become a writing mentor to your child, part 6: finding meaningful writing for kids

become a writing mentor to your child, part 6: finding meaningful writing for kids post image

Hello, Patricia! I really enjoy your blog. I have printed out various posts to keep in my homeschool library. My two kids are 12 and 9. When I suggested a writing group, they said they were not interested. When I suggested they try NaNoWriMo last November, they were not interested. I regularly ask my 12-year-old to write a journal entry that I do not read. She did say she would like to write a letter to the President about something important to her. She started a blog but stopped after one entry. Do I assign a project for her? Do I just let her be? My 9-year-old very willingly keeps a plant journal about the plants he has just planted outside. I did get him to tell me about a book I was reading to him for read aloud time. I typed it up. I do ask both kids to write thank you notes occasionally but they are usually very basic. When we did copy work/dictation/assigned writing projects in the past, there was usually a lot of complaining and emotional outburst and plain unhappiness. I guess I am not sure which direction to go now. I appreciate any advice.


Dear S.,

I’m honored that you’ve printed out some of my posts for your homeschool library. (I’ve always wanted to have my work in a library!)

Boy, there are a lot of good insights and questions here. Let’s take them one by one.

 “When I suggested a writing group, they said they were not interested. When I suggested they try NaNoWriMo last November, they were not interested.”

You know, NaNoWriMo and a writing group are both pretty intense writing activities. I’m a huge fan of both—and have seen dozens of kids over the years become inspired to write by participating in a writer’s workshop, in particular. Still, if your kids are hesitant about writing and don’t want to try out either of these formats, it might be better to start with much smaller writing opportunities. Dinky, unthreatening writing opportunities. More on that below.

 “I regularly ask my 12-year-old to write a journal entry that I do not read. She did say she would like to write a letter to the President about something important to her. She started a blog but stopped after one entry… My 9-year-old very willingly keeps a plant journal about the plants he has just planted outside. I did get him to tell me about a book I was reading to him for read aloud time.”

So it sounds like both of your kids are trying out a few different writing formats, and have some ideas. That’s a good start! Your daughter doesn’t seem motivated to continue the blog right now. That’s okay; even professional writers try out new projects and decide to shift gears. The trick, of course is finding projects with longer-term appeal. Let’s see what we can come up with below.

 “Do I assign a project for him? Do I just let him be?”

These are big questions and have everything to do with your family’s style of homeschooling.

on letting them be:

Some families—families who take an unschooling-style approach to homeschooling—prefer not to assign work to their kids. Although my family has much in common with unschoolers, I don’t necessarily consider us unschoolers. Still, I’ve known many, many unschoolers over the years who have developed into effective, enthusiastic writers.

This approach takes patience.

These kids may write much later and much less than kids in school do, at least initially. In the meanwhile, if they are growing up in a literature-rich home, they are intuiting the skills of writers. If they are engaged in interesting conversations with their family, they are developing the skills of writers. It may take time, however, for them to find the authentic reasons to write that will motivate them to try it with any regularity.

Reader Carrie, who is a writer herself, didn’t want to push her son to write. She’s written to me many times over the course of several years, sometimes worrying that her son, now ten, wasn’t choosing to write. Recently she left the following in a comment:

“In answer to your question ‘Can kids learn to write by following their own agendas, without being taught?’, I’m feeling more and more confident that they can as I watch my son learn to write because of his desire to be able to chat with other friends on Minecraft and write fan fiction about–what else?–Minecraft.

Lately I’ve made another discovery–that there’s no way at all I could coax my kid to do a report just to do a report, but he will write report-ish things if he has a specific motive for doing so. Today my son and I collaborated on a short bio of Charlie Chaplin to put on a display we’re making for a silent movie matinee that we’re sponsoring at our local library this month. He had info he wanted to share with others for a specific reason, so he wrote a report. Ta-da!”

You can read the rest of her comment here, including the part where she notes that she has learned patience with her second child: “But mostly, I wait,” she writes.

