Reluctant Writers: All content

Reluctant writers

A reluctant writer is one who experiences one or more barriers to the writing process on a regular basis. Barriers may be exhibited during the process of writing as well as, or instead of, the start of the process. In addition, a reluctant writer may be defined as one whose writing is habitually superficial, either because ideas are not expanded or because the writing is executed in haste. Before identifying a pupil as a reluctant writer careful observation is required to differentiate between characteristics of reluctance and compositional styles. Being slow to start a piece of writing, or pausing for long periods during writing, may be indicative of a writer's style of composition rather than a reluctance to write. Observation of both the writer and an assessment of samples of writing in more than one context are required before a writer can be defined as reluctant.


The evidence presented here is from a three year research project funded by the Bedford Charity (Harpur Trust) in the UK (2007-2010).

  • Phase one of the project sought to investigate the impact mind maps might have on the writing of reluctant writers.
  • Phase two of the project involved a comparative investigation of the impact on the writing of reluctant writers of mind maps and other pre-writing strategies, including: story maps, film and drama.
  • Schools worked collaboratively with a lead researcher from the University of Bedfordshire, which is located at the cusp of south central and eastern England


  • There were two phases to the project (2007-09, 2009-10), the first of two years duration involved 66 pupils aged between 6-9 years old and 11 teachers across nine schools, and the second involved 44 pupils aged between 7-9 and 8 teachers in five schools. The schools were a mixture of rural and urban schools in Bedfordshire, UK. The pupils were from a range of ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds (from those living on state benefits to the moderately affluent).
  • Parental consent was given in all cases. Because of the high level of interest from parents, one school ran a workshop to demonstrate mind mapping for parents.


Teachers were trained as co-researchers. They set up the study with the pupils by explaining the purpose of the study and providing experience with the mind mapping methods. There were then regular symposia between the teachers and the university based researcher to discuss and analyse the data and the plan the next stage of data collection.

Data were gathered through:

  • participant observation by teachers who were trained to use the same methods. Observations were recorded in a journal.
  • analysis of the pupils' work using two assessment models (APP and Gardner: see assessment node in this MESH Guide)
  • pupil survey (during the study )


Examples of some of the instruments used in this study, to gather data from pupils, can be seen below:

Identification - characteristic behaviours

The following characteristics may indicate that a pupil needs help to overcome barriers to writing (not all pupils will exhibit all these characteristics):

  • a general lack of ideas
  • writing is a physical struggle... poor fine motor control/sedentary
  • difficulty with spelling which impedes writing
  • a view of writing as secretarial skills rather a creative process
  • difficulty remembering what s/he is writing about
  • quick to finish with writing being superficial
  • plays it safe with writing and is reluctant to take risks
  • good at telling stories but has difficulty writing stories
  • truncated writing - starts but is unable to extend writing

Context - Influencing factors

The project investigated possible factors that might influence a propensity towards a child's reluctance to write. Five factors were identified. A central feature is the child's feeling about writing and self view as a writer.

In general, it was found that multiple factors lay behind a pupil's reluctance to write. However, in just under one third of cases reluctance was attributable to a single factor. In the first phase of the project, teachers identified this single factor to be a desire, on the part of the pupil, to produce perfect, or near perfect, 'work'. This hard core of 'perfectionists' made up the 31% of pupils whose cause was solely located in a category called the 'Affective Resistor'. Further investigation may have revealed other contributory influences but these were not as obvious to teachers as the 69% of pupils who were more easily identified as having multiple causes.

The most frequent of these multiple causes were cognitive factors. These were found in 64% of cases and the frequency is perhaps indicative of the multiplicity of skills required of the writer.

External influences on the learner were identified in 42% of cases. The most frequent example of the influence of Culture and ethos was parental expectations.

Physical factors occurred in 32% of cases with fine motor control cited as the main impediment.

The most infrequent influential factor identified was pedagogic causes. Only 6% instances of this influence were identified. In the context of the study there was insufficient evidence to explore this more fully.

