Ideas for Motivating Children to Do Creative Writing
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Ideas for Motivating Children to Do Creative Writing

Integrative Thematic Writing

Asking a child to write a report is sometimes like asking him to clean his room. He (I will use “he” rather than “she” because more often it is a masculine issue) drags his feet to get started and then does the bare minimum just to get by. Clothes and food are shoved under the bed making the process and the product painful and disgusting.

Wise parents structure a clean-the-room training period. Based on the developmental abilities of the child, the parent teaches the skill of making a bed and folding clothes. Since a young child takes more pride in his room when he makes some of the choices in decorating, they give him ideas, show him pictures and allow him to decide what to hang on the walls. They make the work more fun or interesting by having a race or developing a game of pretending that Bob the Builder will be coming to inspect their work. Working with the child not only models steps in making a room look acceptably clean, but also provides the attention, company and feedback that children need.

Similar steps are essential when motivating children to write as well:

  1. Provide interactive skill training.
  2. Allow choices in topic selection and in expanding the knowledge base.
  3. Brainstorm themes that could be integrated with the topic.
  4. Accept verbal interaction during the writing process.
  5. Provide positive feedback while helping to edit for a final product.

Children begin learning to write at the moment they can create a verbal message of any sort, from telling stories and jokes to expressing complaints and arguments. Nevertheless, the baby step from thoughts to words is much easier than the giant leap from oral language to written language. This is especially true for some children who have no desire or need to write. Thus, their reluctance to write can become an insurmountable obstacle for balancing their language arts program.

The typical first step toward writing is the prewriting stage in which the writer is given a topic and begins to formulate prior knowledge or imaginative ideas to determine what he might write about. Teachers have felt the need to assign topics or provide writing prompts because children appear to struggle even more when left to select their own topic. This method is effective with right brained, verbally acute children. Unfortunately, many children lack background knowledge or experience on the topic and thus have no interest in another “boring writing experience.” Often teachers end up with a story or report that resembles the last TV show the child watched or a jumble of unfocused ideas loosely linked together.

I became aware of these problematic issues as a teacher and as a parent watching my children struggle with writing assignments. It was in that same time frame, more than 20 years ago, when our family began writing creative Christmas letters. I noticed that their participation in writing the family Christmas letter elicited enthusiasm and satisfaction. I have since labeled that process integrative thematic writing. The first step in writing a creative Christmas letter is to gather the family together to generate a list of each person’s accomplishments, events, travels, changes, activities and humorous situations. These were topics in which they were intensively interested and, of course, had much knowledge.

Step two is to select a theme with which to integrate the family topics. Some themes are readily identified because of the nature of the topics, such as a Good News/Bad News theme when there seems to be a preponderance of both that year. Other themes can only be discovered during a creative alpha-wave episode in bed, when a good idea just seems to pop into your mind. Generating a list of themes that have been used before can be a reliable source when new ones are not forthcoming. Some themes are simpler to do than others but all are more fun to write and more fun for our friends and family to read than a traditional annual family report.

For example, a List Letter could pertain to a theme such as the “Best Sellers List.” Using this theme, we described various topics about our life in a paragraph that resembled a book review. We had to focus on the main idea to dream up a title for each “book.” However, the part we enjoyed most was creating an author’s name that fit the theme of the book. For example, in the paragraph describing the third appendectomy occurring in the family in five years, we entitled the book, The Phenomenon of Reoccurring Appendicitis by Dr. Belle E. Button. Other lists include the top 10 anything: such as Lessons Learned, Blessing, TV Shows or Reasons to Visit Us.

Another strategy to integrate a theme in sharing information is to utilize the format of anything in print. The most obvious are newspapers, magazines and yearbooks. Some of the themes we have used include a crossword puzzle, diary, game board, a phrase dictionary and letters to Santa. Integrating information “Format Letter” style enhances the potential to share more in-depth information and could readily be used as a way to make a letter more attractive to read.

A third approach to theme integration is writing from the perspective of someone or something other than ourselves. We told about our lives through the “words” of a child, the dog, the house and even our guardian angel. One was even written from the perspective of having lived a hundred years ago with an old-fashioned looking picture of us to prove it.

Therefore, all members of the family, within a reasonable age range, participated in the letter-writing process of list making, theme selection, and writing (or oral dictation) of many of our letters. It was a time to celebrate each person’s successes, and practice their skills in editing, decorating and preparing the letters for mailing. The product was a chapter in our written family history since we saved our letters from year to year. Ultimately, the letters were compiled with ones that our adult children have written with their own families to become my book, Ideas for Writing Creative Christmas Letters That People Are Actually Eager to Read! The book is available at http://www.WritingCreativeChristmasLetters.com/.

After experiencing integrative thematic writing each year, I noticed that our children began using it for their schoolwork. The most beneficial application of this process occurred when my daughter decided to apply for acceptance at the Focus on the Family Institute. Rather than answering the application questions in essay fashion, she chose the format of writing a letter home to Mom and Dad as though she were already at the Institute. She was able to effectively answer each question while impressing the selection committee with her creativity. She was one of a few chosen from a highly qualified field of applicants.

