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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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Comments (28)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

MsRasley's picture

That audio transcription method is a good tool for other learning to take place as well because it does so much more than help them write. By recording their thoughts they are engaging in metacognition and might just (gasp) learn something about themselves. I also appreciate the "gotcha" element in these methods, it's always a good thing when a student feels like they are being given a real tool that they can use.

Jamie's picture

Thanks so much for your ideas. I often try to diminish student fear in writing by letting them know that it is just another form of communication, and just as in speech formal and informal langauge affects communication. These ideas that you you've posted are great to further communicate that idea to them. I work in ESOL adult education, and although this may not work as well in lower level courses, it will definitely be advantageous to high intermediate and advanced English language learners (ELLs). It will also give them more brainstorming techniques. Thanks again!

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.

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AnElstrom's picture

Nicely put, Lizzy--These strategies can help students to make great strides in communicating, but as you noted, at some point they will also have to make the shift from low-stakes, speech-as-writing to other forms for other writing occasions.

Ali Parrish's picture
Ali Parrish
Educator, Educational Consultant, Instructional Designer
Blogger

If you try this with your adult students, I would love to know how it goes! I'm glad you found it helpful. Good luck ahead!

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England
Facilitator

These are great suggestions. I have used an iPod Touch with special needs students or reluctant writers to help them get their ideas recorded either as audio or text. I've used Kidspiration software to help kids take their webs and brainstorms and instantly with the click of a button turn them into an outline for a piece of work.

I've also had success doing collaborative writing projects using our smart board. I type and the small group or even entire class helps create a letter, narrative, persuasive, or non-fiction work. It is very powerful to have students suggest a sentence and then take many other suggestions for different ways to say the same thing and have them all on the big screen to examine. I have found that even reluctant writers will come to life in these situations.

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England
Facilitator

I teach elementary, but I've had some 3rd grade students partner up and be transcribers for each other. When set up as a collaborative situation, it can be especially powerful. Especially when students are taught to be good partners and ask good questions all with a focus on everyone learning from the experience. I didn't just turn them loose without lots of purposeful work on creating that collaborative classroom approach to learning. I spend quite a bit of effort and time teaching skids to help themselves and help each other learn each and every day. This also becomes a great activity for students to work on their social skills and patience, as well as communication.

I suggest starting with a simple activity of having students dictate a sentence or two and have the transcriber learn to ask questions of how to improve their work. It is the questioning work that will make this especially powerful. Structuring it collaboratively ensures it becomes more than just a transcription activity. Instead you've created a rich collaborative activity that helps all writers improve in so many ways. If you try it, let us know how it goes for you.

JrGangi's picture

As a Special Education teacher, teaching writing can be a very taxing experience. One way I have my students try to express themselves, is through a journal. Now I know most people do journals but what I tell my students to do, is write as if they were talking. This takes the pressure away of having to formally write and makes them more comfortable. Any thoughts or ideas are greatly appreciated. Please let me know. Thanks.

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)!

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.

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

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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