Writing is a complex task. It requires the author to draw on several skills such as spelling, syntax, vocabulary and fine motor skills and use them at once. As if simply having to remember if it’s to, too, or two or affect or effect isn’t bad enough. Seriously, the English language is mind-boggling. What really pains me though is hearing phrases like, ‘I hate writing. It’s boring’ or seeing a blank page after an hours writing session. How do either of these situations help a child’s confidence? So how do we get kids to have a positive attitude towards themselves as authors and to express their extraordinary ideas on paper?

Who is a Reluctant Writer?

There are two types of reluctant writers, those that prefer to write a particular genre and bulk under new types of writing and those who struggle with writing for other reasons. A reluctant writer may:
-be a wonderful oral story teller but has difficulty recording these ideas in the written form
-have analysis paralysis, is a perfectionist and not a risk taker, fearful of making mistakes
-lack knowledge or awareness due to insufficient life experience or exposure to the type of text
-struggle with fine motor skills/pencil control
-lack phonemic awareness and illustrate difficulty with spelling
-struggle to retain the sentence they are writing (cognitive/auditory processing issues)
-play it safe when writing. They will not often develop their ideas and build upon their work

Strategies To Support A Reluctant Writer

I would almost state that there is one big game player for supporting a reluctant writer and that is PURPOSE. Without purpose there is little motivation and without motivation there is quite often boredom. Take for instance this story I heard whilst at university…

Will was a creative 8 year old, who loved to socialise with his peers, but when it came to writing Will would often become distracted easily and not produce much work. After trying several approaches the teacher decided to visit Will in his home where he eagerly showed her all of his Lego creations detailing how he had made them. The teacher asked if Will would teach her how to make Lego constructions and was amazed by his vocabulary and attention to detail. Will’s teacher then told Will that his gift should be shared with the class and (with her help) if he would be happy to create some instruction manuals for his classmates to build Will’s creations too. Will was instantly on board. Over a period of a month Will worked on his instruction manual with a total of 10 published constructions. Over this short period Will’s attitude about himself as a writer had shifted, his handwriting, sentence structure, text formation and spelling all improved. On completion of the task, a special afternoon was set aside for Will to introduce his manual and his friends had the opportunity to test out his creations. During this afternoon, Will and his peers realised a few amendments needed to be made- just like revisions are made in the writing process.

Since this month, Will and a number of his peers have created animations and narratives around Lego, written an information report on how Lego came to be and sent a letter to Lego about their recommendations and received a reply! Will had motivation because Will had purpose. Just at the point the teacher thought she had had enough of Lego, Will turned to her one morning and said, ‘I like writing about Lego but today I want to write about my cousins coming on the weekend. We are going fishing!’. And just like that Will’s passion for writing began.

Although this example is on a grander scale it doesn’t take much to realise that purpose is the golden ticket to helping a reluctant writer. Think about your day, you might write a letter to a friend or teacher, a grocery list, a ‘To Do’ list, a blog post, a diary entry to express your feelings. Each of these text types has a purpose, you didn’t write a recount of your weekend or a narrative because someone told you to. If they did, I’m sure you would have experienced a serious case of writer’s block. So I ask, why do we do this to children?

Other strategies to assist the reluctant writer

Problem: be a wonderful oral story teller but has difficulty recording these ideas in the written form

Possible Solution: record then scribe the story. It may help to discuss the origin of Folk Tales. This method also permits the author to be free of restrictions such as spelling and undeveloped fine motor skills which can impede creativity.

Problem: have analysis paralysis, is a perfectionist and not a risk taker, fearful of making mistakes

Possible Solution: build a safe environment where mistakes are welcome and ‘I can’t do it’ is met with the response of ‘yet’. Encourage and praise attempts at risk taking. Ask kids to reflect on their feelings. Acknowledge the fear and the joy.

I remember teaching a little boy in Prep who after being introduced to the exclamation mark in reading decided to use it in his writing that day.  I was so delighted that I made a big fuss of his risk to try new things. My enthusiasm must have been powerful for him as he started over using the punctuation mark.  It would appear everywhere but he felt safe to explore no concepts in his writing.

Problem: lack knowledge or awareness due to insufficient life experience or exposure to the type of text

Possible Solution: exposing kids in experiences they are writing about and providing several examples of the text type helps students understand the features and structure of the text type, whilst allowing them to build on their prior knowledge. For instance, if you are writing a procedural text on ‘How To Make Popcorn’ you could provide a hands on experience and make popcorn and involve all the senses and rich vocabulary.

Problem: struggle with fine motor skills/pencil control

Possible Solution: many people argue that letter formation isn’t of concern when it comes to writing, but I disagree for two reasons, that being that 1) we write for an audience (whether that is for ourselves or others we need to be understood) and 2) trying to write a sentence when you are constantly conscious about how to form each letter is challenging.

Time needs to be given so that kids reach the stage where they correctly form letters without much thought and legibility. Activities to develop fine motor skills in the early years are crucial. Books that teach kids to write can also be helpful but make sure it is in the same font as they will be learning at school.

Problem: lack phonemic awareness and illustrate difficulty with spelling

Possible Solution: word banks and vocabulary walls help alleviate the burden of learning to spell new concept words.  Being word sleuths and exploring letter/sound relationships, word origins and meanings also assist with spelling. My number one rule though is to not let spelling get in the way of creativity.  That is why we have a writing process…plan, compose THEN edit before publishing.

Problem: struggle to retain the sentence they are writing (cognitive/auditory processing issues)

Possible Solution: for younger children picture cues work a treat. For narratives Story Stones and Cards can be helpful reminders.

Problem: play it safe when writing. They will not often develop their ideas and build upon their work

Possible Solution: Mindmaps, Story Boards, 5 Minute Quick Writing, sketching and Venn Diagrams are all great ways to get ideas out of one’s head and onto paper. Asking questions to help unpack more information can also encourage deeper writing.

What are your tips and tricks for a reluctant writer?