black background Photo taken on: March 26th, 2010 ID: 13697480 Level: 3 Views : 389 Downloads: 5 Model released: NO Content filtered: NO Keywords (Report | Suggest) fashioned pen paper nostalgia copy old history handwriting love quill romance calligraphy letter manuscript antique mail reading retro writing memories

The definition of a wordsmith is a skilled user of words.  One of the reasons Charles Dickens is my Dead-Author Boyfriend is that he was, indeed, a skilled user of words.  Luxurious, meaningful, true words.  The kind that rarely get used in today’s mass market writing world.  The kind that a lot of kids today have replaced with acronyms and misspellings.  I love reading 19th century books because I am taken back to a time when words meant something, when they could be truly tasted and savored as they were read.  I want my Littles to have that same experience.

Anna Leonowens was a true wordsmith.  Take a look at this sample in which Leonowens is describing her first view as her ship leaves the ocean to enter the Meinam River:

On the other [bank], which at first I took for a floating shrine of white marble, is perhaps the most unique and graceful object of architecture in Siam; shining like a jewel on the broad bosom of the river, a temple all of purest white, its lofty spire, fantastic and gilded, flashing back the glory of the sun, and duplicated in shifting, quivering shadows on the limpid waters below.  Add to these the fitful ripple of the coquettish breeze, the burnished blazonry of the surrounding vegetation, the budding charms of spring joined to the the sensuous opulence of autumn, and you have a scene of lovely glamour it were but vain impertinence to describe.

Vain impertinence, indeed.  Have you ever read a description that took you Straight There any better than that?  This.  This is what I want my Littles to learn about Asia.  How it inspires such words.

The other thing I hope they learn from reading this book is how to use words to say what they really mean.  There’s nothing I hate worse than when I use a word that means what I’m saying and a listener acts like I’m the idiot for using it, when he is the one who doesn’t understand it.  Let’s keep it simple and say I use the word, ‘hulking.’  And someone says, “What the hell does that even mean?”  And I say, “You know, big and imposing.”  And they say (condescendingly), “Why didn’t you just say big?”  Well, because I didn’t mean big.  I meant hulking.  And how am I the idiot here?

Hmm.  Kind of got off on a rant of my own.

My point is, if you want to teach your homeschoolers about Really Using the Language, you can’t go wrong with introducing them to 19th century novels and autobiographies.  If you feel they aren’t quite ready for Leonowens, try Black Beauty or Alice in Wonderland.  (Alice, by the way, is also a great way to introduce them to way authors can invent words that become part of everyday language.)

I mean, is it nerdy to be a wordsmith?  Maybe.  Some of my friends certainly tell me it is.  But I would rather my Littles at least know how to be a wordsmith than grow up thinking BTW is a word.  Right?

We forget, in this visual world, that words have power.  It is up to us to give our littles the tools to be able to use them.  So read lots of 19th century books.  It will give your littles a hulking vocabulary.

Love wins,


P.S.  I just found this great blog called Small World at Home that has an 11-part lesson plan on wordsmithery.  Check it out if you want to add writing lessons to cement what your littles are reading.  I didn’t go all the way through it, but Sarah offers some great ideas.