Rashid Ishaq – July 1, 2019
What are the reasons that some children run away from a piece of paper and a pencil as if it will come to life and chase them? Later, you find this same kid creatively drawing tiny circles all over their favorite stuffed cat. In almost every home, in every school and in every classroom, there are some children/students who just hate writing and will avoid it any cost. You might hear their groaning and moaning when you say the word ‘writing’ or suddenly remember to go to the toilet the minute you hand over a pen or pencil and a paper or notebook. Somehow you have made them to sit at their desk but when they do sit down they take 500 years to write the date and draw a margin line and then poke the person next to them or get busy in some other off task behaviour. Their kittenish behavior means to somehow stop you supporting those who will engage, rather seeking some time wasting support from them or divert the concentration of capable to writing kids who just need extension. As a mother, father or a teacher, it can take all the fun out of a writing session when reluctant writers do not let you to proceed your writing session. Next are the ‘sit and do nothing’ kids who write one or two simple sentences and then just sit there doing nothing, maybe putting their head on the desk. When you try to support them and ask some guiding questions like “what happens next?” or “What else could you write about this?” in your most encouraging voice, they come up with, “I don’t know” with an innocent expression on their face. Or they can tell you about what they want to say but simply can’t get the words down on the page.
On the whole, these reluctant writers do not wake up thinking, “Hey, I am perfectly competent when it comes to writing, but I just don’t like it and I will do everything in my power to make my teacher’s life difficult today”. Odds on, the thoughts prevailing in their heads is “This is too hard.” And “I am so dumb.” These children are usually reluctant simply because they find writing difficult, but why writing is difficult for them and how to support them really depends. In this article, we will discuss the importance of different aspects of writing, areas of difficulty for reluctant writers, comparison between factory-model traditional schools and 21st Century Schools as how do both teach writing, what are the best alternative methods that you as parents, teachers and school can apply; some charts and videos will also be provided in this blog that will surely help a great deal.
Why is Automaticity so important for writing?
Before reading about the importance of automaticity, please remember that automaticity is the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details required, allowing it to become an automatic response pattern or habit. It is usually the result of learning, repetition, and practice. So Automaticity is the ability to perform tasks without conscious thought. Now let’s move ahead.
Writing is a highly complex process and in order to be successful it needs certain skills to be performed automatically. Each student or a child only possesses a certain amount of cognitive energy which is also known as mental energy or working memory. For a successful writing, children need to be able to perform a number of tasks at the same time. In most of our cases we can only think about one thing at a time and same is the case for the children as well so what we need to do is to develop some of these tasks to automaticity in order to get their full attention to the most important part, which, of course, is language and delivering a meaningful message. Next, as we review the 4 areas that children may be experiencing difficulty with, reflect on your students and ask yourself, “Does this student have these processes developed to automaticity?”
Below are the key four areas of Difficulty that we are going to discuss now.
Many students enter high school with poor letter formation. When a child is spending mental energy figuring out how to form individual letters they are not able to think about spelling, sentence structure or language use. Any student finds this as a very frustrating experience. In this modern era of 21st century skills, schools may either abandon handwriting lessons beyond the foundation year or not teach it all but the reality is, that while modern technology does involve our students typing, handwriting will remain a vital skill to learn for all ages. For all the schools and for all the teachers, mothers or fathers, it is important to remember that handwriting needs to be taught. Sending a handwriting book to the parents of a student as a home work or assigning ‘handwriting’ as an independent activity is not teaching handwriting. Whenever a child writes a letter wrongly he/she is are further entrenching poor habits. A school’s phonics program may have mnemonics for letter formation. Read Write Inc.phonics that I recommend contains very effective rhymes for letter formation and you can contact me if you can’t find these phonics by yourself. Further, a very worthwhile undertaking is finding time for letter formation instruction throughout the school week. Handwriting lessons can be planned properly to teach learning cursive to some students while others are learning printing.
