Teach Creative Writing without Lessons

What Works!

After reaching the goal of  homeschooling until high school graduation, I wanted to share some of the things that really worked in our homeschool journey:

Narrations ~ the natural method to teach creative writing

I have never used a formal writing program or curriculum in all my homeschooling journey, and yet my children can write amazingly detailed, creative essays, narrations and stories.


Read living books and follow the passage or story with a narration!

Great literature is the food for all creative writing.  It feeds the mind with a rich vocabulary,  and inspires the child with new thoughts and ideas.   A child draws from the quality writing of an accomplished author and learns to use a similar style and tone.  And the act of telling a narration makes this the child’s own.

My earliest epiphany of this remarkable natural development was when my second child, just a cute-as-a-button pre-schooler narrated an Aesop’s Fable “The Lion and the Mouse“. She sat on my lap and told me the story in her “own words” and she described how the mouse “skittered” past the lion.

Skittered” … a completely new and ‘borrowed’ word from the story!

I then KNEW that narrations are an incredibly powerful method to develop successful writing.

If a child has paid close attention, they can narrate amazing details and content of the reading.  From the pre-schooler and junior student narrations develop from oral and illustrated narrations to dictated narrations, and, as they mature, adapt written narrations in different writing formats.

For example I would ask my children to ~

  • write a letter to a friend or family describing the situation as if they were in the story
  • write a formal letter to thank, congratulate, complain or request something
  • write a catchy title and opening sentence
  • write an attention-grabbing introductory paragraph
  • write their own ending for the story
  • write the story as a play with dialogue = an opportunity to use direct speech.
  • list/ explain/ describe all the facts
  • sequence the events in the story
  • find  the main ideas and give a suitable title
  • more complex writing activity would be to write from a point of view; say as a police report or a newspaper report.

Here’s my 6-year-old’s narration where she writes from different points of view:

“If I was a Khoi and I was watching the Dutch sailors, and it was my land and they were taking my food and water I would get very angry! They are stealing my land!  Why don’t they barter with us?

If I was the Dutch I would think that the land isn’t the Khoi’s because they keep moving. I would build my fort right there.  We could barter with the Khoi for cows and sheep.”

Here’s a narration with direct speech that my eldest daughter wrote when she was 12-years old:

“You little brat!”

I heard voices from behind the wall.

“You’re not supposed to talk to the Commander!  Stupid boy, don’t you know that it might put me in danger?  I am in charge of you!”

I couldn’t hear the rest of the conversation because my uncle, Jan van Riebeeck, was calling me.  I stood beside him for the rest of the service wondering who could have said such horrible things, and I kept my eyes on the wall, waiting for the strangers to come out from behind it.”

(We looked at the technical aspects and the grammar rules for direct speech in the story. She then applied this to her writing.)

Simple, effective, and natural.

Even my most reluctant writer recently wrote an essay that blew me away!  Under exam conditions, which are often not conducive to creative writing, my 14-year-old wrote:

“I awoke late in the night from a strange sound.  I slowly lowered my bare feet to the wooden floor, and removed my sleepy body from the security of my bed sheets.

Timidly I turned the cold brass door handle, when the noise came again, a slow, eerie, haunting scream coming from the kitchen.

Doesn’t this just draw you into her story?  I sat stunned!

And here is an extract from a mid-year exam essay my eldest daughter, now nearly 19 years old, wrote:

“It was upon a late Friday afternoon.  I had been vacuuming my somewhat dishevelled tea-stained carpet, when above the piercing hum of the cleaning machine, I heard a jingle as something shifted below my bed.

Filled with incredulous wonder, and rather hoping for a distraction to the mundane task at hand, I ceased the vacuum’s roar and hunkered down to take a peak.  Knees creaking in complaint and hands gripping tentatively at the bed, I tweaked my head around trying to adjust to the gloom of my bed’s darkened cave …”

Again, I thank the Lord for simplicity.

Here are some of my other narration posts:

Charlotte Mason’s approach works … all the way to graduation!

Join me next week for another “What Works!” post.

Please feel free to comment or ask questions in the comments below.


Traditional African Houses

In our Footprints On Our Land (South African History studies), we have joined the 1820 British Settlers who settled along the Eastern Frontier, to the land where the Xhosa people lived.

The frontier with allotted farms, c. 1835

The frontier with allotted farms, c. 1835 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This section of History covers aspects of the Frontier Wars between the Xhosa and the settlers and the British government.

Tensions were so great that a neutral territory was created between the Great Fish River and the Kei River to prevent the Xhosa crossing over to steal cattle and burn settler farms, and the retaliatory raids to recapture stolen cattle.

