A few years ago, my son opened a Google Document and started typing. I asked him about it and his eyes lit up as he described the shared story he was writing with classmates. This was the first day of summer break but he was choosing to write for fun. It might not sound like much but it’s an example of the tiny miracles that happen in classrooms all the time. My son fell in love with writing in Ms. Reddiger’s class. He spent a whole year getting up early and finishing his chores fast so that he could write a blog post or do a story on Storybird. He viewed himself as an author because of his teacher.
This was the year he moved from like writing to loving writing. But it wasn’t just him. I visited his classroom one day and watched as reluctant writers who had hated the subject worked feverishly on their argumentative essays. Ms. Reddiger had created a classroom culture built around the idea that writing should be fun.
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How do we engage reluctant writers?
We’ve all seen it before. You assign a writing prompt and you have students who write two sentences. Some are scared to get started. Others are convinced that writing is boring. Still, others are struggling and don’t know where to start. So, how do we engage these reluctant writers? I’ve been asking some of the best writing teachers I know and they’ve shared some of their favorite teacher-tested strategies. I’m also including many of the strategies I used as a middle school teacher. So, here are ten strategies for engaging reluctant writers.
#1: Start with voice and choice
Sometimes students are reluctant writers because they are disinterested in the topics covered in school. If they lack background knowledge, they can easily grow frustrated and give up early. However, when you allow them to choose their own topics, they begin to write in an area where they are already passionate. It’s an opportunity to tap into their expertise.
This is why I used to start the school year out with Genius Hour projects. Genius Hour (or 20% Time) projects begin with a simple idea: give students a dedicated period of time to pursue their passions, interests, and questions in a creative way. Although Google popularized the idea, the 3M company used a 20% time decades ago with their engineers.
The following video explores what Genius Hour looks like:
As a middle school teacher, I incorporated the Genius Hour concept into our Geek Out blogs.
The idea is simple. Students write topical or thematic blogs in the topics that they geek out about. We go over examples of blogs (which exposes students to high-interest non-fiction reading) and they look at trends. They see foodie blogs, skateboarding blogs, sports blogs, fashion blogs, gaming blogs, car blogs, history blogs, science blogs, etc.
Next, they create a specific themed blog. They define the driving interest as well as the audience. From there, they begin writing blog posts in various formats:
- They choose the format, including video, audio, and text.
- They choose the topics of the posts.
- They engage in research and share their findings with the classmates.
- They create posts that range from listicles (“Ten Surprising Facts About the History of Skateboarding” or “The Top Five Fantasy Novels of the Last Decade.”) to Q&A to interviews to human interest stories to persuasive pieces to instructions on how to do something.
With Geek Out Blogs, students get to own the entire writing process, from finding a topic and an audience all the way into research, writing, editing, and publishing. They get to choose the format and the genre of each post. And ultimately, they get to be the experts.
The following is a Genius Hour / Geek Out blog prompt that I have used with students. You can download it here.
This doesn’t guarantee that every child will love writing. Sometimes it takes a while, especially when students have a fixed mindset. However, it’s a great start, because you’re telling your students, “I value what you have to say. I’m interested in your geeky interests.”
#2: Ask students to find an authentic audience
Sometimes students are reluctant writers because they see the process as irrelevant. They spend years submitting their work to the teacher only to get it back weeks later. In other words, they publish their work to a backpack or a binder. This is why I want students to launch their work to an authentic audience. For example, when we did our Geek Out blogs, students determined their intended audience and published their work to specific interest-oriented groups on Write About (a blogging platform I co-created).
Years ago, when I created a class online magazine, I showed it to my friend and fellow teacher, Javi. He pointed out that some of my students didn’t have any work on the blog. When I told him that they chose not to share it because they were still weaker writers, he answered, “Then you’ll have to prove them wrong.”
Javi was right. Every student should share their writing with an authentic audience. It doesn’t have to be every piece every time. But it should happen.
