You stand there in delighted amazement at the words coming out of the mouth of your son.

"... and the bat colony had gathered an army led by a stout but kindly bat named Grommetus. He had trained them for almost a year to be ready for their inevitable battle with the evil, bullying barn owls ..."

The imagination of this child regularly astounds you. Little Billy's enthusiasm shows as he continues.

"... but their secret weapon, hidden behind an old painting of an apple orchard, deep in the farmer's attic, assured the bats of their victory in tomorrow's battle."

You seize upon this moment to get your child's wonderful imagination to proceed to its rightful place--in writing. "Wonderful!" you exclaim. "That is an incredible story! Don't tell me the end just yet." Then, with sincere and hopeful enthusiasm on your part, you add, "Go write this one down!" Off he goes, a bounce in his step, as the energy of his story propels him toward the paper to put his epic saga in print, forever immortalized.

Some time later, you ask to see the fruit of his labors. You reach out to receive his reluctant offering. Gently opening this crumpled, sweaty wad of paper, you read,

The bats prepaired for wor

You read on to find a total of three sentences, dreadfully written, simply expressed, no life, no spark, no sizzle, badly spelled, with grammar errors abounding. What happened? How can such a fertile and entertaining mind produce such poorly written work? How can such an engaging story result in such a few pitiful, meager sentences?

This same scenario is played out daily in homeschools and public schools across the country. Many children with vivid imaginations and strong oral skills find that they struggle in putting their thoughts to paper. It's as though there's a disconnect between their brains and their hands. Wonderful things are in their heads. Their mouths regularly give testimony to this. But getting that information to travel down their arms and out through their fingers by way of a writing instrument is an exercise in torture. And what can make matters worse is that this child is often sitting across the table from sweet little Suzie, who can write for hours on end, never getting tired, filling page after page with her growing works of fascinating fiction. Wonderful for Suzie. Agonizing for Billy.

If you've got a little Billy in your school, you're going to have to step out of the box. Try new things. Consider different possibilities. Little Suzie will be fine with any standard program you throw at her, but with Billy, you're going to have to blaze a new trail.

Some Ideas Worth Considering

What can you do to help the child who has a fertile imagination but struggles to put those ideas on paper? Try one or more of the following strategies.

Pull writing out of everything ...except writing.

There is a school of thought that if children struggle with something, then include that something in everything they do and they are certain to get better. Perhaps. But the price is too high. The child will never have the privilege of knowing he's a whiz in science. He will never know that he is fascinated by the lives of people who lived hundreds of years before. Indeed, he will come to believe he is poor or mediocre in all subjects, because we, his teachers, will have forced him to proceed in these subjects at the lumbering speed allowed by his weakest skill. What a shame. For the sake of one skill, we sacrifice delight and proficiency in so many others.

Instead, teach writing, certainly, but do so in "writing class." Allow science and history and music and art to be full of delightful, non-writing exploration. Permit your child the privilege of discovering, exploring, and soaring in his areas of strength.

Hit the keyboard early.

It has been said that a highly distractible child without a keyboard is like a paraplegic without a wheelchair. It's that important for getting this child where he wants to go. With only pencil and paper, his mind proceeds at a far faster pace than his hands can record. Children as young as five can begin a typing program that uses games to learn. When these kids reach about 50 words per minute, something wonderful happens. They are finally able to get thoughts down quickly enough to maintain their stream of thought. And thus the gap between thinking and recording is greatly shortened.

Give group writing time a twist.

Create a 15-minute everybody-writes portion of your day. All available persons come to the table, grab a pencil, and write for 15 minutes only. Then each person reads his work to the others. Each child has an instant audience for her efforts. But here's what really made this activity zing in our home. I wrote too, and when I did I made sure that I wrote an exotic or weird fast-paced adventure that always ended with a cliffhanger. After sharing my short story about the adventures of Shelly and Matt, I might end with

Smoke was still clearing from the small unexpected explosion. Neither Matt nor Shelly could be certain of what they were seeing. Yet, clearly visible in the center of the blast area, sat a small, soggy, wriggling ...

That's it. That's where I would end my story. Did my kids want to know what came next? You bet! But to find out, they had to attend tomorrow's 15-minute writing time and produce their own work. Only then would they hear my next installment, which would once again end with some compelling unanswered question.

Have them write for an audience.

Writing just for Mom or Dad can lose its appeal over time. Broaden the audience for your child's writing efforts. Here are just a few ways to do so:

  • Have a monthly family presentation night involving a few families.
  • Put out a family newsletter that goes out to friends and grandparents. (Ours included a survey for each recipient to send back to my kids, giving feedback on the articles.)
  • Write letters to get things that are sent out free to anyone who asks.
  • Create a newspaper for your homeschool group.
  • Begin a website for your support group families to post their
    children's work.
  • Find pen pals.
  • Create a back-and-forth letter writing exercise between your child and a shut-in or elderly family member.
  • Enter writing contests. There are a gazillion of them for many skill levels.

Break it down.

Any significant writing assignment needs to be broken down into very small, manageable parts. Don't say, "Do a report." Instead say, "Get 5 resources on this topic." Next, ask for note cards on one of the resources. Then for a second. Then a third. Next, ask for a group of headlines under which the cards might be grouped. You get the idea. Dole out the process one step at a time.

