Category Archives: fear of writing

Diagrams help students read and write

“Scaffolding” is an educator term to describe teacher actions to help students  learn something new.  Scaffolding could be a series of questions meant to prepare students for what they are to read.  Scaffolding could be a timeline of a topic—say American history—to show where a subtopic—say the Civil War—fits into the big picture.

Scaffolding can also be simple diagrams to help visual learners understand what they are about to read or write.  These diagrams help students “see” the organization of a reading passage, or they help students “see” the structure of a paragraph or essay they are about to write, providing clarity.

For example, suppose a student needs to write a biography of Coretta Scott King.  Maybe the student has written a list of ideas related to Mrs. King’s life, from her education to working with her husband on Civil Rights matters to promoting his legacy.  But this brainstormed list seems to be without order.  The student doesn’t know what goes with what or how to begin.  How could a diagram help?  Take a look.

This diagram is a simple visual pattern following Mrs. King’s life, more or less in chronological order.  With a little help, the student might see that Mrs. King’s life was private until she married; then her life became public as she worked with her husband on civil rights matters; then her life became even more public after his death as she led efforts to honor him and she spoke and wrote about ongoing civil rights matters.  These insights could provide transition ideas from one paragraph to another.

If each box of the diagram is outlined in a color which corresponds to a portion of Mrs. King’s life or activities, the overall organization of the essay becomes clear.

A student can make a diagram like this after he creates a prewriting organizer such as a mind web or a brainstormed list.  Or this diagram can take the place of that prewriting organizer.  Color-coding the information is important because it helps visual learners “see” how the essay breaks down into smaller chunks.

A similar diagram can be made by a teacher to preview what students are about to read.  Whether it is Junie B. Jones’ fear of school buses or why polar bears face a bleak future, a diagram showing students what they will read before they read it allows them to see the big picture and each subtopic in the order in which they will read about it.  For children with reading comprehension problems, a diagram can help them understand and remember what they read.

How a grandmother encourages her seven-year-old grandson to write

I received a note from a reader, describing how she teaches her grandson to write.  The boy, who turned seven this summer, is an active skateboarder, bike rider and swimmer, but he finds school work hard.  I contacted the grandmother, and here is our conversation:

Does your grandson like to write?

No.  He hates to begin.  But once he starts, he relaxes and actually enjoys it.  He feels pride in his work.

How do you get him started?

Late afternoon is best when I am getting dinner ready.  He sits at the kitchen table.  It takes lots of conversation while he tries to negotiate a way out of writing. It is difficult to endure but I persist.  If I let him wait until after dinner, he is too tired. So I refuse to change the time.  I bribe him with food treats, which I would give him anyway.  Or I promise a chance to play on my iPad for 15 minutes after he is done.

And then?

I give him a choice of three topics to write about.  More discussion.  Eventually he decides on one topic.  I write that word in the middle of a PLAN paper and now we decide on three ideas about the topic.  I write three more idea words.  He connects those words to the topic word in the center of the page. The key is the PLAN.  Now the struggle s over.  He has a plan to follow, so there is no more pulling info out of him.  It is a task to be completed.  He can work independently for a moment using the notes in the PLAN.

I try to walk away and let him do his own writing.  I will spell a word or write a big word on his PLAN paper if he asks.  It is quite amazing how his attitude changes once he has a sentence written.  He is happy that his sentence is written.  He loves being praised for how nice he makes letter A. He rereads his first sentence to me.  I ask if it is missing anything at the beginning or the end.  Then he gets his first reward, one m&m for each word.  Now we proceed to the next sentence.

He writes three sentences for each writing task.  He enjoys reading his entire essay.  Then we are done.

His mother has said that it is difficult for him to remember his ideas when he is writing.  I hope this technique will help in the future.  I’ve learned most of it from reading your blog.

Is that it for the day?

No, next is flash cards, computer reading apps, or a real book.  With flash cards, I have him hold each card and make a little colored mark in the corner if he knows the word.  This keeps him from fidgeting and gives him an activity.  The cards get marked up, but so what!

What kind of writing should kindergarteners and first graders be able to do?

The ability to write well comes gradually and in stages.  This skill is a synthesis of many writing skills, each building on one another.  Here is what I see in practice and what the Common Core State Standards recommends for kindergarten and first graders.

  • In kindergarten children learn to write letters and words, and some advanced students may write sentences.  They might write with phonetic or invented spelling, backward letters, missing punctuation and haphazard  capitalization.  They use a combination of upper case and lower case letters.  They like to draw a picture of what they are describing.
  • The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) ask kindergarteners to “use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose opinion pieces in which they tell a reader the topic or the name of the book they are writing about and state an opinion or preference about the topic or book; use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to compose informative/explanatory texts in which they name what they are writing about and supply some information about the topic; and use a combination of drawing, dictating, and writing to narrate a single event or several loosely linked events, tell about the events in the order in which they occurred, and provide a reaction to what happened.”
  • In first grade children’s writing ability varies widely, but teachers expect students to write in sentences by the end of the year. They might draw a picture at the top of a paper and then write one or more sentences under the picture telling what the picture means, and using many of the errors which kindergarteners use.  Many of the rules of writing and spelling are fluid for a first grader, but they are becoming formal than for kindergarteners.
  • The Common Core State Standards recommend that first graders “write opinion pieces in which they introduce the topic or name the book they are writing about, state an opinion, supply a reason for the opinion, and provide some sense of closure; write informative/explanatory texts in which they name a topic, supply some facts about the topic, and provide some sense of closure; and write narratives in which they recount two or more appropriately sequenced events, include some details regarding what happened, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide some sense of closure.”

