The Importance of Freeform Writing

January 28, 2019

One of the earliest hurdles that young writers face is unfortunately one of the highest: mastering logical organization. As someone who personally wrestled with organization for years (my mom can attest to this, as well!), I wanted to put together a few suggestions for working with students or children who are also struggling with structure and cohesion. These are either practices that have helped me or ones that I used with middle and high school aged students to help them further develop both their writing and reasoning skills.

Why use freeform writing?

This first exercise may seem antithetical to the end goal of writing with clear organization, but I promise you that it is crucial to implement freeform writing as a regular practice. When working with young writers, your highest priority should be fostering in them a love for writing, and it is all too easy to injure an innate aptitude for writing by requiring that students only ever write in highly structured formats. (An appreciation for organization will come!)

To avoid this outcome, I would encourage any teacher to give their students at least as many opportunities to write in a freeform style as assignments to write structured pieces. These aren’t meant to be graded exercises or pieces that a student spends hours perfecting – they are intended to offer an opportunity for students to begin expressing their thoughts without any of the pressures that often accompany writing. This sort of writing is frequently and fittingly called “prewriting.” If a student is already a fluent writer, freeform and/or more open-ended creative writing exercises will give them an opportunity to further experiment with language and also to explore their ideas more deeply. If a student is a less fluent writer, freeform writing may help break down any mental barriers they may have, and, by removing the demands of formality, the student can recognize that the way to begin writing is to simply to begin jotting down whatever it is they are thinking. The primary objective here is to reinforce the relationship between the hand and the mind, between thinking and writing.

How do I incorporate freeform writing into my lessons?

I like to do this exercise in conjunction with a reading, whether it be a selection of chapters, a poem, an essay – it can even be done with a piece of art or music. I begin by giving the students a prompt, question, or topic and then set a timer for a relatively brief period of time. Somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes seems to work well for the scope of this exercise. As a side note: your topic or prompt should be on something that the student has seen or read already and will have had some time to think about prior to writing.

You can do this activity before a class or family discussion, as a “prewriting” exercise before beginning a more formal writing project, or just as a short, isolated writing activity. As an alternative to timed writing, you could ask a student just to complete a one to two page journal entry on a chapter, poem, or idea – whatever is being studied – and give them however much time is needed to complete it, so long as they are not re-reading and editing their work as they go. I emphasize to students that they should try to write continuously for the duration of the time, and I also ask them not to revise as they go. They can rethink their ideas in their writing in the subsequent sentence, but they shouldn’t erase or strike anything out. There will be plenty of opportunities to work on editing in the future.

On the rare occasion that I do collect these writings from students, I do not grade them or give feedback on sentence or paragraph structure, but I will write down notes about their ideas and the connections between them. To help either open up or narrow the focus of their inquiry and also to cause them to think about their topic from a new perspective, I might ask questions, simply because it’s interesting for me and because students seem to love getting written feedback. But ultimately this writing is just for them and they should be aware of that.

The main point of this practice is to get students to start writing and to begin recognizing for themselves that their writing should simply be an extension of their thinking. This jumping in and out of writing will eventually help students to develop the ability to sit down and write at any time, instead of dreading and forever postponing the process. It helps develop the ability to write efficiently – when you only have a few minutes, there really isn’t time to waste on circumlocution. The practice also obliquely helps students accept that their first drafts will never – and should never – be perfect: the most important part of a first draft is just the fact that it gets done. Lastly, I think this practice can help anyone realize that you don’t need to carve out an hour of your day in order to reap the benefits of writing. Even working during the odd 5 or 10 minutes between other activities can be tremendously productive and rewarding.

Share your experience

Have you ever done this sort of prewriting or freeform writing exercise? Let us know in a comment below whether it’s something you, your family, or your students have ever used before. And if you’ve never done it before and try it out for the first time, we’d love to hear how it goes!

Introducing Chapter Books: Among the Forest People and More

by Lisa Ripperton

​January 24, 2019

This on-going series – Introducing Chapter Books – is intended to highlight books that are ideal for families who are just beginning to read chapter books aloud with their children. In our experience we have found that children are typically ready to undertake the challenge of listening to stories without illustrations on each page around age five, and all of the books mentioned in this series have been selected with this age and purpose in mind. A later series will discuss books to use when your child is transitioning to reading chapter books independently.  

​Arousing your child's interest in the out-of-doors

There is no doubt that most five year olds have a natural affinity for animals. Clara Dillingham Pierson capitalizes on that interest in her series of nature books (Among the Meadow People, Among the Forest People, Among the Pond People, Among the Night People, Among the Farmyard People, and Dooryard Stories) with stories that awaken curiosity about and develop empathy for the creatures living in a particular setting.

​Imparting information through narrative

Each volume includes more than a dozen stories of animals that serve as a representative sample of its inhabitants. In a typical chapter in each of these books, the author sets the stage and introduces the animal characters, then lets the story unfold through the conversations the creatures have with each other, or thoughts they voice to themselves, with only an occasional explanation inserted by the author. The conversations are engaging and full of good humor, with much information shared in a friendly way.

As the animals are recounting why they act the way they do, or what functions their various body parts serve, the listener absorbs many details about animal behavior and physiology. It may be a hen explaining to her chick that he ​must ingest gravel to grind the grain he eats or an earthworm asserting that it is ​best to live in the earth because it is warm in winter and cool in summer.