I remember one boy who struggled with writing. He was mostly non-verbal and it took him a full class period to type a single paragraph. Few of the students in our photojournalism class interacted with him outside of the required cooperative learning activities. One day, he pressed the “publish” button instead of the “save as draft” button. Minutes later, my heart sank as I noticed his unedited work and the ten comments students had left. Eighth graders can be brutal and I was so worried about bullying. But that’s not what happened. The comments were affirmative and kind. They asked him clarifying questions and engaged in a conversation.
Over the next few weeks, he wrote more and shared things others hadn’t noticed, like patterns in video games and obscure cheat codes. He began to share his photography and his classmates were blown away at the beauty he was able to capture.
That’s the power of sharing with an audience. Reluctant writers begin to define themselves as authors.
#3: Embrace the vintage
While there’s power in sharing with an authentic audience, sometimes the best option is to jot down your thoughts in a private journal. Journals are a space where your thoughts can run wild. You can sketchnote ideas and draw webs and let your ideas move from place to place. It’s like a private playground for writing.
I remember one year when I went fully tech-based in writing. I told everyone that I would “go paperless” for the year. But halfway through the year, I began to miss paper. I missed seeing students sketch out their concept maps by hand and write visual poetry on the blank pages. I missed seeing them take their journals and add stickers all over the front boldly saying, “this is who I am and what I care about.” I no longer saw students frantically scribbling out an idea for writing because they knew if they didn’t capture it, the idea would fly away.
So, I brought back journaling. Here’s an example of a journaling prompt that I use with my college students. It’s similar to a prompt that I would use with my eighth graders. You can download the prompt here if you’re interested.
Not every reluctant writer likes journaling at first. However, for many students who struggle with writing, the private journal is a judgment-free space where students can find their voice.
#4: Connect it to their world
Sometimes students are reluctant writers when they view the writing as irrelevant. For example, if they write an essay describing the causes of World War I, it might seem irrelevant to them. There’s no controversy, no conflict, no impact, and no connection to their world. By contrast, if you ask, “Could we have another world war?” or even “Is Europe poised for another world war?” students have to not only know the causes of World War I but also apply those ideas to the here and now.
It helps to have students learn how to wade through the chaos of online articles and determine which sources are valid:
While it helps to learn how to analyze articles online, you can take it to the next level by helping students craft their own articles. When students create their own blogs, podcasts, and documentaries, they learn how to think critically about the information they consume. It’s a bit like a basketball player learning how to critique the game by playing on a team or an artist learning to analyze the craft by engaging in the creative work. Students need to play around with writing and teachers can create those sandbox experiences oriented around student journalism.
Students can also craft their own editorials by answering critical questions and using facts and logic to defend their claims. Here’s a video prompt you could use with students.
#5: Make scaffolds optional
Sometimes students are reluctant writers because they struggle as writers. Teachers can provide scaffolding through the use of graphic organizers, tutorials, and sentence frames. However, if we want them to grow into confident writers, they need to learn how to self-select the tutorials and scaffolds on their own. This can be challenging. Sometimes students arrived with learned helplessness and they expect teachers to provide the specific structures for them. At times, students with lower task analysis skills will have a hard time knowing how to get started. Here’s where we can model the process for students and practice it in a small group.
I once worked with an amazing writing teacher named Jenny. If you walked into her classroom, you’d see students working at different levels, accessing different online tutorials or walking over to the flip chart and flipping to a specific chart. Each student had figured out what worked for them, whether they were using outlines or webs or a graphic organizer. Because they owned the scaffolding process, she could then spend more time conferencing with students.
Think of it this way. Students won’t always have a teacher there to help, so when we empower them to self-select the scaffolding, they are learning a vital life-long skill. This, in turn, boosts their confidence and self-efficacy.
