Writing is, of course, a critical skill for children to learn and is intricately tied to reading. It is a central part of the elementary-school curriculum — not just in language arts but in social studies, science, and even math. And yet there are many children who simply don't take to writing. Far from being a natural and enjoyable process for these kids, writing can feel overwhelming, tortuous, and downright painful.
What's a Parent to Do?
As a parent, you may be at a loss as to how to help your child get out of the writing rut. In her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, essayist Anne Lamott tells a story about her older brother who, at age 10, had to write a report about birds for school. She describes her brother, "surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead." Lamott's father approached him, put an arm around his shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."
This "bird by bird" philosophy is shared by many teachers and writing experts as a useful tool for helping reluctant writers. That first step can simply mean breaking down a seemingly monumental task into smaller, more manageable parts.
Writing Prompts and Other Upsetting Assignments
A widely used tool in many school systems around the country is the writing prompt, also called a story starter. The idea is to jumpstart the writing process by providing a beginning point. Some examples might be "Last weekend I . . ." or "My summer vacation was . . ."
Yet the writing prompt assignment still strikes fear in the hearts of many struggling writers. The problem with many of the prompts, say teachers and parents, is that they are often vague and can feel too big to kids. If a writing prompt begins generally, children can narrow it down with specifics, thereby making it seem smaller and less daunting. Take, for example, the prompt, "Write about something unusual that happened to you."
- Ask your child: Do you want to write about something funny that happened? Something embarrassing? Scary?
- Then ask where this funny thing took place. Was it at school? At home? On the playground?
- Next, you might ask who else was there, if anyone. Friends? A teacher? A pet?
In this way, your children can progressively narrow the pyramid to a more manageable size.
Top Ten Rules for Reluctant Writers
The expectations for young writers vary, of course, by grade, as do the types of resistance teachers and parents encounter. Still, most teachers and children's writing experts would agree on a set of principles parents can use to turn reluctant writers into, if not future Pulitzer Prize winners, at least kids who don't dread putting pencil to paper.
- Read aloud to your child every day.
- Talk to him about writing in everyday life, by writing notes or shopping lists and asking him to do the same, for example.
- Ask her to draw a picture, or find one in a magazine or art book, that expresses her thoughts. Then have her write about the picture.
- Avoid perfect-speller paralysis. It's the process of writing that's important, most teachers will agree, and fear of misspelling should never get in the way.
- Help him choose writing topics that hold inherent interest for him.
- Try having her write on the computer once in a while if handwriting is a struggle.
- Encourage your child to think through how his story will end in order to avoid getting stuck mid-story.
- Try not to influence her ideas, directing her toward something you "know" will work — tempting as it may be.
- If he is suffering from writer's block, let him walk away for a while and revisit the writing later.
- Let her fail. Kids learn more by seeing where they went wrong than writing it perfectly the first time.