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3 Strategies to Improve Student Writing Instantly

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Editor's Note: A version of this post first appeared on Techie Teacher and Character Coach.

"But Miss Parrish, I can't think of anything to write!"

Haven't we all heard similar lines in our classrooms? We see hesitant writers sit with a pencil in their hands and a paper on their desks, almost as if they have been handicapped by the task we asked them to do.

How is it that some students have so much to say when talking out loud, but when a pencil is put into their hand they suddenly hesitate, struggle and have nothing to say? How can you help those hesitant writers eliminate the "handicap" or barrier that suddenly appears when asked to write?

The answer is to simply have them produce "writing" without technically "writing" at all. That's right, the way to get hesitant writers to produce as much "writing" as they do "talking" is to have them do exactly that -- talk.

Strategies That Work

1. Student Talks, Teacher Writes

  • Have your student stand up while you sit in his or her seat.
  • Pick up the student's pencil and simply state, "You talk, I'll write."
  • This usually catches students off guard and takes them a minute to realize that it's a real option for them.

2. Audio Record It

  • Identify a way that your students can audio record themselves "speaking" their essay rather than "writing" it. This could be a tape recorder, digital audio recorder, student computer with a microphone or even an audio recording feature on your phone.
  • Hand that recording device to your student and say, "Step out in the hall and 'write' your essay using this."
  • See confusion, sheer awe, and then signs of relief come over the face of your student.

3. Audio Transcribe It

  • Identify an app or tool that will transcribe speaking into text. Some options for this include PaperPortNotes, Dragon NaturallySpeaking, Dictation Pro, VoiceTranslator, or a text-to-speech tool that is built into many smartphones. Try one of these to your phone, tablet, or computer.
  • Before I had an iPad in my class, I usually opened a blank email on my iPhone, touched the text-to-speech button, handed my phone to my student and said, "Go ahead -- 'speak' your paper."
  • Next, see confusion, sheer awe and then signs of complete relief come over your student's face.
  • After speaking/typing it, the student can simply email him- or herself the text and work on the draft from there.





Communication Before Craft

The sooner students (and teachers) can see that writing has nothing to do with a pencil, a piece of paper or keyboard, and the sooner students see that writing is simply communicating, the sooner they will start making incredible progress. Barriers will come down. The handicapping hesitation of putting the pencil on the paper to "write" will go away. Then students will feel free to "say it as it is" in their writing. After all (and I can't stress this enough), writing is simply communicating, but through the pencil's lead rather than through the person's lips.


Our concern is not whether a student communicates something through a pencil, pen, keyboard, chalkboard, papyrus, stylus, audio transcription device or otherwise. Our real hope and goal is for individuals to capture their high-quality thoughts and then convey them effectively to others. These strategies break down the barriers between a student's mind and his or her audience. These strategies free up thinkers to express their thoughts without the handicapping hesitation that makes some students' minds go blank as they pick up that pen or pencil.

How have you helped students write without putting pen to paper (or pixel to page)?

Was this useful? (3)

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dantompkins's picture

I have actually used the teacher write/student talk strategy with older students as well. I had a number of students last year who had difficulty getting their thoughts on paper. They had fine ideas, yet could not get started. I went back to the early grades and would pull the kids aside one at a time and start them off with an opening paragraph. I would often add a few good adjectives and phrases and attribute it to the kids. Once they got a good start and after some time they started joining in with the rest of the class and it really seemed to help them. No child is born a great writer, it takes a different strategies to get the ball rolling for each child. Enjoyed the comments, Dan Tompkins\

N. Bryson's picture

Ali: I love your quote: "How is it that some students have so much to say when talking out loud, but when a pencil is put into their hand they suddenly hesitate, struggle and have nothing to say?" ~ It is so true! :-) I really liked your "Audio Record It" and "Audio Transcribe It" options; both utilize technology, and both prove that writing is a thought process - not "just writing!" I especially like your suggestion of utilizing an app tool "that will transcribe speaking into text." This would - I believe - get students more motivated because they get to use something they LOVE (their phones) and because they wouldn't have to physically WRITE (at least not initially; they will eventually have to transcribe and streamline their thoughts)!