Unschooling families may also be interested in this story from an unschooling mom and friend, which was part of my article, “How Do Kids REALLY Learn to Write?” My friend’s son wanted to learn to write at fifteen because he needed to in order to work at a youth radio project he wanted to participate in:

“My 17-year-old wrote hardly at all but grew up in a household full of discussion, debate, literature and content. When, at about 15, he wanted to write, lo and behold, he really knew how to put words together. He knew how to think and speak clearly from years of doing just that. It translated perfectly well to paper. The mechanics of writing (especially the ridiculousness of English spelling) were something of a stumbling block but those are getting rapidly better with time and experience and they seem to be coming together in far less time than if he’d been studying them or practicing them for years.”

So, S., if your inclination is to avoid assigning writing projects to your kids, I do think they can develop as writers. It may not happen as fast as you’d like it to, and you would probably be wise to pay attention to their interests and see how they might naturally lead to writing. More on that below.

on assigning writing projects to kids:

All homeschooling families are not unschoolers, however. There is a whole range of other homeschooling styles, some which take a traditional school approach, complete with assignments and grades; some which fall somewhere between unschooling and school-at-home, with parents and kids working together to develop projects.

When it comes to writing, I’m not a fan of specific assignments for kids. As you noticed yourself, S., “When we did copywork/dictation/assigned writing projects in the past, there was usually a lot of complaining and emotional outburst and plain unhappiness.” Sure, some kids will put up with writing assignments, and some assignments may actually engage them and motivate them to write. But mostly I find that the more freedom kids have with writing, the more likely they are to enjoy writing.

Still, freedom does not necessarily have to mean “letting them be” if that isn’t your family’s homeschooling style.

Instead, you might say something like this to your kids: “I think it’s important that you have some experience with writing. (Insert your own earnest reasons for that importance here.) I’d like you to find some type of writing to do, and I’ll try to help you find some types that interest you.”

And then you must follow up those lines with much supportive brainstorming and whatever help it takes to make the writing happen.

By help I mean:

  • A willingness to take dictation from your kids, if they would prefer that, whatever their age
  • A willingness to write along with your kids, if that would help. You might let your child choose what you’ll write about together from a book like the very fun Rip the Page.
  • A willingness to allow the writing chosen by your child be a very small attempt, dinky and unthreatening. It might simply be a list (more on lists below) or private journal-writing like your 12-year-old already does. It might be captions for comics or descriptions to accompany drawings. “Writing”, for a while, might simply consist of brainstorming writing possibilities together.
  • A willingness to search out real reasons and audiences for your child’s writing, as connection with others is often what makes a person want to write. It’s those “specific motives” that Carrie wrote about in her comment above that we’re talking about here. More below.

By brainstorming I mean:

  • Talking with your kids about their interests, and considering what writing opportunities might be connected to those interests.
  • Making a list of possible writing ideas with your child. You could even write possibilities on slips of paper to be placed in a jar, for later consideration. Don’t rush this. It might take some time–days, weeks!–to reconsider what writing might look like, and to compile a list of possibilities. Make this a project and have fun with it.
  • Breaking down larger ideas into smaller, more manageable chunks. If write a story seems overwhelming to your child, start with a drawing and description of a character, or a bit of dialogue for a specific scene. If write a review of a favorite video game seems like too much, try making a list of highlights and downsides of the game.
  • Exploring all sorts of writing possibilities–not just stories; not just formal essays. Not just the sort of writing that kids do in school. Expand your notion of what writing might look like. More details below.

Of course, the earlier you start kids out with the expectation that you’d like them to write (or dictate) something on a somewhat regular basis, the more easily it becomes a habit. But it’s never too late to start, S., if this sounds appealing.

an example of small, non-threatening writing possibilities: list-making

Five Reasons I Love Lists:

  1. They’re simple, even for kids who don’t like to write.
  2. They can be adapted to any topic or interest.
  3. They can be used to write about feelings without having to go too deep.
  4. They can be expanded into something bigger. Essays, even.
  5. They’re fun!

When trying out lists for the first time, help kids choose topics that they’re opinionated about. 5 Most Despicable Characters in the Percy Jackson Books, say, or 10 Reasons I Wish I Could Live in the Time of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Pay attention to what your kids like to talk about to make suggestions for lists.

