How To Use Writing To Learn Thinking

I’ve always wanted my kids to be thinkers, not the sort of people who can be led around by the nose by advertisers, politicians, and people in authority. I have been homeschooling since 2003 and my two oldest boys are now 19 and 18 respectively.  They are thinkers.  So I’m going to tell you now how to use writing to learn thinking.  It’s not as hard as it sounds.

You do this:

  1. Have the child summarize information he’s read into his own words.
  2. Write down the summary.
  3. Give his opinion of the reading.

But the process takes years so here’s the progression in more detail.

Start with Narration

Narration is an effective technique to use with younger students, up to about 4th grade or until your child can write comfortably on her own. It’s also really simple and requires no preparation for the teacher.

All you do is read aloud a book or encyclopedia entry (like from the DK Science Encyclopedia or Usborne History Encyclopedia) and then ask your child what she learned or found interesting from the reading.

You write down what she said.  She illustrates the page (some kids have an easier time if you let them do the illustration first then the narration). This teaches kids to listen for details, to summarize information, and to express their own thoughts about something they have read.  These things come naturally to some children, but not to all.   Most kids have to be trained to be able to do this.  The narration is the first step in this training.


Begin to Copy

As kids grow, usually the second half of first grade or sometime in second grade, the student copies the words you wrote, either on another sheet of paper or on a whiteboard or somewhere.  This gives them practice with the physical act of writing. But you can put this off for awhile if your child gets impeded by the writing.  Or just have them write one of the sentences or a caption for their picture instead of the whole thing.

Summarize Independently

In fourth or fifth grade, or whenever your child writes with relative ease on his own, you switch to a summary sentence, then paragraph, that he writes without help.  Though you may still need to help the child verbalize his ideas before he commits them to paper.

This is a two page spread inside the Kingfisher History Encyclopedia, which we recommend for students from 5th grade to 8th grade (ages 10-13).

how to teach thinking through writing

The Assignment

You give student an assignment to “write a summary about the information on these pages.”  But you’ll help him.

  1. He reads the first paragraph aloud while you listen.  If there are any words he doesn’t know take the time to explain them or have him look them up. For the first paragraph of this entry you might explain what “Catholic” and “Protestant” are and look up Bohemia on a map of Reformation era Europe.
  2. You ask him what that paragraph was about.  If he’s like my kids he’ll huffily say “I don’t know,” mostly because he’s so annoyed that you’re actually expecting him to write, the horror!  So then you say something like “Well, is it about frogs?” and suddenly he may realize he does know that the paragraph tells about the revolt that broke out in 1618 between Catholics and Protestants in Bohemia.  But hopefully, if you’ve been doing narration pages since he was six, he’ll be able to tell you.
  3. Then, after he verbalizes it, have him write down the summary sentence.
  4. Do this for each paragraph on the page.  When he’s finished he’ll have his own paragraph of six sentences, one for each paragraph on the two page spread.  Give his summary a title, the same title that tops the encyclopedia entry he read, most likely.

Summarizing Longer Books

If you’re using a longer book instead of an encyclopedia entry for the summary page then you can summarize even further.  This book, 1066 The Year of Conquest, tells about the Norman conquest of England.  It’s very well written and simple enough for middle graders who have decent reading skills or high schoolers.

After reading it, you would have a discussion with your child about the book.  Make sure you ask her what she thinks of the conquest or the different people involved.  Then ask her to summarize what she learned in written form.

Express an Opinion

In around seventh or eighth grade you switch from having the child merely summarize information to having her explain what she thinks about the information.  The entry may start with a summary, but then explain the student’s opinion.  You would say “I want you to tell me what this book is about in one paragraph and then in the second paragraph tell me what you think about it.”  At first, you may need to have a verbal conversation to help your student form and organize thoughts.

For the 1066 book above you could talk about William the Conqueror and his character and compare that to Harold, the king of England.  Lead your child to forming her own opinion and then writing it down in just a few sentences.

Use Writing To Learn Thinking

By tenth grade or so your student will write essays and research papers that assimilate information from many different sources into a single piece of writing.  He may read the 1066 book as a tenth grader.  By this age he’s read other books or encyclopedia accounts of the conquest. He’s read about other conquests in history.  And he’s thought about and summarized some of those.  So he has the facts in his head and by age 15 or so, the mental maturity to recall and compare those facts.  He also has the ability to apply the 1066 conquest to his own life.  You can have a discussion, for example, about what makes a good leader and what qualities in a leader your child finds desirable as you talk about Harold and William.

The Upshot

Basically, through writing you’ve taught your student to think, incrementally, bit by bit, over years of practice.

It is important that your child read things before writing.  It is impossible to have opinions or thoughts about things if you have no facts to base the opinions on.  Don’t require summarizing or writing papers about everything ever read.

You don’t need to do a narration or summary paragraph every day, but doing one once or twice a week for years and years will help your child become prepared for upper level writing and critical thinking.

What if You’re Starting Late?

Older kids take less time to learn skills and concepts than younger kids do because their more mature minds.  But you still move through this whole process with older kids.  If your child can write comfortably though you can skip the narration and move right into summarizing.  Most kids need a verbal discussion when starting out.  Sometimes they need sentence by sentence prompting.

Don’t be discouraged.  Any progress you make along the path to thinking will benefit your child.  He can pick up the rest of the process later if you’ve given him a good start.

What to do with all those narrations, summaries, and essays

Narrations or summaries your child creates should go into a three ring binder in a section labeled with the subject.  “History” or “Science” for example.  You can intersperse the narrations with printables, notebooking pages, or other writing on the subject.

Additional Layers

  • Besides using writing, I also talk to my kids about current events, family decisions, and authority figures.  We very frankly discuss the reasoning behind my opinions so they can start to model how to reason and think for themselves.  Kids do pick up and adopt wholesale their parent’s opinions at first, but if you’ve modeled thinking these opinions or others will come to be theirs. They will own them.
  • Give your teens books to read on the same topic from different authors with different points of view.  Find a book about how bad global warming is and pair it with a book about how global warming is a hoax.  Teens quickly pick up how (often the same) information is used to sell different points of view.  This is enormously helpful with reasoning skills.  You can also assign shorter reading, like newspaper articles instead of whole books.
  • Read a lot.  If your kids aren’t great readers, watch documentaries, listen to audio books, and read aloud to them (even in high school).  Still assign them to read some things on their own though.

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    1. They are similar. Narration is typically an oral activity that is then written down. The kid narrates, or speaks, about what they know. Then it is written according to the level of the child. For example, the child may draw while mom does the writing, mom and child may share in the writing, or mom may write and then the child copies, etc. Notebooking is usually for older kids who are writing independently. It is usually done while kids are in the process of learning and reading. It can include writing and pictures. In short, the end result may look about the same, but the process is a bit different. Narration helps kids prepare to independently notebook.

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