Do you have an older child or teen who struggles with writing? Do they refuse to do most assignments? Does a traditional writing program seem like a lost cause?
If you answered yes to these questions, you are probably wondering how much you should worry about writing. You might be wondering what you can do besides give up.
Don’t Give Up!
I don’t recommend giving up on writing. Writing is a complex task, and practice makes legible. As an adult, your child is going to need to be able to fill out forms at the DMV and doctor’s offices. Even if their life never requires a research paper, it will require functional writing. So, how do you encourage functional writing? With purposeful, interesting writing that doesn’t look much like schoolwork. I’m a fan of working on writing in different ways with younger kids, but what do you do for older ones?
Make it Meaningful
The key to getting a reluctant student to work on writing is doing something they care about. This means you need to look at what your student finds interesting and how you can do writing with that in mind. What am I talking about? Let me give you some examples.
Do you have a child who likes to cook? Cooking can be a great chance to work on reading and writing. Reading recipes is just like reading the instructions for a science experiment. You need to figure out what to use and what to do and in what order. I often let me kids cook from pre-packaged mixes because it has the recipe right on the box and requires fewer steps than pulling out a cookbook. Following the directions on the box is a basic form of functional reading. But wait! We were talking about writing.
Recipes as writing
One great example of functional writing as it relates to cooking is writing down recipes. There are several ways to do this. I recommend getting your child a blank recipe book or a set of recipe cards in a nice recipe box. Explain to your child how they can collect their favorite recipes in one place. Start by letting them make recipes that you find in various cookbooks, on Pinterest, or your favorite cooking website. Let them pick the recipes and try different things. Be sure to make note of what they like enough that they ask to make it more than once. Once your child has a favorite recipe, it is easier to sell them on the idea that they should write it down where they can find it.
There are three different levels of writing when it comes to recipes. One is copying the recipe from a cookbook or off a recipe card you created. This is a good chance to work on handwriting without thinking too hard about what to write. It is an important part of having legible handwriting and one main reason I am a fan of copywork. Children who struggle to write can get frustrated easily when their hands can’t seem to keep up with their thoughts. Copying from a source takes away that frustration.
The second is copying from a computer screen. This usually requires the writer to look further away and process the information a bit more to copy it down. Much like copying from a board or taking notes in a classroom setting. This is an important skill.
Taking It Up A Notch
The third and most challenging way to work on writing a recipe is to have your student write it from memory. If this is new to your student, stay close. Help them spell longer words that they ask about. Explain how recipes list the ingredients at the top and then give directions at the bottom. As your student writes these things out it is a great chance to work on working memory. They need to remember how to make something and what went into it and if there are any important steps they learned in making it.
Do your best to not just tell them what to write but to instead remind them “Was that all?” “What did you do next?” “Didn’t you do something else before you put it in the oven?” Talking through the recipe beforehand and as they write it down will help them create a good recipe.
This recipe that your child is writing could be one they made up but it can also be one they’ve made several times with you or from any source. Remember, this is their own, personal, recipe book/card they are creating. Plagiarism is fine and no recipe is too easy to be included. Do they want to write down how to make baked potatoes? Encourage them!
What else can you do?
If your child doesn’t cook, you can look for other ways to make writing more functional. Forms to enter a contest engage some kids. Other kids get excited to play games like Dungeons and Dragons and will fill out their character sheets with joy. If you’ve never seen one of those, I encourage you to take a look at this guide and example. It is often an impressive piece of character creation and creative writing. You can also look for games to play on-line that require writing or have your student try writing instructions for making Lego designs. The freeware Lego Digital Designer can help with that. Many hobbies loan themselves to writing directions or keeping a record of some kind.
Encourage them to write lists. Lists of the groceries they want to buy, gifts they want to give for the holidays or books and games they own. Each of those can be a great opportunity to write something they care about. I know a couple of teenage boys who jump at the chance to help write the grocery list though they generally hate writing. I also feel confident that, as we near the holidays, I could ask for a list of games we already own on a device and actually get that from my reluctant writer. While it might not require the grammar of a paragraph, a legible list requires your student to size and space words, which is very important. It also involves spelling and may encourage them to remember what they want to write or research it.
Just Keep Trying
Whatever your child agrees to try, be sure to give them as much support to get started as they need. Spell words, help with grammar and let them engage with the written word in ways that are meaningful to them.
One of the most important things to remember about middle school and high schoolers is that they really are ready to decide for themselves what has value. The best writing activities will give them the chance to write things that are interesting, important, or of interest to them.
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About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.