3 Truths to Help Students Who Lack Writing Skills

Here it is. The 5th and final reason students hate writing. We’ve gone over external and internal reasons why students hate writing. But sometimes the problem isn’t that deep. Sometimes, your students just can’t write. They lack writing skills. Well…they don’t have enough skill to write fluently.

It’s like me and Spanish. I have some skills, but not enough to speak fluently. So when I need to use Spanish, I get flustered and frustrated and I don’t even want to try anymore. It’s not because I don’t want to speak Spanish. It’s because it’s hard and I don’t know enough to speak it well.

female hand holding pen writing in journal

Well, it’s the same with writing. Only, instead of encoding your thoughts into another language, you are encoding your thoughts into written characters and symbols. And then there’s grammar and spelling on top of that…and development, organization, and style on top of THAT! It can all be very overwhelming.

But if you truly understand the writing process, you understand that most of the fears and apprehension unskilled writers show toward the writing process are based on an incorrect understanding of the process.

Here are the 3 TRUTHS you MUST help your unskilled writers understand.

girl with glasses cat computer biting pencil out of frustration

Truth #1: Your Ideas are More Important than your Writing Skills.

I get asked this question a lot: “Mr. Manoa, how long does our writing have to be?”I get really sarcastic at this point ONLY BECAUSE I emphasize my philosophy on length SO OFTEN.

I bring their attention to the trash can and say something like this. “The trash can has a little bit of garbage in it. Would it make the trash can more valuable if I added more trash to it? Why not?”

The student might say something like this: “Because it’s still garbage.”

Then I say, “What if I organize the garbage inside the trash can? Food wrappers here. Broken pencils there…”

They’d respond, “No. It’s still garbage.”

Then I’d say, “What if I replaced the garbage with a rough chunk of solid gold? Would it matter if there were only a few pieces? Would it matter if it was rough and unorganized?”

Then they’d answer, “No, because it’s still gold.”

Then I’d drive the point home. “Exactly. Because garbage is still garbage and gold is gold no matter how much there is and no matter how it is organized. It’s the same with writing. Which is worth more, 10 pages of organized garbage ideas or 1 page of unorganized golden ideas?

The point is ideas are more important than writing skills. That’s the first truth all students need to understand.

Now, there’s no getting around writing skills. You need them. BUT here’s the next truth…

young girl writing with red pencil

Truth #2 – You already have enough skill to get started on the writing process.

Often, students who lack writing skills focus too much on what they DON’T have. But because they don’t really understand the writing process, they are unable to see that they have most of the skills needed to get started on the process.

However, because we, teachers, understand the writing process, we need to help them see that they already have enough skill to get them started.

What skills do your unskilled writers ALREADY have?

1. Gathering Ideas

  • Listing ideas
  • Sketching ideas

It doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.

2. Determining the purpose of their writing

Students don’t need to have advanced writing skills to decide what they want their writing to do. They know this even without thinking about writing.

Students want to…

  • make someone laugh
  • convince someone to agree with them
  • teach someone how to do something

None of that takes writing skills. It takes ideas. And as mentioned before, the point you need to try to get across to your students who lack writing skills is this: ideas are more important than skills.

3. Drafting

This can be one of the more frustrating parts of the writing process for your students who lack writing skills…because this is the part where they actually have to do writing. The problem is, like I said earlier, that they think that they need to write it perfectly the first time.

But that’s not true. They need to think of the drafting process like gathering on the of the ingredients of a recipe and putting them all on the counter. Once you have the ingredients, THEN you can worry about what you’re going to do with them.

But HOW you get the ingredients on the counter, and how they are organized DOES NOT MATTER. You just need them on the counter. After that, then you can consult an expert (via person or recipe) on what to do and how to do it.

Drafting is the same thing. The ingredients are your ideas and the counter is your paper or word doc. It doesn’t matter how you get the ideas on the paper or even how they are organized.

What matters is that you get all the ideas on the paper. Once they’re there, THEN you can consult the expert (teacher or tutor) on what to do with your ideas and how to do it.

Two Tips on Drafting for students who lack writing skills

1) First, start by writing how you speak. Students can speak a mile a minute because they are not worried about development, organization, and grammar.

At the beginning stages of writing, those things don’t really matter. The important thing is to get the ideas written, however clear. Once they are written, THEN you can teach them how to fix it. Don’t worry them about organizing their thoughts until after they are finished writing.

2) If that doesn’t work, use text-to-speech. I know that some writing teachers avoid that kind of technology use, but (if used correctly) I think it is a powerful way to help students to make sense of their own speech.

    1. Have them speak a sentence.
    2. Show help them to edit the grammar.
    3. Challenge them to speak in a way that requires less editing.

You have effectively helped them with both speech and writing.

If you’re still skeptical about using text-to-speech, check out this video “Text-to-Speech in the Classroom” by Edmonton Regional Learning Consortium (ERLC).

4. Reading

Have them choose an author they like (well…any author that uses correct grammar) and keep that book with them. They can use that author to help them…

  1. Understand sentence and paragraph structure.
  2. Make word choices.
  3. Organize their ideas.
  4. Develop their own style.
girl in green shirt and headphones writing

Truth #3: You don’t need them until the last two steps of the writing process: revising and editing. 

Sure. Some writers have mastered writing and can write amazing pieces on their first whack at it. And although that makes the process quicker, it is not the only way.

Students who hate writing because they lack the skills probably don’t understand that they don’t need the skills at the beginning. They just need to get their ideas written no matter how bad they are. 

Once it’s written, then they can learn the skills they need to improve their writing. Thinking about how far behind they are in the “writing skills” game will only unnecessarily discourage them. 

They don’t need to know EVERYTHING about writing to write a great piece. They only need to know the skills pertaining to THEIR piece. And those are the skills that they should learn AFTER  they get their ideas written down.

The better your students understand this, the more they can use you as a resource.

Here’s a real-life example: I had a student who, in the 6th grade, had the writing skills of a first-grader. Once I had gotten him to get his ideas on paper, he had come to me in a conference and asked me how he could make a certain part of his narrative stand out. 

Then I was able to give him some tips about using concrete verbs and how to find out what those verbs are. We practiced on sample sentences until he got it. Then he used his newly-acquired skill on his own writing…and it was WAY BETTER! 

That was proof to him that he didn’t need to know EVERYTHING about writing to write well. He just needs to have the ideas AND SOMEONE HE CAN TRUST TO TEACH HIM THE SKILLS HE WANTS TO LEARN.


That’s it. That’s what your students who lack writing skills need to understand.

1: Your ideas are more important than your writing skills.

2: You already have enough skill to get started on the writing process.

3: You can do most of the writing process without worrying about writing skills.

If every student understood these two truths, the writing process would be a lot less scary

Once your students have something written, it is a lot easier to decide which writing skills to teach. This is true for revising and editing. For widespread writing issues, teach a whole group lesson. For isolated issues, address them in small groups or conferences.


Have you tried it out?

Tried something similar?

Comment below. I’d love to hear what you’ve done.

*Check out the main post: “Why Your Students Hate Writing” *

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