“My child hates writing. I can’t get him/her to write anything,” is one of the commonest complaints I hear from parents when talking about their children’s education.
I can empathise. Although I have one child whose passion is writing, who will write to relax in her spare time – poetry, journaling or long, imaginative stories – I have another child for whom writing is not a pleasure. Who will punch the air and shout, “Yes!” if a day’s schedule doesn’t require much written work. And yet, that same child (Bean10), when asked to write a description of a picture of a harp player he selected from a magazine, wrote this:
Elinor is playing in front of thousands of people to try and raise funds for charity to save children caught up in wars. Her harp is made of oak painted a delicate gold, like rays of the sun. Her eyes, shining, are raised to the top row of seats where her husband cheers her on, whistling and cheering. Her mouth is turned upwards into a smile seeing the audience stunned by her music. Her fingers move swiftly over the strings playing on into the night. Her silk scarf glittered like stars in a night sky. It was scarlet coloured like the curtain behind her. Her top, as black as can be, hung loosely from her shoulders, and matched the colour of her pupils. Her hair is grey like smoke erupting from a volcano. A spotlight shines a pale light on her, making her look like a goddess.
The description carries on, further bringing this character to life, and by the end I was genuinely moved to tears – although, it could have been the line:
“she was dedicating the song to her amazing mother and father, who bought her a harp, gave her time to practise, and encouraged her every step of the way.”
He knows how to play me, this one!
Although no piece of writing is ever perfect, I was really proud of his work. Particularly as it required zero input from me.
But if I could take you back just one year earlier, to a writing lesson from when he was nine, it would have been a different story. Say he’d been asked to rewrite a story with a different ending. Firstly, you’d see him staring blankly into space, prevaricating in any way he could. You’d see me trying to be patient, suggesting options for how he could end the story (I like to call this modelling writing skills…), encouraging him to come up with his own ideas and helping him construct more interesting sentences. It was a little like drawing blood out of a stone…
And inside, you’d have seen me worrying and feeling discouraged.
Turns out I didn’t need to be concerned, I just needed to trust the process (more on this below) and wait until it all came together when he was developmentally ready.
So, my first piece of advice to you if your child doesn’t love writing is to relax and not worry, it will come.
What is the End Goal?
Before I talk more about our approach (imperfect as it may be), let’s first consider your end goal. What does success look like in terms of your children’s writing ability? What skills do they need to master to be successful in the long term, in their chosen career path?
Some fortunate children have a clear vision of what they’d like to do/be when they’re older. In these cases, their natural interests can direct your approach to teaching writing. For some, it’s their life’s dream to be an author, reporter or a scriptwriter and so supporting them in developing creative writing skills is key. Others might be keen scientists or engineers, in which writing technical reports, scientific articles, user manuals or research papers would be more important than their story telling capability.
However, most children (and actually quite a lot of adults) don’t know what career path they’d like to take. Nevertheless, good written communication skills are essential for a huge variety of jobs, from writing adverts in the marketing industry, to offering a legal opinion, to constructing a press release in a political role, to scripting jokes as a stand-up comic.
Even in traditional maths-focused careers such as the world of finance, you’re required to write clear explanations, summaries and arguments, or design impactful presentations, perhaps drawing on your skills in using metaphors to bring a complex idea to life.
And just to get a job, you need to be able to write an articulate, accurate and powerful C.V. to persuade the prospective employer that you’re just the candidate they’re looking for.
Clearly writing is a fundamental skill no matter what your future goals, but it’s also a complex one and one that takes time and patience to develop. So, what are the basic components of this multifaceted skill, which can be built step-by-step to prepare your child for whatever future writing requirements they might encounter? They can be boiled down to the following:
The ability to:
- Understand your audience (who are you trying to impact?) and appreciate the various forms of writing (stories, letters, presentations, forms, diaries etc) and the basic requirements of each.
- Research your topic and organise your ideas into a clear plan.
- Compose from this outline, by constructing meaningful sentences relevant to the writing form – some may require a more succinct style, others more elegant and beautiful prose, harnessing the power of literary devices, such as personification or metaphors.
- Write down those sentences with accurate spelling, grammar and punctuation.
- Tell a compelling story with believable characters.