As you can see, a wide gap exists between what many children can do and what the CCSS expect them to do.  For more on the Common Core State Standards, go to http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/W/K/.

How do I know if my child has dysgraphia? If she does, can she get special help and accommodations from her school?

Dysgraphia is a writing disability.  Children have trouble handwriting: writing fast enough, forming letters clearly, and holding a writing tool.

In order for a student to qualify for special education services, the student must have a disorder named in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  Dysgraphia is not named.  However, dysgraphia is described under the category “specific learning disability.”  An assertive parent or teacher could make a case for the child’s being formally tested by a licensed psychologist or school psychologist.

Signs of dysgraphia are many, making it hard to diagnose.  But here are some common signs.  Not all children will show each sign, and showing one or two signs does not mean a child has dysgraphia.

  • Has trouble with letter spacing and spacing between words.
  • Writes letters which go in all directions.
  • Writes letters of various sizes within the same word.
  • Writes letters and words which jam together.
  • Leaves words unfinished and omits words.
  • Has trouble writing on lines.
  • Holds a pencil awkwardly.
  • Holds the arm, wrist and shoulder awkwardly when writing.
  • Writes slowly.
  • Loses her train of thought before she has finished a sentence.
  • Has trouble thinking and writing at the same time.
  • Says words out loud while writing.
  • Has trouble following directions.
  • Has more trouble spelling when writing than when speaking.
  • Mixes upper case and lower case letters in the same word.
  • Finds her own handwriting illegible.
  • Complains of a tired or cramped hand.
  • Erases more than usual.
  • Prefers to leave out details.
  • Won’t write some ideas because “everybody knows that.”
  • Speaks far better than writes.

Children with undiagnosed dysgraphia fall behind their classmates, taking longer to finish written assignments or refusing to add details.  They become frustrated, leading to problems following a teacher’s directions and socializing with other children.

Next blog:  What can a parent or teacher do to help a child with dysgraphia?

How to motivate reluctant child writers

If the problem is physical—holding a pencil or pen, having illegible handwriting, or sitting still long enough to write—you can help if you

  • EPSON MFP imageAsk the child to dictate the story to you. You write down exactly what he says.  Coax the child to help with revision.
  • Ask the child to write on a keyboard, phone or tablet. Sometimes technology entices.
  • If the child is willing to hand write, you type and print his work.

If the problem is perfectionism—erasing every mistake, insisting that she start over again and again—you can help if you

  • Reward the child for every line or paragraph written without starting over.
  • Offer to type the writing once it is done so the child can have a clean version.

If the problem is inexperience—too young or too sheltered to have a large mental “data” base—you can help if you supply the story structure.

  • Read a picture book together, discuss how the author began, what the author included, and how the book ended, and then ask the child to rewrite the book, using only the pictures for reference.
  • Find wordless picture books and ask the child to write the story.
  • Find a cartoon strip, cut out the words, and ask the child to write the story. Later you type and print the child’s words and paste them into the cartoon.
  • Introduce the child to storyboards and ask the child to draw her story’s main parts. Later she can add words to her drawings.
  • Encourage the child to find models of the kinds of writing she wants to do, and to follow those models.

If the child is a poor speller,

  • Encourage her to use technology with embedded spelling checkers when she writes.
  • Let her write a first draft by hand without interruptions. Later, underline the misspelled words and together work on fixing them.

If the child has no idea how to begin a story, or how to sequence it, or if she forgets what she wants to happen next,

  • Teach the child to create a mind web before she writes. Using color coding and numbering, help her to sequence the information.  Remind her to check her mind web as she writes.
  • You compile a list of ways to begin a paragraph or essay and review that list with her before she begins. Together come up with several possible ways to begin her particular piece of writing.  You say three or four possible beginnings and discuss the advantages of each.  Then let her choose.

If the child’s vocabulary is limited

  • Create a word bank the child can use and leave it next to her as she writes. Add to it as she describes what she has in mind.
  • Ask her to underline words that she thinks could be said better. Offer suggestions.  Teach her how to use a thesaurus.

If the child has failed at writing before, and fears failing again,

  • Find examples of the child’s past writing and analyze it for why it was done poorly. Many times the reasons are lack of detail, limited vocabulary, and run-ons.
  • If the reason is lack of detail, practice drills of extending sentences. Take a sentence the child wrote, write it on a new piece of paper, and then take turns adding details.  Do this with a whole paragraph and then read the newly written paragraph.
  • If the reason is run-ons, practice finding run-ons. Use the child’s own writing when possible.

Practice, practice, practice.  Writing is a skill, like playing the piano or swimming fast.  Research shows that to write better, a person must practice, practice, practice.