Supporting reluctant writers

by 30 May, 2020

Many children are reluctant writers, but that doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Often it’s a result of the context in which they have had to write. Since the Education system puts such a premium on writing this can create a lot of pressure which is sometimes counter-productive; and even in alternative education contexts this expectation can spill over. In this article I’ll share my tips on how to help reluctant writers enjoy writing – and how Wild Literacy activities can support that journey.

For most reluctant writers, the problem lies far more with how they think about writing than with writing itself. You’ll need time to change their perception of writing, which isn’t something that happens overnight. A lot of reluctant writers have had negative, stressful experiences of writing and developed low self-confidence in their writing ability as a result. This is often at the root of their reluctance – and understanding that is the key to helping them grow.

Positive experiences build self-confidence

Children have more confidence for a task when they have experienced success in it before.

This is called ‘self-efficacy’ – a way of describing a person’s own confidence in their ability to perform a certain task. The factor that most affects a person’s belief that they can accomplish a task is having experienced mastery of that task before. So developing self-efficacy in writing is about finding small building blocks of confidence on which to develop self-belief.

Self-efficacy has proven over many years, and many different research studies, to raise academic achievement as well as increasing the perseverance and effort needed to be successful in learning.* If you can make writing part of something a child already feels able to do, it brings some of this confidence and self-belief to the task of writing. For example, if a child has had positive experiences doing science experiments you can use this type of activity to build literacy confidence by creating a story around the experiment, or writing a diary entry from the point of view of a scientist carrying out the experiment. (To see more about how this can work look at the Wild Literacy Eureka science or Make a potion activity.)

Writing becomes associated with success and enjoyment when it is done as part of an activity that a child experiences overall as successful and enjoyable. It is really important for reluctant writers to be able to associate positive experiences and emotions with writing.

Relieve pressure: avoid making writing the focus – before, during and after an activity

Pressure creates fear and this can be a huge block for children who have low self-confidence in writing. If writing isn’t the main focus this pressure is reduced and a child will be more likely to feel they can succeed at the activity.

An important part of reducing pressure is to not make a big deal about any writing a child produces as part of an activity. It is natural to want to encourage them by praising their writing. However, doing this will mean that next time they will perceive the writing as the most important thing – as that was where the praise focused last time – and with that comes new pressure to write, whether we mean it to or not.

Praise their effort and work as a whole so that the writing is a part of something bigger – not ignored or unimportant – but one of many parts that has helped them succeed in the task. Help them see their successes, and if anything didn’t go as they’d hoped, help them plan what to try differently next time.

(This taps into growth mindset theory. For an introduction to what this is you can read my blog post: What is growth mindset and how does it work.)

Build up slowly

You may need to start by doing some literacy without writing. You can scribe their ideas, or they can simply talk to you about ideas, or record themselves speaking them. Some children feel more confident drawing their ideas. These are all great starting points. Too often, developing and showing skills in language and creativity are reduced to what you can write on a page and this holds so many children back as they struggle to write the words they have. Writing can come later, and slowly. Being able to write their thoughts and ideas does open up so many opportunities for children and gives them another way to express themselves. For that reason it’s a skill worth taking time, creativity and effort to develop.

Don’t Panic

As written on the back of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Don’t panic!

Stress, fear and panic often make us feel trapped and helpless. If you are panicked and stressed about whether your child is writing enough or well enough, they will feel it too. Stay calm and positive and take a long-term view. It might take a few years, but a slow, steady, positive process will enable your child to develop their language and writing ability.

Every child is different and children change as they get older. Remain flexible and open to new ideas. You may sometimes feel they take one step forward and two steps back. That’s perfectly normal.

The path might be a meandering one. Too often the road to writing is presented as a straight path, signposted and marked with specific milestones and targets to reach. But more often, enjoyment, confidence and creativity in writing are developed by allowing adventure, exploration of the wilder parts and sometimes walking in different and unexpected directions.

How Wild Literacy can help

Many Wild Literacy activities build confidence and ability in writing through making the activity about something else – like art, for example, or a game, or baking. Writing is part of an activity (sometimes only a small part) rather than the only focus and a child can succeed in the activity even if they don’t write much.

In all these activities, writing is within a meaningful context; it is part of something the child cares about and believes they can do. They might not believe they can write a sentence on a subject when presented with it as an abstract writing task. When they review a recipe they have tried, however, or write a simple story as part of playing a game, then writing a sentence, or even a paragraph, can suddenly become possible. Writing is part of an overall task that they feel able to complete.

You can find the best activities for your child by using the activity filter to search by type of activity (such as music or art) and then further filter by topic (such as space or pirates) if you wish.


Rachel Valler is the Founder of Wild Literacy. 

*Pajares, F. and Schunk, D. (2001) ‘Self-Beliefs and School Success: Self-Efficacy, Self-Concept, and School Achievement’, in Riding, R. and Rayner, S. (eds) Perception, pp. 239-266 [Online], London, Ablex. Available at https://www.uky.edu/~eushe2/Pajares/PajaresSchunk2001.html


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