These issues come to life as I read wonderful living books, and our current story “Strangers in the Land“.

While I read, my young daughter cut and created these African homes from postcards that I had collected long ago in my teaching days.

She displayed all the different houses on the bookshelf, each house in its own ‘village’, separated by a book pulled out slightly.

We will focus on the Zulu in the next theme. This is what their traditional house looks like.Many of my readers may have seen the brightly colored, geometric designs the Ndebele use to decorate their homes on African-themed designs.  Theirs is truly the most colorful homes!

Below is a Venda home, also painted and decorated, but they use more earthy, natural colored paints.

And this Sotho house completes this collection:


Highlight Main Ideas

My middle-schooler is learning to write her own notes.

From simple oral narrations, where she “retells” the details of something I read to her,

she now must read her own notes

highlight the main ideas

use those key words or phrases

in her own sentences.

Tough stuff for a 10-year-old!

So we start with baby steps:

I break it down into skills she can manage and build it from there.:)

Using the Table of Contents to find the relevant information

  1. Read the notes together.  I sometimes just whisper the words near her ear as I do in partnered reading.
    (Some children need to “see the big picture” first, so a good read through helps them understand the basic flow of ideas.  But if your child is chomping at the bit, and raring to get to work, start straight away with the next point.)
  2. Highlight the main ideas in each sentence.  It may be just 1 word, or a phrase, or a word here and there.
    Again, help your child with this vital skill.  Do it together.  Sometimes I try “trick” my child with a silly concept and say, “Do your think this … is important?”  She’ll giggle, look carefully and chose a more important word.
  3. Use these key words in their own sentences.  Start this skill orally.  Encourage your child to read the highlighted words from 1 sentence aloud and then put them together into a new, simple sentence, similar to the original sentence.  Perhaps change the word order around.  Start with a highlighted word and let your child finish the sentence.  This way, they learn how convey the original concepts, but use their own words.  A vital skill!  Instruct them at the very beginning that they should not copy the original text.

    Write simple sentences using the highlighted words

  4. Write down the ideas.  Again, I encourage you to “help” your emerging writer.  Perhaps you could write the first sentence down as your child dictates to you.  Make them feel important and say, “Tell me what you want to say.”  You could write it directly on their page and then work is done.  Then, the next time, write their dictated sentence out on a white board and ask you child to neatly copy it in their notebook or lapbook page.  Finally, ask  them to write the sentences on their own after an oral practice.

Writing sentences in a minibook

It takes a few stages, but soon your child will master several important skills!

It will happen.

Your child will learn to write their own notes.

How have you helped your child find key words, identify important facts or re-write these facts on their own? Please share with us in the comments.

For your information: In these photos, my child is completing a Footprints in our Land “The Dutch at the Cape” lapbook – of part a wonderful South African literature-based history curriculum.


Narration ~ A Natural Art

What happens when a young child runs in and tells you about something exciting they have seen, heard or done?

… Narrations!https://i2.wp.com/www.christcenteredmall.com/stores/art/olsen/fairy-tales-zoom.jpg

Charlotte Mason found that telling back is a fundamental skill in expressing what a child knows.

Here are the 2 skills – knows and tells.  It is so simple.  But I’m no expert and we are still refining these skills.  For new homeschool moms and those with young children, may I share more?

How should we teach so they know?

Miss Mason suggests that we use living books, read to our children with clear, expressive voice, and tell our children that after we have read to them once only, they will tell us what they have heard.

How can this go wrong?

https://practicalpages.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/cassatt_mary_nurse_reading_to_a_little_girl_1895.jpg?w=300The first thing most moms do is tell the child to listen, prompt them, discipline them, even nag them to focus and listen.  Then they add sympathy and repeat what their children missed while they chased the cat under the table.  And worse still, they correct them, add their thoughts and words and prompt them while they narrate.  … I have been guilty of all these … any of you?

Let’s start at the beginning:

Charlotte Mason said, “Our concern is to afford matter of sufficiently literary character, together with the certainty that no second or third opportunity for knowing a given lesson will be allowed.” (Vol. 6 pg. 171-172)


Use really engaging living books with rich vocabulary, great characters and wonderful thoughts and dialogue.  Young children need stories with pictures!  If the book or content is not suitable, I suggest you find another book.  In my early homeschooling days, I followed the curriculum and squeezed my children to fit it.  Now I prayerfully turn to other resources and lay aside the book that dragged us down.

