Encouraging Reluctant Writers

Inspired by a thread on a forum.  I often find myself writ­ing a sim­i­lar response to ques­tions on the sub­ject which seem to arise quite fre­quently, seems that I am not the only one to expe­ri­ence reluc­tant writ­ers! So here’s my two pen­neth worth.

For what it is worth I believe writ­ing leg­i­bly and quickly is a pretty essen­tial skill in life and I feel I would be fail­ing my chil­dren if they don’t mas­ter it to an ade­quate level.  They will need it for exams, and what­ever my opin­ion of the sys­tem is, exams and the qual­i­fi­ca­tions can open doors to the future.  I will be doing my chil­dren a dis­ser­vice if I don’t help them gain the skills/keys to open those doors even if they choose not to.  Also life changes, often unex­pect­edly, there are a whole num­ber of rea­sons why a child might sud­denly end up in school and being able to cope with things like the level of writ­ing would obvi­ously ease the way.

Most of what I am talk­ing here relates to the actual prac­ti­cal putting pen to paper rather than being able to con­vey an idea in text which is obvi­ously still impor­tant but for it is the prac­ti­cal ele­ment that seems to cause most of the reluc­tance.  In a home ed envi­ron­ment I don’t think writ­ing really has much impor­tance until exam time or some sort of exter­nal course requires it.  If they aren’t in school there is less empha­sis on them hav­ing to use writ­ing as a method of demon­strat­ing their learn­ing — you can see it with your own eyes and hear with your own ears and you don’t need to demon­strate it to any­one else.  I firmly believe that chil­dren learn best when they are inspired and self-motivated and/or they see a point to it.  This is not always easy to achieve with regards writ­ing, telling an 8 yo that in 6 years time he will need to write a 3hr essay or a 10 yo who had a bad expe­ri­ence at school that he may decide to go back in 2 years, won’t wash.  There­fore I think this has to be one of those things where ‘Mum (or Dad) knows best’ like brush­ing teeth etc and our role as parent/teacher/facilitator is to make it as low stress as pos­si­ble by what­ever method it takes (not above bribery).

Early years (under 8’s)

  • Don’t stress about writ­ing at all at this age.   Push­ing before they are ready can only ever be counter productive.
  • Work on motor skills to improve hand mus­cles and fin­ger grip — use tweez­ers to pick up and sort items like pom­poms, pasta, beads and nat­ural mate­ri­als like acorns and conkers (muf­fin trays very use­ful for this);  thread­ing — beads, but­tons, lac­ing cards; scis­sor prac­tice — sim­ple col­lages, ran­dom cut­ting of paper or wool, try­ing to fol­low lines; hama beads (we went straight on to the midi at age 3/4 ).
  • Model writ­ing — chil­dren want to do what Mum (and Dad) does so let them see you writ­ing.  In this tech­no­log­i­cal age we com­mu­ni­cate by email, make shop­ping lists on phones, word process essays etc.  Try and get in the habit of pick­ing up a pen your­self to do some jobs.  Write a note with a card for exam­ple and encour­age the child to add their name/a note/a doo­dle.  Write shop­ping lists, chil­dren can write or draw their own — we have had many fun trips round the vil­lage shops try­ing to work out pic­ture lists :)  Leave notes around the house to one another.
  • Play lots of pen and paper games like hang­man (when their spelling won’t drive you doolally), squares, noughts and crosses… Peggy Kaye’s Games for Writing is an excel­lent source of ideas (for any­one local I have one to sell on)
  • Prac­tice pen­cil skills in other ways; trac­ing, dot to dots, colour­ing, and draw­ing; both free­hand and learn to draw books and print­a­bles, the lat­ter are a good way of intro­duc­ing the idea of fol­low­ing par­tic­u­lar shapes.
  • Make prac­tis­ing let­ters as fun and tac­tile as pos­si­ble. Use fin­ger or a blunt pen­cil to draw let­ters in flour, shav­ing foam, oobleck etc (buy cheap lit­ter trays — I love cheap lit­ter trays they are bril­liant for messy activ­i­ties), draw with a fin­ger on each oth­ers backs.  Use sand­pa­per let­ters, mag­nets and let­ters made from play dough to prac­tice form­ing words.
  • Encour­age them to hold the pen­cil cor­rectly.  Use grips and ergonomic pens/pencils to help.  Will mean that in the future they are unlikely to find that they are over grip­ping and the hand/wrist is tired.