- Assert an opinion and then validate it with reason and evidence, quoting and referencing where needed.
- Edit your work to fix errors or make improvements.
The key is not to try and teach it all in one go. Otherwise, it would be utterly overwhelming.
Instead, build up the skills slowly over time until they’re ready to pull all the elements together into a story, essay or persuasive opinion piece. And I can assure that it’s not as hard as at first it may seem.
So, how can you build these skills? After a lot of research and experimentation, here’s what we’ve found works the most effectively for us:
1. Read, Read, Read!
One of the most important parts of learning to write well is to read good literature, often. Make sure you select from a wide variety of genres to introduce your child to the different styles of each: literary classics; action and adventures; historical fiction; diaries; thrillers; fantasy; poetry; fables; science fiction; non-fiction such as geography, engineering or sports books; newspaper or magazine articles; biographies; travel guides; plays.
Subconsciously as they read, they will naturally be absorbing the writer’s unique style; the importance of building characters which initiate a strong reaction in the reader either positively or negatively; how to build tension; when to use dialogue; the impact of using a metaphor to turn a meaningless scientific concept into something we can relate to; how using a direct address can make the reader feel involved; or how a powerful description of a place can make you want to get up off your sofa and fly off to some exotic land, to name but a few examples.
And not only will they absorb all of this (and you can also comment on these aspects as you read aloud to them), but they will also naturally mimic these styles, intermingling an author’s writing technique with their own.
Your child will naturally gravitate towards one or two preferred genres. It’s your job to stretch them and introduce them to new authors and writing styles, vocabulary and writing techniques, which will influence their writing. I encourage the kids to have a “stretch” novel going alongside their book of choice, a selection which we choose together and one that wouldn’t be their natural pick, but they often end up loving.
For example, this week, Bean11 is currently reading The Sign of Four Sherlock Holmes novel, as well as number 12 in the Alex Rider series. The Flame Trees of Thika (Elspeth Huxley) is our read aloud and Angel on the Square by Gloria Wheelan our historical fiction selection. The Week Junior and Whizz Pop Bang are always dipped in and out of, and she’s currently working on various poems and Shakespeare monologues for her LAMDA exams/acting competitions. In this way, she’s getting a wide exposure to a variety of tones, styles and forms of writing, and inspiration for her own work.
2. Don’t Force Story Writing Until They’re Ready
This is so important. I have never understood why English schools expect young children to write stories, before they’re even comfortable forming their letters, let alone how to spell the words (and it’s not exactly like we have a phonetic language!).
If they want to write stories, give them a pencil and let them imagine away. But don’t require it. To me it’s like asking someone to compose a piece of music without first giving them an understanding of musical notation or how that relates to the notes on their instrument.
The time will come for writing stories once you’ve built the underlying skills. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t encourage daily writing, but just not in the complex form of a story.
But do leave time (and lots of it) for imaginative play, for children of all ages, because this is where they build their story telling capability.
Additionally, you could work together on a story, building the characters and the plot line, but with you as the scribe. Or they could tell their tale verbally through plays or pictorially through drawings, paintings, or photographs.
3. Build Each Skill Separately
Think about what it takes just to write one sentence. First, you have to put your idea into words and secondly hold that group of words in your head whilst you get on with the third task of transcribing the sentence onto paper, in the process working out how to spell each word, form each letter, and decide what punctation and grammar is needed.
And that’s just for one simple sentence. When producing a story or persuasive piece of writing, you need to draw upon a whole other range of skills, such as how to vary the sentence type, using interesting vocabulary and literary techniques, writing in paragraphs, how to build characters, using dialogue, keeping a consistent point of view and tenses, considering your audience and so on.
So, build each skill separately and when the child is ready, they can start to consolidate them and produce longer pieces of writing.
You can do this in a variety of ways, but I’ve listed below the curricula we used to develop each skill, all of which I’d recommend (we dabbled in a few others which I wouldn’t!):
Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation
- Once they knew how to form their letters, we used the All About Spelling programme. This taught them how to spell in a multisensory and effective way whilst also giving them a lot of practise at dictation: remembering a sentence I’d read out to them and writing it down. Their writing speed and stamina increased through this process.