Allow you children to listen without distraction, yet keep busy hands.  Colouring in pictures on the topic, or cutting and folding a minibook for the notebook page all are helpful activities that reinforce the content.  Play dough and felt-board pieces, knitting or embroidery are quiet too.  I found that, although my children love to play Lego while I read aloud, moving the pieces make a dreadful racket!

Charlotte Mason said that, “complete and entire attention is a natural function which requires no effort and causes no fatigue … the concentration at which most teacher aim is an innate provision for education and is not the result of training or effort.” (Vol. 6 pg. 171-172)


Children often live up to our expectations.  Tell them what you expect.  Simply state that you will only read the chapter once and after that they will narrate to you.  Then calmly read. They must give all their effort at attention.  Charlotte Mason tells parents not to get in the way.  We do not need to explain anything unless the child asks, “What does … mean?”  It takes courage to allow the child to miss what he does not know for the present and express only what he does understand. (Note to self – do not explain!)

When you are finished, let your child start his narration.  Often my youngest starts so that “she doesn’t forget her thoughts” while she waits as the others tell back.  If the content is complicated, I ask the older children to tell back first so that in hearing their narrations, the younger child gets a quick “recap”.

A young child can draw their narration.  I write out their oral narration under their picture.  For longer narrations I type their oral narration on the computer, print it out and they can illustrate the page.

https://practicalpages.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/afterschoolplan-getinbedreadfairytalestwoswordsunderpillowjustincasephotobylizhenryatflickr.jpg?w=300In training a young child to write their own narrations, I start by writing their dictated narration in pencil and then they copy over my writing.  Then, as they become less frustrated with the physical act of writing (which is really a chore),  I write their dictated narration on a white board and they copy this written narration on their notebook page.

https://practicalpages.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/a-fairy-tale.jpg?w=300Eventually, by about 10 years, the child writes their own narrations.  At first, I encourage them just to get their thoughts on the page.  I ask them to read back their narration to me so that I can hear their words and don’t misinterpret any ‘strange’ spelling. My youngest child is at this stage now.  If I pick out spelling and grammar mistakes, I will quench her joy of writing!

Gradually I encourage basic grammar like starting sentences with capital letters and ending with a full stop.  I remind my children to keep their sentences short.  If they fall into the habit of starting with “Then ….  And then …” I may remind them to read through their own narrations and cross out the unnecessary words. Often I ask them what they think they need to change if they are unhappy with their narration.


I offer specific encouragement by telling them,”You gave lots of wonderful details,” or “What a good opening sentence/ conclusion,” or I really liked these descriptive words,” or “Boy, you really summed that up well!”

My middle schooler has entered into independent narration writing and puts her head down and writes till she has captured all her thoughts.  She quickly fills a notebook page.  She has gradually added more vivid vocabulary and details as she gained confidence.  She loves notebook pages.  If the history chapter I read aloud has several sub-sections, she requests time to write her narration before I continue to the next section.

https://i2.wp.com/www.elsaelsa.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/11/mother-and-child-painting.jpgAnd my high school daughter writes all her own notes from the texts she reads on her own. She organizes all her own material, researches and creates rich and detailed assignments.  Her computer skills and typing are vital to the content and presentation of her assignments.

Narrations allow a child of any age to take hold and make their own whatever knowledge they engage with.  Keep at it and raise the standard as your children grow up.  Narrations really work!

This post was written for the upcoming Charlotte Mason Carnival.  Why not join in and submit your own post?


Finger Puppets

Oral narrations are quick and easy and especially enjoyable when presented with novel ideas.

We create finger puppets and present plays and dialogues.

It is especially good when practicing a second language.

When children are self-conscious, puppets divert their attention from themselves and all eyes (including their own) are on the puppets.

Young children really live themselves in the puppet show.  It seems real to them.

Older children focus on detail.  They often want to include props, sound effects and background.  (I don’t mind so long as they have a reasonable time limit and get on with the real drama!)

That is why finger puppets are suitable for last-minute plans – they are quick!

I often ask who wants to make and act the main characters and then I share out all the secondary characters and important props.

I let the children swap puppets and re-enact the play so that they all can have a turn being the main character.  (Sneaky – I get at least 2 full narrations and if there was rehearsals, then even 4 repeats = lots of practice and review!:)

Here are our Afrikaans finger puppets for the New South African version of Jack and the Beanstalk!

It took just 5 or so minutes to sketch, colour and cut out our pictures.

You’ll notice we all drew our own puppets.  You could make templates using pictures from the story books.

We then attached the finger band with a strip of paper and cellotape.

Finger bands behind the finger puppets

And with each of us using about 3 puppets, we acted out the story!

Not that many on 1 hand!

