Q: I have a six-year-old son and a nine-year-old daughter. Whilst my daughter would sit and write for hours at his age, my son is still reluctant to pick up a pencil, both at home, and at school, according to his teacher. What can I do to help him be more enthusiastic about writing - especially as he will be tested at the end of Year 2?
A: 'It's a boy thing' is a phrase I try to avoid because I think it's often used too readily as an excuse for all sorts of boy behaviour. However, with writing, there is a clear difference between girls' and boys' enthusiasm and attainment.
Take the annual year 6 'Key Stage 2 SAT's'. Last summer, 71 of boys did so. Meanwhile 27 of the boys. Surveys also show that boys are typically less enthusiastic about writing than girls – which fits with what you're experiencing with your son and daughter.
So why are younger boys less interested in putting pen or pencil to paper?
Sue Palmer, independent literacy specialist and author of 'The Foundations of Literacy' and 'Toxic Childhood', says: "Many boys of this age are not physically capable of writing, indeed research from European countries shows their physical capability to write isn't developed until the age of seven." This is why most European education systems don't start formal schooling until that time.
Cathy Beck, a teacher and private tutor, adds that even when children are physically capable, they can still find writing more difficult than reading, simply because there are so many different skills involved: "It's such a massive task...handwriting, spelling, grammar, punctuation, sentence construction. I think many children are reluctant to write because it's very, very hard."
What can you do about it?
There are two approaches you can take here – the first, suggested by Sue Palmer, is to stop encouraging him to write altogether, laying off until he hits seven. She advises that for now, rather than giving him a pencil, you "send him out to play - pushing a child to write before they are developmentally ready can do more harm than good."
If you go down this route, you probably won't be able to control what he does at school but you would at least be taking the pressure away at home. In the meantime Sue's advice is to encourage fiddly activities, such as cutting, sticking, Lego and jigsaws – these will help develop his dexterity, whilst climbing and play which builds upper body muscles is also beneficial. She adds "and read to him lots, even if he can read independently, as this will help him hear the 'chime of words.'"
It can be tempting to head to the computer as this takes away the physical work of handwriting, but Sue warns that it's best to avoid this as it can become a substitute for proper writing.
I appreciate that, given the realities of our educational system, you might not be comfortable backing off altogether. If so, your best bet is some very gentle encouragement and employing a few smart ways to bolster his enthusiasm for picking up a pencil:
Tap into his interests and find ways for him to write 'for a purpose'. Any writing will be useful at this stage – it needn't be a full blown story – and examples which might grab his attention could include a postcard to his grandparents when you're on holiday relating something tremendously exciting he has just done, a birthday/ Christmas present wish list, a list of his 10 favourite football players/ teams, or a letter to a famous person he likes.
My own primary school-aged son is not the most naturally keen writer around but was rapt the other day by the idea of writing out spoof reward charts for me and his dad. Never have I seen him pick up a pencil so quickly!
Let him choose a special, cool writing notebook and pens/ pencils. For some reason writing on post-it style notes seems to appeal to many kids.
Leave pencils and paper around in strategic places such as near his toys, if you don't already. You never know, he might be in a practical situation when he actually wants to/ needs to write something of his own accord.
Once he is a little more comfortable with writing, if he likes reading a particular type of books suggest he could think up similar tales, even if they're short.
If thinking up whole stories is a stretch, get a sequence of pictures and then get him to write a sentence or two for each one, or alternate a line each if you're stuck on a plane or train, then read the whole story out for him.
Finally, please try your best (again, I know it's difficult) not to worry about his year 2 SATS – the results of these assessments will not go on his university entrance applications or CV and are much more about checking the school's performance than your son's.
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Please note that we cannot enter into personal correspondence and we reserve the right to edit your questions where appropriate.
Liat Hughes Joshi is author of Raising Children: The Primary Years.
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