Five Simple Steps to Help Your Student Become a Strong Writer

From Our House to Yours

A Trend in Writing to Ponder

Each day I get to help families with placement in Heart of Dakota. I’ve enjoyed doing this for over a decade and consider it an incredible blessing and a privilege! I see a trend for many students who come to Heart of Dakota from other curricula.  They are often placing lower on the placement chart in writing, spelling, and grammar.  They have done much work orally. But, now that they are getting older, parents are looking ahead to middle school and high school work. They are concerned their students won’t be ready.

Impact on Spelling and Editing Skills

Since much of the work was done orally by students, their spelling has also been impacted. They just have not written enough to form the habit of spelling well. Likewise, they have done little to no editing of their own written work. The parent has not been editing either, as students have been doing their work orally. This leaves the parent with all of the responsibility of editing a larger volume of work, as students should be writing more as they mature.  So, a responsibility that should be shared or shifting more to the student has landed soundly in the parent’s lap!  Not what we busy homeschool moms need, right?!?

How Reading Aloud Everything Can Impact Students’ Writing

When older students are combined with much younger students and therefore everything must be read aloud either by them or the parent, their writing is impacted. Seeing the text on the page as you read in your head fixes proper spelling in your mind.  This in turn helps you have a better chance of spelling words correctly in your own writing.  Older students who have not read independently often do not write well independently for this reason. This is why Charlotte Mason advocated students at the age of 9 be responsible for their reading. Can you think back to yourself as a 5th grade student? I know, for some of us, this is going waaaaaay back.  But, thinking back, how would your teachers reading everything aloud to you have impacted your writing?  Probably significantly, and not in a way you’d like.

The good news – Heart of Dakota’s plans are designed to help students improve their writing!

Students incrementally become stronger writers using Heart of Dakota’s plans!  Simply following the daily plans and using the writing helps in the appendix of each guide helps students gradually improve.  However, what do you do if you are coming to Heart of Dakota later?  Or, what if you did Heart of Dakota from the start, but you altered the plans so work was done orally instead?  Well, take heart!  Students can and will improve given time, as they create new writing habits.  So, here are 5 tips to help your children strengthen their writing skills and be on the road to writing well!

#1: Follow Heart of Dakota’s plans by requiring all writing in assignments to be completed.

Start small if need be!  Students assigned to write 5- 7 sentences for a written narration should start with 5 good short sentences.  Quality trumps quantity to begin with!  Students should use proper spelling in all copywork, written narrations, and formal writing assignments. However, editing writing in all subject areas helps as well.  So, if you see a word spelled wrong in science, for example, try to help them fix it. Though work need not be perfect, spelling is something to try to edit in all subject areas as much as possible.

A word on this poster had to be fixed because it was misspelled. Not fun to fix, but in the end, he was happier to share his work knowing it was spelled right!
#2: Use the editing tips in the back of the guide.

Take time to edit to help your student become a strong writer! Working through the list following the directions in the Appendix will help students form good editing habits.  The responsibility for editing will gradually shift more from you to your students.  As this happens, your kiddos will learn writing carefully from the start equals less editing at the end. Keep in mind, students write one draft for written narrations.   A parent should not require a student to rewrite an entire written narration in a second or third draft.  Rather, students edit their first draft to the best of their ability with a parent offering help and encouragement as needed.

Riley’s Written Narrations in World Geography
#3:  Do dictation every day you homeschool.

Heart of Dakota’s plans assign dictation 3 out of 4 days a week.  Struggling spellers can see more improvement in their spelling by doing dictation daily. Be sure to follow the directions at the start of dictation carefully, as they follow Charlotte Mason’s tried and true methods.  For one of my sons who struggled with spelling, we did dictation daily.  It took his scores on standardized testing from below average to above average.  He didn’t become a stellar speller overnight, mind you!  But, slow and steady consistent dictation and editing helped him improve greatly!

#4:  Students should read when assigned to do so.

Carrie wrote Heart of Dakota’s plans to include living books. She chose these books specifically with reading roles in mind.  Students placed properly in a guide can independently read what has been assigned or quickly grow into the reading.  Carrie didn’t forget parents’ love to read aloud either! Parents always get to enjoy reading something too.  I love the books I get to read aloud with my sons!  But, I also love my sons enjoying reading on their own too! Keep in mind not all living books function best as read alouds.  Likewise, the reading assignments vary in length.  Some readings are long!  Students are meant to read them more quickly independently. As Charlotte Mason advocated children 9 years or older begin doing their own reading, Carrie chose books with this in mind.