Lists can be silly and funny. A kid in my writer’s workshop recently wrote a list titled 12 Ways to Cook a Hot Dog, which started with standard methods, such as Put it on a grill, and got increasingly outlandish and funny: Tie it to the exhaust port of a jet engine.  Mr. T delights in creating ridiculous lists. Some recent ones:  Top Ten Reasons Why I Hate GoblinsTop Ten Ways to Take Over the World.

A list’s order can be played with to make a point, or to mine humor. Items might get repeated for comic effect, or they can build as they did in the hot dog list.

A list can be an excellent form for a kid who wants to convince someone of something. Mr. T once wrote Ten Reasons You Should Let Your Kids Play Video Games–not so much for me, but for the parents of his video-game-deprived friends.

Kids can write about feelings: Things I Love. Things I Hate. Things that Drive Me Nuts. Things I Wish My Mother Would Not Do.

What’s that? Your kid still hasn’t whipped up anything for Father’s Day? Our family has a long-running tradition of writing love lists for special occasions–70 Great Things about Gramps for a 70th Birthday, for example. On my recent birthday, Mr. T gave me Ten Ways You Have Taught Me Like Nobody Else. (Number one: “MY WRITING SKILLS! DUH! You have made me love writing and thinking of brilliant stories and worlds.” Aw. Sniff.) The love lists I’ve been given are some of my all-time favorite gifts.


If a kid has made a list that interests him, he might go back and add details to each item on the list–which is essentially an exercise in writing paragraphs, although you might refrain from pointing this out. For example, my Magic, The Gathering-loving kid recently made the list, Top Twenty Worst Mythic Rares in Magic the Gathering. At first he started with a simple list of cards, but then he went back and wrote a short paragraph explaining why each card had made the list.

Such an expanded list can serve as a quirky sort of essay in its own right. Lulu once wrote an essay in the form of a list, titled Top Ten Ways to Adapt Romeo and Juliet to the Modern Day. In fact the list essay is a bona fide literary thing; if you’re curious to see what your kids might eventually aspire to, check out this article with a few linked examples.

There is even a series of books on list-making, including one especially for kids, which might inspire. (And you can share lists on that Listography website.) But honestly, once you get going with lists, you find topics everywhere.

I’ll bet you and your kids can come up with some ideas for lists, S. The kids might be more likely to try if you write right along with them. Start with a list: Lists That Might Be Fun To Write…

examples of how to find meaningful writing formats and audiences for kids:

S., I’m sure you know that I believe that kids are more likely to write if they have meaningful, authentic reasons for doing so because I’ve written it so many times that I can’t believe my computer doesn’t autofill the line for me. I can tell from your message to me that you have tried to find writing topics that will interest your kids. You are on the right track!

Here’s something else from my article “How Do Kids REALLY Learn to Write?”:

Writing because Mom or Dad thinks it’s a good idea is not a meaningful, authentic reason! Generally, we write to communicate with others. We write to connect. (Unless, of course, we find fulfillment in personal writing such as journaling. If you have a journal-loving kid, value that!…) We write, very often, because we’re seeking a response. Find real writing opportunities that engage your child and invite response: letters and e-mails; family newsletters; blogs on personal interests; signs and props for make-believe play; displays of favorite collections to share with friends and family; rules for self-designed games. Make opportunities for your kids: host a writer’s workshop; organize a science or history fair; form clubs based on their interests: oceanography, insects, rock and roll music; help them gather a group to write a baseball newsletter; form a team and create a homeschooling yearbook. (All examples of actual activities organized by my local homeschool support group!) If you don’t have enough local possibilities, use the Internet: find websites of interest to your child with writing opportunities; set up group-written blogs or wikis; let your kids explore online forums if you think they’re ready for it; look for fan sites based on their passions; allow them to post reviews on music, books, films, video games; explore the online writing community for young people at figment.

