From Reluctant to Triumphant: Turning Wary Writers into Writing Winners, Part I

Part I: Reaching Visual Learners

 I can’t write. I’m not good with spelling and grammar. I don’t know what to write about. The letters get all mixed up. Writing is boring.

The excuses are many. But there’s really no excuse for students not writing. Every child has a story to tell. It’s just that, oftentimes, the words get lost on the trip from the brain to the fingers.

The key is to make the experience of writing engaging and relevant: helping students to overcome either imaginary obstacles or very real obstacles such as dyslexia.

It’s simply a child’s nature to develop a “block” to something that frustrates them. But teachers and parents must help coax strong writing habits by creating a climate of expression as opposed to one of correction. Writing is a process. And by making this process enjoyable and fulfilling, the young writer will work at his or her own pace to develop essential skills.

The Eyes Have It

Visual learners are often the most resistant to the practice of writing. Giving them the time and the strategies to visualize their writing beforehand is not only a way to get students creatively thinking about their writing, but is a great tool for all writers: helping to solidify thoughts, settings and details before pencil touches paper. Drawing a picture before writing can help set the stage for imaginative storytelling. This could be a map of a make-believe world, a comic strip, or a crude sketch: anything it takes to get creativity flowing. Visualization exercises also work for reports, essays, and other nonfiction-type forms of writing.

Concept mapping tools and index cards are a simple and compelling way to help young writers overcome the hurdles preventing them from organizing their ideas. Concept mapping tools—such as the Learning in Context: Concept Mapping app —give children a chance to experiment with ideas and possible outcomes in a fun, hand-on way. This allows free exploration of most any idea, with the strongest ideas forming a visual outline. An outline can be as simple as a brief character sketch, that character’s motivation, a list of other characters and/or antagonists, and how–in general—the story will end. 

1) Have your student pick a theme, topic, or even a sentence that could form the basis for a story. Have them put this in a circle or square at the center of their screen.  

2) Have your student brainstorm ideas related to their central topic, generating as many as possible. Next, they should pick the ideas that work best with the general theme or idea, and put them in circles or squares around the center circle, connecting them with a line.

3) Have students repeat the process—branching out of subtopics—until their screen looks like a constellation of ideas: enough to form a general outline for a story. 

4) Students can use their concept map to organize their ideas to create optimal “story flow”: arranging connected plot points closely together, pacing ideas in a way that conveys a satisfying arc, and removing ideas that don’t seem to fit anymore or are too similar to other ideas. A concept map tool makes this easy (and fun!).

5) Have students consult their concept map often while developing their stories so they stay on track and feel as if there is a visual “support” for their writing. An outline or template can provide structure for writers who don’t know where to begin. Knowing that there is scaffolding in place, students can relax a little and allow their creativity to take over. 

All a (Story)Board!

Creating storyboards can also help young writers to visualize how their story might unfold. This makes the ebb and flow of a story seem real to visual learners. When a student is fully immersed in their creation, their imagination kicks in and inhibitions begin to loosen their grip!  A storyboard should, ideally, visualize a key scene or milestone from a story, and not necessarily be a comic book (though that is fine too!).

There are a number of storyboarding apps and tools. Some popular storyboard creators are Storyboard That, Storyboard Generator, and ReadWriteThink: Story Map. These tools function in much the same way: creating a number of panels to be filled any way the student wishes: some allowing for drag and drop characters, conflicts and/or settings to help a writer organize their story.

A teacher can also hand out sheets with pre-drawn panels or even index cards, which add the ability to reorganize scenes much like a concept map.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words (Give or Take)

Another tool to help jump-start writing for visual learners is photographic prompts. Show your students a series of photographs and ask them to imagine whom the people in the photographs are, where the photographs were taken, and how the photographs makes them feel. Then have them begin to imagine what sort of story they can make from what they see. This can really help relieve the pressure of starting a writing project from scratch. You can either grab kid-friendly photographs from Google, Flickr, Pics4Learning, Photos For Class, or your favorite photo resource. 

Blanking on the Blank Page

Students often have no idea what to write. By telling them who their audience is, you can help students better connect the dots between reader and writer. Have them choose a topic that might be of interest to their specific reader, and choose their language accordingly. This audience could be a person (Abraham Lincoln or the child’s best friend), an animal (a squirrel or family pet), or even a thing (a robot or talking dragon).

Another technique is to have students write within a particular form, such as a diary-entry or even a recipe! These formats imply a certain structure, which can birth creative ideas (sometimes nothing is as daunting to writing as complete freedom!). Giving students a choice also makes them feel empowered and valued, and can make a big difference in helping a student get their words out into the world.

Switch It Up

Sometimes creative writing itself can be too intimidating for some writers. Persuasive writing exercises can not only seem more “relevant” to certain students, but also help develop crucial skills such as supporting ideas concisely and comprehensively. Begin with subjects that students are passionate about, such as food (free pizza and ice cream being served in the cafeteria), freedoms (later school start-time or no curfew), and favorite pastimes (why skateboarding is the best or why a certain band or recording artist is the best). Some students may not even be really sure what, exactly, they are passionate about. Ask them questions and ferret out their personal stories. Their personal interests—and subsequent writing opportunities—should emerge. Once they feel confident that they have something to say, they will feel more confident in their writing.

Next, help students to understand the distinction between opinion and fact (unless, of course, they are running for political office). One pre-writing activity could involve flipping through magazines and analyzing advertisements to better understand the distinction, as well as incorporating colorful, persuasive phrases and language. 

Other times, switching up the typical tools—such as pencil and paper—can help to inspire and engage. In addition to laptops and writing platforms such as Microsoft Word, blogging sites like WordPress or Blogger can help shake up writing routines by making the process more fun. Students can also continue their writing or make revisions at home or even share their work with others for feedback.

The Write Tools

There are a number of other online tools to help get students writing, such as: Storyjumper, a tool for creating online books; Story Starters, a selection of interactive story prompts; Zoo Burst, 3-D pop-up book creator; Storybird, a visual storytelling community; Pixton, comic book creator; and My Story Maker, a simple storybook creator.

Educators need to follow a student’s lead whenever possible as opposed to imposing rigid expectations. Weave writing exercises and prompts naturally during the course of their day, every day. Make writing a shared journey that the entire class can share together.