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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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3 Strategies to Improve Student Writing Instantly

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)?

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