The challenges facing the parents of a 'reluctant writer'

Jason reads well and he does OK in spelling tests, but when he has to write he makes loads of mistakes.

When it comes to English, this is one of the most common problems parents are facing and, unfortunately, it is more prevalent in boys than girls. I think that girls spend much more time, from a young age, being verbal and using language (in layman’s terms, we talk more than boys!); passing notes to friends, decorating our school books, chatting, messaging etc. Boys do not usually have such wide ranging exposure to English in daily life.

So why do children lose basic skills when they have to write freely?

In my experience, some children partition spelling and reading away from writing. The equivalent in maths is being able to multiply but unable in tests to understand when to use multiplication. This is not unusual and certainly not a problem and if approached and supported correctly, children can link the subject parts back together.

Almost every child I work with can read better than they can write. To me, the reason for this is simple: from birth we are surrounded by the written word, infusing us with language. From road signs to leaflets, posters to birthday cards, we cannot avoid the written word. So, whether we realise it or not, we have all practised reading from the start. Writing, however, does not come in until we are a few years old. So, realistically, it makes sense that reading be more natural than writing.

Another side of this is that when writing we have nowhere to hide. When reading, there are so many clues and short-cuts that we can take – visual hints, context, word association – that we can take a ‘best-guess’ approach if we’re not sure. I am always amazed at the number of coping strategies that non-readers can muster in order to hide that they can’t read! However, when writing, our guesswork is there for all to see. Maybe children are not better at reading than writing, maybe we just can’t spot the insecurities in the same way as we can on the page.

Finally, I find that students who struggle to get their ideas onto paper are not suffering from a lack of skill so much as a lack of stamina. I’m sure most adults remember that ache in their hand after an essay-based exam, and rebuilding your pen callous after the summer holidays! So put yourself in the shoes of a generation who write very little in everyday life (cue debate on the evils of technology) and so do not build up their ability to write quickly and fluently. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the brain is much faster than the hand!

So, the burning question is what can we do to help? Honestly, patience and understanding is key here: you need to bear in mind that it is unlikely to be a conscious thing! Although you may think getting them free-writing more will help, you actually need to address the fundamental skills first.

Anything you can do at home to help kids build up their writing muscles (literally, the correct muscles in the hand) will be helpful. Even those who do a lot of colouring, for example, may not have strong writing muscles – think of it this way, are acclaimed piano players automatically amazing touch-typers? Of course not! They are different skill sets and so need to be practised separately. Get your kids to write slowly and carefully at first, tracing over dots or tracing over text. To start with they should treat it more like art than writing!

Once the fluency starts improving and the muscles get stronger, you then need to work with them on their writing stamina. Set an amount of time - just a couple of minutes to start - for them to write over dotted handwriting sheets (we have these at MagiKats!) with the aim of being neat, and keep track of how many words they trace in the time. Their aim next time is to write for a minute longer, and to beat their previous score. Over time they will build up to being able to write for a decent amount of time without getting tired.

The last step in this process, once they can write without getting too tired or losing focus, is to use their new skills within free writing. One method for this is to use a ‘stream of consciousness’: students pick a topic and then write solidly about it for an allotted amount of time. If they get stuck and don’t know what to write, they should write the same word over and over again until they get going again. The aim is not full sentences, just pure brain-to-page writing! If you want to complete the exercise, you’ll need to ask us!

In essence, for the many parents who can relate to the opening statement, please don’t worry! If your child is a reluctant writer then please be assured that it is a quite normal problem and can be fixed, either over time or with help, if necessary. All you can do at home is be patient – and make sure they correct their mistakes!

By Emma Lomas, Principal of MagiKats in Guildford, Cobham and Mytchett.