A friend recently confessed that her 7-year-old hates to write. My friend tried her best to make writing fun. She gave imaginative story ideas, gave exciting prompts for writing, and they wrote in a daily journal, where they could write anything they wanted--poems, letters, stories, anything. But still, her daughter insisted that she hated writing.
Knowing I am a teacher, she came to me for advice. But my answer surprised her. I told her to stop making her daughter write--at least for now. Though it may seem counter-intuitive, taking a break from writing is exactly what her daugher needed. Here’s why:
First, by continuing the struggle, she is unintentionally teaching her daughter that writing is a chore. She is getting the message that you write because someone else tells you to write, instead of because you have something to say.
Secondly, when children show resistance to writing, they are usually trying to tell us that what we are asking of them is too difficult. The precursor to writing is speaking (just like the precursor to speaking is babbling). So when children struggle with writing, we can take a step back and develop their verbal skills, which will naturally transfer to their writing skills later.
When I teach writing to my students, there are three things I want them to know:
These big ideas--and the skill set that is associated with each--can easily be taught without even touching a pencil to paper! I gave my friend a few ideas for her daughter, and realized that there were probably quite a few other parents out there with reluctant writers. So here are 10 ideas to encourage writing--without writing!
1. Tell a story together. You add parts, and let them add parts. Be aware that they are listening to how you add to the story, so get creative!
Writing Skills Learned: forming ideas, organization, clarification, character development, setting, details
2. Ask what they did today. Recounting events requires attention to details and thinking about who you are communicating with. Your questions will encourage them to organize their thoughts or add details to clarify. (What did your friend say after that?)
Writing Skills Learned: organization, clarification, intended audience, descriptions,
choosing important details
3. Let them tell you a story. Giving them the freedom to create their own story inspires imagination and organization. Really listen, and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification when it is required to understand the story. (Why was the dragon crying?)
Writing Skills Learned: creating ideas, organizing, clarification, storyline, character development, attention to details, descriptions, use of words.
4. Encourage them to make up a song or poem. Just because they’re not writing, doesn’t mean they can’t create. Make sure you point out when their words genuinely strike you. Look for interesting words, good descriptions and creative uses of words.
Writing Skills Learned: creating ideas, rhyming words, descriptions, word usage, word selection, poetry
5. Catch good phrases. Children say interesting things all the time. They notice things we might not. They see things in a different light. Pay attention to the unique things your child says and point them out. Or even better--write them down to show how important they are!
Writing Skills Learned: word selection, word usage, writing voice, style, that their ideas are important and worth sharing
6. Let them express themselves in other ways. Drawing, painting, dancing, singing...all of these are ways we can express ourselves. When they’re done, let them put words to their art if they want. Help them find the right words if they can’t.
Writing Skills Learned: expression, personal voice, style, clarification, word selection, word usage
7. Let them see you write. Whether it’s a shopping list or a newspaper article, what better way is there to show how writing can be used? When you can, verbalize how you go through the writing process. (Well, that won’t make sense if I say it like that. Let me try another way.)
Writing Skills Learned: purpose, audience, how the writing process works, that writing can be altered, forming ideas
8. Read! Read! Read! Books are written by professional writers. Use them to talk about writing! Discuss stories you like and don’t like. Find really cool sentences. Find words that make you laugh. Find descriptions that make you shiver. Talk about what you’re thinking as you read. (Oooh! What a cool first sentence! I think I’m going to like this book!).
Writing Skills Learned: word selection, word usage, descriptions, style, reader impact, organization, clarification, what excellent writing sounds like, forming ideas, details, genre
9. The Describing Game. There are many ways to play this game. The point is for children to have to think about the words they choose, in order to transfer an idea to you. One way to play is to gather a handful of items that are all similar, but have some unique characteristics: rocks, beans, apples, toy cars, etc. The more similar the items, the more challenging the game. Put all the items where everyone can see them. Have everyone choose one item, without indicating which item they have chosen. (Just keep it in your mind.) Then take turns describing your rock (or other item) to the other players, until someone guesses which one was yours.
You could also play this by mentally selecting an item in the room, giving one clue at a time, until someone guesses the object. (My object is big. My object has holes in it. Etc.)
Another variation is to have everyone sit down with a piece of paper and pencil. Draw a simple picture. Without letting others see your picture, describe what you draw, step-by-step. (Draw a wavy line at the top of the page. Under the wave, draw a small circle…) Everyone else tries to draw the picture as you are, based on your descriptions. When you are finished, have everyone share the pictures they made, and talk about what descriptions would have helped make drawing easier.
Writing Skills Learned: word selection, word usage, descriptions, details, clarification, order of details
10. Get creative! There are countless ways to incorporate writing skills into your child's interests and everyday activities. Does your child love to bake? Have them invent a cookie recipe and teach it to you. Is your child a natural poet? Write their poems down and make a book. Are they into sports? Have them give you a play-by-play of the last game they won. When you begin to focus on content of writing--the messages children want to share with us--even the most reluctant writer will eagerly participate, without even realizing they are learning to write!