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How being a scribe is the answer when your child hates to write

by | Nov 30, 2020 | Reluctant or Struggling Writers, Special Needs

“My 8-year-old LOVES storytelling but HATES writing.”

Sound familiar? One look at the blank page can paralyze even the most creative kid—so writing time often ends in tears and crumpled papers. 

It’s Not Easy Getting an Idea from Brain to Paper

By the time your child has wrestled with spelling, punctuation, or the dreaded pencil death grip—POOF! That creative thought has vanished. Because the process is so hard for your child, writing becomes a daily battleground. Everyone feels like a failure—including you.

From a young age, my girls loved everything about writing. But this was definitely not true of my son.

Ben’s mind was filled with creative ideas, and he loved to talk. Unfortunately, mild learning disabilities and overall immaturity held him back and got in the way of his great ideas. So instead of forcing him to write, I let him tell his stories as I wrote them down.

Dictation is a valid alternative to written expression. I’ve never regretted the years I did this with Ben—even into his early teens. It didn’t handicap him; it simply supported him until he was able to write independently.

If you’ve never considered being a scribe for your writing-phobic child, this can be a game changer in your homeschool!

Distinguish Between Creative Writing and Physical Writing

When we say our kids hate writing, do we mean handwriting? Or do we mean composition? 

Handwriting (penmanship) is the physical act of writing letters and words. At different stages of development, your child might have trouble writing on a line, copying and forming letters, using punctuation, or putting words and thoughts on paper. 

Writing (creative writing, reports, etc.) involves communicating thoughts. It is much more about coming up with and phrasing ideas than about who writes those ideas down. This is good news for kids who struggle with physical writing, because “writing” in your homeschool can actually be done orally. 

Children can be masterful at spinning an oral story long before they have the capacity to put their own words on paper. Sometimes, removing the obstacle of pencil and paper is all you need to open the floodgates of creativity. Separating creative writing from physical writing lets your child focus on ideas and words without added stress.

As your child dictates sentences, brainstorming ideas, and stories, you do the writing! This is not cheating. Physical writing is sheer torture for some kids, and this is one way to take the pressure off.

“In the past when I’ve prompted my son to write, it usually ended in some sort of meltdown. As soon as I told him I was going to write for him, his mind exploded! He had so much to say!” ~Kimberley

Discover how being a scribe is the answer when your child hates to write.

Be a Scribe for Your Child Who Hates to Write. It’s OK!

Because writing by hand is just plain hard for many kids, it can rob them of the joy of creativity. The most important thing you can do for your kids is validate their ideas—which are, after all, at the heart of writing! 

You may feel guilty scribing for your reluctant writers because you think you’re discouraging independence. Or you worry that the end result isn’t really “their” writing. Don’t let these thoughts derail you!

The goal is to measure your children’s grasp of the writing process, not their handwriting ability. No matter who writes them down, they are still your child’s words!

“My youngest has significant dysgraphia and processing delays (he is 5th grade). He dictated a few stories to me and then asked for another [WriteShop Junior] lesson … so excited about using his imagination! He is oversharing, and his stories go on forever, but my dysgraphic, ASD son is wanting to do writing!” ~Christine

Why You Should Let Your Struggling Writer Dictate to You

Once you wrap your head around the difference between handwriting and creative writing, it’s easier to identify where the breakdown occurs. Check out this list of key reasons to be a scribe for your child. Which ones resonate with you?

11 Reasons to Scribe for Your Child

  • Writing time is always a battle.
  • Writing takes hours.
  • The demands of the assignment exceed my child’s handwriting ability.
  • The physical act of writing causes tears, anxiety, or outbursts of anger.
  • My child hates making mistakes.
  • My child has trouble getting ideas from head to paper.
  • Writing makes his hand hurt.
  • My creative, verbal child loves to express ideas yet struggles with handwriting.
  • Dyslexia, dysgraphia, or other learning challenges require making accommodations.
  • Tactile issues get in the way (such as hating the feel of pencil on paper).
  • My child needs help holding onto her thoughts. If she’s asked to write them down, it strains her working memory and makes the process exhausting.

Scribing Is an Ancient (and Modern-day) Practice

Ancient philosophers, orators, and biblical authors, such as Cicero, Socrates, and the Apostle Paul, dictated their letters to a scribe or had their speeches translated by a secretary, called an amenuensis. Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt are 20th century notables who heavily relied on secretaries.

Actor and author Michael J. Fox, because of Parkinson’s disease, is unable to do his own writing. His producing partner, Nelle Fortenberry, gets it all down for him:

“Michael’s handwriting has never been good,” she said. “So he talks and I type. I am not his ghostwriter or a co-writer. He is the writer of this book.”

When you make a struggling student do all the writing, the best you can expect is short, weak, disjointed sentences and incomplete ideas because physical writing is SO wearying and stressful. Using a scribe doesn’t take away from the authority of the writing. The scribe only writes down the words.

Benefits of Scribing for Your Child during Homeschool Writing Lessons

As homeschooling parents, we want our kids to thrive in their various subjects. The challenge is finding the balance between grade-level expectations and the student’s actual ability. 