Sometimes it takes time to discover such writing opportunities, S.  Sometimes you simply have to wait for them to happen, as Carrie did above. Sometimes you need to make an effort to make them happen, as in the examples above that follow the phrase make opportunities for your kids.

If your kids don’t want to try a writer’s workshop, perhaps you can start up some other club based on their interests. Of course, even if writing might be involved in such a club, you don’t need to sell it that way. That rock and roll music club mentioned above was started up by a mom in our homeschooling group whose son loved music (and is now a professional musician!) but didn’t necessarily love to write. Each month the kids explored a different decade of rock and roll by bringing projects they’d created at home: posters, Power Point projects, album covers, songs, reports, reviews–it was up to them. And what were they doing while they thought they were sharing a cool common interest? (Writing!)

* * *

Remember, S., that even when your kids aren’t writing, they can be developing writing skills. As I pointed out in that article I keep mentioning, kids develop as writers by growing up in literature-rich homes. They develop as writers by talking about what interests them.

Well, S., you said you’d appreciate “any” advice I might have; I fear I’ve offered too much and can only hope that some is useful. In case my advice is lacking, perhaps other readers can help.

Let’s make a list!

Let’s end this post with a list of writing that your kids have enjoyed. This might be writing they’ve done because you’ve asked for it; it might be writing they’ve done in the context of whatever they like to do. (Those can be the harder examples to recall. Think. Think!) What sort of writing (or dictation) has your child done willingly, enthusiastically?

Let’s create a grand list of Kid-Loved Writing to inspire parents and kids alike.

(You can read all posts in this series here. I plan to write a few more posts in the series, but I’ll wait until September to do so. I’m hoping to have my own quirky writing fun in this space in the meanwhile.)


17 comments… add one
  • Karen Jun 13, 2013 @ 16:53

    As a young child:
    “Wanted” posters featuring dolls or action figures
    Postcards, and later letters, to and from characters in favorite books
    Descriptions of objects (usually toy related) written on index cards for an in-house “museum” display
    Poems, using the book “Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?”
    Song lyrics
    Dictated stories
    Our own joint versions of math books like Measuring Penny and Mapping Penny’s World
    Treasure hunt clues
    Alternative endings to fairy tales
    “Translation” of one genre of story (a romance, say) to another (science fiction, etc.)
    A spy diary, after reading Harriet the Spy
    Menus and dinner orders when playing restaurant; library cards when playing library; receipts when playing store
    Hundreds and hundreds of lists, ranging from alphabetical lists of names for stuffed animals to things to bring on vacation to favorite fictional characters, on and on and on!

    As an older child and teen:
    Word games, especially Balderdash and Spinergy
    Commonplace book of favorite literary quotations
    Theater and film reviews
    More lists

    • patricia Jun 15, 2013 @ 12:50

      Wow, Karen, this is an incredible list! It offers so many fun ideas that might appeal to different kids.

      You’ve inspired me to come back when I have a little more time to add a similar list of my own.

      Thank you for taking the time to recall so many of your daughter’s wonderful writing experiences. It’s an inspiration.

      (Other readers: please don’t feel that you have to be a super-commenter like Karen and leave such an extensive list. 😉 Even one or two ideas that your kids have enjoyed would be a helpful contribution to our longer, cooperative list.)

  • Dawn Suzette Jun 13, 2013 @ 22:49

    I love how you offer up so much insight to families that may fall into many slots along the spectrum of homeschooling.
    As you know, I struggle with the patience part of waiting for them to develop those skills, even for my avid reader!
    List making is big around here and I love the idea of expanding those lists. Brilliant! And something I think my girl will be into.

    Along with lists…
    Favorite kid writing here:
    Dictation of stories with super silly dialog.
    Comic bubbles
    Labels for cork board
    Books for library pickup (with #’s looked up online at home)
    And many of the things Karen listed above.

    Thanks for this post.
    Looking forward to your quirky writing fun!

    • patricia Jun 15, 2013 @ 12:57

      Hi Dawn,

      Thanks for the supportive words. Yes, I think that most of the ideas I share here can be applied to a whole range of homeschooling styles. I’d like to spend more time here offering specific examples of what this might look like for different families. Particularly, I’d love to have more of this sharing of experiences right here in the comments!

