What Your Student Needs to Know about Writing

Because language is the primary avenue for learning every other subject, you really can’t skimp on language arts in the early years without hampering a student’s academic development down the road. To ensure that a student transitions smoothly from elementary to middle school and high school writing, there are some basic skills and concepts that a student will need to master in the early years and beyond.

The Fluency Stage

The first several years of elementary school constitute what I like to call the fluency stage. Students are learning how to read and write words and sentences with increasing ease. They are becoming fluent in both the written and spoken word.

By the end of third grade, in addition to mastering phonics and penmanship, a student on strong footing in language arts and writing will

  • have a firm understanding of a sentence as a complete thought containing both a subject (what the sentence is about) and a predicate (what the sentence tells about the subject). (She need not know the words “subject” and “predicate,” but she will be able to recognize a complete sentence and to distinguish between a sentence and a fragment.)
  • know and consistently implement the basic mechanics of a sentence. In particular, he will know that the first word of a sentence is always capitalized and that every sentence must end with either a period, a question mark, or an exclamation mark. He will also know when to use which end punctuation and be familiar with the different kinds of sentences (such as questions, statements, commands, and exclamations).
  • be able to recognize paragraphs in a text and understand that a paragraph is a series of sentences relating to a particular point or topic.
  • understand that a word that names a person, place, thing, or idea is called a noun and that specific names, called proper nouns, begin with a capital letter.
  • be developing fluency with capitalization and basic punctuation norms.
  • have plenty of experience writing sentences, preferably through copywork and dictation, as well as from her own compositions.
  • have accumulated many, many hours of hearing books read aloud, both picture books and chapter books. (Even after, and maybe especially after, a student can read on his own, he still needs to hear the written word.)
  • have committed to memory several beautiful prose and poem selections which she is able to recite.
  • be able to orally tell back in his own words a short anecdote, story, or passage he has heard read aloud.

There are many good tools for helping students master these concepts and skills. One I’ve enjoyed using is English for the Thoughtful Child: Volume 1 by Mary F. Hyde revised and edited by Cynthia Shearer.

The Grammar Stage

Beginning around fourth grade, most students are ready for a more systematic study of grammar. In classical education circles, this stretch from fourth through fifth or sixth grade is commonly known as “the grammar stage.”

By the end of fifth or sixth grade, a student who is thriving in language arts and writing will, in addition to the above,

  • know and be able to identify all the parts of speech and all the parts of a sentence.
  • be familiar with the various verb tenses and moods and know how to maintain agreement and consistency across a composition.
  • understand the various functions of nouns and pronouns within sentences and be able to identify the various cases and roles within specific sentences.
  • be familiar with more advanced punctuation, mechanics, and usage norms.
  • know how to format a composition assignment for an academic setting.
  • be able to summarize and amplify sentences and rearrange the parts with ease.
  • be able to summarize, amplify, and imitate stories and passages.
  • be able to identify and articulate the main idea or central fact of a paragraph or selection.
  • be developing the ability to recognize literary elements such as character, setting, and plot.
  • understand how to organize paragraphs and multi-paragraph compositions utilizing topic sentences, transitions, clinchers/conclusions, and titles.
  • have experience incorporating descriptive writing, dialog, and other narrative elements within a composition.
  • be familiar with poetic elements such as rhyme, alliteration, simile & metaphor, and basic stanza forms.
  • have read (and heard read aloud) a variety of short stories, longer fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from different time periods and genres.

Here are a few among the many available resources that I have found helpful in developing a student’s grammatical know-how at this stage: (I wouldn’t use all three at once!)

Middle School & Beyond: Logic & Rhetoric

With their foundational language skills building to fruition, Middle School students are ripe for forays into essay writing where skills of logic and disputation come into play. In the classical trivium, the middle school years are known as the Logic stage wherein students engage in pre-Rhetoric exercises known collectively as the progymnasmata. Then, during highschool, students who have mastered the previous stages are ready for more formal studies in rhetoric and composition.

At An Elegant Word, our summer writing camps are designed to review the basics while stretching students to develop their essay-writing skills at the level appropriate for them. Basic Essay Writing introduces students to the structure of a simple essay, while Thesis Essay Writing challenges students to reach a higher level of argumentation and organization. The Advanced Essay camp builds on the others as students study modern and contemporary masters of different essay forms. In all three camps, we review basics such as formatting, sentence structure and style, principles of organization, and descriptive writing. Which camp is right for you?

Note: If your middleschool or highschool student has not yet mastered grammar, punctuation, and usage, it’s not too late! Easy Grammar Plus is a comprehensive resource that is especially easy to use. After you’ve got your feet wet with that, why not add Jensen’s Punctuation?