Writing is one of the most challenging skills children must learn throughout their school years. As students move toward adulthood, they will be expected to convey their thoughts through writing more and more. Once, a student reaches college and the work place and becomes an adult member of their community, writing is the main way they will convey their ideas to others. It is how their knowledge and intellect will be judged.
However, writing is hard! It requires the mastery and integration of so many skills. You need to be able to brainstorm what you want to write about and the language for doing so. Then, you have to feel comfortable with the physical aspect of writing, spelling the words, using capitalization and punctuation, and the use of correct grammar. You need to be able to organize all of your thoughts into a sequential flowing form and use your working memory to hold all of this information at the forefront of your brain for you to use during the writing process.
Both of my boys have struggled with writing, but for very different reasons. One didn’t want to write until he could do it perfectly and so we spent a lot of time learning all the component skills before starting a formal writing curriculum with him in 4th grade. The other loved to write at early age even though it was one big run on sentence with lots of inventive spelling!
Every child is different, but many need some level of support to get started on their writing journey. So what CAN you do to help your child learn to write? Here is a step by step guide to help you help your struggling writer learn to write.
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The first step in the writing process is to think of something to write about. Many children can get stuck right here! So help your child by brainstorming with them. Write your general topic that you are going to write about at the top of a white board or piece of paper and then start throwing out ideas with your child about related ideas to write about.
Tell your child there are no ‘wrong answers’ during the brainstorming process. If your child is still struggling, prompt them with more specific questions or jog their memory with “remember when we…” types of statements.
To learn more about helping your child brainstorm read 4 Ways to Brainstorm with Reluctant Writers
Once you have a specific idea to write about, it is time to organize your thoughts around that topic in a way that will allow you to write easily. Graphic organizers are a tool that allows you to see your thoughts on paper. They take various forms and you can pick one that is just write for the type of writing you want to do.
Here are some graphic organizers to get you started.
If you are just writing one paragraph, then your organizer will likely have a place at the top to write your idea for an introductory sentence. Then, it will have spaces to write some details you are going to include about that topic. And finally, it will have a space to write a summary sentence.
If your writing will be more involved such as a five paragraph essay, your graphic organizer will need more space for ideas, but the process will be the same.
Once your child has their idea to write about and their thoughts organized, it is time for guided writing. Guided writing is where you sit with your child and help them write.
In the beginning, this may mean you are literally holding the pencil and writing while the two of you are talking together about what to write. You are ‘in charge’ of the spelling, capitalization, and punctuation so that your child has less to think about. You may even help your child reword a sentence so that it is grammatically correct or encourage them to use more ‘exciting’ words in their writing. Instead of the box was ‘hard’ to get in the house, it was ‘a pain to drag’ in the house.
As your children become more comfortable and knowledgeable with the writing process, you can hand the pencil over to them and still sit beside them and help them through the process. This does not mean correcting everything during the process. That will come later. But gently guiding them to get their ideas down on paper.
As children become more mature writers, there are always new things that you can still model for them through the guided writing process.
Here are some more thoughts on guided writing.
After, everything is down on paper, then it is time to edit. Too often our students (or us as their mentors!) want to edit while we are writing. This just makes the whole process more difficult.
The best way to edit is to have a checklist you go through each time. This way your child has an objective guide leading them through the process and doesn’t feel that you, as their mentor, are ‘criticizing’ them. Another, tip is to start by talking about positives with their writing.
I developed this editing checklist to help parents guide elementary age children through this process. Download it here:
Take Breaks from Writing
This whole process above can take you a few days. The more your child struggles, the more you will want to spread out the process and take breaks. The goal is for your child to improve their writing skills and stay relatively happy while doing so. So spread the steps out as much as you need to. Quality over quantity!
Other Ways to Support Your Writer
I mentioned in the beginning that there are several component skills to writing: spelling, punctuation, capitalization, verb agreement, etc. Children who have weaknesses in these areas may need extra support beyond the process listed above. Here are two ways to support them:
Provide Supportive Resources
When the above skills are weak, provide reference sheets or ‘cheat sheets’ for your children. For example, anticipate which words they may want to use that will be hard to spell and create a word bank for them of these words so they can just copy them when they need them. Or if your child struggles with noun-verb agreement, you may have a list of pronouns with the corresponding helping verbs (she is, they are, etc.) on hand. Make these sheets as individualized to your child’s needs as possible.
We like to keep ours in a three ring binder along with our editing checklists.
Strengthen Each Component Skill
Choosing which component skill is the most challenging and spending some extra time strengthening that skill will have a big payoff. The more automatic each of the component skills become, the less space the working memory has to dedicate to that component.
To learn more about this, read How Working Memory Affects Learning
For my oldest son, he hated not knowing how to correctly spell the words he wanted to write. Once his spelling improved he felt more comfortable with the whole writing process and the system above has worked well for him.
Here is the Spelling Curriculum that has worked for us:
The more your child reads, the more they are exposed to everything they need to become good writers: correct spelling of words, varied vocabulary, capitalization and punctuation, correct grammar, and paragraphs! So know that even if writing is not going well, all that reading your child might be doing is helping!
Formal Writing Program
If this all sounds good to you, but you would like a formal program to walk you through it each week, then check out the Writeshop line of writing curriculum. We have used their curriculum for three years now and it has provided the fun, gentle approach both of my boys needed.
Take the Writeshop Placement Quiz
What have you struggled with in your writing lessons? Comment below so that we can include those topics in future posts!