      Stories with super silly dialog= yes! 🙂

      I’d be interested in knowing a bit more about your cork board labels…

      • Dawn Suzette Jun 15, 2013 @ 17:15

        That would be great Patricia.

        F is always making different displays on her cork board and writing labels for various parts of the display.

      • patricia Jun 17, 2013 @ 9:02

        Neat, Dawn! A simple thing like a cork board is an instant display, and it invites an audience. I love that F rotates her displays.

  • Kelley Jun 16, 2013 @ 6:13

    Patricia, Thank you for all your wonderful ideas on writing with kids. I spend hours reading through your old posts!

    In addition to the things others have mentioned above, here are examples of writing that happens at our place:

    My 9yo fancy girl writes out party plans (supply lists, guest lists, menus). She also designs outfits then writes descriptions. She creates recipes and makes her own recipe book. She makes cooking tutorials with photos and written descriptions of each step.

    My 11yo son writes mystery stories and comic strips. He and his friends make up their own fantasy role play games (like D&D) and write up the rules and score sheets.

    Scrapbooks! Even my little two like to label pictures from our travels or label pictures of plants and animals that we see on our hikes.

    • patricia Jun 17, 2013 @ 9:06

      Kelley, I have a soft spot for anyone who reads through my old posts. 🙂

      Funny: your daughter does so many of the things that my 17-year-old did at her age. And my 11-year-old likes the same as your 11-year-old!

      Scrapbooks are great! My daughter also enjoyed making digital photo albums (with captions) when she was older.

  • AmandaXC Jun 17, 2013 @ 10:01

    Hmmm…I have two boys and honestly they’ve been reluctant writers. The things they’ve done of their own volition have included comic books, big signs for their door with instructions to parents or visitors, the older one keeps a notebook with notes about his younger brother’s transgressions, letters to faraway friends/penpals, and some blogging. The younger one frequently likes to add things to my farmers market lists (there are some vendors with tasty treats!).

    When I hosted the writer’s workshop this spring, the favorite activity by far was a collaborative story by all the kids in the group, using Rory’s Story Cubes for prompts. It was a pretty funny story about a wizard who gets locked out of his home (wearing flowery pjs) and his subsequent adventures avoiding disaster. The other things the kids liked writing about tended to be descriptive pieces that the other kids had to listen to and then guess the subject. I think any of them would have spent days listing their favorite sweet foods. 🙂

    • patricia Jun 17, 2013 @ 10:58

      “…the older one keeps a notebook with notes about his younger brother’s transgressions…” Ha! That is hilarious! That counts as “authentic” writing, I suppose!

      I love hearing what you did with your workshop kids too, Amanda. It sounds like they particularly enjoyed the writing activities that invited interaction. Again, it’s all about connection, isn’t it?

      • Karen Jun 18, 2013 @ 10:56

        The transgressions list — which is so great! — reminds me that one thing my daughter did over and over was play school with her dolls and stuffed animals, and write lists of the students’ imaginary misbehaviors. That list was usually followed by a “Rules and Consequences” masterpiece. The funny thing is that my daughter is so rule-bound and anxious that she would never do any of the things she thought up for her riotous pretend students.

  • Kerry Jun 18, 2013 @ 3:54

    My older girls like to make lists of the things they want to do when their friends and cousins visit, walk to the stream, play Wii, etc. They also like to make grocery shopping lists, plan parties and write songs, though I rarely, if ever, actually see or hear the songs. I tend to find them crumpled up on the floor in the bedroom or shoved into a notebook. They started a novel together, but have put that on the shelf. They wanted to write a series of novels like the ones they enjoy reading. I think they got ahead of themselves and were going in too many directions. Maybe a list would help. :0)

    My son likes to label his drawings, or make a list of who his drawings are of, because there is always a story behind the drawing. Lately he hasn’t turned any drawing into a full fledged story but, he still makes the lists. And here I thought that was somehow less valuable than when he was writing the full stories.