Remember that English spelling can be a source of big frustration for a child who is learning how to read and write. Sometimes schools, teachers and parents do not pay attention but only when difficulties persist beyond the first few years of school, and a language-based specific learning difference could be the cause of the trouble. Estimates suggest 1 in ten people struggles with some form of dyslexia, which also affects reading ability. Also remember that there is a difference between a student/child having poor letter formation in their writing and having a diagnosable learning difficulty such as dysgraphia. Dysgraphia is inability to write coherently, as a symptom of brain disease or damage.
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When students were not taught proper phonics and decoding the words, they do not know how to spell effectively, then it is not unusual for them to use less complex vocabulary or write far less than they are capable of. Below could be the few reasons for difficulties in spelling:
1- A child does not have required phonemic processing to be able to pull the word apart orally and identify the sounds they hear which is also called segmenting
Fred fingers method in this video can support children to ‘sound out’ words at a basic level.
2- A child does not have proper and enough knowledge of the alphabetic code to know how to write down the sounds they can hear. A student must know at least one representation of all 44 phonemes of English In order to represent words on a page. Please teach children full understanding of how words work, including a confident recall of the most common representations of English speech sounds to spell correctly. Charts below can help you to know how many representations there are to learn. Teach these explicitly in quality word study and not just included in send-home spelling lists. You can call me wrong but in my view weekly spelling tests are not necessary at all if you teach phonics in a rigorous way with reading and spelling included as reciprocal processes, and I repeat again you will never have to have a Friday spelling test again!
A child lacks a sufficient awareness of other spelling concepts such as morphology which is the study of words, how they are formed, and their relationship to other words in the same language (including prefixes and suffixes), etymology (the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed throughout history) and other orthographic concepts (Spelling is one of the elements of orthography, and highly standardized spelling is a prescriptive element). Now if your child’s teacher and school does not teach all of this rigorously and systematically, I’d recommend changing his school but if your child’s school teaches this and your child still experiences significant spelling difficulties, speak with your school’s special education advisor about possible learning difficulties to support your child. (To learn more about dyslexia and other learning difficulties, follow us on facebook. You will find the page link at the bottom of this article)
3 – Memory and Regulation
And then there are children who could orally share a sentence with their teachers or mothers and then in the 10 seconds while picking up their pencil and notebook ready, completely forget what they wanted to write. That means that those children experience working memory difficulty or issues with self-regulation that is a hurdle for them to focus long enough to get ideas down on paper. Age of the child and the severity of the difficulty can vary but here are a number of ways to provide support at home and in the classroom.
- Break tasks down into small, manageable chunks
- Remember that never use picture chart for a student for reading instead use phonics and decoding work methods but you can use picture prompts that either you provide or the student draws to scaffold ideas. Something like if you want your student to write a narrative, allow them to draw a story map or cartoons and use that to organize thoughts. In this way they do not have to hold the entire thing in their head while they write each part.
- Make sure that the student has a good knowledge of the subject matter before asking them to write.
- Oral practice of sentences is good in order to have a good chance to sharpen their memory before writing.
- Use a prompt to track the words in a sentence.
Below is another video that can help the parents and teachers
- Interestingly, your child or student can be allowed to create a voice recording of what he/she wants to write by listening to the same as they write. This will help them to skip back and listen as many times as they want to write the words on the page.
- You can also utilise voice to text features or voice to text apps for the children with great difficulty.
- Sometimes permissions can be granted to the children to type rather than hand write for longer pieces of writing. This will help to remove one of the things that the child will need to think about as they share their ideas.