- First Language Lessons for the Well-Trained Mind Levels 1-4 to build their grammar and punctuation skills. Bean11 has moved onto Grammar for the Well-Trained Mind curriculum. Another thorough programme which has taught grammar and punctuation skills in a way that sticks. (NB: both are available on Amazon).
Although the best way to improve vocabulary is through reading, we’ve also found value in the following:
- Volume I and II of Latin/Greek cards and Phenomenal, The Small Book of Big Words – going through these in our Morning Basket has widened their vocabulary.
- Vocabulary Enhance course from Learning Street – a new option for us but one that has worked wonders in improving Bean10’s vocabulary.
The following curriculum builds two fundamental writing skills:
- Writing with Ease, Levels 1-4 (available on Amazon)
- Firstly, it uses copywork (in the earlier levels) and dictation (in the higher levels) selections from high-quality literature to provide good writing models for children to mimic. They either practise copying the sentences or holding these sentences (with increasing length and complexity) in their head after I’ve read them out loud, before transcribing them.
- Secondly, children practise summarising the main points of passages from these literature selections – an essential skill.
This curriculum naturally progresses onto:
- Writing with Skill, Levels 1-3 (available on Amazon) – an excellent and thorough curriculum teaching how to:
- research topics,
- outline (creating a plan and writing from this plan),
- analyse a selection of well-written non-fiction texts,
- write their own compositions (narratives, biographies, descriptions, explanations, arguments etc) modelling the texts analysed,
- use quotations and document appropriately,
- build solid introductions and conclusions,
- use a variety of different sentence types to improve their prose style,
- analyse stories and poems.
The one area this curriculum misses is creative writing. For that, I would highly recommend:
- The Creative Writer series (Bean10 has come on leaps and bounds with this series), which we use alongside Writing with Ease/Writing with Skill programmes. NB: also available on Amazon. The first half of the books cover fiction, the second poetry, covering areas such as:
- Point of View
- Form and Sound
- Word Choice in Poems
- Poem Structure
- Alternatively, you could use the Writing & Rhetoric series, another excellent option which teaches creative story writing, although it can be tricky to get hold of in the UK.
The combination of the Writing with Ease/Writing with Skill and Creative Writer curricula underpinned with the spelling and grammar/punctuation curricula would give your child a solid and comprehensive education in the skills of writing.
There are other options available, such as for example the Brave Writer programme, which many people rate highly, although we’ve not tried this ourselves, so I couldn’t personally recommend.
4. A Few Last Tips
What else would encourage your budding writer? Try the following:
- Get them into the habit of writing every day, not for long, just consistently, to build their craft.
- Encourage them to write/tell stories in whatever way appeals to them. Our two have experimented with the following:
- Keeping a special diary (I’m not allowed to look quite rightly!)
- Nature journaling
- Writing comics
- Writing letters (in English and Spanish!) to their younger cousins and pen pals
- Novel writing (Bean11)
- Country lapbooks (see this post)
- Blog posts
- Film making (this is their current passion – more on this in an upcoming post)
- Imaginative Play
- Select a special notepad together for them to keep as their observation/inspiration notebook, which they could carry around with them for when creativity strikes. Tell them you won’t look in here (so they don’t need to be worried about their spelling or grammar); it’s their special book. Encourage them to write ideas or observations, draw maps of treasure islands, doodle characters or write jokes. Whatever floats their boat.
- Enter competitions – even my writing-hater will drop everything to write a story if there’s a chance of a) beating his sister and b) winning a prize! There are a variety of story and poetry competitions to enter from the BBC2 500-word competition to the Live Canon Poetry competition.
- Model writing yourself – this could be in the form of writing a diary, some poetry or starting that book you always thought you should write! I copied out a poem which I’d found inspiring in one of my recent book club reads, emphasising growth over perfection, and stuck it up in the kitchen where I’d see it every day. Bean11 loved it and in about five minutes wrote the following, which is just beautiful:
Love is something that comes from within,
Duty is something that comes from rules.
Love is free and flowing,
Duty is restricted and tame.
Love is from your heart,
Duty is from your brain.
Love blesses plentifully,
Duty gives no more than is due.
Love lasts forever,
Duty is quick and fleeting.
Love is strong and meaningful,
Duty is weak and unmeant.
Love is light in the darkness,
Duty brings but a spark.