    My youngest, 5, pretty much just loves writing everyone’s names and sends love notes to all of us. Lately she’s started to, very seriously, jot down long scribbling lines in a notebook and then have me “read” back what she wrote. It’s pretty amusing trying to figure out what she is hoping I’ll get from the scribbles, and I bust up laughing when she whispers, “it’s just pretend Mommy,” when I’m not sure what she wants me to do. I offer to write for her, but unless it’s going to someone else, a card or gift, she likes to do her own writing.

    I love it when I read one of your posts are realize that my kids are doing more writing than I thought.

    • patricia Jun 18, 2013 @ 7:27

      “I love it when I read one of your posts are realize that my kids are doing more writing than I thought.”

      Hey, that’s why I’m here! 😉

      I love all of the multi-age examples. In particular your five-year-old’s “scribbling lines.” She gets that writing is something to share with someone, doesn’t she? She’s on the right track! She’s taking ownership too, wanting to do it herself.

      Thanks for sharing, Kerry!

  • Caroline Tobin Jul 4, 2013 @ 7:10

    Thanks to the people who list their kids’ ages as well as their writing examples. I’m the unschooly but anxious type, so I always feel like I should be doing more when I read about other people’s kids except that most of the time their kids are older than mine (almost 6, 4.5, 2)

    So when you post about your 5 year old’s “writing” I can relax because mine is “on-track” -even though I know I should relax anyway because he’ll catch up when he’s ready…

    Anyway, at our house writing involves lots of love letters to Nana (and sometimes to me and Daddy, or one of the other grandparents), labels for things, and occasionally lists. I’ve been offering to take dictation more (since reading your past posts), but they haven’t really tried to take me up on it yet. He was intrigued by the idea of recording stories on the voice recorder app on my phone, though, but then only did it the one time. There was also a phase of writing songs about trains.

    The 4 year old usually attempts to do the same thing his big brother is doing, but rarely initiates writing projects other than writing his name over and over, or labeling the train pictures they both draw incessantly. (They can both spell Pennsylvania correctly thanks to the railroad)

    • patricia Jul 16, 2013 @ 9:47

      Thanks for stopping by, Caroline! I apologize for the late response–I was traveling.

      It sounds like your kids are doing perfectly wonderful writing for their ages. When you say that your son had a “phase of writing songs about trains” it reminded me that writing often happens in phases. There may be a lot of it at times, and then it may dwindle. In the course of watching my kids grow up, I’ve seen that even with such fits and starts, writing abilities build.

      If you’re more interested in taking dictation than they are in giving it, you might wait until they are excitedly talking about something, and try to take notes. Even if they don’t know you’re doing it. Tell them afterwards that you’re making a record for yourself, and ask them if you can read it back, to see if you got it right. Some kids respond well to having their words in print after the fact. It keeps performance anxiety at bay, which is an issue for some kids when it comes to dictation. Might be worth a try!

      It’s great that your boys have a shared love of trains, Caroline. A shared passion can inspire writing over time, as your boys are proving so well.

  • wanderingsue Feb 10, 2014 @ 8:36

    5yo Henners’ biggest writing project so far has been a series of about 6 “trophies” he drew for me, as excellent tickling awards, with hilarious dictated names and captions, like “The Wiseman 2-Double-2 Trophy, of Course!” and ” Those scribbles are the gold trophies. They are for winning your best tickle competition. And even if you tickle me, and you did tickle me super-fast, I’ll do this super-trophy!”

    He also wrote (dictated) his 2yo sister a story (complete with Baby Bear, magic porridge, pot of treasure and friendly dragon!) as her Christmas present, which melts me every time we read it. It’s printed over 6 pages, and may perhaps be illustrated one day- I haven’t mentioned the possibility, but I live in hope!

    • patricia Feb 10, 2014 @ 9:32

      Sue, I just love hearing the specifics of what Henners is working on. Only a five-year-old could dream up tickling trophies! That’s exactly as it should be–him writing about what’s meaningful to him. And stories as gifts: it doesn’t get any better than that. Such a precious keepsake. Keep writing, Henners (and keep tickling, Mama!)

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