I grew up a huge baseball fan. I watched it on tv, listened to games on the radio until way past my bedtime (because I was convinced that if I turned it off, I would jinx my Yankees), I visited the ballpark multiple times a year. I grew up hearing stories of my dad’s baseball career that was stuff of legend. When I played, I knew I was part of something way bigger than myself.
If I’m trying to teach someone the mechanics of baseball or trying to explain the rules without building in them a love for the game, it will only be a matter of time before they are bored and we are both frustrated to tears. For as long as I can remember, we had this great poster hanging in our house. It made all of us chuckle, because we knew that if you didn’t get it, it would sound absurd.
Can you imagine 12 years of learning the rules of baseball, studying scenarios and scorecards, etc. without ever watching a game, going to the ballpark, or playing in a game of your own? Ridiculous.
This is essentially what happens in traditional writing instruction. We teach grammar, spelling, parts of speech, and how diagram sentences. We give students writing “prompts”, set a timer, and tell them to write a good story using the prescribed formula that we’ve outlined in prior lessons. In high school, it’s just as formulaic but takes the form of a “5-paragraph essay”. Then we assess them. Boy, do we assess them. We grade them using some sort of rubric to see if all of those mechanics were implemented properly. A few red notes out in the margin, but it’s mostly just the number or letter that “counts”.
Is this really what writing is all about?
If we are teaching our children the “mechanics” of writing without building in them a love for story and a purpose for putting their words on paper, then writing will always be a battle and we end up with children who “hate writing”.
Let’s take a closer look as to why kids have generally grown to dislike writing and what we can do to help them change their perspective on the subject.
1. Kids hate writing because they are not exposed to enough good writing (aka- they are not reading enough).
Ask any writer what has most encouraged them to become writers and I will bet you every time that their answer will be “books” or something they enjoyed reading in their youth.
Reading (and listening to stories) allows us to connect to the world; to understand it better; to put ourselves in the shoes of another; to connect unrelated ideas and create new ones; to understand ourselves. It’s hard to write when you have nothing to write about. Reading gives us the spark our imaginations need to have something worth writing about.
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others; read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around those two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut… If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that. Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life.” (Stephen King, On Writing)
There is a catch. Reading takes time. So in order to read, we must build in the time. We must turn the TV off. And the iPad, and the computer, and the phone. “Being a good writer is 3% hard work and 97% not getting distracted by your devices” (Caroline Lawrence, How to Write a Great Story).
2. Kids hate writing because they don’t get enough time to actually write.
I cringe when I think back to my days in the classroom after attending what I thought was the golden bullet of writing workshops. Finally! The key to get my students to write a great story. Wrong. What I didn’t realize was that kids simply need the time and space to think and write. A lot. And in a classroom environment, there just isn’t enough available.
“To write is to struggle, which is why it’s so important to make the struggle worthwhile, to the writer above all. Writing is a skill, developed through deliberate practice. Writing is like any other skill; the more you practice, the better you get. If you want to learn to play guitar, you might take lessons from an expert, but mostly it’s about locking yourself in your room and practice, practice, practice, until you eventually start to make more and more pleasing noises.” (John Warner, Why They Can’t Write)
It’s not that grammar isn’t important. It is, but we tend to put the cart before the horse in our writing instruction.
“Telling students “first you must know your sentences an only then can you start to write” gets writing backward. When we have an idea worth expressing, the desire to share it provides the necessary intrinsic motivation to find the recipe language to do so. Sentences matter very much, but they are not first.” (John Warner, Why They Can’t Write)
My children write a lot of stories. When they first started writing them, they generally took the form of one long “sentence” (filled with streams of dialogue) with no capital letters or punctuation. But the idea was there. So the conversation became about how important it was for them to be able to communicate their ideas with the world. In order for others to be able to enjoy your story, there are certain elements that bring clarity to your writing. And this is when I introduce the idea of a sentence, punctuation, spacing etc. With each piece of writing, a new concept is introduced or revisited. Teaching the concepts within the context of your child’s own writing affirms their ideas and gives purpose to those mechanics.
Sometimes I will pull out a novel, open to a random page, and ask my child to describe what they notice. Often this is the first time that they even realize there is a structure to writing even though they may have been reading books for years. And that’s the point: For your child to realize that all those symbols and spaces make it so easy to enjoy the book, that you don’t even know they are there.
“It’s about the story, and it’s always about the story.” (Stephen King, On Writing)
3. Kids hate writing because they have no interest or audience and therefore no purpose or motivation.
I’ve said it before, but autonomy is one of the greatest gifts we can give our children in their education, especially in their writing. Writing is about communicating our own ideas with the world and there is a deeper motivation to write when we are passionate about the subject matter. Some students would absolutely thrive with a prompt such as, “Imagine you travelled to space and made a new discovery. Tell a story about your experience.” Other students would moan and drag their feet and “not know what to write about” because they have zero connection or interest with the topic of outer space. Whose writing will be “better”?
“Unfortunately, the way our nation’s school children are taught-and, more importantly, the way their learning is assessed-gives them little experience with making choices in the context of writing. These distortions of what it means to write offer students even less opportunity to write about things that matter to them or to engage with their own passions. “ (John Warner, Why They Can’t Write)
In the real world, writing is not only done by people who are interested in, if not passionate about, their subject matter, but it is written for actual people to read their words. One of the most un-motivating writing situations is to give a child something to write about that he has no interest or knowledge in and tell him that he’s writing for an audience of one- the teacher, or worse- the exam grader who he does not know and will never meet.
Give them a platform
By giving your child a real platform or audience to write for, you are also giving them purpose and motivation. This could be as simple as stapling their finished story together and placing it in the family book bin to be read aloud. Or having an “open mic” time on Friday afternoon where the family (including the parents) can share bits of their writing for the week. A child may want to submit his work to a literary magazine. New Pages has an exhaustive list specifically for young writers where they can submit fiction, non-fiction, poetry, screenplays, and more.
A teen may want to look into self-publication or start a blog to publish their work online. Or it may simply be that this child truly does want an audience of one- himself. Giving a child an outlet to be able to write down whatever is in their mind and heart (and assuring them that it will not be read or judged by others) can be a powerful way to help a young writer grow.
“Students are more engaged when they believe the writing has a place in the world beyond school or an assignment.” (John Warner, Why They Can’t Write)
I believe it is possible for our children to love to write because I believe they all have something unique to say to the world. For that matter, so you do, parent! So let’s all commit to reading more, writing more, and doing it for a purpose and an audience. Feel free to share how you have gotten your children to enjoy writing more or any other platforms, competitions, etc. that you have come across for submitting student work. For some specific ideas when your child has “nothing to write about” visit here. Happy writing!
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