Instead of thinking that being a scribe is a setback, consider how it benefits your child:

  • Reduces frustration, anger, and tears
  • Shortens time spent on writing lessons
  • Takes the pressure off your child
  • Reduces perfectionism
  • Lets your child play with ideas without fear or limitation of having to write them down
  • Lets you tailor writing lessons for reluctant writers or special needs kids
  • Accommodates the child who struggles with penmanship, pencil grip, or hand pain
  • Accommodates the child who has trouble holding onto ideas
  • Tells your child you’re in this together
  • Lets you choose a curriculum level based on thinking skills rather than your child’s ability or willingness to physically write

How to Help Your Struggling Child with Homeschool Writing

1. Model the writing.

Modeling is the teaching time when you introduce a new writing lesson. No matter how old your kids are, you do the writing. As you teach, work on a large writing surface, like a whiteboard. 

During modeling, everyone participates as you talk about different ideas together. The kids share in the process through conversation, but you’re the one who writes it all down. Because some ideas are yours and some are theirs, the result is a team effort.

  • Work from your writing lesson or start with a writing prompt
  • Discuss the different elements for the story. 
  • Prompt your student with “who, what, when, where, why” questions. 
  • Demonstrate correct grammar, capitalization, punctuation, spelling, and formatting.
Discover how being a scribe for your writing-phobic child can be a game changer in your homeschool!

2. Share the writing.

Shared writing helps parents guide children toward writing independently. Simply, shared writing involves writing with your child as you both contribute to the same writing piece. 

Take baby steps toward independence, using these tips according to your child’s needs:

  • Do all the writing. Even before kids can read, they still have ideas in their heads that can be written down—which you can do for them. Older children can use this extra help too.
  • Share the pencil. Encourage your little perfectionist by letting her write the letters or words she knows while you write the ones that give her trouble. 
  • Take turns. As your child’s confidence and hand strength increase, take turns writing every other sentence. 
  • Write first, copy later. If you’ve done most or all of the writing, your child may be able to copy what you’ve written onto fresh paper. Spread recopying over several days as needed.
  • Scribe during brainstorming. For some kids, it’s enough if mom writes down the brainstorming process. This is a perfect stepping stone toward independence. Fill in the graphic organizer as your child talks. Once she sees her swirl of ideas organized on a worksheet, she’ll feel more confident to tackle the story or report.
  • Step in occasionally. Even independent writers may still need you to come alongside to take over the writing now and then, especially if they’re feeling overwhelmed.

✏️ How I Used Shared Writing in Our Homeschool

During the elementary years, my son mostly did oral work while I wrote it all down. As Ben got older, I would write his brainstorming ideas and rough draft, and he’d copy the rough draft onto lined paper. In 7th grade, he finally began writing drafts with less and less help from me. We’d sit together so I could hold onto ideas for him while he did the writing. If he forgot what he wanted to say, I could feed him a few words at a time while he focused on writing them down.

Even in high school, I still scribed for him sometimes. He reminded me of a lawyer who likes to think out loud (and pace sometimes!). So I’d sit at the computer and type while he rattled on. At this point, Ben was proficient at typing and could easily have done it himself, but this was—and still is—a huge part of how he processes information.

3. Target your child’s thinking level.

“I feel encouraged that she’ll be writing her own beautiful and creative ideas on her own one day, when that physical skill finally catches up to her cognitive level.” — Amanda Bailey

You may be anxious to scribe less and see your child write more independently. Remind yourself that writing is more about the idea-generating process than about how those ideas get on paper.

When choosing a writing program, start at the level that best fits your student’s thinking skills, not her writing skills, knowing you still have permission—even with a young teen—to let your child dictate to you during any stage of the writing process.

4. Work on handwriting and keyboarding skills.

You can scribe for your struggling child yet still make time for handwriting practice! Put some distance between the creative process and penmanship skills by doing handwriting activities at a different time of day.

Work on developing hand strength, small-motor coordination, and proper pencil grip—or help your student find alternatives.

  • Young children may enjoy tactile activities such as writing letters with fingerpaint or pudding, tracing letters or words in sand or shaving cream, tracing tactile sandpaper letters, and using kinesthetic alphabet cards or manipulatives.
  • Try ergonomic writing tools such as Twist N’ Write Children’s Pencils, “Mr. Pen” Pencil Grips, or The Pencil Grip Crossover Grip to accommodate children with special needs.
  • To work on grip and finger strength, older children can play with a hole punch, cut with scissors, use a manual can opener, dig with a hand spade, knit or crochet, use real but child-size hand tools, sew with a large needle and yarn, stir cookie or brownie batter, use a trigger sifter to sift flour or powdered sugar, etc.
  • Writing practice can happen with dry-erase markers on a whiteboard or chalk on the sidewalk. Kids can make large posters using markers or write on extra-wide ruled paper. When they become more comfortable, switch to smaller writing tools and work your way down to standard wide-ruled paper.
  • Teach typing skills! Children who struggle with physical handwriting often do great with keyboarding.
  • Instead of being a scribe, try assistive technology (such as speech-to-text software) to provide an older child or teen with a feeling of greater independence.
  • Copywork is a good way to practice penmanship. Try these tips for taking the tears out of copywork.

So how much help should you give your reluctant writer? As much as your child needs to feel successful. For some kids, like my own son, this took years. You’ll both get there!

WriteShop Junior | A homeschool writing curriculum that makes writing fun!

A writing program that encourages you to scribe for your child will bolster your confidence that you’re on the right track.

WriteShop is fun and hands-on, and it can put a little sunshine into your kids’ school days! If you’re wondering about homeschool writing programs, you might take a look at WriteShop Primary or WriteShop Junior. Lessons are incremental and bite-sized.

Because parents learn how to help with the writing, it’s very much a partnership between you and your children. Guided writing and fun games teach skills without making them do any actual writing.