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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