#5: Teach students to shrink their writing to fit on notebook paper.

Students who are new to writing often write quite large.  They also often do not know how to write with proper spacing.  Writing on lined notebook paper for subjects such as R & S English, science questions, Common Place book entries, etc. can be a challenge.  You can help by pointing out the left and right margins.  Likewise, you can draw their attention to spacing between words.  Helping them visualize a dotted line within the wide line also helps with writing lower case letters.  Students can skip lines, as this helps them better see how to edit their written work.  They can also experiment with various pencils and grippers, until they find what they like best. Parents can jot editing notes in the margin for easy reference.

Emmett’s Writing on Notebook Paper and My Editing Marks in the Margin

I use these tips with my own sons each day!  I have seen such improvement in writing, spelling, and grammar through the years with Heart of Dakota.  My job as editor decreases and shifts to my sons’ job as they mature.  This is what helps them be able to write well without me!  And that, in my mind, is the final goal for writing!  Hope this helps as you encourage your own kiddos to become the best writers they can be!

In Christ,


P.S. For more on written narrations as a form of assessment, click here!

P.S.S. For more on dictation as a way to teach spelling to struggling students, click here!

Does having my child with special needs write create bad spelling habits?

Dear Carrie,

My daughter with special needs is able to read, but spelling is a huge issue. I am wondering for a child that can’t spell if writing practice is counter productive? I’m worried having her write things out is actually reinforcing bad spelling habits. I’ve been having her do beginning dictation with Heart of Dakota. But, I wonder if written narrations, where she is creating ideas herself, is just maybe reinforcing poor spelling in her mind? I do correct it. But, she still sees it when she writes it wrong the first time, and she makes the same mistakes over and over. What should I do? I guess my question is, does having my child with special needs write create bad spelling habits? Thanks in advance!


“Please Help with Special Needs Spelling in Writing”

Dear “Please Help with Special Needs and Spelling in Writing,”

Thanks for sharing about your daughter! Charlotte Mason viewed the mind to function like a camera.  As we see words spelled in written form over and over, we begin to think the word ‘looks right’ even if it is spelled wrong.  That is why spelling programs that include misspelled words for students to correct are detrimental to truly learning proper spelling!

You are so right that writing a word and seeing it incorrectly multiple times fixes the “wrong” spelling in your daughter’s mind, until the wrong way starts to look right!  So, whenever you do something where your daughter will write, copy a portion of it on the markerboard. She can then look at it to copy it on her paper correctly. Also, never have her copy so much that it wears her out. This will cause her copying to quickly go downhill, as I’m sure you know.

Or, if it is difficult for your daughter to copy from markerboard to paper correctly, you can write on paper instead. Just leave a space below each line for her to copy directly under your text letter by letter. Hope that helps!



5 Simple Tips to Fully Enjoy Heart of Dakota’s Creation to Christ Notebooking Pages

From Our House to Yours

Creating a “Beautiful” Notebook

Heart of Dakota’s Creation to Christ is the first year kiddos get to write in those beautiful full-color notebooks! As HOD moms, we eagerly await this rite of passage, and we just can’t wait to begin a special keepsake of the year using those lovely notebooking pages! And they ARE lovely. But, the writing and pictures and entries kiddos make on those lovely pages can be… well, lovely and not-so-lovely. So what should we expect as moms for first-time notebook users?

Expect the Plans to Be Done

#1 – Expect the plans to be done, but give extra ‘grace’ as this is a training year!

Heart of Dakota Creation to Christ Notebooking Pages
Creation to Christ Notebook Timeline pictures

So, when the Creation to Christ plans say for kiddos to draw, color, and label 3 timeline pictures; they need to strive to do that. When the plans say a certain number of sentences for their written narration; they need to strive to write that number of sentences. When the plans say for a certain passage to be copied in cursive; they need to strive to do that. However, progress should be evident! In other words, improvement from the start to the finish of the notebook should be visually obvious. The first entries being less ‘lovely’ or ‘complete’ than the last. Remember to give grace, especially at the start of the year, knowing this is a training year for learning how to use the notebooks.

