Slice of Life Tuesday- Let's Stop Calling Them Reluctant Writers






'On every page, confidence fights with self-doubt.'
David Morrell
I continue to hear the term ‘reluctant writers’ when educators describe certain students. It’s a term that causes me a fair degree of discomfort. 

When teachers talk of young writers in this manner, they pull up some way short of the mark. The question needs to be asked, why is this student behaving in a way that has them shying away from writing?  Asking ‘why?’ is a key to finding out more about that particular young writer and hopefully what is inhibiting their full participation in writing- their connection to writing.

Invariably, what is impeding the writer from experiencing a stronger connection to the writing task is confidence- or rather a lack of it. And if we dig a little deeper it is frequently connected to a poor self-perception in relation to spelling. It may also be the challenge presented by the physical task of writing due to a lack of a fluent writing style. Sometimes it is related to matters of sight or hearing.

I try hard not to acknowledge the existence of reluctant writers. I have encountered a number of writers over the years who lacked confidence when it came to writing and therefore approached the task with a fair degree of trepidation. They wanted to participate in writing just as surely as their fellow writers. They merely lacked the confidence, experience, or the writing tools to launch themselves confidently into the great unknown. 

Watch a toddler keenly make marks on paper with a marker or crayon. Such action occurs quite naturally. They exhibit no inhibitions about the task of scribing. It’s natural and immediately rewarding.

Sadly something happens to many of these young writers. Something, or someone convinces them that writing is not for them. Messages and demands from adults usually conspire to make them believe that writing holds nothing that is desirable. They begin to opt out or shutdown their output as confidence declines.

Many years ago, I met a boy named John. He was about to enter Grade three and I was going to be his teacher for the year. The very first thing I recall him saying was, ‘Hi, I’m John and I’m not a very good speller.’  I was saddened by his opening remarks, so I told him, ‘Let’s see if we can work together to change that. Have we got a deal?’ He smiled and shook my hand. Over the next two school terms of that semester, I noticed that while John’s spelling relied heavily on phonetics he had great ideas and interesting stories. He was a whizz with all things technical and articulate and confident in his explanation of anything mechanical. His initial writing efforts were hesitant and somewhat brief. We worked on building volume and learning a range of word attack skills to exercise greater influence over the spelling of the words he wanted to use. I encouraged him to be brave and he took up the challenge. We placed ideas ahead of spelling and correctness. His peers were supportive. While recognizing his strengths and talents they supported him in dealing with his challenges.

 In time John was writing more, and his writing samples showed his spelling accuracy was improving. His ideas continued to shine through. His intent as a writer was obvious. His confidence was slowly returning. Then one day near the end of the first semester John approached me and informed me he would like to share his writing piece with the class. This was a watershed moment, He had never volunteered in this way previously. He stood next to me and read his piece to an audience of his peers. They also sensed this was a rather special moment and responded in a most supportive way by spontaneously clapping when he finished reading. From that moment on John was well truly back in the game. He was never reluctant, it was more about diminished self-belief and a lack of confidence.

The real challenge is to change the pictures in the heads of students who regard their writing as somehow, unworthy. Rebuilding the self-image of these writers can be a slow, often protracted process. Writers like John are often inexperienced as writers and need time to develop their writing abilities.  It requires a large dose of support and acceptance for their efforts as writers, in order for confidence and trust to develop. We must present as brave writers ourselves in order to show how this kind of risk taking brings discoveries and rewards. We must be a model of what we want, in time for them to become. This requires the most proficient writer in the classroom to reach out a hand and we cannot under any circumstances be, 'reluctant.’





Comments

  1. Once again, the importance of language and word choice is reinforced. Working with students to "Change the picture" is so important across the curriculum. That's been a challenge for me as I moved up from first to fourth grade. At 9 or 10, so many students already have a strongly entrenched perception, or picture, of their abilities, or lack of abilities. Figuring out how to make that "picture" more flexible is important work. Thanks for sharing your work with John and your thoughts on "reluctant writers."

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    1. Thank you Molly for your comments. You are correct in your observations of older learners. They do have a more entrenched perceptions of themselves as learners. It frequently requires sustained effort and consistent messages to alter those faulty perceptions.

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  2. Thank you for this post. We often times attach these labels to describe students without getting to know them fully. Believing ALL children can learn is our first step!

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    1. The issue of 'labels' is a persistent one. They can last a lifetime. So the messages we give the learner and the messages we hold as true are therefore critical. Your closing thought is a non negotiable. Thank you Chris and Dave for your remarks.

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  3. "I have encountered a number of writers over the years who lacked confidence when it came to writing and therefore approached the task with a fair degree of trepidation."

    I thought of some teachers I have worked with when I read this ... confidence and having something to say in a way that expresses your heart is a key element to anyone who struggles with writing.

    Kevin

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    1. Your closing remarks are most pertinent Kevin. Our work as educators is a never ending quest to find the key to unlock a child's potential.

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  4. Love this post, Alan. I've been trying to figure out terms other than reluctant or struggling. Striving has been ok, but feels awkward. Lacking confidence is a great way to describe the children who aren't engaging in the writing process, and yes, usually there are some good reasons for that.

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    1. Thanks Melanie. The term I tend to use is 'inexperienced.' It works to remind me the writer needs opportunities to grow in confidence and experience. You are correct in stating that there are good reasons kids don't fully engage. We must continue to address the reasons.

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  5. Agreed, great post that redefines the struggles some of our writers have and getting into the "why" -- your explanation through John's story clearly shows getting to the why (well, he told you right upfront!) and then your essential moves to bring back that confidence that he once lost along his writing journey. Thank you for sharing!

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    1. Thank you Michelle. You have reminded me that the work we do often involves restorative practices- a rebuilding of spirit,self belief and confidence. Important pursuits.

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  6. "Watch a toddler keenly make marks on paper with a marker or crayon. Such action occurs quite naturally. They exhibit no inhibitions about the task of scribing. It’s natural and immediately rewarding." This is so true! We are born to tell stories, to share stories on paper in pictures and words. I do believe that we need to honor the picture as writing because pictures and art carry meaning, they carry story. I think some kids, find their voice and confidence as writers if their pictures were honored as writing. Then, those pictures become the bridge to the words. The process is slow, but worth it for a writers

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    1. Dawn, I love your words-'We are born to tell stories.' It says so much. Just yesterday I was telling a group of Grade 4 writers that exact same thing. Pictures often lead us to words and our youngest writers certainly follow this pathway. So, you are absolutely correct in stating the need to honour the pictures kids create. It's a launching pad.

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  7. Thanks for this perspective. It makes me want to think generally about the words I use to describe students who may fall short of my expectations. Your approach also reinforces for me the necessity of truly getting to know our students in order to be able to ask about 'why' while we encourage their growth.

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    1. I'm pleased this post has given you pause for some reflection Sherri. It remains a critical element of our practice as educators.

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