4– Text Generation
A writing lesson of a typical primary school especially those who provide factory-model education can be something like this: (here i am talking about some well-known and still a better primary schools or else there are worse than those).
a- Students are given an example of the text type by the teacher currently being studied
Reaction of Reluctant Writer:
“Oh no. I hate writing. How I can get out of this? Oh look, there’s a piece of paper on the carpet. Better if I roll it into a ball and throw it at someone to disrupt the proceeding. This teacher always makes us do this and I hate it . My breathing is a bit fast.”
b- teacher points out features by unpacking the text type
Reaction of Reluctant Writer:
Totally lost or “Blah, blah, blah. What is she on about? I hate writing.”
c- teacher models writing
Reaction of Reluctant Writer:
Cool, her back is turned. Hey Rayyan, what are you doing after school this afternoon?”
d- Engaging the whole class in a joint construction where specific children put up their hands to share ideas about what is written on the board,
Reaction of Reluctant Writer:
I hope she will not ask me.”, “Please, don’t ask me”. Ah, my stomach feels like it’s tied in knots and I’m feeling so upset. Oh God, my smart classmates are answering. I wonder when this session will end. I hate writing. I’m going to the sick room”.
e- Students are provided writing template and instruction to go to their desks to write their own version of what has been there on the board.
Reaction of Reluctant Writer:
“If I keep staying in the sick room or laying on the mat I won’t have to go to my desk. I think i should go to the toilet or tell the teacher that my elbow got hurt”
f- teacher provides support to less confident children or puts them in a group to walk them through the process.
Reaction of Reluctant Writer:
This is SOOOO annoying. I don’t know what she wants from me. I’, so dumb. I can’t even do it anyway.”
Now remember, I am not totally against the above methods and for some children, this might be sufficient to be successful in the lesson. But the whole credit cannot be given to the teacher because these students are already fairly polished or intelligent in writing and are skilled in all of the areas mentioned above, plus they understand how to compose ideas.
But what about the children with difficulty of areas previously mentioned or the ones we are talking about, the reluctant ones, the above teaching methods or process will surely leave them feeling insecure, helpless and even angry. Be with me to review the above teaching methods in terms of what a reluctant writer might be doing and thinking.
So What’s the Alternative?
Tip 1) First of all, it will help a lot to provide meaningful context for writing. You can teach your students through quality texts and can use picture books since those are terrific for all ages and make sure to build the field of background knowledge sufficiently prior to asking children to write anything will ensure greater engagement all round.
Tip 2) Do not forget to add lots of sentence level work in your writing program. Sentences mean a lot and are the key to great writing, so to support students at this level, explicitly teaching sentence structure and sentence writing is inevitable.
Tip 3) Encourage and help every student to participate in every part of your lesson. I am providing you a youtube video link and this video will show how you can maximize participation in idea generation. You can use student ideas without asking anyone to put up their hands to answer. In this video, It is a lower primary class, but the concept can also easily be used in upper primary and high school. Giving students the opportunity to talk out their ideas with a partner is extremely valuable.
Tip 4) Time …Give sufficient time and talk to your reluctant writers before the lesson and explain them your expectations from them. Do ‘hold a sentence exercise to get them started. Here is another youtube video link for you as an example of what you could do with one or more students while your other students get started on their writing.
Tip 5) Ignore lengthy writing tasks rather break the writing task down into small chunks and group students for the level of support they need.
Check below table and video for further support:
Tip 6) Use below suggested lesson format (which is very relevant and searched from Internet and discussed thoroughly with Edu21 experts) to provide ample opportunity for students to talk about ideas before asking them to write them down. If you are not able to say it, you are not able to read it or write it.
As I mentioned before that writing is a highly complex task that requires students to perform a range of different tasks simultaneously. If you can identify the area of difficulty for your students and include instruction to address these difficulties in your teaching program you will support them amazingly. I will not advise to help them manage without core skills, you need to provide them with explicit and intentional teaching to enable them to develop these skills and become full participants in literacy at school and in their wider lives, home etc. Chunking the text or breaking down writing lessons into small manageable chunks plus providing strong Instructional scaffolding will allow even the most reluctant writer to show what they are capable of.
The writer is director Edu21-The 21st Century School, Islamabad, Pakistan, You can reach him for feedback at:
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