10 Tips to Inspire Reluctant Writers

You introduce a writing assignment to your students and are met with two reactions.  Some students grab their pencil (or computer) and without hesitation begin brainstorming ideas, outlining, or even diving immediately into the writing process.  Some students, on the other hand, stare at the blank page or screen and utter the same phrase teachers know all too well: “I don’t know what to write.”

Below are some strategies and activities you can use to help reluctant writers get ink on the page or words on the screen while also turning the writing process into a more enjoyable experience.

Giving students a basic prompt like “Describe your summer vacation” isn’t likely to have them engaged or inspired to get to work.  Shake up your prompts by making them wacky, silly, engaging, or thought-provoking to get students’ brains swirling with ideas to put on paper.   One of my favorite ways to do this is with a bundle of highly-engaging video assignments that I created with the talented John Spencer.  John creates hand-drawn videos to hook students into the assignments that are INCREDIBLE.  The bundle that we created has 5 custom video prompts, presentations to explain the writing assignments, as well as all of the pre, during, and post writing handouts, assignments, checklists, and rubrics you need so that each and every student can be successful in each of the writing assignments.  Check out a sneak peek of the videos he created below (the full videos are in the bundle).

The bundle contains tons of supporting documents that can be used to scaffold the writing process for your students (see picture below). The 5 included assignments are:

SOUNDTRACK OF MY LIFEStudents will create a mix-tape for their life by choosing ten songs that they connect with or that represent them.

MY GENERATIONStudents will write an open letter discussing misunderstandings people have about their generation and why they are different than the way people perceive them.

MY LIFE IN TEXTURESStudents will use persuasive and personal narrative writing to talk about their life using three textures. 

GEEK OUTStudents will share information on a topic they geek out about in the form of a listicle.

INVENT YOUR OWN SCHOOLStudents will invent their own school, write about their first day, and develop a promotional advertisement to recruit students.

Many times, reluctant writers have lots of creative ideas, but they struggle with the physical act of  getting their ideas onto the paper/screen.  Using technology (or even a scribe if your school doesn’t have a lot of tech) is not cheating.  You aren’t assessing the physical act of writing, but rather the content and structure that students are implementing.  In this case, I would suggest allowing students to use one of the following strategies:

1. Have students use a voice-to-text software to tell their story or provide their content.  I personally know this helps because I often voice text the first drafts of all my blog posts. In fact, I am doing it right now!  I use the notes app on my iPhone and the voice text feature to talk about everything I know about my blog topic.  Is it ready to publish after I voice text it? No.  Does it give me a place to start and make the process of writing less daunting?  Heck yes!  

2. Have students record themselves telling their story or listing the things they want to write about or include.    Have them use this recording as an outline of sorts.  Because it is recorded, students can go back and listen to their own words, pause, skip ahead, go back etc. which will help them to develop their physical written piece.

Conferencing is such an important strategy to encourage reluctant writers, and it is especially important to make time to have them one-on-one.  Now, I know what you are thinking.  Finding the time to meet with every single student sometimes seems like an impossible task.  I think this is because when teachers hear the word conference, they think they should meet with each student for an extended period of time.  Instead, teachers should think of conferences as a quick check in with students to address only on one area where students could improve their writing.  This is a basic outline of a 2-3 minute conference you could use.  

1.  Briefly examine the text and find one area where the student has done incredibly well and one area where they could improve.  

2.  Take a moment to compliment the student on what they did well. 

3. Find an area where the student needs some work and show them how they could improve through modelling.  

4.  Encourage and urge the student to make a specific improvement in this area.

Teachers also must remember that during a conference, they need to make a conscious effort to promote positive attitudes about writing and motivate the student by praising what they have done well.  While they still must provide support and encouragement in the areas where the student needs work, it should be done in a non-critical and supportive way.   Below is a free writers conference form that you can use to track your meetings with students.  Use the template as a way of tracking progress or as a way of grouping students for more focused instruction.  Download it HERE

The writing process is important, BUT it shouldn’t  be used in every single assignment.  A sure-fire way to make students hate writing is to always require them to brainstorm, outline, draft, edit, revise, and make a good copy.  Develop opportunities for students to write for fun with no marks attached and no pre or post components.  Using the full writing process should be reserved for major summative assignments.  Other writing in your class should be considered formative and doesn’t need to include all of these steps. 

Make a conscious effort to create an environment and atmosphere that is comfortable for students when they are writing.  This may look different for each student.  Some may want to sit at their desk with their ear buds in listening to music.  Some may want to sit by themselves in the hall on the floor.  Some may want a comfy chair with a notepad.  Some may want to be with others to bounce ideas off of them.  Remember that your process of writing may look different than that of your students, and that is okay!  Get to know what works best for them and do your best to create an atmosphere that helps to engage them.

When I reflect on my time in middle and high school, I can’t recall a single time that a teacher shared their own writing with the class.  When I took a Master’s course in writing instruction, I was surprised the professor shared her own examples for each of the writing assignments she introduced. She didn’t only share the polished final piece.  She showed the messy parts too.  Share your writing with students.  Share the struggles you faced while writing and empathize with the challenges they may face.  This will have such an impact on them to know that it’s okay to make mistakes and face challenges, because their teacher did as well.

I am a huge advocate for collaborative writing.  As teachers, we sometimes forget the lonely and uneasy feeling of staring at a blank page, not knowing where to begin.  When we allow our students to work with each other, it provides a there a sense of comfort in that they have someone to discuss, collaborate, and share ideas with. If you’d like to try out some collaborative writing activities, you can check out this post I wrote that shares my favorites to use with students.
Let students write about what they love.  Giving freedom and choice in writing assignments whenever possible is an important key to engaging your reluctant writers.  If a student already doesn’t like to write, giving them a topic they don’t have interest in or a genre they hate will not make your life any easier.  There are standards to meet, but often times the topics and genres have some flexibility and that can make all the difference.

Set up an area in your classroom that has writing support documents that students can refer to independently to improve elements of their writing.  Consider including examples of figurative language, lists of strong verbs, adjectives, or adverbs, graphic organizers, or handouts with tips for writing different genres.

Gather pictures that might inspire creative writing and pass them out to your students.  Set a timer and have them free flow write for 10 minutes.  Tell them that this is stream of consciousness writing where whatever story pops into their head based on the picture must go onto the page.  

They shouldn’t think; they should only write, and their pencil should not leave the page.  Also explain that there is no editing or revising permitted during the 10 minutes.  It is a brain dump of absolutely whatever is in their head (it might not even have anything to do with the picture at first).  The thought process behind this is that it is easier to start a writing piece with something rather than staring at a blank page.  After the 10 minutes is done, students can use what they have on the page to start developing a more comprehensive written piece.
Thanks so much for reading! If you want other resources to help inspire your reluctant writers, check out some of the resources below from the other ladies of the Coffee Shop!

Paragraph Writing Task Cards from Stacey Lloyd
Motivational Monday Bell-Ringers from Tracee Orman
How To Get Students To Write More by Nouvelle ELA
Writing Prompts With a Twist by Room 213
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