Writing & literacy: How to help children beat writer’s block

Written by: Kathy Ewers | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

For young pupils, writing is one of the skills that has been hardest hit by lockdowns and the pandemic. In this article, Kathy Ewers suggests ways to help pupils develop essential writing skills and learn to love writing

A recent research report concludes that writing was the subject hardest hit by the pandemic. It suggests that all year groups have seen more significant drops in writing than in any other subject.

The biggest fall in writing attainment was for year 3, with only 58% of children being at the expected level for their age compared with 79% in 2019 (Juniper Education, 2022).

These are the children whose education was disrupted in years 1 and 2, just as they were finding their feet – or indeed their hands and minds – as writers.

This finding certainly ties in with anecdotal evidence from my conversations with subject leaders in recent months. Helping children to see themselves as writers is proving to be a challenge.

So, why has writing suffered more than reading or maths? Well, activities such as story-times, reading and responding to texts, and playing number games lent themselves well to learning at home. But for some children the opportunities to develop their writing skills during lockdown were less obvious.

So, what can we do? The key to getting children writing again is to make it an enjoyable activity rather than a daunting task. I would like to offer some suggestions to help turn your pupils into confident, fluent and happy writers.


Give children a reason to write

When children have a good understanding of why they are writing and who they are writing for, they have a clearer sense of purpose, and this makes the exercise more motivating. It is a good idea to spend time talking about the different types of audience pupils might write for, and how their style of writing would need to differ for each one.

Whenever possible, devise tasks which have a genuine purpose and audience. Letter-writing fits well here. During the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, for example, many pupils wrote to their council, MP and even the prime minister to express their views on what should be happening.

Local issues provide inspiration too, for example letters responding to the planned closure of a library or the need for traffic-calming measures near a school.

Alternatively, try giving the children a controversial writing task in which they are able to express their feelings while writing for different audiences.

Here’s a great example: You have just been told that, in order to address lockdown gaps, you will have to come to school on a Saturday morning and you are not happy about it. Express your views in a formal letter to the headteacher and governors, an email to a friend, a newspaper report, and a discussion with arguments for and against.

An activity like this works well across key stage 2 and should encourage your pupils to write some interesting content.


Celebrate writing in all its forms

Keen readers make good writers and while your pupils may not have done as much reading as usual during the pandemic, they might well have accessed more reading material than they realise.

Some children do not consider themselves readers if they have not spent much time reading books. However, chances are they have read instructions for a game, cooking recipes or comics.

The children might be doing more writing than they realise too. Ask the children to make a list of all the writing they have done in the last 24 hours, for example texting, messaging or typing web addresses.

Show children examples of effective writing in a range of different formats, from poems to press articles, play scripts to blogs. It is important to ensure children experience a breadth of texts including those that are visual and digital.

Exposing children to authentic publication and presentation across different platforms enables them to see how authors are engaging their audiences. It is also a great way to help pupils develop their own writing ideas.


Use objects as a source of inspiration

Objects can create a powerful start to a story. You can use any type of object, for instance a shell, an old map, a piece of jewellery, or a photograph.

Ask the children who they imagine the object belonged to or who the person in the photograph might be. Encourage them to think about the history or origin of the object.

It can also be a good idea to present the children with a group of objects and ask them to weave the objects into a story.

As some children prefer to write non-fiction texts, they should be given that option wherever possible. For example, if you have shown the children some shells and seaweed, suggest they write a description of the sea, a section of a travel brochure, or a persuasive leaflet about how important it is to keep beaches clean and litter free.


Provide ideas for discussion

Some children find it difficult to decide what to write about. Providing them with some themes on which they might have strong views will help to get the ideas – and the words – flowing.

Give the pupils some topics to debate in their writing and then see how many children agree or disagree with the opinions. Good examples are “dogs are better than cats”, or “you can choose one superhero power to help others – the ability to fly, or the power to stop time – which one would you choose and why?”

Introduce a thought-provoking subject for pupils and get them to write a persuasive newspaper article on the theme. Ideas such as “there should be no homework at school”, “climate change is the world’s biggest problem”, or “people should be fined for dropping litter” work well.


Build fun into writing

  • The thought of producing a long piece of writing can be rather overwhelming, so why not try setting the timer and challenging the children to write as much as they can about chocolate, holidays, or secrets in one minute.
  • Give-up some slips of paper and ask them to write a topic on each one. Put all the slips of paper in a jar, take two out and ask the children to write all they can about one of the topics.
  • An effective way to encourage pupils to use their imagination in their writing is to give them a list of words and ask them to come up with the most interesting or the funniest sentences they can. You can adapt the words according to the age and ability of the pupils.
  • Writing lists is a great way to get children warmed up at the start of a lesson. It could be a list of fruits, things which are red, or happy words...
  • Take a topic which pupils have learnt a lot about and ask the pupils to write about it from a different perspective. If the children have learnt about the digestive system, ask them to write from the point of view of a sweet travelling through the body.


Conclusion

When children see a reason to write they will understand the importance of crafting a good message, presenting a persuasive argument, or creating an exciting story. Pupils will then identify as writers and develop their own authentic voice.

As the pupils gain confidence in their writing and develop their ability to communicate with a range of audiences, their stamina and enthusiasm will grow too. This will help pupils to recover their writing attainment and build essential skills for the next stage in their learning journey.


Further information & resources

  • Headteacher Update: Recovering handwriting: Five tips for the classroom, March 2022: https://bit.ly/3jbES8S
  • Juniper Education: National dataset report: The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on primary school children’s learning, March 2022: https://bit.ly/36cuD1e


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