A common question parents ask is, ‘Why is my child’s writing taking so long to improve?’
This can be seen in a year’s worth of long-winded, convoluted fantasy stories created by the child who loves to write but has not grasped character development or how to employ simple plots that are achievable in a short timeframe. Or the reluctant writer who can only manage a few sentences of writing at a time, spending most of the time sharpening pencils or staring into space.
Throughout a student’s schooling they will be asked to write creatively and develop original ideas within a short timeframe, as part of NAPLAN, GATE and other scholarship tests, right up to ATAR English in Years 11 and 12. Building a strong understanding of the foundations of narrative which students can then apply in a range of contexts, including under time pressure, is a significant part of their education.
Why does writing need more time to show improvement than other subjects? We outline some reasons below, along with important considerations for improving writing.
Language uses many parts of the brain
Language and writing are complex processes, developing from early life and using a large percentage of the human brain.
“Verbal ability — reading, writing and speaking — arises from across much of our brain, requiring key elements to harmonise.”
These brain connections take time to strengthen and work together, resulting in a variety of language skills that were a long time in the making!
Individual skills needed for writing take time to learn
Writing also requires the combination of a variety of core skills, all of which develop over time.
For example, to learn handwriting:
“Children need to combine fine motor skills, language, memory and concentration. They also need to practise and follow instructions.”
Skills such as spelling and punctuation are the ‘tools’ of writing that can become stumbling blocks for children expressing themselves in written form, if these tools are not mastered.
At the same time, solely focusing on these tools can cause children to become disengaged from writing altogether – for example, when they are critiqued on every spelling mistake instead of an overall focus on the story itself.
Some writing-related skills, like research, take years to develop. Students must learn to locate relevant information, assess its validity, understand it enough to be able to summarise it in their own words, and apply it to strengthen the piece of writing.
In addition, many concepts and experiences contribute to a child’s ability to write. Reading is of course the essential partner to developing writing skills, and life experiences including developing friendships and having conversations in different settings can enrich children’s creative writing.
Writing requires processing and applying of abstract and subtle ideas
Good creative writing is perhaps the hardest to master, because it requires the combining of several core elements, understood and applied with skill. These elements include a clear and engaging plot, sharply-drawn descriptions of action and scenery, and believable characters with an inner world that the reader can connect with. Then there are the less obvious techniques that, when used with skill and purpose, set the excellent writer apart – the use of symbolism, imagery and emotive language, to name a few examples.
Writing needs regular monitoring and feedback to improve
A common issue in the busy primary classroom is that while students may be given ample time for creative writing, they are not always given the individual detailed feedback and time needed to go over and practice specific skills, where their writing is lacking. With a scattering of spelling corrections and a brief comment written at the end of the paper, young students do not have enough feedback and support to markedly improve the next time. On top of this, attention to areas for improvement specific to the child will need repetition and reinforcement over time. Despite teachers’ best efforts, there is not enough time in a class of 30 students to provide this kind of detailed attention to all students all the time.
To get better at writing, learning must feel good
So many students approach writing tasks with reluctance or apprehension – because it is an area so many lack confidence in. When writing becomes ‘hard’ it also becomes ‘hard work’, and the task of practising writing can seem endless to students. Some very young students become reluctant writers at a very early age, and require specific learning experiences that seem far too fun to actually be writing! All through their education, students should be given opportunities to enjoy writing experiences, including exploring different genres, writing as a team, drama exercises and other engaging activities to get them putting pen to paper.
The pressure of homework and testing as students get older can also contribute to the child’s reluctance to write! Having some time to write away from the competitive experience the classroom can create, with some constructive one-to-one or small-group guidance, becomes an important strategy for improving confidence and enjoyment of writing.
Most of all, learning writing skills must not be rushed. It takes a long time to layer these skills and experiences – so we recommend that attention is given to writing – and particularly, creative writing – with plenty of time to progress!