7 Ways to Inspire Reluctant Writers
“All my life, I’ve been frightened at the moment I sit down to write.”
Gabriel García Márquez
Writing takes courage, even for adults. If authors with a track record of success feel fear when they face a blank page, what does this mean for our students? What does it mean for English learners, and students who struggle with literacy?
Teachers and parents know. Some students don’t want to write. They avoid it, procrastinate, or just copy any sentences they can find to finish and move on.
I used to be a reluctant writer, and now as a teacher, writer and learning leader, I thrive on inspiring students to write. It’s an amazing transformation that takes place when a student moves from fear to courage and realizes the power of his or her words on a page and screen.
It takes a synthesis of factors to make it happen, especially when we are building courage for writing in rigorous academic contexts. The following seven factors are essentials I recommend for an inspired writing classroom. The list could easily be longer, and I invite you to add your insights and recommendations in the comments below.
1. Write for a reason.
Writing is communication, but it’s easy to forget this in a classroom In school, students often write only for the teacher — to get feedback and a grade. From this experience, the message many students internalize is this: you write to be judged.
One key way we can help shift the message about the PURPOSE of writing is to be sure students always write for a reason. With every assignment, help students write for a real audience and purpose.
Purpose inspires reluctant writers in classrooms, including my own son. In first grade, he resisted writing. The assignment at his writing center was typically to write a paragraph about anything. Even with teacher support, and ideas to write about, he spent all of this class time “thinking.”
The same thing happened with our support at home, until I shifted the focus from his general assignment to a more specific task for a purpose and audience. Tapping into his interest in backpacking, I asked him to write a script for a You Tube video that would teach others a skill.
With an audience and purpose, he got so involved in thinking about the ideas to communicate that he wrote a paragraph without it ever feeling like an assignment. To him, it didn’t seem like writing. That’s the point. Writing should never be the end goal. Communication is the end goal, and writing is one path we take to achieve it.
Writing for audience and purpose is also essential for success with the Common Core State Standards. Writing standards #4 calls for students to write using development, organization and style appropriate for the task, purpose and audience. The only way to learn to vary writing according to purpose and audience is to write for diverse purposes and audiences throughout school.
2. Read powerful mentor texts.
Effective writing inspires. Through models, other authors show us what is possible, and what we can accomplish in our own writing. Whether you are having students write research papers, academic arguments, narratives, resumes or recipes, bring in real-world examples of the genre. Mentor texts include:
- Published examples
- Student examples
- Class-constructed examples
In her keynote address for the recent California Reading Association PDI, Nell Duke made an excellent point that our mentor texts should model the text type, but not also the topic students are asked to write on. The goal isn’t to do the task for them to replicate, but to help build their awareness about how a text is structured and what craft features they can use to communicate in that same genre.
Analyzing mentor texts not only helps writers, it also is a powerful context for building student expertise with the CCSS reading standards (#4-6) focused on craft and structure. Engage students in analyzing the impact of craft and language on a piece of writing both to deepen reading comprehension, and to illuminate tools students can apply to their own writing.
I had never really understood why we analyzed the structure of texts in school until I began to do so as an adult writer in graduate school. It all just seemed like some academic exercise until I realized that by studying the language, craft and structure in other texts, I could learn to write more powerfully on my own. Help students make the connection, and become inspired by what other authors can do, by making the study of mentor texts a regular part of reading/writing instruction.
3. Be sincere about fear.
In his book, The Courage to Write, Ralph Keyes points out that fear is a natural part of the writing process. Let students know this. Share the quotes from professional authors about fear and courage in writing, and your own experiences feeling fear as a writer facing the blank page. I often share with students the concept of an internal critic by sharing the voice I sometimes hear when I begin to write:
(I start to write.)
Voice in my head: “That’s no good.”
(I write a few more words.)
Voice in my head: “Cross it out. Start over.”
When I ask a classroom of students if they have experienced a similar voice when they start to write, most raise their hands (or nod quickly). Naming this phenomenon and giving students strategies to address it is powerful.
“I write in terror. I have to talk myself into bravery with every sentence, sometimes every syllable.”
One strategy to get past that critic is to use a 10-minute quick write in which you set a timer, choose a short task, and then engage students in writing continuously for 10 minutes without editing, deleting, crossing out or stopping. If they get stuck, they can just write what they are thinking. Don’t use this approach for every assignment, but as an exercise to help students intentionally move past fear. I recommend making the task part of what students are working on, such as composing a body paragraph from an outline.