Pedagogic factors

This set of factors covers methods of teaching, teacher attitudes to writing and thinking about children as writers. One teacher, with wide experience of schools over many years, stated that children taught by the method of 'emergent writing' were generally more motivated to write than children in classrooms where secretarial or transcription skills are privileged over compositional ones, thereby leaving children with the view that writing is primarily concerned with the skills of handwriting, spelling and punctuation. Whilst these are important skills that need to be taught, compositional skills are the true measure of a writer's ability to write. However, where teaching causes a child to internalize the view that the quality of transcription is the indicator of good writing, a skill the child may not have fully mastered, it may lead to the child developing a self-view as a poor writer.

A further pedagogic factor identified by the co-researcher teacher as possibly affecting children as writers is the teaching of writing through decontextualised exercises, with an emphasis on syntactic accuracy.

For example the National Literacy Strategy (DfEE 1998), which dominated pedagogy in England for a decade from 1998, encouraged the sub-division of literacy lessons into word, sentence and text level work. This approach runs the risk of leading to fragmented teaching. It may also hinder opportunities to engage pupils with whole texts, either as readers or writers. The data indicated that that an over emphasis on grammar, punctuation, and spelling or inappropriate teaching of grammar de-motivates some children in terms of their creative writing because they become overly conscious of grammatical correctness rather than expressing their thinking. The findings suggest that effective teaching of creative writing develops pupils' self confidence as writers by engaging both their emotions and intellect.

Cognitive processes

The following is drawn from the literature providing the foundations for the study. See Gardner( xx) for details. Writing involves the integration of complex mental operations such as memory, motor-control, creativity and language processing. Poor orthographic memory or an inability to correctly spell a new word in the pupil's developing vocabulary can significantly constrain writing because of the pupil's fear of making a mistake. As a result the writer resorts to a repertoire of familiar words. This can result in an overly conservative approach, lacking the kind of risk-taking necessary for writing to develop. Alternatively, the 'poor' speller completes work that is peppered with crossed-out words or their efforts are returned from the teacher with numerous spelling errors.

A second aspect is the mis-match of the child's ability to share ideas or tell a story and their ability to write it. In this instance the child may be aware of the relative ease with which the story flows orally but becomes frustrated when this is not so easily processed in writing. There is, therefore, a dislocation between oral creativity and thinking processes during writing. This may be due to the additional skills required in written composition. Many established adult writers confess to finding writing a mental struggle. If the experienced writer finds this to be the case, it is not surprising the same applies to the novice writer, except the novice writer may have fewer personal strategies to help them 'wade-through' the process of writing. Extended writing requires mental stamina. Mental stamina may include not only the tenacity to work through, what is for the writer, a complex textual process, but may also include the inclination to proof-read and edit writing.

Some writers feel the need to craft every sentence until 'perfect' before moving on. Writing can be a slow and painstaking process for this type of writer. In classrooms where writing must be completed within specified time-slots, the perfectionist may never complete a piece of writing 'on-time', thereby appearing to be a reluctant writer, or else becomes one due to feelings of frustration or inadequacy.

Physical factors: sensory, motor

For adults, it is easy to forget that writing is a physical process. Several younger pupils in the study had difficulty containing their work on a single sheet of paper because their diagrams and writing tended to be too large. It was felt that this would improve over time as these pupils refined their fine-motor control and spatial awareness. One teacher noted;

'It made me realise how impediments such as poor fine-motor skills and spelling impact on writing.'

This comment seems to suggest that teachers, who are themselves experienced writers, may take for granted the physical and orthographic skills required of young children. To be able to see the process of writing from the perspective of the child is likely to be an important pre-requisite for teachers of writing. The fact that the project has brought about this realisation would suggest that positioning teachers in roles as participant-researchers enables them to perceive learning processes differently and thereby encourages a more insightful view of pupils' difficulties.

