With the influx of families switching to homeschooling—in all its many stripes—this fall, home learning chat threads everywhere are exploding with questions and aha moments. There’s a lot of “It turns out my kid actually loves math” and “How many hours a day do I really need to spend on this?” going around right now. But aside from these two, the one struggle I continuously see parents facing is that of teaching their kids to write.
Even, perhaps—dare they hope for it—inspiring a love of writing in their children.
Whether your child’s struggles with writing are a new discovery for you or you’ve been fighting to get them to hold a pencil since Pre-K, I hope the tips and tricks in this post will help both of you relax more when it comes to writing and let the natural progression run its course.
Writing Requires a Complex Set of Skills
Before we can address the causes of or solutions to a child’s lack of enthusiasm for writing, we must first define what we mean by writing.
When we talk about a child struggling with writing, we need to find out whether they’re struggling with the physical act of printing, as in forming the letters with a pencil or pen, or the creative act of writing, as in formulating ideas and translating them into some form of written communication.
It’s really important to remember that writing is actually a whole set of skills, and the key is to work on each skill independently. Coming up with ideas and learning to express them requires a different skill set than actually printing or handwriting. And of course, organizing thoughts into sentences and paragraphs is a whole other matter. The best way to help your child progress is to take it slow and work on just one thing at a time.
Imagine you are trying to learn to drive a car. You’ve never been in a car before, you have no idea how they work. You don’t know about the rules of the road or the meaning of any street sign. You were given no driving manual.
Somebody told you to get into the driver’s seat and put your hands on the wheel. They gave you step-by-step instructions on how to put on your seatbelt, turn the car on, shift into drive, shoulder check, and pull out into traffic.
Just when you think you’re starting to get the hang of it, they start yelling at you that you drove through a stop sign. Then they’re frustrated that you missed a turn. When you try to take the next turn, they get upset with you for forgetting to signal.
As you’re trying to take all of this in and avoid causing an accident, they start pointing out all the street signs while simultaneously explaining how to do an oil change.
Wouldn’t you want to give up? Slam your hand on the steering wheel and scream, “Enough already! I’m no good at this and I don’t want to do it anymore”?
I think that’s what it’s like when we try to teach kids all of the building blocks of writing at the same time. We’re trying to stuff in printing, spelling, grammar, and composition all into one lesson, and it’s Just. So. Frustrating.
If you find yourself falling into this trap, take a step back and remember that what your kid is doing is amazing. They’re learning a difficult new skill and they’re processing an abundance of information at the same time. Praise their efforts, no matter how diminutive the results may seem to you. For them, it may be a big accomplishment.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s look at some hands-on ways you can identify which part of the writing process they’re struggling with and tackle each part directly.
Identifying Your Child’s Writing Challenges
Depending on the age of your child, you may or may not struggle to identify which parts of the writing process they’re struggling with. If they’re on the younger side (8 and under, say), they likely need a decent amount of help with each part.
If they’re older, they may have confidence in one area, such as printing, but may be struggling to come up with ideas or organize their thoughts. Or, conversely, they may have tons of ideas but they’re getting frustrated because their hand can’t move as quickly as their mind can.
But how do you know for sure?
I would suggest that you isolate each skill and test it out to see where frustrations arise. This could indicate a gap that needs to be addressed.
- To test printing or handwriting skills, have your child do some copywork. Try to have them do one sentence per grade level. So, for kindergarten or grade one, try to have them copy one sentence. For grade eight, have them copy eight sentences. I love to create customized copywork pages for my children on this handwriting practice site. I find they’re much more likely to enjoy the copywork if I’ve tailored it to their interests. You can choose a quote from a favorite book or simply write down what they are doing that day.
- To test spelling or grammar skills, you can do one or more placement tests to figure out what level they’re at. Grab a free spelling placement test and follow the instructions. You can then purchase the corresponding spelling lists and flash cards very inexpensively here.
- To test your child’s ability to formulate ideas and communicate them, do a dictation exercise. Ask them a specific question and have them give you the answer orally while you act as their scribe. For example, “Tell me a story about a cat that can fly,” “Describe your favorite place to me,” “Tell me the steps you would take to make your favorite snack.” If they get stuck, ask them questions to elicit further details.
Try to make these “tests” feel like fun activities rather than examinations. You and your child are partners in the joint effort of improving their writing skills, and defining a baseline is always the first step in a successful initiative—just don’t make them feel like they’re on trial.
If it feels too serious, do a role reversal and let them quiz you too!
Tips and Tricks for Improving Printing
Custom Printing Sheets
As mentioned above, custom printing pages are one of my favorite ways to practice printing skills. I love that you can customize them to fit your needs, which will change over time.
You can start with tracing and then move into printing and finally, handwriting. Here’s how you might progress over a period of weeks, months, or even years.
- Visit WorksheetWorks.com.
- Select Print Handwriting Practice (or one of the other two options if your child is more advanced).
- Give the page a title.
- Type any instructions you want your child to follow. (For example, if you won’t be sitting with them while they do the sheets, you might type something like “Trace each word,” or “Copy each line of text. Make sure to leave a space between each word.”
- Select a line height. Start with ½ inch and work your way up or down as needed.
- Click on the word Writing to select the Guides settings.
