Why are some children reluctant writers?

Producing a successful piece of creative writing is a complex process.

Children have to fully understand the given task, organise their thoughts into sentences, sequence those sentences, consider the spelling of their words and form joined and legible handwriting.

It is hardly surprising that the extent of the task set by their teacher (or even by you at home) can be overwhelming, and parents may find that their child is reluctant to write.

It can be particularly tough for bright, sensitive children to put pen to paper at first. If they are young in the year, or feeling a little unsure, they tend to look around and see their classmates writing with confidence. They feel a tinge of shame at their own awkward letter formation and poor spelling. It’s hardly surprising that reluctance sets in.

Every child is different, but there are a number of specific reasons why many young children don’t enjoy writing. Here is a list of common problems, along with specific skill-based solutions you can try at home to encourage your child to write.

1. Your child doesn’t understand the writing task

Even tasks that sound straightforward to us as adults can be challenging for a young child to understand and interpret.

Perhaps the task is to describe a railway station at night. A child might think of a train but it takes encouragement for them to actually imagine themselves in a familiar railway station. A gentle prompt might jog a memory of the chewing-gum splattered tarmac and the strip lighting in the waiting room. But the fact that they’ve been asked to describe the setting at night adds another dimension to the task, and further conversation is needed to tease out that second step.

Some tasks are just too much for an anxious writer and once overwhelm sets in, they will just stare at the blank page feeling miserable.

How to help your child understand a writing task

  • Simplify the task. Instead of asking for a whole story, ask them to describe where it starts.
  • Offer a writing prompt such as sentence openings that your child can choose from and finish off alone: Overhead… Underfoot… In the distance…

2. Your child has a wonderful imagination but can’t sequence their thoughts and ideas

Without support, an imaginative (but anxious) child will clutch at a set of random thoughts and struggle to put them on the paper. One great idea might be repeated on loop and all other – potentially obvious – areas of content will fall away.

Strengthen your child’s writing skills by helping them sequence their thoughts and ideas

  • Note down a list of their ideas for them before they start (or create a spider diagram).
  • Agree together which order they want to write them down in, and clearly number them.
  • At first, their stories should always work from the same basic plan (setting, conversation, mood change, ending).

3. Your child can’t spell everyday words

Most of us pick up spellings with relative ease and by the time we’re being asked to flex our writing skills to create extended pieces of creative writing we are able to quickly recall the correct spellings. But for some children this doesn’t happen naturally.

Here’s a quote from an experienced Educational Psychologist:

“Weak spelling is definitely one of the first areas that would suggest the possibility of dyslexia.

Spelling is most dependent on the information processing skills underpinning dyslexia. This is unlike reading – for which other strategies (such as using visual recognition rather than just decoding) can be used.

Spelling involves tapping into the individual’s visual memory as well as knowledge of phonetics, handwriting and sequential memory, it is essential that these skills interact with each other for a writer to be able to spell more complex words. Visual memory alone can only work for spelling some words – but not the full extent of words an older student will be exposed to.

This is especially so for bright children who have managed to develop compensatory strategies for some of their difficulties.”

It’s worth having a conversation with your child about the difference between everyday spellings that they are expected to be able to spell, and these more challenging task-specific words.

Sometimes lack of attention to detail is at the root of poor spelling. Of course, a child who doesn’t like to write will rush the task to get it over with. Thus, clarifying the difference between everyday spellings and those that are more challenging is a way of breaking an unmanageable task down into more achievable steps.

How to help your child to master everyday spellings

  • Print out a list of frequently used words and make it available to them.
  • Encourage them to ask you for spellings as often as they need to.
  • Be aware of possible dyslexia and ask your child’s school for support.

4. Your child’s pencil grip is awkward or tense

I’m left-handed and although I don’t wrap my hand around the side of the page to write the words from above (as many left-handers do), I do grip my pen too tightly. If a young child develops an uncomfortable grip it can lead to trouble later on. Essay-based exams and extended tasks can be unnecessarily painful to complete.

Some children clutch their pen in a fist and this limits their ability to control their handwriting. It isn’t just about writing neatly; letter sizing and position on the line are impacted too.

How to fix an awkward or tense pen grip

  • Fine motor skills develop with repeated practice.
  • Click this link and you will find everything you need. There are printable resources and instructions. It is best done over a half term or short break from school and it’s easy (it worked for my youngest, although I did incentivise it with a pair of trainers).

5. Your child’s handwriting isn’t formed correctly

Cursive writing has been developed for pace. Well-formed letters join naturally and lead to speedy, legible text. When letters are formed differently they are clumsy to join or won’t naturally come together, leading to slower, sloppier-looking handwriting.

Most children respond well to handwriting practice. If they are encouraged to form each letter slowly and in a particular way, their writing will improve relatively quickly.

