We see it all the time. Reluctant writers are overly critical of themselves and afraid that we may see them as terrible students.
Their confidence dwindles until they can only produce a few words before throwing their hands up in frustration.
So what shall we do? How do we teach kids to write anything at all?
Here are 10 unconventional practices that work well when working with reluctant writers.
Try these at home with your child. Over time, they may enjoy writing fun stories they can share with you and their friends.
Let’s get right to it!
1. Model Taking A Big Breath To Settle Their Nerves
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This is for teachers, parents, and young writers alike.
Writing can be a daunting task. So any technique to provide a sense of calm is welcome.
Before any writing activity, I encourage our most reluctant writers to breathe in for four or more seconds and exhale slowly. This will settle their nerves and reduce the anxieties that resist anything to do with writing.
In middle school, I was a nervous wreck. My mentor taught me to breathe before taking any test. It worked.
At first, it seemed silly, but each time I did it, I felt centered and focused. Sure, there was still some residual anxiety, but by controlling a bit of my body, my lungs, neck, and shoulders especially, I could believe I could quiet my negative thoughts.
When I teach this to my students, they say they have a similar experience. Or, they’re quickly done with it and they just want to write. “Magnificent!” I say.
2. Allow Them to Write Silly Stories Or A Topic That Makes Them Laugh.
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If our reluctant writers are concerned too much with “Writing” with its grammar, punctuation, and spelling—in other words, the “Rules”—the story becomes stilted. Sometimes, they won’t write at all.
Instead, allow your child to focus on creating scenes, especially ones that make them laugh or make us worry.
Tip: Have them write about a funny movie character or a scene that takes place in a setting such as a video game they love.
This works because most of what they can imagine is already “created” in their minds.
These “go to” topics are what Nancie Atwell calls “Writing Territories.”
For example, many boys and some girls love Minecraft, a video game where players can build a virtual castle or anything from digital blocks. Even the most reluctant writers who have never played the game know all the elements, heroes, villains, and whatnot.
Though you may not like your child to indulge in too much gaming screen-time, for the purpose of writing, I’m happy to hear about Steve or HeroBrine and his misadventures for the umpteenth time!
And… so should you.
3. Clear the Runway for your Child's Writing. Avoid Red Pen Syndrome.
Remember, in our first drafts, only the story matters. Therefore, as parents, hold off on marking up the page, or their Google Doc, with a barrage of red. This causes a sense of anxiety that can freeze a writer’s flow. This is better known as Red Pen Syndrome.
As a teacher, I know I can make a page “bleed” with errors. And I’m sure someone can do the same for my articles!
But what happens when we critique too early?
Kids’ spirits deflate, and they equate their writing as a reflection of themselves. As a result, I’ve seen excitement drain from their eyes.
Instead, encourage them to write their stories to the end. In the middle of the story, they may need your help with brainstorming ideas. That’s fine. Let them draw a bit to create momentum.
If you want to make comments, ask only 1-2 suggestions about the story that can make the most impact.
If there are any punctuation or grammar comments, focus on 1 or 2 ideas only, such as periods or capitalization.
Instead, Anchor The Feeling Of Success Around Writing.
4. Listen And Genuinely Be Interested In What They Write.
As teachers or parents, we want to provide the best attention to this activity so that we can establish a positive teacher-student relationship. In this way, we need to be their cheerleaders.
Reluctant writers already have an aversion to writing. Of course, if it’s a learning difficulty or disability, you’ll need to find resources to check.
We as teachers or parents need to be the sports coach that believes and is excited about the possibility of winning.
In terms of Story Structure, teachers and parents serve as mentors who point and clear the way for heroes to step through the “Portal” of their imagination.
5. Read Compelling, Famous Books AND Stories from Kids Their Own Age
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Reading aloud as a family (the more exaggerated, the better sometimes) not only instills the past-time is valuable but also inspires students to write their own.
This is especially true if the story is written by another young writer!
“I think I can do better,” they might say.
“Excellent! Let’s go for it,” I’ll reply.
First, keep the Story Instructions simple.
How can they write a story? They can try our list of silly writing prompts, or write about their favorite toy.
Some young writers love writing about a silly character named Billy Bob Joe. In nearly every story class we teach, that name appears! Why? I guess because it sounds silly. (Apologies to anyone reading this who has that as their name!)
Really, it could be anything. If you need a bit more help, they can begin with the following.
Two (2) Characters
An Amazing Setting
As they write, encourage them to:
Make Us Worry, and
Make Us Care
That’s it. They can brainstorm with you and draw the characters if they wish. If they want to keep drawing, then let them. Just encourage them to add captions or dialogue bubbles, as seen in comics.
Later, ask if they want to read it to you.
As always, be interested in hearing about their story. Kids love connecting with an audience, and they crave being heard.
By being engaged in their story, you, as a parent, can anchor a feeling of success for them.
We build our skills on previous incremental successes, and as a result, we will return to that activity time and time again.
6. Reduce Stress by Not Helicoptering
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Hovering over their shoulder when they write may feel like a sentry scrutinizing their peaceful activity.
Their attention should be on their story. Not on you.
Our presence is enough.
Even when we’re in another room, this “eustress,” or beneficial stress, can be enough to encourage them to keep on the task.
If they feel we’re there for their support, they’ll have better attention to entering their own headspace.
