13 Ways to Engage Reluctant Writers

I don’t feel like a fantastic reading teacher. I’m still trying to figure out sixth grade math and science. However, I feel confident enough in teaching writing to share a few thoughts on how to engage reluctant writers:
  1. Make it practical. There are some students who hate writing, because all they’ve ever written is stories and poems and they’ve never learned about the clarity of prose or the need to be concise in a functional text.
  2. Make it impractical. Allow students to be fantastical, bizarre, witty and off-the-charts crazy in their writing.
  3. Allow freedom. At least half of what kids write in my class begins without prompts. I tell them that they can choose the topic or the genre as long as they’ve hit each genre by the time we’re done. I also don’t set requirements for length. They respond well to this type of freedom, often going above what they had previously thought they would do. Similarly, I teach kids four or five ways to pre-write and then I let them choose the approach that they prefer.
  4. Help struggling writers. It isn’t wrong to create diagrams showing how to construct paragraphs. I keep word banks of transition words. I work with lower-level ELL students on higher grammatical structures and creating compound sentences. There is nothing wrong with scaffolding. The problem, however, is that teachers often use this approach with every student in the class.
  5. Meet one-on-one with kids instead of pulling small groups. Simply sitting down and conferencing for makes a huge difference in editing.
  6. Write more. We do a disservice to kids when we treat every piece of writing as a long, laborious process with pre-writing, drafting, editing and final drafts. Sometimes they just need to practice writing more.
  7. Make it more interesting. Change up the writing prompts. In other words, find topics that engage them either by being novel, unusual, creative or deeply meaningful. I’ve found that visual writings prompts can make a huge difference in helping students want to write more.
  8. Find a real audience. Let them create podcasts with their writing. Let them record videos based upon their writing (visual poetry works well for this) and let them blog on topics that they find interesting. Allow them to engage with one another in a written format. I’ve found that blogging comment sentence stems can really help them learn how to use meaningful discourse.
  9. Make the space inviting. I’m struck by the term “binder vomit” to describe classrooms covered in chart paper. I don’t want that. It’s not where I go to write. I like to write at Starbucks or in a comfortable chair or outside by a garden. The space matters. If you walk into my classroom during writing time, you’ll see kids sitting down against a wall, moving their chairs in focused solitude or finding comfort in their own desk, because it is “theirs.” There is free movement, but it never feels crazy. There is a general hum of talking, but it never gets loud.
  10. Share your passion for writing. If you don’t have the passion for writing, find someone who does and bring them in as a guest speaker. I tell my students about my blogging, journal writing, magazine editorials and novel-writing. I want them to know that writing is more than simply an activity one has to do for school.
  11. Don’t break it into silos. I don’t buy into the idea that we should do three weeks of expository and then two weeks of poetry and then four weeks of persuasive text followed by a month of functional text. They wear out when it’s hyper-structured. I think it works best to cycle back to genres.
  12. Create projects. Documentaries are heavy in writing and heavy in research. However, the research isn’t simply “a phase.” Similarly, business proposals and budgets require a ton of writing without it feeling like a “writing project.” Want kids to peer edit? Let them co-write a website.
  13. Be creative. I like to have students design things. It can be a treehouse, a baseball stadium, a perfect school, a new course syllabus. Just let the mind wander, find something passionate and then write about it until it feels like it could be real to you.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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24 responses

  1. Well written! I would also add to make it authentic and real-life. Create opportunities to be inspired by music, sounds, walks, trips and global classroom projects (for example). Having an authentic audience and purpose is the best we can give our students.

    1. I like that idea. All of that can be inspiring for students.

    2. reactionary?

    3. Care to elaborate, Anonymous?

  2. Great article. I have drastically changed how I get my pupils to write and definitely follow the rule about keeping it short and meaningful. I don't have a writing time in my class as I used to, as writing is now far more reactionary.
    We write to read it aloud to others and share it on our Blog. We have to follow the school plans but making the stimulus practical is the key. Thank you for sharing your insights.