After we had acted out the story, the kids pasted the puppets on their notebook pages.

When they want to re-use the finger puppets they paste an envelope on the page and insert the finger puppets in the pocket.  They insert the envelope flap into the pocket to keep the pieces safely inside.

Keeping and using finger puppets in notebooks

Older children write out the dialogue.

Some more ideas:

History – We re-enacted the appeals, revolutions, war councils and peace treaties.

Crafty Crow shares excellent  paper clips and corrugated cardboard puppets.

Made By Joel paper clip puppets

You can also make simple puppets by pasting pictures on ice-cream sticks.  Store these in a flat box.

We used Lego hole-punched puppets – we narrated the poem Lady Of Shalot

Make rubber glove finger puppets as seen at Little Lovely

Create rod puppets I found at We Bloom Here

Updates:      Here’s some more –

I found a wonderful cereal box and stick puppets tutorial at Red Birds Crafts

And Tea Wagon Tales shares  their gorgeous toilet roll family.

A beautiful Travel Felt Board with tutorial at Maya*Made

cp travel board

Try this! Have fun with your narrations!


This post features on the South African Carnival of Homeschool Bloggers (SACH Bloggers) where South African home schoolers share experiences, ideas, philosophies and much more.  You can join the carnival too by heading to the South African Carnival of Homeschool Bloggers sign up page.  We hope you enjoy the carnival as much as we have!


Mom ~ The Narration Scribe

Recently I posted our geography minibooks and notebook pages

and wrote a brief description on how I act as a scribe for my youngest child’s narration.

One reader, on writing her son’s narration, asked,

“How do you address grammatical or other errors? (For example, my son loves to use “And then” at the beginning of every sentence or he’s used verb tense incorrectly.)”

Let me describe the narration process in a bit more detail:

Narration is the art of “telling back”.

It will start orally. They tell and you listen.

  • The young child will retell you the story or details of the story in their own words.
  • They must listen carefully and remember sequence (what happened first, second and so on.)
  • They should include as many original words as possible; give vivid and exact details.
  • The listeners should be active and positive ~ smile, nod, pay attention as the narration unfolds.
  • Some moms tape or video record their child’s narrations. (This may produce performance stress for some children, but other children thrive on hearing their narrations!)
  • The aim of the narration is to hear (and eventually read) how well the child listened to and understood the story.
  • I find that if my children know that they must tell or write their narrations after the reading, they pay extra attention.

To start the written process, the parent acts as the scribe.

Mom will write out or type exactly what the child narrates on the computer:

  • without interruptions
  • without corrections
  • with as few hints and suggestions as possible
  • Include all the “And then …” sentence starters.
  • Some moms even write the “Um … Err …” !  When mom reads these sounds back, the children often find it amusing!  But they become more aware of repeating unnecessary words.
  • If a child is really stuck, use a narration starter like,  “Who is this story about?” or “How did this story begin?”
  • When they have completed the narration, read it back to the child.  Let them suggest any changes.
  • If they suggest that sentences should not all start with “And then” and ask them how they could change it.

education Dread Writing?

At about 10 years the child should write their own narrations.

Writing is a very complex process.

The physical act of writing is stressful and exhausting.

They must learn letter formation, spacing and style.

Written work requires an extensive vocabulary.

Grammar rules are difficult to apply when all the other skills are applied.

These are  the basic steps we take when my child starts to write their own narrations:

  • First they dictate their narration while I write it on the whiteboard. (It is easy for us to rub out any changes.)
  • I write exactly what they say,  all their own words, word order and ideas.
  • I resist the temptation to suggest, hint, add, change anything! Seriously, this is the hardest part.:)
  • I read back what they dictated.
  • If they are happy with it, they copy the sentences in their notebooks.
  • If they get tired while copying, I offer to help them, or suggest they complete it later.  This is weaning process.
  • Eventually they should cope writing several sentences and then paragraphs.
  • It may take a year to learn all the skills to write narrations on their own!
  • They will write narrations on their own with some help; asking for spelling help or checking facts.
  • I accept all narrations without undue concern for punctuation, capitalization or spelling.

Narrations are not grammar lessons.

I use copywork for grammar, spelling and language studies.

We analyze extracts from current readers or quotes from famous people.

This is not threatening to the child.  We are not picking out their mistakes, but we point out all grammar rules, punctuation, vocabulary in context.

Children enjoy pulling apart someone’s writing!

It is amazing to see how much they learn from copywork and grammar studies.  My 8-year-old noticed every compound word in her reader after we studied compound words in our language arts.  My 10-year-old used new words in her creative writing after we did some vocabulary studies in her weekly copywork.