Mid­dle years (roughly 8 — 11)

Prob­a­bly (hope­fully) the trick­i­est time.  This is where we are, per­fec­tion­ism and atti­tude I find are big issues now as they find inde­pen­dence and their own opin­ions, there is grum­bling and huff­ing and puff­ing when asked to pick up a pen.  We as par­ents start wor­ry­ing a bit when we see other children’s work, from school or on blogs and even though we hate our­selves for doing it we raise an eye­brow a lit­tle that even the 5 year olds seem to have neat joined up writ­ing.  And the big­ger pic­ture of future exams or pos­si­ble school atten­dance is so far off that is not a great moti­vat­ing fac­tor.  Things that appear to work for us.

    • Remove as much writ­ing from other areas of the cur­ricu­lum as pos­si­ble.  I believe a lot of the frus­tra­tion at this time arises from the fact that the brain works faster than the hand can write, and they have trou­ble express­ing their thoughts.  We are in the lucky posi­tion of being able to inter­act on a very per­sonal level, we can hear from their con­ver­sa­tion that they have under­stood.  If you want some­thing on paper, scrib­ing for them or typ­ing are options.
    • Keep the tech­ni­cal­i­ties of writ­ing sep­a­rate.  We use a com­bi­na­tion of hand­writ­ing prac­tice books, copy­work and dic­ta­tion.  In short bursts, we have a 10 minute timer and never go over this.  For this time it is focus­ing on the for­ma­tion of let­ters, spac­ing of words etc with­out the need to think on the content.
    • Don’t under­es­ti­mate the value of work­ing on motor skills in other ways, colour­ing, draw­ing, hama beads, knit­ting, loom­bands, Lego…
    • Cor­rect the grip, pos­ture… we have a tripp trapp chair to help with height, sta­bilo pens for grip, we tried and dis­counted a wedge — and I adopt a scheme of gen­tly remind­ing aka nag­ging in the nicest pos­si­ble way.
    • Encour­age writ­ing for plea­sure — mine love new note­books :) By not ask­ing them to write I am for­ever find­ing car­toon strips, notes, how to guides (Minecraft usu­ally, but we’ve had own­ers man­u­als for their brother for exam­ple) dot­ted about.  They both love blog­ging (okay this is typ­ing but all helps).  Keep mean­ing to find Sam a pen­pal, or pos­si­bly some­thing like post­pals.
    • Make use of tech­nol­ogy.  Sam has an app on his Kin­dle that reads back what you type.  Again not writ­ing but does help with spelling and punctuation.
    • Trust your gut. You are the best per­son to sense if the reluc­tance is due to neg­a­tive school expe­ri­ences, lazi­ness, being a boy of a cer­tain age (not that girls can’t be reluc­tant writ­ers of course), in other words some­thing time and patience will fix.  Or whether other fac­tors such as dys­graphia may be at play.  If you believe there is a prob­lem fight all the way for support.

Later years (roughly 11+)

Have to say I have no real expe­ri­ence and there­fore no truly use­ful advice.  Jack’s hand­writ­ing is the one area that really did improve when he went to school.  Now at 12 it isn’t the neat­est you will see by a long shot (but bet­ter than his Dad’s) but he can write quick, leg­i­ble cur­sive.  The key fac­tor in it all was he needed to be able to do it to keep up with the class and there­fore he had the moti­va­tion to really make an effort.  I’m hop­ing that at some point Sam will find his moti­va­tion, and we will man­age pass­able.  There is always bribery to fall back on ;)

If you want more use­ful advice then I would carry on with all the ear­lier strate­gies.  Seek help if think it is needed.  Stress the need for quick, leg­i­ble hand­writ­ing as a means to an end and try and encour­age self-motivation.

This is the age where they need to learn to struc­ture an essay.  I have a the­ory that you can pass any essay based exam with only the basics of sub­ject knowl­edge as long as you know how to struc­ture an essay, not well per­haps but base­line pass that knowl­edge will improve.  My plan is that at 11/12 we will move from project based/hands on learn­ing to more text­book based and grad­u­ally increase the writ­ten con­tent focus­ing very much on struc­tur­ing ideas.  In Eng­lish I am hop­ing we can move away from hand­writ­ing prac­tice (which is our big thing to crack), spelling and gram­mar (which are rea­son­able) to focus almost entirely on pro­duc­ing lit­er­ate pieces of writ­ing.  I plan to adopt a mod­el­ling approach — his ideas, I’ll help mind map them, then I’ll model the answer.  Grad­u­ally we’ll had over bit by bit things like con­clu­sion, dis­cussing best way to go about it.  Good sen­tence starters etc.  We have some books col­lected from Collins over the years that I expect to draw on Collins Easy Writ­ing and Collins Writ­ing Aim­ing For Level 4 (one of a series obvi­ously we will prob­a­bly move through).