Provide Interactive Skill Training

Skills for writing can be caught as well as taught. The learning begins when we read fiction to children. We can help them to identify character, setting, problem and solution so that they can apply this structure to their own narrative story writing. Reading nonfiction books with children lays the basis for descriptive writing, which is typical of reports in the content areas of the curriculum. With any book, we can ask comprehension questions and discuss the main ideas. Later, when they read to themselves, they can share what they have learned with us. We can even make a list of everything they have learned. This precursor to learning how to take notes prevents the copy-from-the-encyclopedia syndrome later.

As children learn new skills such as tying their shoes or flying a kite, we can ask them to dictate a step-by-step list of how it is done. Without knowing it, they are practicing expository writing as they organize their thoughts on explaining how something is done. We can take advantage of an occasion when a child is adamant about getting his way. Rather than congratulating him for the foundation he is laying for persuasive writing, simply tell him that you will only listen to his arguments in written form (dictated if he is unable to write himself.) You could model this by writing your own persuasion paper from the opposite side of the topic.

Some children are unable to express their feelings simply because they have not accumulated a feeling vocabulary. Saying, “I’m wondering if you are feeling frustrated because…” not only gives them a new word but helps them to get to the root of a problem that they typically identify as either feeling sad or mad. Displaying a chart of feeling faces is the first step to helping children first verbally express their feelings and later to write about them too. Writing in a journal or a diary can be therapeutic and an outlet for pent up emotions. Poetry is another structure for expressive writing.

Children are more prepared for the world of writing when they first have oral experiences in the various forms of writing needed for a balanced writing program.

Allow Choices in Topic Selection and in Expanding the Knowledge Base

Most parents have recognized that when a child, who wants something, is given the responsibility of earning the money to buy it, he tends to take better care of it and takes greater pride in the ownership. The same theory applies to writing. When children have a voice in selecting their topic for writing and also their theme, their motivation will increase. They will want to learn more about their topic, do revisions to add clarity and then be eager to share it with others in a finished form. Topic and theme selection cannot be done in a vacuum.

In order to write, we need to have a background of knowledge or experiences from which to draw the content. In addition, we write best from our passions. Be alert to which subjects seem to spark a level of keen interest in a child, and then nurture that interest to motivate a writing experience. Selecting books from the library or videos pertaining to that topic help to bolster the knowledge base. Taking a field trip or a vacation to a place where they have an opportunity to observe it first hand, not only increases their awareness and enthusiasm but may also generate other topics to be pursued. Helping children to make lists of information and observations about their topic, gives them a quick reference to what they might include in their writing rather than depending on recall exclusively. Teaching a child to organize that list in an outline form will make the writing flow more easily.

Brainstorm Themes That Could Be Integrated with the Topic

In the classroom setting, theme selection can be done in a similar manner as with the family creative Christmas letter-writing session: Brainstorming. Each topic can be evaluated against a list of themes that have been applied by others, such as in the Creative Christmas Letters book, in other literature such as Ben and Me (Benjamin Franklin’s mouse), or even in movies. The CARS movie is an excellent example of how a theme can enhance the telling of a story. The story line of CARS could have been told with live actors in a normal small town setting. How much more captivating to experience the story from the perspective of the cars, themselves, in a setting rich in 1950s and route 66 themes!

Some topics lend themselves readily to some simple brainstorming by children. (Caution to parents: Don’t be too quick to identify theme ideas but rather nudge the children in various directions.) Perhaps some children are interested in the Pony Express, and have learned all about the history, mechanics and the trials and tribulations of the riders. They could brainstorm as a group what themes would be fitting for the topic. One child may want to use persuasive writing with a “list” approach. He could develop a poster that might have been used to recruit Pony Express riders and station keepers. In addition, he might write a letter to a young man from his family, persuading him not to join the Pony Express. Using the “format” concept, a student could write a narrative with a diary theme to record what he sees, hears, feels and experiences on the trail from day to day. A “perspective” piece could be written from the viewpoint of the Indians and could be more descriptive of the history and impact of the Pony Express.

Themes for topics in all content areas have similar potential. Studying the body lends itself to writing from the perspective of a particular organ or taking a canoe trip down the blood stream. Being in a time machine or in a space ship places a child in a position to write in the first person about what he sees. Listing the procedures or experiences of famous explorers or inventors could be made more interesting if they pretended to be that person while writing. Scripts for a news program or a play can be written to actively share their information before an audience. Artistic children may prefer to write and illustrate a travel brochure to describe a trip or a geographical area.