    1. I like the fact that you are embracing simplicity and you do shorter, reactionary pieces.

  3. I also work with http://writingprompts.tumblr.com/ and http://www.plinky.com, of course with careful choice of the topics taking consideration of students needs, interests, emotions

    1. I should have mentioned that site. Luke Neff is a genius. He and I have worked together on some of our writing prompts.

  4. I'd like to add that you need to also account for the amount of work this takes. Very often, if you're older students (I have high school sophomores), you find that you're not only working against your students' reluctance to write, but their reluctance to do anything that isn't going to be marked up or graded. I want us to be constantly writing but I don't want to be constantly grading, so I have them keep a journal.

    Furthermore, I actually have found that I have to put a length requirement on journal entries because otherwise, the students who truly are reluctant to write will write a single word or nothing at all and then it's a waste. I collect these journals about twice a quarter and just take a look to see what they're doing. Sometimes, I have them expand on their entries in a larger assignment such as an essay; sometimes, what they wrote is fine (depends on what we're doing). But since they're not far removed from whatever Skinner Box they were living in, I have to grade them at least a little .

    You'd think this would be simple, btw … but this year my students seem completely bewildered by the idea that when we do a quick prompt or some other exercise, I'm not collecting and grading it right that second.

    Teaching writing in high school is such an uphill battle that no wonder so many give up.

    1. The testing and grading culture is one of the hardest battles to fight. I'm with you on that. My only hope is that keeping it creative and meaningful will make a difference.

  5. Just keep on walking Clumsy. Brainy suggested that the wisest ruled the world, but in the end, it was Grumpy inciting fear on talk radio that led to an uprising.

    1. It took me awhile to realize that you were answering the writing prompt. Nicely played.

  6. Great article!
    The only thing I think is missing is….
    Share your struggle with writing too!

    How freeing it is to some students to see that it is not something that comes easy to everyone.

  7. Thanks for the ideas – some might be helpful for my own child who is definitely reluctant with his writing! Here's another idea for you that I did with intermediates one year – more as a writing warm up. We gave them 5 or so random words – one tied to setting, one to character, etc and there was always one word they may or may not know which may require use of the dictionary. You then told them to write a story using all the words. Initially some would write one really long sentence using all the words at once but some of the reluctant writers would write a little more each time and couldn't wait to share their stories aloud (sharing was optional). The other teacher in the room really got into it which got the kids totally engaged. It was a really fun activity as they kids could be as silly as they wanted and it led to lots of laughter.

    1. I like that idea. It certainly spices it up and makes it more challenging. I can imagine that it would push kids to be a little more creative.

  8. I do hope you will add 100 Word Challenge ( 100wc.net) to your list. It is having a great impact on writing particularly those who are reluctant for whatever reason.

    1. Thanks for letting me know about that resource. I've never tried that, but it sounds interesting.

  9. I agree that the writers workshop model gets old fast if you ask kids to follow it for every assignment. I am a big fan of list making when the writing muse isn't readily available. Those lists start turning into full sentences and explanations. Also love the comment about chart paper and the environment. Teachers forced or trying to prove that they are teaching to all the standards can make their classrooms into a visual hell.

    1. The crazy part is that Writer's Workshop is great. The process is great. It just needs to be balanced a little and is often overly-structured.

  10. Wonderful tips!

    1. Thanks!

  11. Enjoyed reading your tips. Thank You!!

    I'm a sixth grade teacher and enjoy sharing my technology endeavors through http://www.yoursmarticles.blogspot.com

  12. Thanks John for always sharing such a unique & latest updates..I read your blog on daily basis because It helps to keep me updates.

  13. John,

    I really think your article reinforces some excellent pedagogy and ideas. I really enjoyed your point about 'hyper-structured' planning for teaching text types. It it important to ensure students can differentiate between text purposes, but I fully agree that students see straight through us if we aren't flexible.

    Great post. Inspiring.



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