Appreciate the physical factors at work.

If this child is intense in other ways, it shouldn't be surprising that he might write intensely as well. This can mean that he even holds the pencil tightly and presses too forcefully on the paper. The result is a hand that tires and cramps very quickly. Consider playing "secretary" for your child. Allow him to speak his ideas or thoughts out loud while you record them. This may be the first time your child actually sees his own words on paper as they existed in his head. It can be an incredible motivation for a child who, up to this point, has produced little or no written work.

Keep handwriting in perspective.

Handwriting has taken on a weighty, almost noble significance in the homeschooling community. I think it harks back in time to the nostalgic days of Laura Ingalls Wilder with rows of orderly, disciplined children making yet more rows of orderly and lovely letters. While I too am easily caught up in the schooling of yesteryear, I've come to believe that we can have too much emphasis on handwriting. For that matter, even in yesteryear, handwriting was far too elevated a skill. Many practitioners of beautiful script gave no worry whatsoever to the spelling of these lovely words.

So in our time, we should perhaps ask just how important handwriting really is. If it were essential for academic success, then almost every doctor I know should be considered a failure (just ask any pharmacist). Ditto for many engineers whose printing often requires a magnifying glass just to make it big enough to decipher. I also know that the vast majority of today's communication comes via a keyboard, not beautifully executed penmanship. My own husband, who holds a highly successful position with a major technology firm, still writes notes that require a decoder ring to understand. So in our house we decided to relax. For our oldest child, who really struggled with a pencil, we made a switch from a painful emphasis on "beautiful" handwriting to a more practical emphasis on "legible" handwriting. You too may find your push for perfection better placed elsewhere.

Give the tool of a tape recorder.

The headmaster of a local private school told me recently that this little tip saved his collegiate career. He had struggled with writing until a wise counselor suggested he get a tape recorder. He did. And from that point on he spoke his reports directly into the recorder and later transcribed them into print. Having the ability to think out loud without writing allowed him to unload his thoughts. Later, totally disconnected from the act of formulating thought, he did the mundane robotic task of putting these great thoughts onto paper. At this point he was able to complete the task of organizing and editing.

Be creative with spelling practice.

Writing out spelling words for practice is a tradition as old as the written word itself. But consider other spelling options. Spell the words by saying them out loud several times until a rhythm develops. Isn't that how we all learned to spell Mississippi? Use the fingerspelling alphabet. For the kinesthetic learner, this is golden. Many children who struggle with writing are not visual learners who can simply "see" when a word is misspelled. So have them memorize spelling rules ("i before e except after c," etc.), and teach spelling in word families that use these rules.

Include technical writing.

We spend so much time teaching creative and persuasive writing while often overlooking the valuable skill of technical writing. We may well be missing a highly marketable skill. Think about how often you read technical writing: training materials, travel guides, procedure guides, scientific papers, data books, catalogs, even cookbooks. Anything that provides directions is technical writing. A professional technical writer in the field of chemical research remarked that the goal of technical writing is very different from the goal of other types of writing. In creative writing, persuasive writing, even poetry, the goal is to be understood. In technical writing, the goal is to write in such a way that you couldn't possibly be misunderstood.

Start simply. Have your child write the directions to a simple task. Then, using his work, try to accomplish the task. Do your best to "misunderstand" the directions. In other words, look for a possible glitch in his directions that would result in an error on the part of the person trying to follow them. This skill of technical writing is not only valuable in our information- and computer-driven culture, but it also happens to be a skill area in which many of these otherwise reluctant writers excel.

Consider dropping English.

Another possible approach is to drop the formal study of English from your schooling. I can hear your response: "What! Are you out of your mind?" I understand your horror, but take a breath and hear me out. While I can't fully jump on this bandwagon just yet, it has merit worth considering. Some people argue that vocabulary, spelling, and grammar don't need to be studied. Instead, they maintain that all these subjects are beautifully, efficiently, and fully addressed by the simple act of reading wonderfully rich materials. Year after year of reading, hearing, and speaking the King's English beautifully will result in a child who communicates in the same manner, whether speaking or writing. If you have a child who struggles with the mechanics of writing but loves to spend hours reading, you may already have a solution in place. It's a thought.

A Different Path to Success

Having a child who cannot write is simply not an option in today's communications-driven world. All children need to know how to communicate in print. But your child may take a nontraditional path to achieving this goal. Don't be afraid to think outside the box in finding keys to unlock understanding and skill in this task for your child. As you discover which approaches most engage your child, you'll begin to build a toolbox of workable ideas that will build on each other. More importantly, your child will have many opportunities to say, "Yes, I can write," because you will have given him the tools and experiences to prove it. Have a wonderful adventure with your children as you explore out-of-the-box ways to learn to write!

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Carol Barnier is the author of How to Get Your Child Off the Refrigerator and On To Learning and is a frequent speaker across the country. Her business cards read, "Delightful Speaker, Entertaining Author, Adequate Wife, Pitiful Housekeeper." Track her down at www.SizzleBop.com or www.OpenGifts.org.
 
Copyright 2007. Originally appeared in Spring 2007. Used with permission. The Old Schoolhouse Magazine. Right now, 19 free gifts when you subscribe.
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