As a writer, I use this strategy frequently to get past the most difficult parts of a text I’m trying to compose. Sometimes words from a quick write don’t make the next draft; other times they become the most powerful part of the piece. Try it. You might be surprised.
4. Balance Structure and Choice.
Whether you are facilitating writer’s workshop or teaching writing with a lock-step teacher’s manual, take the lead as a teacher to balance structure and choice. Writers benefit from structures, including predictable writing time and deadlines. We also thrive on being pushed from our comfort zone with specific writing opportunities that force us to try writing in a new content area or genre. Structure learning into genres of focus so that you can provide the depth of modeling and guidance diverse learners need to thrive. Create structures of accountability to engage every student in expanding his or her writing potential.
In tandem with structure, create opportunities for student choice. Choice is a powerful motivator, and is key to engaging students in developing their craft as writers. To create choice in any classroom context, begin with what you want students to gain from an assignment, including the writing standards and content learning goals. Within those parameters, identify opportunities for students to make choices about topic, form or audience. For example, if your goal is to have students write argument essays, let them choose the topic. If your goal is more specifically to have students make and justify claims about the American Revolution, let them choose claims to make and/or the format for publication.
It’s important to remember that the Common Core State Writing Standards specify very broad genres for writing: Argument, Informative, and Narrative. Writing tasks, topics, and formats are choices curriculum authors and teachers make to help students master the standards. Don’t make every writing task a response to a narrow prompt. When the objectives you want to teach can be addressed in a variety of ways, support students authors in choosing the most engaging path.
5. Refer to Classroom Writers as “Authors.”
Hang around adult writers and you might be surprised how few call themselves writers or authors. I certainly didn’t for years. To many, an author is someone who has reached some high level of fame or income by publishing their writing. Even the word “writer” is one we don’t easily claim as our own.
Change this in the classroom. Refer to students as authors. When you study a student text, talk about the choices the author made. When presenting options to students, be clear that “as authors” they get to choose how to communicate their ideas.
In our language and focus, we help students see themselves as authors who learn from other authors, and get to make choices in shaping writing to communicate in real and powerful ways.
6. Engage in effective feedback.
Inspire writers to do their best by giving feedback that focuses on specifics about the writing and its impact on the reader. Use rubrics and checklists to support student-driven reflection and specific teacher and peer feedback.
“I admire anyone who has the guts to write anything at all.”
Avoid praising talent with phrases such as, “you are such a good writer.” This type of feedback reinforces the idea that we write to be judged and can foster a fixed mindset (Dweck 2008). Instead, be specific in describing what the writer has done in the piece to communicate effectively. For example, “your use of specific description in this first paragraph really helps me visualize the scene.”
To address challenges, identify one or two revision goals relevant to your instructional focus. Prioritization is especially important when providing feedback to authors who struggle with craft and make multiple errors in grammar and mechanics. Don’t try to catalogue every error; highlight one or two specific areas in which the student can take immediate revision steps to create more powerful, effective prose.
7. Publish in a Variety of Ways.
We end writing where we began: with purpose and audience. Only now, instead of simply naming purpose and audience, we follow through with publication and the celebration of reaching readers with our written words. Publication is a powerful motivator for writers. Consider ways to publish student writing in the classroom, community and world. Some diverse ideas for publication include:
- Reading to peers
- Creating class books
- Mailing writing or presenting it to others beyond the school
- Publishing writing about a local museum or library at that location
- Posting writing to a blog, website or safe online chat community
- Presenting academic writing to a group of local experts on that topic
In next week’s blog, look for specific examples, online tools, and educator networks teachers can use to engage students in publishing for real audiences to master each of the writing types in the Common Core State Writing Standards.
How do you inspire reluctant writers in your classroom?
What would you revise or add to this list?
Dweck, C. S. (2008). Mindset: the new psychology of success. New York, Ballantine Books.
Keyes, Ralph. (1995). The courage to write: how writers transcend fear. New York, Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
Photo Credit: iStockphoto. Pen and notebook in classroom. Retrieved June 1, 2012 from http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/images/results.aspx?qu=write&ctt=1#ai:MP900439382|mt:2|