When I taught fifth and sixth grade, I remember one student who was a very reluctant writer. He had mastered a variety of ways to avoid putting words down on paper, including using the bathroom repeatedly, staring off into space, and sharpening his pencil for the hundredth time. He was the King of Resistance Island.
In speaking with another teacher about this challenge I realized that the student might be intimidated by the sheer size of the blank paper. To help with this, I offered him several sticky notes to write on instead of a sheet of paper. “You can put one idea or sentence on each note. Later, we can put the notes together in the right order on your sheet when you are ready to share your work with someone.” This wasn’t a cure-all, but it certainly got him to write more than before. He did feel successful when he could fill up a blank piece of paper when it was only a couple inches wide and tall. Small pocket notebooks can also serve this purpose.
Putting pencil to paper, or fingers to keyboard, is not as straightforward as opening up a book and reading. With reading, there is a shared responsibility in the work. The author provides the words and ideas, and the reader makes the meaning. With writing, we are tasked with taking all of these ideas and understandings and putting them together to make new meaning. The responsibility is squarely on the writers’ shoulders. It should not be surprising that students might be resistant to wanting to write at times.
Here are some instructional moves a teacher might consider when trying to engage reluctant writers in the classroom.
Track Writing Habits
Personally, I am not a big fan of students monitoring the number of minutes read per day. It’s time intensive, interrupts the act of reading, and makes too much work from what should be pleasurable.
Writing, however, is work. It can be mentally draining and hard to sustain or even get started. A big reason for this is that students have not been in the habit of writing. Tracking writing habits is one way to address this. This idea comes from A Writer’s Guide to Persistence: How to Create a Lasting and Productive Writing Practice by Jordan Rosenfeld. Students can create a table with three columns: Date, What Was Written, and How Many Words. They don’t have to complete a piece, but they do have to write something. The same piece might be in several entries. What’s most important is providing time and expectations for everyone to write daily. A teacher can also demand a minimum word count. This helps students go deeper into their writing and see what they discover.
Provide an Authentic Audience
It’s surprising how quickly we neglect this important part of writing. We get caught up in the flow of school and forget about why this writing is important and for whom.
The audience doesn’t have to be profound. Just having someone on the reading end might be all that matters. Here are some ideas for quickly providing an authentic audience:
- Post student writing in the classroom or hallways.
- Facilitate peer-response groups to offer feedback.
- Have students post their writing to a blog and ask classmates to leave comments.
- Within an online space such as ePals (www.epals.com), partner with another classroom in a different part of the state, the country, or even the world.
- Publish student writing in a digital portfolio or self-publish through a website.
Expect Students to Read if They Aren't Writing
This idea was shared by Regie Routman. All writers know that we sometimes get tapped out with writing. We need a break, both mentally and physically. For some students, writing is often a struggle that they will work hard to avoid. When a student is resistant to writing, asking them “Then what would you like to read?” gives them an option that should be acceptable to both parties. They aren’t writing, but ideally they are reading good writing, which should eventually spark some ideas for future prose.
Not every move will work for every struggling student. It’s smart to try out different approaches, see what works, and make note of these experiences for future instruction. The more tools we have in our own toolbox for engaging reluctant writers, the more we can provide high-quality instruction for all students.