Pupils who find the physical process a struggle, either because they lack the fine-motor control to create well presented work, or because they find extended writing by hand a physically painful process, may become reluctant to write. Both reasons can have an influence over how the child feels about writing and how they see themselves as a writer. The pupil's feelings about the presentation of their writing could be influenced by feedback from home or the teacher. This might suggest, in some instances, a convergence of physical factors and cultural ecology or pedagogic factors, which then feed into the pupil developing 'Affective Resistor' tendencies.

Teacher perceptions of gender

Early in the research when teachers were asked to identify reluctant writers in their class a common feature was teachers' tendency to name only boys. The gendered identity of the reluctant writers was questioned with reference to research in gender studies which suggests girls tend to subvert teacher directed learning by means of covert behaviour. Even though girls were included in the final sample, boys outnumbered girls on a ratio of 2:1. The gender imbalance of the cohort reflects more general trends in the consistent disparity between the genders found over years in England's SATs results which reveals boys' writing lagging behind that of girls in the primary age range (5-11 years) .

This finding raises questions about the issue of teachers' perceptions of gender in relation to written composition, suggesting there may be a proportion of girls who are being insufficiently challenged as writers because they do just enough to dip under the teachers' monitoring radar and, therefore, their reluctance to write is less transparent than that of their male counterparts.

Pre-writing strategies: story and mind mapping

Whilst, in itself, mind mapping may be a useful tool for systematically recording ideas around a given subject, the finding that pupils in KS1 can take up to 6-8 months of 'rehearsal' before they are able to independently construct mind maps negates their use as a 'ready made' panacea for the planning of writing with this age group. In order to become competent in the use of mind mapping pupils in this age group required a considerable amount of teacher support and scaffolding.

Although the use of mind maps was generally found to improve pupils' ability to structure writing, teacher observations suggest there was a tendency for pupils to replicate in writing what had been written on the mind map without further embellishment, resulting in writing which was technically accurate but lacking in flair and imagination. In addition, it was also found that some pupils produced very detailed mind maps but did not translate the detail into their writing. When using mind maps for narrative writing, pupils should keep information simple rather than making a detailed plan. The joy of narrative writing is in exploring an unfolding virtual reality rather than replicating what has already been decided.

The second phase of the project investigated the impact on writing when mind mapping was added to, or preceded, another pre-writing strategy. Pupils 'performed' better when the mind map was accompanied by another visual form of 'scaffolding', such as story-mapping or cine-literacy, than when accompanied by kinaesthetic forms of 'scaffolding' such as role play and drama. The order in which mind mapping is used appeared significant. The use of film, followed by mind mapping had a more positive impact on writing than when the process was reversed. We also found that although the majority of EAL pupils in the study improved when using mind maps, they tended to respond more positively to story mapping than they did to mind mapping, which would lead to the conclusion that story maps are more effective than mind maps with this group of pupils.


Two sets of assessment criteria were used in the project to evaluate pupils' narrative writing. The first set were the Assessment of Pupil Progress (APP) criteria. These were generic writing criteria devised for national use in the UK. The second set, referred to as the Assessment of Narrative Writing (ANW), were devised by the lead researcher, Paul Gardner, and were based on key elements of narrative.

The findings suggest a significant number of pupils demonstrate higher standards of writing when assessed against the ANW criteria than against the APP criteria. Although these findings are derived from a relatively small sample of pupils, the analysis suggests that across a larger population, such as a national sample in the case of Key Stage Two SATs, an assessment paradigm that values pupils' creativity rather than one that privileges technical accuracy could yield a different set of results from current data in the UK that suggests pupils' achievements in writing lag behind those for reading.

This aspect of the research can be found in the following paper:

Gardner, P. (2012) Paradigms and Pedagogy: revisiting D'Arcy's critique of the teaching and the assessment of writing. English in Education, Vol. 46 No. 2. 2012, 135-153

Areas for ongoing further research and feedback

Research into other interventions which success with reluctant writers is welcomed.

Email to discuss adding your research or case studies if you want to test the ideas further.


Questions which would make for an interesting follow-up study include the following:

  • children's motivation for writing at home
  • the frequency with which they engaged with different text types and
  • modes of writing, ie electronically or by hand