To make the point clear for our reluctant writer, focus any comments towards the story, rather than grammatical mistakes as much as possible. Support the Story to keep their heads in their Extraordinary World.
7. Create A Sacred Story Space To Put Them Into The Mood For Creativity
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In my college years, I worked to preserve a sacred site called Puvungna with the Tongva/Gabrielino tribe. This natural land was under threat by a university that proposed building a McDonald’s on top of it.
For many people, it was just an overgrown small section of university land, but for Natives of all walks of life, this place not only had the significance of a Bethlehem, but a special power that fed on the wellspring of ancestors that lived before them.
The concept is powerful. Many natives still to this day celebrate, clean the grounds, visit with friends, play, eat, read, and write at this special “home.”
For young writers, having a consistent writing place, a power spot, can be just as powerful.
It sets their minds and bodies to be the persona that writes and do the activity that is expected.
It could be a short art table in the den or a desk with pictures of their of favorite story characters. As long as it has few distractions.
Puvungna was a source of possibility, a Portal into a “Special World.” Your child’s sacred writing place should be the same.
8. Schedule a Quiet Time and a Timer to Help Them Dive Into Their Story
Whether it’s 7 minutes or a half an hour, a scheduled “normal” time to be quiet for writing helps reduce any resistance to the activity.
Once a week at 1pm on a Saturday works.
Even better, 8 AM or anytime can be a “sacred writing time” as long as it’s consistent.
Using a smartphone timer or a classroom timer where the sound can turn off or is barely audible is an excellent way for a young writer, especially a group of them, to focus.
In this way, your children can continue their momentum without the blare of the ringer.
Ideally, they should be deep enough in their worlds to write longer. Don’t stop them.
At the end of the timed session, you can ask, “Do you need more time?” Often in a group, they may raise their hand and continue writing without looking up.
This reinforces the idea for our young writers that they can fully immerse themselves in their story world.
That’s what we want.
9. Make a "Success Sandwich" to Anchor a Positive Writing Experience.
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In our workshops, we often talk about sandwiches.
Well, it’s more of a concept.
Before: We can settle with our favorite toy, or pencils, and take several deep breaths. “If a Jedi does it, perhaps we can too.” If it helps, you can ask how much they’d like to write on the page or how many words on a computer.
During: Set the timer, and go. Depending on their energy, we can do a flash fiction exercise, writing as fast as possible. It may be messy, but we just want to see what happens.
After: If your young writer is writing past the end of the clock, then excellent! Let them do so. When they stop, they can anchor their successful effort with a big smile and look at the sky or ceiling. Even patting themselves on the shoulder helps.
Stanford Neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Huberman suggests not rewarding with physical rewards like stickers or stars but creating internal acknowledgments that they reached a certain point in the exercise or did it at all.
Patting ourselves on the shoulder works to establish that internal reward, sprinkled with a bit of self-compassion.
10. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to exist.
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This is for the perfectionist in our children.
Adults can learn from this as well.
Even I have to keep reminding myself of this. I pat my arm to provide the self-compassion I need to let go and “get the story out.” It also prevents me from talking negatively to myself.
By saying this, we name the culprit and can control it. It dislodges the critical mind for a moment and allows us enough room to keep moving forward.
11. Encourage Your Writer To “Make Us Care” In Their Story So That We Become Attached To Their Hero.
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Their hero, Billy Bob Joe, covered his face after learning that his fish died.
HeroBrine suddenly realized that he was running out of food. He had to go find something to eat.
In the crude way, we want to feel sorry for our heroes. Young writers are used to seeing this if they’ve read stories or recall their favorite movie.
Nearly all stories begin with this. Why? So that we can feel the hero’s pain, embarrassment, disappointments, separation, or even betrayal.
Without caring for our hero, we don’t care as an audience what happens to him or her.
And this requires tapping into our own feelings and regrets and imposing them on our heroes.
Excellent. Let’s get those emotions out on paper or on the screen and see how the hero will rise above it in their adventures.
12. Encourage Your Writer To “Make Us Worry” To Captivate Us.
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After your young writer makes us care about her heroes, we as readers will sit and pay attention when Billy Bob Joe is under some kind of threat.
The trick is to draw out this tension for the hero so that we, as readers, hold on to whatever thread of hope that we can garner from the story.
If your reluctant writer likes to make you squirm, here’s their chance to do it.
Our audience's brains can’t help but feel a bit scared when a tiger is prowling after Billy Bob Joe in a jungle.
Immediately, our reptile brain is looking for a solution. We wonder what the hero’s plans and strategies might be to resolve it.
Yep, your young writer has us hooked!
Now, it sounds like I’m describing a horror story, but this occurs in fantasy, realistic fiction, and comedy.
“Make us Worry” is an essential storytelling tool.
This is true even for the daily news, but that is an entirely different lesson.
Yes, there are plenty of unique ways to encourage your child to write. I spoke about our fundamental techniques that often encourage them to “get the story out.”
Of course, it takes regularly scheduled sessions to cement a writing practice, and young writers will not always fill it with copious amounts of writing.
That they wrote, looked up vocabulary, and experimented with their words is all time well spent.
Like the violin, piano, or soccer classes, the more time we spend on the activity, the better we become.
The advantage is that by establishing their own writing world, young writers can return to it as adults, think for themselves, and leverage their ideas to share with the world.
Keep ink flowing!
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