Encourage Writing Within the Boxes

#2 – Encourage writing within the boxes, but understand this may be hard at first!

Learning to write inside the boxes is a skill in itself. Often students just don’t notice the edges of the boxes, and they could just write outside of them not knowing the goal is to try to stay inside them. So, just pointing out the goal is to stay inside the boxes and the frames of the boxes are the stopping places is very helpful! Students’ writing is also often larger, especially if they are on the younger side of the target age range of CTC. Learning to ‘shrink’ their writing is also a skill in itself. It takes time, but little by little encouraging students to develop fine motor skills to write smaller within a defined area is well worth it!

Know When the Goal Is Met

#3 – Know when the goal is met and call it ‘good enough’ then!

Carrie makes clear in the guides the goals for each part of the plans. The Introduction, the Appendix, and the daily plans of each guide help us know when a ‘goal’ is met. So, for example, the goal of the timeline is to keep a chronological record of what has been studied. It is not to have a beautiful artistic drawing – though some kiddos will be able to do that too! The goal of the written narration is to retell the history reading using guided questions. It is not to answer every question perfectly, as if it was a quiz to be mastered – creativity is allowed! So, if the student wrote the designated number of sentences (even if it was the minimum suggested), if the student answered some/most of the questions, and if the answers make quite good sense… the goal is met, and it can be deemed ‘good enough’!

Writing Must Be Legible

#4 – Writing must be legible, but not perfect!

Heart of Dakota Creation to Christ Notebooking Pages
Writing must be legible . . . but not perfect!

The ‘loveliness’ of students’ writing will vary greatly, and that is alright. What is not alright is if it just cannot be read at all! One sure-fire way to help kiddos understand this is to have them read aloud their written narrations with pencil in hand. As they read aloud to us, they can be encouraged to make changes they need to as they read. Often times, they will catch missing words, misspelled words, missing punctuation, etc. themselves. That only serves to help us have less to edit later with them!

If they cannot read their own writing, they will begin to understand that no one else will be able to read it either… and the real shame here is NOT that their writing is not perfect… it is that their ideas, their responses, their thoughts will not be able to be shared with others – and their ideas are what we LOVE… so writing must be legible, but it need not be perfect.

Editing Is a Skill to Be Learned

#5 – Editing is a skill to be learned one step at a time!

Editing is a process, and slow but steady progress is the goal. The best thing to do is to use the Written Narration Skills: Teacher’s List and the Written Narration Skills: Student’s List in the Appendix of CTC. Step 1 should be taught first; then, move on to Step 2, and so forth.

Focusing on teaching ONE skill at a time in the order it is listed will help you avoid overwhelming your child with too many skills at once, and will give your child a manageable plan for editing writing. This slow and steady process helps students improve one step at a time, and ensures we as moms do not to tip over to expecting perfection by making a student erase and rewrite everything; or by making them write everything twice. Written narrations are not to have a first, second, third draft. Making students do so will only cause them to dislike written narrations… intensely!

Heart of Dakota Creation to Christ Notebooking Page
Creation to Christ Unit 19 Notebooking Page

So, here you will see my son’s CTC Student Notebook… and this is the halfway mark, as he is in Units 18-19! Progress in many areas is evident, but more progress is expected as we move forward! It is LOVELY in its own way, and I look forward to it becoming more and more so as he becomes better and better at each of these amazing skills, step-by-step!!!

The next time your child works on a notebook entry for his/her Heart of Dakota guide, keep these tips in mind and see what you think!

In Christ,

Family Time Sharing Together When Doing Separate Heart of Dakota Guides

From Our House to Yours

Do you have family time sharing together when students are doing separate guides?
Roman feast in Creation to Christ history activity box
Roman feast in Creation to Christ history activity box

Absolutely! In fact, there are natural times within the day when it just makes sense for our family to share learning. The Roman feast Emmett prepared for his Creation to Christ history activity gave us the perfect time to get together. Emmett dressed in Roman attire and prepared a simple meal. He set places for each of us, explained each course, and served us. Putting his own personality into it, as he often does, he found Roman music online to play in the background. Providing entertainment was another part of the plans in his guide. So, Emmett theatrically read some of his favorite poetry (into a microphone, of course)! He also became our Roman tour guide, giving us an ‘audio tour’ of life based on his storytime City reading.

