Stumbling block #2 – Weak writing skills and tools

by | Nov 9, 2009 | Brainstorming, High school, Resources & Links, Struggling Writers, Teaching Homeschool Writing

Stumbling Blocks to Writing | Students lack skills and tools

Welcome back to our series on 10 Stumbling Blocks to Writing! Last week we looked at Stumbling Block #1 and ways to increase your student’s confidence. What’s today’s hurdle?

Stumbling Block #2

Problem: Kids don’t have the writing skills and tools they need to make stories, essays, or reports fresh and interesting.

Solution: Introduce prewriting exercises, brainstorming worksheets, and checklists.

Whether you’re sewing, gardening, working with wood, or fixing an engine, you can’t do the job properly without certain skills and tools. The same can be said for writing—and I’m not just talking about paper, pens, and a laptop. Let’s look at some practical principles you can apply to begin equipping your children for success!

Pre-writing Activities

ScattergoriesOne of the easiest ways to build writing skills is to have some fun! Pre-writing exercises and writing games act as enjoyable warm-ups to get creative juices Apples to Apples - Vocabulary Gameflowing, build vocabulary, and strengthen sentence development. Games you make up, like sentence-building or concrete writing games, make perfect pre-writing exercises.

And don’t discount the value of purchased word games. Scattergories and Apples to Apples come to mind as two great writing warm-up games our family loves to play. Along with old friends like Scrabble and Boggle, they make ideal family Christmas gifts. Your kids will have no idea they’re learning!

Brainstorming Worksheets

Before your student writes the first word of her composition, she’ll improve her chances for success by brainstorming. Like pre-writing, brainstorming is a skill that stimulates thinking in general. However, it also acts as a springboard for writing about a particular subject. When a student brainstorms:

  • It gets her ideas flowing so she has something to say.
  • It helps her overcome writer’s block.
  • It prepares her for writing as she develops a plan and gains direction.
  • It helps her organize her thoughts.

To further promote thinking skills, you’ll want to teach a variety of brainstorming techniques. Whatever the topic, suggest a brainstorming method—mind map, list, or outline, for instance—that’s best for the kind of composition your student is writing. For example:

  • She might brainstorm for a how-to composition by listing the steps of the process.
  • If she’s writing a descriptive paragraph, she should carefully study the subject for interesting details and record her observations.
  • For a narrative, she’ll want to sequence the events.
  • A Venn diagram is especially useful for compare/contrast essay.

There are many ways to brainstorm, but worksheets and graphic organizers are tools that often smooth the way for reluctant writers. If you are using a program like WriteShop I or II, you’ll find brainstorming worksheets already prepared for each writing assignment (see an example here). Alternatively, a quick Google search will yield a variety of brainstorming tools available on the web.

But brainstorming isn’t just for your junior high or high schooler! You can begin teaching this skill in kindergarten, either on your own or with a helpful curriculum like WriteShop Primary. Starting your children when they’re young can help prevent the debilitating case of writer’s block that often plagues older students.


A good checklist serves as a guide to help your student identify her own errors in content, style, and mechanics so she can improve and enliven her writing. For instance, if the checklist reminds her to use synonyms instead of repeating main words, she’ll be forced to find more interesting words. This simple tool can help her hone a valuable skill she’ll use all her life. (In a few weeks I’ll be talking about checklists in greater detail when we take a look at Stumbling Block #6: Laziness.)

Other Skills and Tools

In addition to checklists and brainstorming sheets, there are other tools that help breathe new life into writing. For example, skill-building exercises can give a student instruction and practice in new writing skills like choosing titles, writing topic sentences, citing sources, or using sentence variations.

I’m sure grammar is part of your language arts curriculum, but how it can revive writing may be a complete mystery to you. I’d like to suggest that when you require your student to use newly learned grammar concepts in her compositions, the grammar actually makes more sense. So rather than teach grammar in a vacuum, teach it as it applies to writing. That’s where the rubber meets the road!

Writing isn’t an exact science, but you can certainly apply proven principles to promote stronger writers in your home. It’s my prayer that you’ll begin to notice a difference in both attitude and output as you put some of these tips into practice.

Next week we’ll look at Stumbling Block #3: Lack of motivation. You won’t want to miss that one!

2009 © Kim Kautzer. All rights reserved.

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Do you wish your writing curriculum offered more pre-writing activities and brainstorming ideas? Then take a look at WriteShop I for your 6th – 10th grader. You’ll love the writing games and brainstorming worksheets that equip and inspire successful writers! 

Photo courtesy of stock.xchng.


  1. Amy

    We LOVE Apples to Apples, of course we never thought of it as educational! Awesome… and they’ll never even have to know!
    Amy in Peru

  2. Kim

    You’re right–it never hurts to be reminded of a good idea!

  3. Kimberly

    I agree wholeheartedly that using games works – we teach as much as possible using games. We have Jr. Scrabble & Scrabble, and also a great card game, Once Upon a Time, that really gets the creative juices flowing 🙂

  4. Tammy

    Games are always a good idea at our house! The graphic organizers can be really helpful, too. Good reminder!

  5. Kim

    Diane: That’s so encouraging to hear that your daughter is applying what she’s learning. Kudos to both of you!

    Linda: Thanks for taking time to comment. Hope you find new ways to add that fun to your homeschooling days. 🙂

  6. Linda

    Thank you for the reminders and encouragement.
    I like the idea of “fun” teaching concepts that have life-long value.

  7. Diane Allen

    The question with any curriculum is do the methods “stick”. I’m happy to report on the stickiness of Writeshop’s training. My daughter spontaneously decided to enter her coach into a “coach of the year contest” – and just as spontaneously started a brainstorming page of things the recommendation should say! She even called other girls on her team to get their input and then organized all the comments into catagories! Yeh — it works!
    Diane Allen

  8. Kim

    Thanks for commenting, ladies! I’m glad you enjoyed the reminder to infuse learning time with a bit of fun. 🙂

  9. Diane

    I get so caught up in teaching to curriculum, I forget the value of taking time for games. Thank you for the reminder!

  10. Mary

    I love the idea of using a game to get the brainstorm thing going! We have Apples-to-Apples, and a few others, but were in a phase for a while where the children did not really want to gather as a family to play. I think I’ll start pulling out the games as part of our homeschool day! Thanks!!!

  11. Tammy

    Thanks for the great warm up ideas. We have these games sitting around for fun. I love it when we can slip in learning with fun!

  12. Donna

    Apples to Apples is a great game to play for fun, what a bonus it is for learning too!

  13. Kim

    Apples to Apples is a riot, Isabelle! I’m pretty sure it’s available in a “junior” version, as are many adult vocab and word games. Since you have littles, the junior versions would be perfect for you.

    Bananagrams is a take on Boardless (or Speed) Scrabble. You can find the rules here:

    Boardless Scrabble

    Thanks for commenting!

  14. Isabelle Lussier aka Canadianladybug

    You know I do have some vocabulary games and such but I never really thought of using them. I know I know… this is bad. I have the resources but don’t use it.

    Scattergories is something I have. Never heard of or played Apple to Apple but I am quite curious about it.

    But my kids are 8 and under right now. I definetively need to spend more time with the oldest on this issue… I even bought BANANAGRAMS so I need to take this out for him. I do have some French games too.

    Thanks for the kick in the butt… I needed this.


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