- Click on the word solid to select the Letters settings.
- Choose single line spacing for tracing sheets or doubly line spacing for copy sheets.
- Type your text.
- Choose your paper size and orientation.
- Create worksheet.
- On the next page, click the download button.
Incorporate Writing into Playtime
Sometimes kids just don’t want to write because it feels like too much work. If you can create a game that involves some writing, they may not even realize they’re practicing their printing.
For example, we used to play store at our house. We’d set up a storefront in our living room and the kids would collect things to sell. They’d label the products in their store and write down their prices and I’d come and shop there. (Sometimes it would be a restaurant and they’d make a menu and then let me order from it).
They also imagined a daycare called Sparkle Daycare and made advertisements for it announcing all the fun things they’d do with the smaller kids and the rates they would charge parents ($2 a day!).
Build on your own child’s interests and find ways to incorporate small bits of writing into that fantasy world.
Try New Surfaces, Textures, and Mediums
Sitting at a desk or table and writing on paper can be tedious; for some kids, though, it can actually be nearly impossible. Some of my kids (and many others I know) have a very hard time sitting still long enough to write anything substantial. They’re climbing on the table, under the table, falling over backwards on their chair, etc. (I have proof of this. I recorded us doing some writing lessons for a friend at the beginning of the pandemic and my 5-year-old literally did not stop moving once).
So why not go with their flow? Their bodies need to be moving, but there’s no reason they can’t get some writing done at the same time.
We love to use window markers and let the kids write on sliding glass doors and windows. They love this because it feels like they’re doing something they shouldn’t be allowed to do, but they’re actually getting praised for it. Have them write a list of their friends, or the foods they want to eat for dinner, or the names of their favorite characters from a beloved book or movie.
How about using their finger to write words in different mediums such as sand, shaving cream, or paint? Or, have them use letter magnets to cut out different words in playdough or clay? All of these things help develop the same fine motor skills needed for printing, but they don’t feel as tedious to a child who’s already sitting in a desk for long periods of time each day.
Tips and Tricks for Improving Spelling and Grammar
These are skills that you’ll be working on steadily throughout their educational career, so the most important thing is just to find the right starting point, which you’ll do through the testing exercises recommended above. (However, if they’re really struggling with printing and/or idea formulation and communication, I’d suggest holding off on formal grammar and spelling lessons for the time being. These skills can always be worked on congruently with any writing activity or introduced down the road when kids are more easily able to comprehend them.
Mad libs are a fun way to help kids learn about the parts of speech. If you’ve never played before, here’s how it works: one person takes a pre-written or original bit of text. (We like to copy a paragraph from a book we’re reading). They then remove several words from the text and replace them with a blank space and a part of speech.
Then, they ask the other person to supply a set of words. A noun, a place, a proper noun, an adjective, etc., which they fill into the blank spaces. Finally, they read the story back to the other person and have a little roll on the floor as they laugh about the silly new story.
I’ve yet to meet a kid who doesn’t love Mad Libs. They’re so much fun! Kids get a kick out of making up a really silly story while subtly learning the differences between the various types of words.
You can buy books of Mad Libs or find free ones online.
Tips and Tricks for Developing the Writing Process
There are so many fun ways to help kids develop the skills needed for creative, descriptive, persuasive and expository writing. Use any of the tips below to get their creative juices flowing. You can also visit my website for more fun writing activities for kids and resources for the exercises below.
Writing a comic book or graphic novel
Using a template, students create their own comic strip or graphic novel complete with speech bubbles and annotations.
First, you’ll need a comic strip template. You can download a template, draw your own, or allow kids to do so if they choose.
The amount of guidance each student needs will vary depending on their age and ability. By design, comics and graphic novels are straight to the point. They don’t have room for any superfluous content.
Therefore, it’s a good idea to take time beforehand and plan what’s going to happen in the short story, either using a story planner or just jotting down a quick storyboard sketch. They’ll want to have a sense of what’s going to go in each square before they start drawing the pictures in earnest.
Have them draw the pictures first and then add speech and thought bubbles and annotations. Learning how to outline and determine in advance the best way to get a point across is an important skill and creating comic strips is a great way to learn it.
In this writing activity, students create a persuasive piece of writing aimed at convincing you that their favorite thing is the best, i.e. Why Wings of Fire is the Best Dragon Series You’ll Ever Read, or Why Strawberries are the One Fruit We Could All Live On.
Offer suggestions on what format they might choose, but leave the decision up to them. They might write a short essay, a poem, a song, or a rap. Maybe they’ll even decide to create a brochure. Put as few limitations on this final product as possible to encourage maximum creativity.
When they’re done, have them read they’ve written to try to persuade an audience.
Use Writing Prompts
One reason many children dislike writing is that they get stuck trying to come up with a fresh idea. Once stuck, they become unable to move past the intimidation of the blank page. Writing prompts help them get unstuck so they can work on the task of developing their story and creating richer layers of details.
At the end of the day, not every child is going to grow up and fall in love with writing, but with a relaxed approach used in a supportive and encouraging environment, all kids can develop the writing skills they’re going to need to thrive in the workforce and cultivate a new appreciation for writing. Or, at the very least, they’ll stop throwing their pencils at you.