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?
Why you should use literature to teach writing
The boys and I love reading 19th century books because they take us back to a time when words meant something. When they could be truly tasted and savored as they were read. I want my boys to have that way with words. I want them to experience language before technology and instant gratification became the rule so that when they write, they’re getting it right.
Anna Leonowens, author of The English Governess at the Siamese Court (on which The King and I is based), 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 boys to learn about writing. How to take the reader there.
When something is big and imposing, rather than just saying big, they might use the word hulking. And the reader is there. Seeing that hulking thing loom over them.
If you want to teach your homeschoolers about Really Using the Language, you can’t go wrong with introducing them to classic novels. 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 authors who invent words that become part of everyday language.)
How to use literature to teach writing
If you ever talk to a publisher or editor, the first advice you will probably get on how to be a writer is read, read, read.
Writing is a craft, and you should go at it like an apprentice. Study the masters.
You don’t have to go back as far as the 19th century to find masters, but reading classics with your kids is the first step in showing them how to write well. The more you read, the more you see how the greats did it, the more you understand what you have to do yourself.
Read aloud to them and have them read on their own. Kids need to see the skill modeled, but they also need to hear how the skill sounds. Then they need to practice the skill.
If you’ve ever read one of my Activities for Learning posts, you know they are full of ways to practice the skill as your kids read. I do that on purpose. Not only do writing journal entries and letters help your kids connect better to the story and comprehend it more closely, they help them practice the skill of writing while they’re reading good writing.
Here are some of the lessons you can teach while reading literature:
- Point of view
- Discuss the viewpoint from which the story is written. Have your kids write a story or journal entry from the same point of view
- Strong words
- Discuss the use of strong verbs and how variations of to be should not be used
- Look at strong adjectives and discuss how they enhance description
- Have your children write a story or journal entry using strong verbs and adjectives
- This ties in to strong words. When reading classics, your kids will probably come across tons of new words. Have them write down the words and their definitions
- It’s a given that if you see a word written many times, you’re going to grasp how it is spelled
- Choose spelling words from the text and have your kids practice them along with the reading
- Grammar and Mechanics
- One of the best things about reading good writing is that it lets your kids see how sentences should be structured, how commas should be used, and how a good paragraph is formed.
- Have your kids practice their grammar after showing them how it works in the book
- Sentence Fluency
- Good writing teaches kids the rhythm and flow of the language
- Discuss how the writing is pleasing not just to the eye but to the ear. Fluent writing has cadence and movement, varying sentence lengths, and styles. They make the story easy to read.
- Have your kids practice writing good sentences in varying lengths.
- Voice, Tone, and Mood
- Reading lots of good books will help your kids see the differences in voice. Voice helps us recognize a writer’s works, but it also helps us identify with the writer.
- Tone is how the author feels about the subject and is often connected to Voice. Read a scene from a book and discuss how the author feels about what’s going on.
- Mood is how the scene makes you, the reader, feel. Discuss the differences between tone and mood in the scene and have your kids write a journal entry describing how the scene made them feel
- The arc of story is pretty standard: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Resolution
- The more good stories your kids read, the more they will experience the story arc and learn to write within its terms
Activities for Learning
Need help getting started? Grab one of these books and do some of the suggested activities in its Activities for Learning post.
I mean, is it nerdy to be a wordsmith? Maybe. Some of my friends certainly tell me it is. But I would rather my boys 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 classic books with them and improve their writing skills. It will give your littles a hulking vocabulary.