WE OFTEN GET letters from moms who don’t quite know what to do with their reluctant fourth graders. This email is a pretty typical lament:
My 9 year old and I haven’t done any routine writing projects together. He hyperventilates (not really but you get my point) when I try to do any kind of writing with him. I’ve tried story starters, but he just doesn’t want to participate, or he comes up with a totally silly story. I know he can do better, but he has this thing about writing.
Writing Stories: Too Abstract?
It’s so normal for a 9-year-old to be a reluctant writer. And believe me, I understand. My son was the same way! I’ve found that often, storytelling can be too abstract for such a child. Even kids who are slightly older (junior high) usually do better when asked to write about more concrete topics, such as events they have personally experienced or objects they can observe firsthand. That’s why descriptive writing or personal narratives often produce better results than made-up stories from the child’s imagination.
Why do such activities bring about success? The child can actually see and touch a toy car, taste and smell a ripe peach, or recall a story that happened to him.
But don’t throw out the baby with the bath water! You might still want to use a story starter now and then. And when you do, know that it’s really OK for the story to take a silly tack. Sometimes writing should be just for fun!
If you need some ideas, you’ll find several inexpensive StoryBuilders card decks from WriteShop, including World of People and World of Animals. By mixing and matching story element cards, children can create lots of different stories, from serious to silly. Each StoryBuilders set includes activities that will appeal to students of all ages and writing abilities.
With my own reluctant son, we did Journaling … with a twist over and over again. Because this type of “journaling” is based on facts gathered through reading, your child won’t get stuck trying to invent details or a come up with a story line. It’s also much more entertaining to read and write than a report!
Overcoming Writer’s Block
What’s one of the most frustrating assignments you can give a reluctant child? Believe it or not, just ask her to “write about whatever she wants.” While it seems that this should be freeing for her, it actually has the opposite effect: it contributes to writer’s block.
That’s why it’s really important to establish parameters for your budding writers. Just as a sturdy fence helps a child feel safe in a big back yard, clear boundaries and expectations help young writers feel secure about putting pencil to paper. The blank page can be pretty intimidating, so instead of asking her to “just write,” be very specific. For example:
- Write a paragraph of 3-5 sentences
- Describe a __________________ (taco or Tonka truck, for example).
- Do not tell a story about it. Just use your five senses to explain how it looks, feels, sounds, tastes, or smells (as appropriate to the object).
- Use your thesaurus to include one new word.
You can probably see how this sort of directed writing helps inspire confidence. When trying to motivate a 9-year-old (or any reluctant child, for that matter), start small and don’t expect too much at first. If you were teaching a child to play the piano, you’d give him exercises and simple tunes to practice long before you asked him to compose a piece on his own. It’s the same with writing!
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If you’re looking for a writing curriculum for your 8- or 9-year-old, a gem of a program is WriteShop Junior Book D. It’s rich in fun prewriting activities, guided writing, and engaging writing lessons!