How do parents help when guiding their child in writing?

Janice Campbell asks in her article Are you helpful or nitpicking?

  • A negative, impatient, or critical tone can make even the most minor critique seem overwhelming to a sensitive child.
  • Be sensitive to each student’s abilities and don’t overwhelm a struggling student with too much negative feedback at once. Focus on the most important thing for the moment. There will be other days to fix other things.
  • If you and your student have difficulty communicating on a subject, it may be a good idea to enlist someone else to help the student in that subject. Preserving the relationship is more important than doing everything yourself.

a job well done - mom giving daughter high five

Let narrations be
and  original.
Narrations capture and make the child’s own the best of the rich literature we read to our children.

Narrations can take on several forms.  Here are just some ideas …


  • Describe what will happen next and why
  • Describe your favourite scene
  • “If I were the main character I would … “
  • Tell this story in modern times (if the story is about ancient times)
  • Describe the moral of this story
  • What are the golden rules learnt in this story?
  • “If I could travel to this place, these are the things I would love to see/ do … “


  • write a dialogue
  • write a comic strip
  • write a letter
  • make a newspaper report
  • create an act of a play
  • write a journal entry
  • create the narration as a story for a young sibling
  • write in a minibook
  • create a poem
  • write it as a song
  • write an obituary


  • Draw a map of the places in the story
  • Draw the story as a comic strip
  • Make a bird’s-eye view of the events
  • Draw any machine/ vehicle/ mechanical details in the story
  • Draw step-by-step instructions on how to do what was made in the story
  • Create a mural of the story


  • Act out the scene
  • Pretend you are the character interviewed on TV/ radio
  • Describe how you would adapt the story for drama


  • Make a model of the scene
  • Create a diorama (the scene inside a box)
  • Make a mobile
  • Create the machines
  • Use Lego to build the scene
  • Use clay to create the scene


  • Make a lapbook of the story
  • Fabric paint the story on a T-shirt/ table mats
  • Make a Power Point show on the story
  • Video record and play the story
  • Make a puppet show of the characters and events
  • Make finger puppets for a simple puppet show

Give your children many options and different methods to narrate.

This way they will discover their learning styles and strengths.


More minibooks please!

minibooks on a notepage

minibooks on a notepage

Minibooks opened

Minibooks opened

Mapping World War II

Mapping World War II



My little 7-year-old dd has loved our recent minibook & notebook pages and has literally made duplicates of every minibook I have provided.  (You’ll notice her duplicate minibooks near the printed minibooks!)  She loves cutting and folding and pasting these booklets on to her notepage.

I realized that I can offer her much more independence and allow her to choose a template, print it out so that she can cut out and paste clip art and headings that I present for each minibook.  If I breakdown my own preparation she can enjoy more of the creative process!

We’re all always growing and learning!:)

New to Notebooking?

So how do you know what your child knows?

Do you do exams?

What notes do your children write?


These are just some of the regular questions new homeschool parents ask.  We have found that narrations answers all of these questions.

Narrations are the “re-telling in their own words” the information or details of the story or chapter just read.  Narrations require the child’s detailed attention while listening in order for them to retell the story.  Many children remember more details if they are aware that after the story or chapter is complete, they will need to write, draw or tell back what they heard and understood.

Most young children find writing challenging and difficult.  Moms who help write what the child dictates or helps with a copy version that the child can copy carefully, will find that words flow easily as the child narrates orally.  Older children enjoy typing on the computer as the spell check can highlight errors and they can type quicker than handwriting with a neat printout.

Notebook pages are pre-printed pages with lines for young children, some with borders, clipart, headings and place for illustrations.  These pages give an incentive to write as the page provides some inspiration.  Young children find that the few sentences they write will quickly ‘fill up’ the lined area and they are less daunted by this than a large blank page.  Studies show that colour and illustrations help with memory recall and the clipart and photos or other visual layout on notebook pages assist them in remembering the information.

Notebook pages can be specifically tailored for the theme studied or can be general.  I have found that with a little planning, I can make specific pages for the themes covered in the next few weeks and the children quickly start writing when I give them their pages.

Before I started using notebook pages, I found both my girls reluctant and hesitant, often requesting to do oral rather than written narrations.  Now they enthusiastically write and illustrate and are keen to show dad their completed page when he comes in.

I have also found that making place for a minibook (more about these sometime soon!) the children write even more than just filling the spaces on the lines.  Combining lapbook elements with notebooking is a real hit!  I’ll share more about this next time!

Till then, happy homeschooling!