An online friend has men­tioned that her reluc­tant writer 12 yo starts every day with writ­ing the alpha­bet to jog let­ter for­ma­tion.  I am antic­i­pat­ing this being some­thing we do for some con­sid­er­able time too.

This post was actu­ally began in early May, not so much reluc­tant as just short of time and con­cen­tra­tion here :)

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7 Responses to Encouraging Reluctant Writers

  1. Rachael says:

    I’ve a reluc­tant writer as well. But we are going the oposite way. One of the big prob­lems our boy has is putting coher­ant answers down on paper. If we talk to him he knows the answer, but ask him to write it down and he has no idea how to phrase it and can’t col­lect his thoughts together. So we’ve been prac­tis­ing that by increas­ing the amount of writ­ing in other areas. Unless he can phrase answers coher­ently he won’t be able to pass exams, which we would like him to do in a cou­ple of years. He really hates cre­ative writ­ing and would pre­fer to be writ­ing about sci­ence or his­tory any­way. We also do dic­ta­tion and copy work to show him exam­ples of how to write coher­ently. Up until this last year age9/10 we were doing copy work and dic­taion only with dis­cus­sion of answers in other questions.

    • sarah says:

      Was typ­ing tired last night and missed off a cou­ple of para­graphs about how I hope to pro­ceed with the devel­op­ing struc­tured writ­ing. I agree com­pletely on the whole exam thing, but for us they are at least 4 years off, prob­a­bly 5 so I am hold­ing off push­ing it yet, encour­ag­ing him to express ideas log­i­cally ver­bally and work on the mechan­ics of actu­ally work­ing the pen as I think for him hand­writ­ing speed and leg­i­bil­ity need to come first. And when the lat­ter is good enough (or I reach the GCSE panic stage — I have a feel­ing this may come first!) we’ll hope­fully be able to put the two together. We have no exter­nal assess­ments on the cards though until we choose to start GCSE’s, if we did I would feel the need to do more now.

  2. Lynn says:

    Hi Sarah, I agree with every­thing you say here, exactly my approach. I also have a reluc­tant writer a year behind Sam in age but I imag­ine fur­ther behind in what we are doing. It was only towards the end of last year that Finn stopped cry­ing each time I asked him to write a sin­gle word! A lit­tle every day works best — if we have a break it’s harder to get him started as he has to go through the fear stage again. I absolutely know I am less organ­ised than you are so I do need to get my act together!

  3. This is a really good sum­mary, thanks. My eldest is 6 and some­times dis­likes writ­ing, but will write vol­un­tar­ily as part of games, such as being waiter in a cafe or write labels for drawings.

  4. Rosemary says:

    Great post.
    I’m rather com­forted to hear that we’re in the dif­fi­cult stage. Hope­fully, things will improve soon!
    I tell the boys that they need to prac­tice writ­ing so that it won’t be hard any­more! I also think that see­ing myself and Daddy do lots of writ­ing our­selves helps. (At least that’s my excuse for sit­ting around writ­ing sto­ries all after­noon rather than get­ting on with the hoovering!)

  5. This is a lovely encour­ag­ing post — thank you so much for shar­ing it.
    We see writ­ing as another form of self expres­sion and it is seen very much like draw­ing in our house. My eldest writes fre­quently — I find bits of sto­ries, draw­ings cov­ered in writ­ing etc. all around the house. I intro­duced him to cal­lig­ra­phy when he was about 4 ( 9 now) and he found a love for the beauty of the writ­ten word. This really helped him develop an inter­est in writ­ing. I won­der if it would help reluc­tant writers?

    • sarah says:

      Cal­lig­ra­phy is some­thing I always meant to try with the boys and have never got around to. But I agree would be good at encour­ag­ing cor­rect let­ter for­ma­tion and pride. We’re hop­ing to do a project on the mid­dle ages at some point this year so maybe we’ll try it then.

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