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What to do about the boy who hates writing

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Although I’ve been asked this question a number of times in the past, today I was confronted with it again. The question was: ‘What should I do about my boy? He hates writing.’

So, assuming that the boy wasn’t given some kind of emotional or physical shock when he first picked up a pencil, there are usually two reasons why a young or not so young child would hate writing. The first is because they find it so painfully hard and they so hate making errors, the process is unbearable. The second is that they hate writing because they have nothing to say. If it’s the latter, then the problem is easily solved because kids always have things to say; what they need is a decent amount of prior knowledge and the provision of some basic structure to organise what it is they want to say into a coherent shape.

Let’s return to the first and most likely reason. Here’s the good news: if teachers begin to teach reading and writing as two sides of the same coin, then, right from the start, children can set off immediately with confidence. Within a single term of the first year of school, if they are taught all the one-to-one sound-spelling correspondences; the skills vital to enabling them to use the code knowledge they are learning; and they begin to gain, implicitly and explicitly, a rudimentary understanding of how the code works, they already know that they can write anything they want to say – even if many, more complex words are not spelled correctly.

At this basic level, if a child wants to write, ‘The wet mud is fun, Jim.’ If the words ‘the’ and ‘is’ are carefully modelled, the rest is straightforward: ‘wet’, ‘mud’, ‘fun’ and ‘Jim’ are all three-sound words and, at this level, the child has been taught only one way of spelling each sound. For a four-year-old, this is good going AND they already implicitly, if not yet explicitly, understand that letters stand for sounds in the language.

What does this look like? When asked to write about a pet or a cuddly toy, one child wrote: ‘I hav a pet rabit. My uncl Stevn but (‘bought’) him form me.’ You can see from this that the child in question understands that the sounds in speech can be represented by one-letter spellings. The child hasn’t yet been taught that the sound /v/ at the ends of words is almost always spelled < ve >, or that /l/ at the ends of words with more than one syllable is spelled < le >. The words ‘for’ and ‘me’ weren’t properly separated but then the kid is still only four and this kind of thing is very common. The spelling ‘but’ for ‘bought’ was partly an accent issue and, as yet, it’s perfectly acceptable at this stage – < ough > for /or/ is way off at the moment.

Okay then. So where does the process of learning to write begin to go wrong? Well, the boy in question is already in KS2 and I’d bet that he can spell three-sound CVC words, such as ‘mat’ and ‘vet’, and so on pretty well – perhaps even well enough to write them without too much conscious thought. Where the problems begin to creep in with most really poor spellers is when words have a more complex structure and move on from CVC to CVCC, CCVC, and CCVCC/CCCVC.

In words such as ‘crab’ and ‘scrap’, it is common to see some children missing out one of the adjacent consonants. For children such as these, this is a serious problem that needs fixing and it needs fixing before the code gets more complex. Let me give you an example: if a child wants to write the word ‘scream’, not only have they to remember which particular spelling of the sound /ee// is needed here, they also have to concentrate on making sure all the sounds in the consonant cluster are represented.

What’s the message? Don’t try teaching one sound/different spellings and one spelling/different sounds until a child can segment and blend to something approaching mastery level throughout the Initial/Basic Code.

If these skills haven’t been taught to mastery level from the beginning, then trying to remember and cope with the two things in working memory at the same time is virtually impossible. Add to that the broader picture of what the writer is trying to put down on paper, and almost inevitably something drops off the table of working memory. This is bound to result in frustration, anger, tears, and a reluctance to engage.

But that’s not all of it! When it comes to learning the different ways of spelling sounds and remembering which one we need in any particular word, the pressure increases immeasurably. How many people do you hear say, ‘I’m not good at maths. Never have been.’ Well, almost as many will tell you that they’re not very good spellers.

This is because they probably weren’t taught well in the first place and also because the spelling system in English is very complex and isn’t generally well understood by teachers. That isn’t to say it can’t be taught or learned.

So where does this leave our boy in KS2? The answer is that boy needs systematic instruction that is graded to go from the point at which he has broken down and towards an increasingly sophisticated knowledge and understanding of the way in which the spelling system works in relation to the sounds of the language. Inevitably, this is going to take time and patience and practice as well as a teacher who is knowledgeable enough to guide the boy through all of this.

What does the research evidence show in this regard:

‘Research on the effects of practice has found that the character of cognitive operations changes after even a couple of hours of practice on a typical laboratory task. Operations that are initially slow, serial, and demand conscious attention become fast, less deliberate, and can run in parallel with other processes (my emphasis) (Schneider & Schiffrin, 1977).

Through the kind of practice that I’ve talked a lot about on this blog, the kind of cognitive operations necessary to perform writing tasks improve. This improvement is at the level of speed, smoothness, and, a reduction in cognitive demand, which also releases attentional resources for other, arguably, higher functions, such as planning and self-monitoring.

There is no quick solution. However, if children are shown how the code works and given a clear understanding of why writing is so tough in English, at least, and even within a short period of time, they can see what the problems are. The other important thing to tell kids is that their difficulty in learning to write is not their fault. Aside from a tiny percentage (2%?) of children with very special needs, the reason why kids struggle with getting stuff down on paper is that the process of linking sounds to spellings has not been automatised in the early years and that’s the fault of poor pedagogy.

What would I say to the parent or carer of such a child? Go and find yourself a really good phonics tutor and find one fast. The longer you leave it in the hope that it will resolve itself, the harder the problem will become.

 

Thanks to Mohamed Taher at Pexels for the image.

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