Yet some children’s handwriting doesn’t improve. Even with the right support and encouragement for each writing activity, small steps forward tend to roll right back again. If this is the case, experts in the UK are beginning to formally recognise dysgraphia:

Shobha Coutinho is an Educational Psychologist:

“Currently Dysgraphia (specifically handwriting) is not considered a separate condition from Dyspraxia in the U.K. (it is in the U.S.), however my personal experience is that there’s evidence to suggest it is a separate condition and I do in my reports state this if it is present with the caveat that in the UK it is still under review as a separate condition. This can be helpful as it can provide evidence for a laptop in exams if relevant.

Reports can state the presence of Dyspraxia from an educational point of view- however if there’s any evidence of further motor difficulties that may require an Occupational Therapist referral to ensure there’s no underlying neurological damage, especially for primary aged children.

The diagnosis for Dysgraphia includes a detailed assessment of handwriting (including free writing, copy writing, writing speed while writing neatly – to help put apart whether handwriting difficulties are due to information processing difficulties – such as trying to organise thoughts on paper, or due to motor difficulties).

It will also include tests for visual-motor co-ordination to assess visual-motor skills where language is not involved (e.g. with shapes) as language skills could be caused due to barriers with Dyslexia and these other tests again help to distinguish the two.

An assessment for Dysgraphia will also consider other motor related skills such as spatial memory and of course will look in depth at spelling skills.”

How to help your child to form their handwriting correctly

  • For everyday spellings make sure they have a printed sheet of common words sitting next to them when they write.
  • Make sure any task-specific spellings are provided beforehand.
  • Remind your child that most new spellings are not guessable! It’s always better to ask than have a go.
  • Once dysgraphia is diagnosed, usually a touch-typing course is recommended.

Children can be gently supported to improve their handwritten words, which is useful for shopping lists and thank you cards… but long-term, touch typing tends to liberate them from their feelings of inadequacy and frustration. It really feels like giving them wings (I’m smiling as I’m typing this, thinking of children I know whose attainment has been transformed).

6. Your child does not have the best writing tools

Give your child a blunt pencil, or a worn out colouring pen and it is impossible for them to produce a quality piece of writing.

Narrow notepaper – where only a handful of words fit on each line – is another challenge for children lacking in confidence. Every three or four words they have to judge whether the next one will fit in the space left on the line, or whether they should begin a new line and leave a gap.

Encourage great handwriting by using great tools

  • Anyone’s handwriting looks better with the right pen; I prefer a fluid rollerball. If your child worries about smudging, then a micro-nibbed rollerball is better than a standard one. A scratchy pen or biro will work against their presentation, whereas a smooth-flowing pen will give it a lift.
  • Everything should be set up to make your child feel settled and comfortable. A glass or metal desk surface has no give in it. Slide an exercise book, or equivalent, under their sheet of paper for a smoother writing experience.

7. Your child is left handed and struggles to write neatly

If so, all is not lost! I’m left-handed and my handwriting is reasonably neat and fluent. But there are a few tricks to improve the writing experience for left-handers like me:

How to support a left-handed child and encourage them to write

  • Sit them slightly higher on their chair – up on a cushion is ideal.
  • Push their paper forward a little on the desk/table and then tilt the page so that the top right hand corner is dropped down and the bottom left hand corner pushed up a little.
  • Encourage them not to lean around the top of the page and choose a clear, fine pen to minimise smudging.

Book your child a place in our Writing Club today

If you’d like 1-2-1 support for your child from a wonderful English teaching specialist click here to join our affordable online writing club.

  • A bright and lively 20 minute live-taught zoom lesson each week
  • Full support and encouragement given (you don’t need to sit with your child or help them).
  • No homework – the task is completed within that 20 minute lesson.
  • Personal 1-2-1 weekly marking is the key to progression. They each have their own specialist teacher who feeds back with a personal video.
  • Our approach is warm, reassuring and positive. Just a small, manageable step forward is suggested each week.
  • All our club members are flying. The improvement is immediate and consistent.

Writing Club Testimonials

Absolutely b***** love this little writing club.

I was dubious as it is such a short amount of time each week. He is getting focused feedback on his work and he is paying attention to it. He does NOT pay attention to me when I tell him these things. Anyway, thanks and keep up the good work!

What you’re doing really is wonderful. I think what the children love about the videos is that you always come across so welcoming and you genuinely are interested in what they have to write. I know my children, sometimes get nervous about writing because they think, they might not be good enough but what you have done already, is confirmed to each one that they are in a safe place, that they are good enough and that you are helping them to reach the next level. So, thank you very much Hayley, they all love the writing club and are very much looking forward to Week 4.

I just wanted to say I am so pleased with the Mini Writing Club, Harry is really enjoying them and it’s great to get the feedback too. The subjects you choose are super and they really appeal to him which is also a big win!

Thank you again, I can’t tell you what a difference this has made to Oliver. His confidence has increased so much and that is half the battle with getting him to write anything. None of us, especially him, had any idea he had a flair for this. He was so fixated on the physical aspects of writing, he never dared to try. He’s had to compose a few long essays recently and I know that would have been a struggle before.

Benjamin is getting good constructive feedback in a way that frankly I just don’t think they ever usually get.

The work you have done with them both is wonderful – I have really seen an improvement, especially in Ed’s handwriting. Thank you so much.

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