Can repetition alone improve your writing skills?

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We like to think that repetition naturally leads to better performance in school. After all, practice makes perfect. By making our kids write and write again, by forcing them to memorise set after set of vocabulary, their writing skills should improve, right?

Well, the answer to that is yes… and no at the same time.

Why repetition doesn’t necessarily increase a student’s writing skills

Here’s what you need to know about repetition: it is only really useful when the student has a set of “tools” at their disposal, and which they actually know how to use. The student should also know what you expect of him or her. Without being given any “tools”, or without the proper knowledge to use them, repetition can only lead to frustration and anxiety.

(Note that by “tools”, I’m referring to methods and techniques, not writing instruments.)

This explanation is easy for me to see, because I’ve been trained in this field. However, for parents, it’s not always immediately obvious. To elaborate, let’s go through three analogies:

Analogy #1:

toolsImagine being asked to hammer a nail into a wall with your bare hands. You have no tools whatsoever. That would be an impossible task, right?

Well, that’s how kids with learning challenges feel. Many times, it feels like an impossible task when a writing assignment is given to them. It’s not because they’re stupid; rather, they usually lack the “tools” which many of us take for granted, like phonemic awareness.

Analogy #2:

Now, assume you’re a newbie carpenter. Imagine you have a drill and some nails. You’re asked to mount a wire mesh on to a wall. However, you’re not told the exact steps on what to do. All your boss said to you was, “You have your instruments, now go and make some magic.”

Sure, you might get it right on the first try if you’re really lucky. The wire mesh would have perfect alignment, the nails would sit in flush with the wall, and you would not have any unnecessary holes outside of where the wire mesh is.

But if you’re not lucky? Or if you’re careless? I mean, anxiety happens, right?

That’s kind of how many of our kids feel. Sure, they may know the “tools”, but they may not know how to use them properly. Repetition will often worsen the anxiety, frustration and sense of hopelessness. In the best case scenario, they may succeed at using these “tools” eventually, but in the worst case scenario, they may take it out on themselves, blame the tools, and give up.

Analogy #3:

Let’s say you now have a drill, hammer and nails. You’re also given a few pieces of wood and asked to make a table for a client.

That’s it. That’s all you’re told. You were not told the type of table to make, nor the client’s expectations. Without knowing what the other party wants out of the final result, it’s not going to help you accomplish anything.

That’s kind of how writing is for many students. They usually have a rough idea of what to do, but they often don’t know what is fully expected of them. There can be a lot of ambiguity here, and no amount of repetition will make things any clearer for them.

In a nutshell, the fault may not lie with the “tools”, nor with the student’s innate abilities. Rather, it may be the way the student’s guided on how to use the “tools”.

Guiding students properly is the first, most important step to writing

…slowly but surely, they will begin to get it, so long as the three prerequisites are met.

To guide a child on how to write properly therefore requires a few things:

  1. The child needs “tools” to write. Again, I’m not talking about writing instruments here, but rather, a set of techniques or methods that they can use to help them write a solid essay. Some kids just have a natural flair for writing, in which case most techniques would be obsolete. This is fine. A heuristic, technique or method is just a learning crutch.
  2. The “tools” must be easy to understand. If they’re messy and unstructured, or if they’re full of technical jargon, you’re just going to end up confusing yourself and your child.
  3. Make clear for your child what they need to achieve from a writing assignment. Telling them that they need to “write a good composition” is ambiguous, because “good” is subjective.

Once you have these prerequisites, you can guide your child one step at a time. It may take a while before your child finally knows how to apply these tools. He or she will stumble, express confusion, and question you. However, slowly but surely, they will begin to get it, so long as the three prerequisites are met.

Now, some of you may be thinking, can’t we just let students learn by experience? By making them do practices repeatedly, they should be able to develop these skills on their own, right?

In the beginning, yes, this may work just fine. However, as the child gets older, incidental learning becomes, well, even more incidental. Chances are, the proportion of incorrect to correct answers will spiral out of control, due to the increasing difficulty of the subject. By then, we can only hope that the child hasn’t given up on the subject.

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Feedback is important too

feedbackEven when taught the right techniques in a guided manner, kids can still make mistakes. Here, feedback from teachers and parents is important. It doesn’t matter whether it’s written in red ink, or just told to the child verbally, so long as the child knows where he or she went wrong.

Feedback should be specific and constructive. If your child hasn’t been using a technique properly (e.g. the 5W1H), point it out and demonstrate how to do so. In this way, kids will incrementally improve in their mastery of the techniques taught to them.

How repetition factors in

Once the child is properly guided, this is where we can start to use repetition to further refine those rudimentary writing skills. Practice will make perfect here. Because the child now has an understanding of the “writing tools” at their disposal, they should be adept enough to begin writing on their own, even if not able to produce a masterpiece.

However, repetition doesn’t have to involve writing essay after essay. It can be broken down into bite-sized chunks. For instance, the child can practise writing introductory paragraphs first. When they’re more confident, they can move on to producing entire essays on their own.

Ultimately, what we want to achieve through practice and repetition here is to help the child attain mastery of the techniques taught. Again, this works best when the child already has a solid foundation from past guidance and feedback.

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Writing can be fun, but it’s also a difficult process, and in fact more complex than we think it is, according to research at the University of Greifswald. Besides logical reasoning, it also requires a great deal of creativity. Students need to tap on a variety of cognitive and executive functions in order to produce a well-written and coherent essay that’s on-topic.

As such, guidance and feedback are needed alongside repetition. Without these two elements, things will quickly fall apart. Repetition helps students to become better writers when they already have a foundation there, but without that foundation, it may end up becoming a waste of time.

On the other hand, with consistent guidance and feedback, repetition not only helps students to hone their writing skills, it also boosts their confidence in writing. It amplifies the effect. And when that happens, you can be sure that your child will be fully self-motivated to produce one masterpiece after another.

In fact, at Swords & Stationery, learning is effective and engaging for this reason. Rather than throwing assignments at our kids, we scaffold the learning process with plenty of “tools” and feedback. This has helped many of our learners to overcome their learning difficulties, and to become overachievers. Drop us a message to find out more about our programme. We’d be more than happy to chat 🙂

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Teacher Shaun

Teacher Shaun a self-professed geek and lover of all things old-school. When he's not playing Fallout or Deus Ex for the nth time, he can be found sitting in front of his laptop hacking away at his keyboard, typing blog posts like this one. He also runs a little company called Swords & Stationery.
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