DavidAyer's picture

I teach a College 101 course in 'business writing' - I think doing an audio transcription task that leads to a written product would be really valuable, but could anyone suggest what kind of writing they might be tasked with? The content couldn't be just made up on the spot...perhaps it could be treated as a dictation/editing/document use task where one student is tasked with audio transcribing another's bio sketch, something like that?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program

I think it depends on what the point of the assignment is. These comments have focused on using dictation as a way to help students get started with their own writing, when they're stuck or have trouble with the actual act of writing. If your goal was to help your students learn how to transcribe or take dictation, then I would imagine that the actual content you had them working with would matter less since the learning goal is about the transcription rather than the writing process. Does that make sense?

AYetsko's picture

What will writing look like in 20 years? I have a fourth grader who I have thought about teaching to type and then quickly decided it was a waste of time- by the time he is an adult, he will use dictation rather than typing. Yes, he needs to know how to move around a keyboard (and as a digital native that is not a problem). I wonder how writing instruction in school should best be framed to ensure that our students are effective writers for their futures. I think this brings up some excellent ideas about how we can use technology as part of the process and it can be a valid tool to develop student writers for the tools that they will be using to produce.

AYetsko's picture

These are great ideas for differentiating instruction for students with special needs. I think like many accommodations, they would also benefit general education students. The synergy that is developed when students work together benefits all students.

Newmie83's picture

As an elementary school teacher, I cannot begin to tell you how many times I too have heard the, "I can't think of anything to write about" line. In this ever-changing world of technology advancements, I cannot believe I never thought to find an app or add-on that allows my students to "speak" their story and then use this to go ahead and write it. I have so many students in my room who are reluctant to write, but can tell me every detail about the things they did over a long weekend. The opportunity to differentiate instruction for my students is so important to me, and these ideas will surely help! I wonder if using tools like this will begin to change the way my students feel about writing? I will have to give it a try.

Ragavi Roy's picture

The strategies followed for instant writing is extremely good. Thank you for sharing the information.

Ragavi Roy

Newmie83's picture

With testing in mind I was wondering if anyone knew if any of these add-ons would be made available to students during standardized testing? If so, does anyone know which one? I would love to get my student using a program in which they can use during tests such as the PARCC assessment.

Russell's picture
Instructional Specialist

I know the goal of your article is to offer strategies to educators to help students break down the barrier between their thoughts and their writing. However, your readers would be best served to understand that what you are offering as a strategy, a prewriting strategy, is an early part of a process for writing and not a final stage. It is an oversimplification to state, "The sooner students (and teachers) can see that writing has nothing to do with a pencil, a piece of paper or keyboard..." Again, if students aren't introduced to the strategy in the context of a process, chances are good they will not grow in their writing skills until they comprehend revision, editing, and reflection.

Lizzy Potts's picture

This is an excellent approach to try for students who find the blank screen or page very intimidating, and while I think it can be a great technique for prewriting, I hope that students are provided with guidance to help them get from their spoken words to a polished piece of writing. There is a big difference between a recording of thoughts and an essay, but as long as students know the steps to take in order to get there (which may be different from what they would do if they were prewriting in a more traditional sense), there is no reason to ignore using technology most of us (and our students) have in our pockets - especially if it takes some pressure off students and helps them reach ideas in new ways.

Jennifer Gonzalez's picture
Jennifer Gonzalez
Blogger at Cult of Pedagogy

Ali, all three of these are wonderful ideas. As a language arts teacher, I often dealt with students who got stuck, and as a writer, I get stuck all the time. I use plenty of tricks like these to get unstuck. Technology can only make this easier. Anything we can do to demystify the process will help get more students writing.

In response to Bill, these strategies work best as part of an overall toolbox for writers, and they should go hand-in-hand with instruction and practice in editing and proofreading your work using standard conventions. For students who consider themselves to be non-writers, starting with some of these more verbal tools can help convince them that they actually are writers -- it's just the medium that scared them off. Once a student has been successful with audio recording or "you talk, I write," they should develop more confidence. At that point, the teacher can nudge them toward starting directly with the paper. The tools might then become something students just visualize using, rather than having to use them every time.

About two decades ago, I read a book by Linda Flower called Problem-Solving Strategies for Writing. In the book, Flower introduces a strategy called WIRMI, which stands for "What I Really Mean Is..." This is another tool to get students unstuck -- to start writing out their ideas as if they were explaining them to someone else in plain language, in order to get their pens moving again. Of course, they would go back later and edit, but this strategy, like the three described above, could potentially turn a non-writer into a writer.


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