As promised, today begins our series on 10 Stumbling Blocks to Writing. Each Monday for the next 10 weeks, I’ll offer solutions to common problems that can hinder your student’s writing. Ready? Let’s jump in!
Stumbing Block #1
Problem: Students lack confidence due to poor guidelines and unclear directions or expectations.
Solution: Provide boundaries and direction.
In his book Dare to Discipline, Dr. James Dobson reports the findings of an interesting study done on school children during the early days of the progressive-education movement. Apparently, an enthusiastic theorist decided to take down the chain-link fence that surrounded the school grounds. He thought the children, who clearly enjoyed exploring the enclosed yard, would feel even more freedom of movement without that visible barrier surrounding them.
But here’s the curious thing: When the fence was removed, the boys and girls huddled together near the center of the play yard. Not only did they not wander away, they didn’t even venture to the edge of the grounds.
This little experiment served to reinforce a simple truth: There’s security for children in defined boundaries.
What does this have to do with writing? Well, giving your student a blank page and saying, “Write about whatever you want!” is no different from plunking these kids down in the middle of an unfenced playground.
Instead, position him for success by setting boundaries for the composition. One idea is to limit its length. This helps your struggling 12-year-old son relax a bit. (”Hey, Buddy, you only have to write five to seven sentences.”) He will be less likely to freeze up if he knows the lesson parameters.
But it also helps your wordy, rabbit-trailing 15-year-old daughter write more concisely. By limiting her to one paragraph of five to seven sentences, you’re training her to choose her words more wisely, thus avoiding tangents.
So as you can see, the same idea will work to the advantage of both kinds of writers: you’re offering the writing-phobic child safe boundaries while establishing clear limits for your rambler.
Provide Topic Options
Giving your child a specific writing topic further adds to his security. Remember not to assume that if a child has freedom to write about anything he wants, his little pen will skip across the paper like an eager lamb! As I said earlier, this tactic usually backfires. At best, that kind of freedom frustrates some struggling writers, while sending others into a nosedive of absolute terror!
I promise you—it’s much better to offer concrete topics they can choose from. Instead of saying “write about a food,” suggest they use their five senses to describe a taco, cinnamon roll, pizza, or ice cream sundae. You’re still giving choices but within the confines of a safe perimeter.
Give Clear Directions
And finally, provide step-by-step instructions to build confidence. It’s not enough to tell kids to write; they need to learn how to write. Giving open-ended or fuzzily worded assignments will only contribute their frustration. Instead, whether you create your own writing assignments or use a prepared curriculum like WriteShop, make sure your child knows exactly what’s expected of him.
Example A: Poor instructions:
Describe an object. (Or, pick an object and write about it.)
Example B: Clear instructions:
- Choose an object that you can hold in your hand. Do not pick a food, an animal, or a person.
- Carefully observe your object. Brainstorm about it, listing everything you can about its features. Consider appearance, color, size, shape, texture, smell, and sound.
- Look closely for details, including imperfections and flaws.
- Write a 5- to 7-sentence paragraph describing your object. (Do not explain what the object is used for, and do not tell a story about it.)
Derek was an 8th grader whose first composition for our writing class consisted of two pitiful sentences. But within weeks, with clear limits and guidelines such as these, his confidence blossomed and he became one of the strongest writers in the class. For your child as well, clarifying your instructions may be all that’s needed!
Bottom line? With a few easy-to-implement solutions, you will help your student feel more sure of himself. The result? He’ll perform better when he knows just what you—or the writing assignment—expects of him.
Next week we’ll look at Stumbling Block #2: Lack of skills and tools to make writing fresh and interesting.
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Are you frustrated with your writing curriculum because it doesn’t provide enough boundaries for the composition or offer detailed student instructions? Then consider award-winning WriteShop I for your 6th – 10th grader. You’ll love the step-by-step instructions, topic suggestions, and structure that inspire successful writers!