The possibilities are endless but even so, not all writing assignments lend themselves to themes. Nor is it necessary to use a theme, as long as the child is interested in writing. Because some standardized testing requires that children learn a specific style of writing, it may be essential to focus instruction on a specific writing protocol at times

Accept Verbal Interaction during the Writing Process

Writing is a collaborative process for children as we witnessed with our creative Christmas letter-writing experience. Internalized speech, or silent thinking, is an adult skill that is not well established before adolescence. Therefore, it is essential for children to talk in order to give form to their thoughts, whether they talk to themselves or to others. Although the writing process may not always be in a family setting, students can be placed in small groups as they write. Be careful to separate students who play off of each other to disrupt the others, rather than to focus on the task. In that case, the consequence needs to be removal from the group since group interaction could also be considered a privilege.

In a group, they can ask each other for help with spelling, they can read aloud what they have already written and they can encourage each other. Children often leave out information that a listener may question them about, thus revising their work so that others can understand and enjoy it.

Provide Positive Feedback While Helping to Edit Toward a Final Product

The teacher, who is also circulating among the groups, should model for them how to respond to one’s writing in a manner that is encouraging, supportive and challenging to the writer rather than evaluative. She should share her own writing for the students to comment on as well. Good listening and questioning helps the writer to refine the piece and feel a sense of value that their ideas are worth writing about and sharing. Other specific class lessons can address issues of sentence structure, grammar and spelling that will potentially carry over to enhance the quality of their writing. Nevertheless, before completing a final draft, papers can be evaluated for mechanical errors so that they can share them in a written or verbal form with pride.

Over time, you may find that these five steps may become a part of your natural approach to teaching and better yet, that the students may gravitate toward using their imagination to write without your outside stimulation. Eventually kids clean their rooms on their own because there is a privilege or reward waiting when they are done. In some cases, that privilege may be a college acceptance letter and that reward may be a scholarship, when they master the strategy of integrative thematic writing.

Remember the last time you went shopping to find that perfect outfit for a special occasion? You wandered from store to store looking for just the right style, with just the right color, in just the right size. When you saw it on the rack, you were excited about it but hesitant to check the tag and try it on for fear that the price would be too high or that it wouldn’t fit well. It is my hope for you, that integrative thematic writing is something that you can take home with you. The cost of spending time with your students to train, nurture, brainstorm and encourage toward better writing is well worth the price. It is also my desire that it would be a good fit for you and for your reluctant writers.

APPENDIX A:

The Writing Process Checklist

PLAN YOUR WRITING: What do I want to say?

FIRST DRAFT: Write your ideas in sentences. (opening, body, closing)

REVISING: Make my writing better

Checklist:

Read to myself

Are my details in order?

Is there anything confusing?

Cross out unnecessary details.

Can I use more exact or colorful words? (Thesaurus)

Read to someone else

Allow them to ask questions and make suggestions.

Make the changes YOU think are important to make.

In Revising, we REWRITE, REORDER, ADD, and DELETE words.

PROOFREADING: Finding and correcting grammar mistakes

Checklist:

1. I checked for capital letters at the beginning of my sentences and on proper nouns.

2. I checked for proper punctuation at the end of sentences and for commas to make sentences clear.

3. I indented each new paragraph.

4. I looked up and corrected words that might be misspelled and added them to my spelling list.

5. I had someone else proofread my work.

PUBLISHING: Completing my final draft

Checklist:

1. I corrected all the revising and proofreading in my writing.

2. I recopied my work NEATLY.

3. I am proud of my final work and am ready to turn it in for

evaluation and to share it with someone.

Thanks to Carrie Gerrild for allowing me to borrow ideas from her Writing Process Checklist.

APPENDIX B:

INTEGRATIVE THEME IDEAS

Dipping into the creative well too often can be draining (pun intended) for the teacher. Therefore, this theme list may be helpful to begin the brainstorming process. Sometimes a theme may be so captivating to a child that it becomes the topic as well. Although they are categorized under various writing forms, the themes are certainly interchangeable.

Just as some writing forms can be combined, so also can different themes be intermixed. For example, this ebook uses a combination of description and exposition writing forms. Although the body of content has no theme, I have chosen to begin and end it with a word picture analogy theme. The purpose of the word picture analogy is to stir emotion and make the reader connect with the writing.

Feel free to print off this list and add new themes that you have tried.

DESCRIPTION

NARRATION

EXPRESSION

TV game show

Play

Diary

Board game

Skit

Poetry

Magazine

Song verses

Acrostic

Multiple choice quiz

Reality show

Good/bad news

Who’s who

Fairy tale

Word picture analogy

Time table

Science fiction

Blessings

News program

Future vision

Newspaper

Time machine

Yearbook

From the perspective of

Christmas letter

  • an animal

Famous person interview

  • the Earth

Autobiography

  • a car

Letter

  • a body part

Best selling book list

  • an astronaut

Top 10 TV shows

  • a baby

EXPOSITION

PERSUASION

Shopping list

Want ad

Survival strategy

To-do list

Menu

Commercial

Owner’s manual

Travel brochure

Do it yourself guide

Editorial

Recipe

Book review

Self help tips

For-sale listing

Magic show

Political campaign

Hobby

Lessons learned

Sports

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Comments (2)

Excellent article. I'll make use of these with my kid.

great sources of information and tips for me as teacher

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