Ben Franklin meets Mad Libs: how I'm helping my kid improve his writing

EEME makes monthly hands-on project kits and online lessons to teach kids electronics.

Due to COVID-19, my 2nd grade son has started remote schooling-at-home. I have predominantly taken the role of watching over his day-to-day education and am learning a lot on how to be a more effective home educator.

As a break from writing about electronics, STEM, and EEME, I thought I'd share some of the learning tactics I'm employing while working with my son.

Ben Franklin meets Mad Libs to improve writing
Ben Franklin meets Mad Libs

My introduction to 2nd grade writing

Each day, my son has a 45 minute writing assignment. The assignments are generally editorial-like, focused on expressing ideas and opinions such as writing about a book he recommends, a favorite toy, etc.. For the most part, his ideas are great. But his sentence structure needs a lot of work. The sentences are mostly run-on combining multiple thoughts into a single large sentence separated by commas.

After showing my son how he can systematically replace commas with a period, I realized that each individual sentence all share a common structure where it starts with a pronoun followed by a verb.

Now don't get me wrong, I don't have high expectations for how a 2nd grader should write. That doesn't mean I shouldn't find some way to help him gradually improve and add more sophisticated sentence structures into his writing arsenal. But how?


Improve writing like Benjamin Franklin

I am not a great writer. I can express ideas clearly and directly. But my writing definitely pales compared to great writers, such as my wife who was a comparative literature major.

When I was younger, I was always, and still am, drawn to math. Therefore, when it came to writing, I never deliberately practiced as much as I did as with math problems. I am also not genetically smart enough to just pick things up by osmosis (ie improve my writing by simply reading).

When I ask for advice on how to improve my writing, I am always told to go and write more. As a proponent of targeted and deliberate practice, this suggestion always seemed vacuous to me. Doing more of something, while better than doing nothing, is an inefficient way to fine tune a skill.

To improve writing, the most thoughtful advise I every came across was to use the Benjamin Franklin method. Apparently Benjamin Franklin learned how to write masterfully by deliberately imitating the writings he admired. By targeting his writing practices around this exercise, he became one of the most skillful writers of his time. Arguably, his refined writing skills became instrumental in rallying patriotic efforts during the period of the American Revolution.

With this exercise in mind, I had my son pick out some of his favorite books. We set aside 15 to 30 minutes once or twice a week where he would write out sentences from these books, word-for-word, eventually from memory. Since he liked these books, he actually did so willingly, no tears necessary.

But something was still amiss. This act of "copying" didn't seem intuitively beneficial nor did I see him employ the structures of the "copied" sentences into his own writing.


Mad Libs to spice things up

During the original Karate Kid movie, there was a scene where Daniel's painting the fence and waxing the car for hours. He eventually gets really fed up with the exercises and protests out load. Mr Miyagi then throws a punch at him and tells him to paint the fence. Daniel manages to use the painting motion to block the punch and an a-ha moment lights up.

I believe that a-ha moment came because Mr. Miyagi took a repetitive exercise (painting a fence with a strict up-down wrist movement) and threw it into a dynamic situation (a punch in a fight). I felt the Ben Franklin copying exercise needed a similar dynamic application in order to light an a-ha moment for my son.

One-day I found an old kid activity sheet from a local burger joint with a Mad Libs activity laying around the house. In case you don't remember Mad Libs, it's "a phrasal template word game where one player prompts others for a list of words to substitute for blanks in a story". An idea sparked to combine Mad Libs with the Ben Franklin exercise to add dynamism.

During our next writing session, instead of having my son spend all of his time copying the sentences, I had him do 2 things:

  1. Copy the sentence from the book.
  2. Replace select nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs from that sentence to create new sentences that have completely different meanings.

The addition of Mad Libs also added some silliness into this writing exercise which lightened up the mood. But more importantly, he was actually thinking through ideas while applying the more complicated sentence structure he copied.


Conclusion

Practice leads to perfection. It's ok to employ targeted practice that only involves copycat repetition (ie copying sentences, practicing the scales on the piano, etc). But it's much better to combine copycat targeted practice with a dynamic application of what you repeat (ie playing the scale over a melody of chords). Or for this specific post, a method that combines Mad Libs with the Ben Franklin writing exercise to help my son (even help me as an adult) improve their writing skills.

So far, these exercises are still welcomed by my son. We just started this new practice method so he isn't writing like Ben Franklin yet. Rome wasn't built in a day. But I have noticed small improvements in the sentences he writes for his daily assignments.

Regardless if you are schooling-at-home due to COVID-19, or homeschooling, or simply tutoring your kid after school, I believe this exercise should help your kid's writing. It should help an adult's writing as well! As I continue to learn new schooling strategies and tactics like this, I'll continue to share.

If you have any strategies or tactics of your own, please reach out and share them as well by visiting EEME's Facebook or EEME's Instagram page or emailing me directly - dad AT eeme DOT co (not com!).

If you are looking for hands-on electronics kits for your 7-12 year old kid, we are still shipping during this COVID-19 fiasco. Each kit is paired with its own online curriculum to teach your family how to build the circuit as well as how the circuit works.

You can learn with EEME in three ways:

  1. Sign up for FREE, to learn with our free online lessons

  2. Subscribe to our monthly kits - each month we send you a new project.

  3. Make a one-time purchase of our 9 project set - which is effectively the first 9 month's of projects.

Thanks so much, stay safe, and happy building!!
Jack "EEME Dad"


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