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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 are an iPhone 4s, Dragon NaturallySpeaking, Dictation Pro and VoiceTranslator. Add one of these to your iPad, tablet or computer.
  • I usually opened a blank email on my iPhone 4s, touched the audio transcription 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)?

Comments (6)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

KillionLaura's picture
KillionLaura
Pre-Service Early Childhood and Special Education Major

Many of these strategies can be used for students who have disabilities and struggle with writing. Allowing them alternative ways to communicate in writing can help them participate in the general education classroom more easily and allow them to share their thoughts with the rest of the class.

Mariana Garcia's picture
Mariana Garcia
5-8 STEM Science Teacher in SanJose, CA

Some other ideas include creating videos (v-logs), or any of the mini-movie creation apps that allow for voice to type, or directly record the students. I have several students already taking advantage of opportunities like this and creating much more in depth entries than if I had "stuck to my guns" and made them drag the pencil.

Bill Haines's picture
Bill Haines
Eighth grade science, New Jersey

Whereas I do like the idea of using technology sometimes, I have found that having the students write by hand is necessary for the development of the ability to convey thoughts. When there is a reliance on technology, they become dependent on that technology and do not develop critical skills such as sentence structure, grammar and spelling. Where I do not emphasis these skills, when I have my students write, write, write everyday they become proficient and many advanced proficient when it comes to our state testing. When the school year begins, I have the reputation of being the difficult teacher as they are not used to writing 1.5-2pages in 45 minutes and we work on it bu using interesting and challenging topics . As the school year progresses they move naturally to 2-3 pages, and by the time the state test arrives, they quite often say that the test was easy and thank you for preparing us.

Jennifer Gonzalez's picture
Jennifer Gonzalez
Blogger at Cult of Pedagogy
Blogger 2014

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.

Kasey's picture
Kasey
6th grade Language Arts, Social Studies, Technology teacher

I like the idea of having the students audio record their stories, but I would work with them to write is after listening to it. I integrate iPad tech in my language arts classes, and I use an app called "Story Kit". In this app, students can write their story and include pictures and audio recordings. I was thinking the students that have difficulties can take the pictures and tell the story using the audio recording feature. Then they can listen to the story and then transform it into writing.

Ali Parrish's picture
Ali Parrish
Educator, Educational Consultant
Blogger 2014

After drafting and submitting this entry to Edutopia I learned about another GREAT audio-transcription tool. It's called PaperPort Notes and it works on the iPad. It is more user-friendly than some of the others and has some other great features as well.

Best of luck to each of you and your students!

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