Category Archives: reluctant writers

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.

Who can publish a book? How about a a second grader?

When my daughter was in third grade she decided to write her own book about penguins.  She scoured our National Geographic magazines for pictures and facts about penguins. She wrote the text and compiled it into several pages of information.  I helped her sew together blank pages to form a booklet. She pasted her photos and text on many pages and assembled a cardboard cover which she covered with left-over wall paper.

She wanted her book to be a “real” picture book. So she included a title page, a dedication page (to the National Geographic who had helped her with so many assignments) and an “about the author” page at the end  with her school photo and facts about her eight-year-old self. Her teacher asked if the book could become part of the school library. It did, and her classmates were able to check it out.

I told this story to a second grade student of mine recently, and she decided to write her own book. She entitled her book “Where is Daddy?” because her father travels frequently for work. She drew pictures of her house, such as the kitchen, the deck, and the toy box. Under each picture she wrote text. The last page shows a door, which can be opened, and behind it is a drawing of her father coming home with his suitcase.  You can read the book yourself by clicking the cover below.

Click on the photo for a full size version of this second grader’s book.

Perhaps it is hard to believe, but this student can be a reluctant writer who balks when I ask her to write. Yet for this book project, she took the lead, coming up with ideas and illustrating it herself. She was a writer on a mission to create a wonderful welcome home gift for her father.

From my daughter and my students I have learned how important publishing for a real audience is to children. Certainly it takes work on the part of an adult to help to create a book, a blog, a birthday card or whatever form of publishing a child desires. But unlike most school assignments, their published writing will be savored for years, and may inspire other children to write.

Writing topics for bored students

Do you have students who read over a list of writing topics and then set it down, bored? I have found topics that are sure to interest them.

high heel shoes made of wireOne group of topics concerns weird, unusual or unbelievable images.  If you use any of these topic suggestions, make sure you share the images from the internet with the student. It’s the images which will bring a smile and a flicker of interest. Then together you can come up with ways to work one or more images into writing.  If access to the internet is not available, then make a photocopy of some of the images for the student to look at.

These topics work well in the fall as Halloween approaches.

  • Search “ugly haircuts pictures” or “ugly haircuts images.”
  • Search “ugly dog pictures” or “ugly dog photos.”
  • Search “weird faces pictures” or “weird faces photos.”
  • Search “unusual jack o lanterns.”
  • Search “unusual shoes.”
  • Search “scary photos of people.”
  • Search “longest fingernails photos.”
  • Search “smiling horse pictures.”
  • Search “expensive car images.”
  • Search “twins images.”

shoes with ladder heelsAnother group of writing topics of interest to kids is the games that they play.  I allow students to add hand drawn diagrams to their writing to encourage them to use these topics, but I make sure they explain everything in words too.  Some ideas you might try are

  • How to solve a Rubics cube.
  • How to checkmate a king in four steps.
  • How to get down to one marble in a solitaire game.
  • What properties to buy in “Monopoly” in order to win.
  • How to win at “Clue.”

What about video games?  I find they don’t work.  When I let kids write about them in the past, the essays would go on for eight or ten pages with no end in sight.  I wound up writing “to be continued” at the end of a page so the student could move on to revising and editing.  Also, the writing is tough to understand even if it is done well because of the strange way vocabulary is used in the games.  Beware.