#6: Write more often
This sounds simple but if we want students to improve in their writing, they need to write more often. We often think about reading endurance and computational fluency. However, students also need to develop writing endurance. Too often, though, students spend days going through a long pre-writing process and listening to direct instruction lessons explaining things like topic sentences and supporting details. Meanwhile, some of your most reluctant writers simply don’t have the endurance to write for a longer stretch of time.
Note that our standards require us to “Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.”
Students should go through an extensive multi-day writing process for certain polished pieces. However, they also need to write daily without needing to create webs or go through a laborious editing process. I used to take the first twenty minutes of our writing block and have students do a quick write in response to a prompt. So, they might answer a question like, “Is technology making our world better?” Although I used picture prompts, you could also use a video prompt:
Some students would write one paragraph. Others could knock out four paragraphs. I didn’t require a specific length. Instead, I said, “Aim for two paragraphs or more but if all you can do is one, that’s okay.” While this helped alleviate anxiety with reluctant writers, certain students thought it was unfair, until I reminded them that each student read a different number of pages during silent reading. My goal was simply developing writing endurance by teaching them to practice writing every single day.
I was talking to my friend, Luke, about this. He’s an English expert who taught at the high school level. “I spent less time doing direct instruction and they spent more time writing. My goal was to make it so interesting that they’d be excited about writing.”
Which leads to my next point . . .
#7: Make it fun
Back when I taught middle school, I made it a daily goal to get kids to fall in love with writing. Even as a college professor, I want my students to fall in love with blogging so that they end up choosing to write posts even when they leave my class.
Sometimes you inspire the love of writing by asking students to do interest-based blogging. Other times, it involves a deeper philosophical question that forces them to examine the bigger questions of life. Still, other times it might be an insightful journalism piece. However, sometimes it’s a quirky, unexpected writing prompt like this one:
Although I taught middle school, I once watched my friend, Trevor Muir, use this prompt as a warm-up. I was worried they would think it was too childish but they got really into it and a few of them asked if they could read their answers to the class. He then turned this prompt into a deeper discussion on the villains in history and the scary reality that they were often very normal in their daily lives.
Often, I would tap into student creativity by asking them to engage in problem-solving or dream up a new idea.
I’ve seen other teachers use writing games, including one where they do a story starter and ask students to finish it (which helps solve the problem of the reluctant writer who is afraid to get started) or use story cubes to define the parameters for the elements of literature.
#8: Integrate writing into larger projects
A decade ago, I met with my PLC and we discussed how we would teach functional text. Our special education teacher listened to the discussion and finally said, “What if we did a maker project?”
“Shouldn’t they spend their time writing?” another teacher asked.
“But if they did a thirty-minute maker project, they could then write the directions for how to use what they create.” She was right. What began as a simple maker project idea morphed into a larger Shark Tank-style project, with students working through the design thinking process to do research, ideate, build, and ultimately create a plan and website explaining their product (functional) and convincing people to use it. We even taught them a lesson on copywriting.
That was a big aha moment for me. If I wanted to inspire reluctant writers, I should integrate writing into projects. Sometimes students created media projects, like documentaries or podcasts. Other times, they did maker projects. Or we might do a short Wonder Day project.
#9: Teach students the strategies for getting unstuck
Sometimes students are reluctant writers because they don’t know what to do when they get stuck. Here’s where you can incorporate strategies to help students get unstuck. I’ve seen writers use this gibberish trick. Others use brain breaks or divergent thinking activities to take a timeout and step back into the writing. Still, others push through the writing by saying, “it doesn’t have to be good because I’ll refine it through iterations.”
My favorite classroom technique has been the Pixar technique, where they generate a list of bad ideas with the recognition that the best idea might be on that list.
#10: Share your writing journey
Students will be more likely to fall in love with writing when they are part of a culture where people love to write. This begins with you as a teacher. When you share your passion, your stories, your examples, and your struggles, students realize that writing is a lifelong skill. We often talk about the use of mentor texts in writing. However, there’s also value in having a real-life mentor in the classroom, inspiring students to view themselves as writers and authors.
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