Even for the best of writers, a blank page can seem daunting, like a big hill to climb. Imagine, then, how that same blank page feels to the reluctant writer. It’s more like the greatest of all mountains, with ice and snow, steep slopes, and very little oxygen. In other words, it feels pretty much insurmountable. Many kids shut down before they even give writing a try.
We often hear about reluctant readers, but not as much about reluctant writers. Writing is a complex skill, especially when it’s newly acquired, so kids can become overwhelmed by the task. While children may have plenty of ideas, the act of putting pencil to paper can shut down their creativity altogether.
For most adults, the physical act of writing is done unconsciously. Adults are able to think about their ideas, the words they want to put on paper, with no concern about how to form the letters or put them in a sequence in order to create a word. Consider what new writers are contending with: how to shape letters, what sound a letter makes, which letters to connect in order to create sounds, then words — all the while needing to control a pencil using their still-developing fine-motor skills. On top of that, we’re asking them to use their creativity. Talk about multitasking! Emerging writers have a lot to concentrate on. For many kids, this challenge causes them to shut down and not want to write at all.
Veteran first-grade teacher Cathy Daly believes it’s important for parents to think about when their kids were learning to speak. “We cheer when they say, ‘Da-da,’ and never worry that they won’t learn to say ‘Daddy.’ The writing process is a difficult one and it’s one that we don’t allow kids to practice nearly enough.” Daly suggests parents buy their kids supplies — journals, cool pencils, a children’s stapler to staple paper together — and just get them writing. She adds, “Kids talk all the time, and that gives them innumerable chances to practice and get better at speaking and using our language.” She also notes, “Parents know how important practicing is for beginning readers, and they are usually very excited to help with that. Writing, however, doesn’t get the same emphasis. Writing is the area that brings the language arts together, and it is by far the most difficult to master.”
You know better than anyone what your child’s biggest stress trigger is when it comes to writing. The expert knowledge you have about your own child can inform you as you choose ways for her to practice writing, hopefully making it feel more like play than work.
Let the playing begin.
Most writers will tell you that writing begins in their head with thoughts and ideas. The brain begins creating before the act of taking pencil to paper or fingers to keyboard. A child could have pages of great story ideas but be too overwhelmed by the thought of the physical act of writing to put all those words into print.
There are several activities that can help your child be a great storyteller:
Tell me a story
If your child is brimming with ideas and is wildly imaginative, let him tell you the story while you take dictation. You might even find that it’s difficult to keep up with his creative thoughts as you write down his words. Once written out, share it with him — read it out loud, and allow him to take pride in the story he wrote. If you type the story using a word processing program, use the word count tool to find out how many words are in the story. Your child might be blown away by the number of words, be it 100, 250 or 700, and you might be too.
Forget about the conventions
If your child is going to write the story independently, give her the freedom to be creative without worrying about writing conventions like spelling and punctuation. Any writer can be tripped up trying to remember how to spell a word, causing a stop in the process and creativity to be blocked. There’s nothing more frustrating than forgetting a great idea, and there’s always a learning opportunity to go back and focus on conventions later, once the story is finished. Daly also reminds us to remember to praise our kids: “Celebrate close approximations for spelling instead of asking kids to spell correctly.”
Draw it first
For the more artistically inclined child, let her draw the story first. This might consist of one drawing, or several, like a book. If your child shows an interest in comic-style stories, draw out boxes for her to tell the story in. Then encourage her to go back and add some word or thought bubbles. The great thing about graphic stories is the writer must use very few words because the form allows little space.
Jump-starts for creativity
Many teachers and parents have heard the words “I don’t know what to write about” or “I can’t think of anything.” So, what if the writer’s reluctance comes from not having any ideas?
In that case, give kids a jump-start:
Create a writing idea jar for the house. Ask everyone in the family to write favorite words or funny sentences on slips of paper, as many as they can, especially your child. You can even call the grandparents and cousins to get in on the fun. Put all of the collected ideas in a special jar and ask your child to decorate it with words. When an idea is needed, your child can pull one out to find inspiration.
Do you have your own little character on your hands? If so, create characters in dramatic fashion. Ask your child questions about an imagined character, allowing him to become the character if he wishes. Is your character a person, animal or something else? Is it a boy or a girl? What does your character love? What does your character want more than anything else in the world? Once this character has been created, the idea for the story is there, and your child might still be in character while he writes it.
Personal photos can inspire writing of all kinds, even if it’s just making a list of what’s seen in a photograph (or perhaps what can’t be seen, to add in a bit more imagination). Do you have a group of photos from an event, trip or walk in your neighborhood? Kids really love photos that they are in. Pull some out to see what inspiration they bring. Let your child write captions for them. The captions might be about what is happening in the photos, or something fun and humorous not necessarily related to the images. To add an extra layer, kids can take their own photos to create a story.
Too fun not to write
Some writing surfaces, like a fogged-up window, are too tempting. A kid’s finger just can’t resist reaching out to draw and write on that surface. Create the same irresistible writing surfaces at home. If you have a full-length mirror, you’ve got the perfect medium. Give your child a dry-erase or window marker to practice all sorts of writing. Just be sure your writing instrument will wipe off with a dry or damp cloth. How exciting would it be if your child found a message from you to respond to? But any writing can be practiced: alphabet, spelling, letter writing and handwriting.
With practice, your child can accumulate a mountain of words.
Jolie Stekly is a former classroom teacher. Her teaching focus is now on writing and literature, working with both children and adults. She blogs for the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and is a freelance writer and novelist.