Dooryard Stories

​​Around the dooryard nest all sorts of birds, including flickers, robins, sparrows, wrens, swifts, and blackbirds. These stories convey some of the drama that arises in the garden as birds go about the business of building nests and raising young. The author's cat Silvertip figures in a number of the narratives as do a number of other mammals and insects. Invites children to 'see how many tiny neighbors you have around you, and how much you can learn about them.'   Ages 5-7

​Encouraging good behavior

Many of the chapters focus on the forming of a family group ─ pairing off, building nests, raising young ─ with the story turning on a problem that arises in the course of those activities. It may involve differing views on where a nest should be placed, or what to do when their offspring test boundaries or quarrel among themselves. Children will likely recognize that similar forces are at work in animal families as those they experience growing up among their brothers and sisters. Other stories deal with the introduction of a new inhabitant into a well-established community and the disruption that may bring ─ a newly-arrived peacock full of pride in his appearance, for example, or a mole disagreeable to all. Good behavior is always encouraged. All stories are concluded in a satisfactory way, with a gentle moral, implicit, but seldom expressed.

Among the ​Farmyard People

​​Introduces young children to the animals of the farmyard through a series of engaging stories about the sheep, chickens, cows, and horses that live there. With new animals arriving regularly, we make the acquaintance also of a pig and a peacock, as well as some ducks and guinea fowls. Each story closes with a gentle moral, inspiring children to ​good behavior.   Ages 5-7

​Stretching capacities for listening and picture forming

The longer chapters in these books, written at about the 4th grade reading level, will stretch your child's capacity for listening. Frequent use of conversation in the story will help to keep children engaged to the end.

With only a few illustrations in each volume, listeners will have to rely on their imaginations to form pictures of the animals and scenes described.

​Furnishing vocabulary for expression

Hearing unfamiliar words in context helps young listeners gain vocabulary for expressing their ideas.

Among the ​Meadow People

​Delightful stories of field life for young children, relating incidents in the lives of birds, insects, and other small creatures who make the meadow their home. Each chapter features the story of one animal in its daily activities and interactions with the other animals inhabiting the meadow.
Ages 5-7

​Stimulating desire to find out more

Hearing about all kinds of different animals, children will wonder which of these animals live where they do. Can they see them? Can they hear them? Can they observe them closely to find out more? Their firsthand observations may lead them in turn to want to read more about the animals they studied.

Adults can further development of their child's interests in the out-of-doors first by offering more outside time to their charges and then by locating additional reading material that matches their interests.

Among the ​Forest People

​​A charming series of nature stories for young children, including tales of red squirrels, great horned owls, rattlesnakes, and bats. No one can read these realistic conversations of the little creatures of the wood without being most tenderly drawn toward them. Within the context of each story children learn many interesting facts about the lives and habits of these little people of the forest.
Ages 5-7

​Use of naturalists' books

According to Charlotte Mason, "The real use of naturalists' books at this stage is to give the child delightful glimpses into world of wonders he lives in, to reveal the sorts of things to be seen by curious eyes, and fill him with desires to make discoveries for himself." (Home Education, p. 62)

Clara Dillingham Pierson's books serve these purposes well.

Among the ​Night People

​​Stories of animals of the night for young children, relating the activities of raccoons, skunks, moths, foxes, fireflies, and weasels. Since we can't understand animal language, the author depicts the animals talking to each other in English, but she does it so skillfully that you can imagine that they are using their own ways of communicating through voice and gesture.   Ages 5-7

​What to read first

You may want to choose the book to read first depending on the season, the setting, or the types of animals portrayed. Among the Meadow People, Among the Pond People, and Dooryard Stories are best read in the warmer months. Among the Farmyard People, Among the Forest People, and Among the Night People could be read anytime.

If you want to read mostly about birds, start with Dooryard Stories, featuring ten birds, or Among the Farmyard People, featuring eight. For mammals your best bets are Among the Night People and Among the Farmyard People, each of which showcases eight mammals. Insects and allies take center stage in Among the Meadow People. Among the Forest People covers birds and mammals. The greatest diversity occurs in Among the Pond People with a variety of creatures that live in or around the water represented.

Among the Pond People

​Presents the adventures of Mother Eel, the Playful Muskrat, the Snappy Snapping Turtle, and the other Pond People. These stories are full of humor, yet cleverly convey information about the frogs, minnows, and other pond residents and often suggest a moral in a delicate manner which no child could resist.
Ages 5-7

​Final notes

Fifty years ago informational books written in a narrative style used to be commonly available in public libraries. That is no longer the case. Most informational books published today rely heavily on large color illustrations with only snippets of text as captions to the illustrations. We recommend that you save these for use ​after introducing your children to animals through stories written in a narrative style and observing them personally.

Lastly, we're curious to learn more about how older children use the Pierson books in their independent reading. If your family has any experience with this, please let us know by leaving a comment below.

Purchase Books at Amazon

Among the Meadow People
by Clara Dillingham Pierson

Among the Forest People
 by Clara Dillingham Pierson

Among the Pond People
by Clara Dillingham Pierson

Read Online

​Get Ebooks

​Get access to the ebook editions of ​Among the Meadow People, Among the Forest People, and ​Among the Pond People by purchasing the Yesterday's Classics Ebook Treasury, Volume 1

Purchase Books at Amazon

Among the Night People
by Clara Dillingham Pierson

Among the Farmyard People
 by Clara Dillingham Pierson

Dooryard Stories
by Clara Dillingham Pierson

Read Online

​Get Ebooks

​Get access to the ebook editions of ​Among the Night People, Among the Farmyard People, and ​Dooryard Stories by purchasing the Yesterday's Classics Ebook Treasury, Volume 1

​We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com.
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