Riley shared his Essentials in Writing composition with the family as part of the entertainment for the Roman feast.
Read aloud essay in World Geography high school with Essentials in Writing

Riley chose to write his Essentials in Writing essay about the differences between dogs and cats. I really wanted him to share this with his brothers. We own two dogs and one cat, so I knew his brothers would love this essay. Riley worked hard on this composition piece, and all that was left for him to do was a final edit. Reading aloud an essay is a wonderful way to catch mistakes! So, for many reasons, it made sense to have him read aloud his essay during the Roman feast.

Wyatt shared his Economics “Enterprising Entrepreneur” project with the family as part of the entertainment for the Roman feast.
Research assignment in USII for Economics
Research assignment in USII for Economics

Wyatt chose to research Donald Trump for his Economics “Enterprising Entrepreneur” assignment. His research was focused on Donald Trump’s real estate success and business savvy that led him to the White House. Part of his grade was to present his project to an audience and allow them to ask questions afterwards. Sharing is easier when others share something too, so adding it to the entertainment of the Roman feast was perfect.

Guard against a few things when planning family sharing times within multiple guides.

There are a few things to guard against when planning for family sharing times within multiple guides. First, adding a lot of additional time to the day causes students who have more work to get behind. This may result in things being skipped in the guide they are actually responsible for completing. Or, it may result in a longer day, which makes being involved in the next family sharing time a negative.

Having everyone do everything in every guide adds unnecessary time to the day and confuses intended roles.

Second, having everyone do everything in every guide adds unnecessary time to the day as well. It was Emmett’s turn to lead the Roman feast. His brothers had their turn years’ back when they completed Creation to Christ. So, Emmett was in charge leading the event, and his brothers simply shared in the ‘entertainment’ part when called upon. The older two siblings were folded into the primary event of the Roman feast. In this role, though they may have thought they could lead it better, their place was on the sidelines. Being the encouraging audience was their role, rather than being the ‘star of the show.’

One must remember, Creation to Christ is not the guide they are completing. Likewise, when it was Riley’s turn to share his Essentials in Writing essay, his siblings took on the role of being the attentive audience. They were to be the encouragers, not the editors. Editing is Riley’s role in this Essentials in Writing assignment. Finally, when it was Wyatt’s turn to share his Economics Enterprising Entrepreneur presentation, his siblings took on the role being the attentive audience. Their role was not to interrupt but to listen. Time for a few questions was provided at the end, and that was the time for them to talk.

Time Wasters Versus Time Savers in This Particular Family Sharing

Waster – making the Roman feast a separate meal on the weekend with extra groceries VERSUS…
Saver – making the Roman feast our lunch for the day using what we have on hand

Waster – searching endlessly for poetry on the Internet or in books VERSUS…
Saver – reading poetry already part of the Creation to Christ Appendix

Waster – having everyone dress up for the feast and plan the meal VERSUS…
Saver – having only Emmett dress up and plan the meal, which was part of his responsibility in his guide only

Waster – having my middle son in World Geography share random things he is learning VERSUS…
Saver – having him read aloud his Essentials in Writing assignment and edit it, which he needs to do anyway for his plans

Waster – having my oldest son in U.S. History II share random things he is learning VERSUS…
Saver – having him read aloud his Economics “Enterprising Entrepreneur” assignment, which is a required part of his plans

The only ‘expert’ in the sharing is the one carrying out the plans in his guide.

Respect for the one who is carrying out the plans within the guide is a must. There is no room for ‘tips’ on how to improve, for interruptions that distract, or for additional knowledge being shared. A positive sharing experience can quickly become a negative sharing experience if someone else is ‘always the expert.’ The only expert in the sharing is the one sharing. It is their turn to shine when it is their guide. Others will have a turn to shine when it is their guide’s assignment to do so. These are a few of the staples for creating an encouraging, safe environment to share learning together. Hope it gives you all some ideas!

In Christ,

P.S. If you want to read more on this topic, Carrie has excellent commentary on this. Check out her post from our message board to the commonly asked question “How will we be learning as a family, if we do separate guides?