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5 strategies for inspiring reluctant writers

By Tamara Letter
November 24, 2014
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" "Who likes to write stories?" "

I posed this question to a class of fifth graders and watched as only a smattering of hands raised. Many of their faces revealed their true feelings toward the topic: Noses scrunched. Scowls and grimaces surfaced. One child even scooted his chair backward in mock horror at the mere suggestion of finding joy in such an arduous task. It was clear that this group would be challenging to engage in the writing process.

I decided to shift my mode of questioning: " "What is it about writing that frustrates you?" " This question got a much more enthusiastic response. My students were eager to share their tales of woe, from paper ripped by rough erasers to the endless struggle to find the correct spelling of a word in a 1,000-page dictionary. They made excellent points, all valid and true. Writing is not an easy task. Even in their 10 years of living, they had already experienced the struggle to become good writers. Most agreed writing was a task the teacher assigned, not something you do for fun.

Writing, however, is something they will likely have to do throughout their lives. According to a report published by the National Commission on Writing for America's Families, Schools and Colleges that surveyed 120 major U.S. corporations, employees need to share their thoughts " "coherently, cogently and persuasively on paper." " The report concludes, " "Today's workplace writing is a 'threshold skill' for hiring and promotion. Writing could be your ticket in or your ticket out." "

As an educator, I want my students to succeed in all things. I am called to guide them through their educational journey and provide support structures to last a lifetime. I know that good communication skills are important in the workplace, in relationships and in life. And because they'll need to write throughout their lives, I want my students to approach the task with joy, not apprehension.

How do we turn our resistant writers into passionate publishers? Here are five strategies that can help:

1. Let them write about the topics that interest them.

Allowing students to be decision makers in their writing assignments can inspire ownership and engagement in the process. Ask them: What do you enjoy doing? What are you passionate about in life? If we were chatting outside of school, what would you tell me about? Remind students that they all have stories to share, and their knowledge base on topics of interest is vast. If they're having trouble choosing a subject, try starting a conversation with them, then allow them to write about anything that sparks inspiration!

Collaborative digital tools can make this process even more engaging. One option is to use Padlet as a brainstorming page, where students can share their ideas on virtual sticky notes on a class wall. Older students could create a Pinterest board to pin photos that inspire creative writing.

On a class blog, you can display a quote or piece of dialogue and ask students to use it to craft a story. Students can also add photos or video to a blog post, then share their thoughts about the item posted.

2. Know thy audience. Know thy voice.

If the first step in writing is deciding what you will write about, the second is identifying who will read it. A story you write for your best friend about your favorite iPad game will be very different than a research paper about Abraham Lincoln. Passionate writers always need to choose vivid words to capture the tone and message of their story, but the vocabulary they choose should be suited to the purpose of the piece.

For instance, if the story is a personal narrative, allow your students' individuality to shine while staying true to the basic structure of storytelling. If they are writing research papers, guide them in professional writing formats and styles, since that audience will expect a more formal tone.

3. Write often, edit more.

Many students spend the majority of their time in the initial stages of the writing process: Brainstorming. Making a plan. Crafting a hook. Writing the story. Creating a conclusion. By the time the story is written from start to finish on paper, the writer is burned out. Who wants to go back, reread and edit when you already spent so much time just writing?

Instead of marathon writing sessions, encourage short bursts of frequent wordcrafting, which can actually maintain more interest compared with longer, unstructured stretches. Carve out consistent but small sections of time each day or week for writing time.

Writing is an evolving practice, and you are never really " "done." " While your story may be amazing in its first draft, editing is essential to make it shine. Teach your students how to edit for grammar and revise for meaning.

One digital tool that can assist with editing is ProWritingAid. While the premium version is robust, the free version provides enough suggestions to help writers identify weaknesses in their writing and what they have done well.

Another digital editing tool is the Hemingway app, which can identify common writing no-no's, such as passive voice and sentences that are too long or complicated to read.

Remind your students that no published book ever went straight from the first draft to the shelf. The more you write, the better you become!

4. Use a digital format to ease the process.

The greatest frustrations my fifth graders shared were with the tools they were asked to use for story creation: pencil and paper. Transitioning young writers to a digital writing format allows tedious tasks, such as moving paragraphs and adding details, more efficient and practically painless.

I'm not just talking about word processors. Online options now abound. Introduce your students to a blogging site such as Kidblog, WordPress or Blogger, then teach them how to use the digital tools. When students realize that these tools can help them identify and fix misspelled words at the click of a button, their frustration with searching for words in a dictionary simply vanish.

You can also use Google Forms to assist in documenting strengths and weaknesses during writing conferences. You can custom-design a form that identifies various aspects of a student's writing, using checklists, text boxes, rating scales and more. Check out this sample Writing Conference Google Form to get some ideas.

BrightLoop is another digital database teachers have used to store information about students' writing progress.

5. Encourage them to share their stories with others.

Receiving feedback on your writing is perhaps the quickest and most effective force for sustaining motivation in the writing process. But you don't have to be your students' only reader. Embrace the power of social media to give them an authentic audience.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Post writing links to a class website on Weebly, sharing the link through weekly memos to parents or text messages via Remind.
  • Tweet a link with the hashtag #comments4kids for public blog sites.
  • Model the writing process by sharing a piece of your own work, allowing students to see firsthand the powerful impact of another person's story. Show students how to analyze the piece and leave helpful feedback through comments.
  • Host a publishing night at your local library and invite community members to listen as students read their stories and poetry aloud.
  • Explore options for turning student stories into a published class book or ebook.

When students see the impact their thoughts and words can have on the global community, their intrinsic motivation grows, powering them over the initial hump of frustration as they become more skilled with writing tasks. Empower the passionate writers in your class so they can empower others in return.

Tamara Letter has been an elementary teacher, differentiation specialist and technology integrator. She holds a master's degree in educational leadership and is licensed as a PK-12 administrator. She is also a SMART Certified Lesson Developer and Exemplary Educator, Graphite Certified Educator, and Edmodo Support Ambassador. And she is a mom of three who enjoys blogging about Random Acts of Kindness and creating recipe guides for Snapguide. Connect with her on Twitter at @HCPSTinyTech.