Students are natural storytellers: We know this by the stories they tell us when they come in each morning and even when they raise their hands in the middle of math class to tell you the story of how their dog ran away the night before. Why is it, then, that many kids freeze up or feel like they have nothing to say when it comes to writing? There is often a disconnect between kids’ natural storytelling abilities and getting these stories on paper. Over the years, these strategies have helped make my reluctant middle school writers feel more comfortable and confident as writers.
Tips for the Beginning of the Writing Process
1. Students need time to write every day: Any new skill needs to be practiced, and writing is no exception. This daily writing should be considered practice and should not be assessed. It is important to provide students with many choices for this “free writing” time. This could be offered through a slide show with different pictures that they use as a springboard for their writing, or through a series of prompts or ideas that they can choose from. This time can alternate between an assigned topic and a time to write whatever they choose.
2. Provide writing projects with a purpose and an authentic audience: A writing project becomes more meaningful when a written assignment has an intended audience in addition to the teacher. When students know that their writing has meaning and someone outside of the classroom is going to read it, they are motivated to write more clearly and creatively in order to effectively communicate their ideas to the reader. This can be even more meaningful and effective if the reader will offer a response or feedback.
3. Give time to brainstorm and generate ideas: Some students can spend a lot of time generating ideas, planning things out, drawing pictures, and preparing to write. However, this step can be challenging for other students who have trouble generating new ideas for writing. During brainstorming time, I like to give students categories for ideas and model my own ideas for the class.
For example, if we are generating ideas for personal narratives, I might divide my paper into different categories to be used for story ideas such as embarrassing moments or stories about me and my dog. I would list out multiple ideas under each category to be used as story ideas. Eventually, I would model how I choose one of these ideas to develop into a story. Categories can help offer students more structure, and modeling my ideas often inspires ideas in my students.
At the end of brainstorming time, I often have students leave their notebooks on their desks (if they feel comfortable), and other students can take a gallery walk around the room to see the ideas that their classmates have in their notebooks. This can often spark new ideas for students as well.
4. Students need to see examples of good writing: Students need to see examples that demonstrate the beauty of the written word and the way that authors choose words carefully to help readers create an image in their minds. I like to select sections or passages from picture books, novels, read-alouds, songs, poems, and magazines to share with students. This could be a passage that describes something or a metaphor used to compare two things. I highlight what stands out in these passages and give students an opportunity to analyze and share their thoughts. As the year progresses, students begin to share their own selections of good writing with me and the class.
5. Teach students to utilize digital tools: There are so many tools available to students. Google’s Read&Write is a speech-to-text add-on for Google Chrome. Story-writing sites such as Storybird allow students to create their own stories and share them with others. There are also many sites that assist students with planning out a story, such as MindMup. I also use Flip to allow students to share their stories.
Tips for Editing and Revision
6. Prioritize content, clarity, and craft over conventions and punctuation: Writing is a tool that we use to express ourselves, which can be scary for students. When they begin to do this work, it is important to honor their ideas rather than spend too much time focused on conventions and punctuation. In early stages, instead of focusing on smaller issues, I teach students that writing can be messy, and it can be challenging to communicate our ideas clearly so that the reader understands, so the goal is to write clearly and concisely.
Once the first drafts are complete, I have students work independently, with a partner or a teacher to edit for clarity and make sure the story is clear to the reader. This often involves the reader asking questions for clarification and the writer editing as they work through the piece together. This can take multiple sessions. Once the piece is clear, it is then time to focus on punctuation, grammar, and spelling.
7. Students need to talk about their writing with each other: Talking about writing helps students to formulate thoughts and develop ideas. It is important to give students time to talk about their writing throughout the writing process. As a whole class or in a small group, students can share their ideas, drafts, things that are going well, or any struggles they are having.
8. Use writing conferences to guide students: The writing conference is a time to offer one-on-one guidance. During the conference, choose one specific teaching point to focus on, and offer guiding questions or a model that the student can use as they continue to work independently. Some students need more support and structure, so a writing conference can be a time to offer this scaffolding.
9. Emphasize that writing is hard work: Many students write one draft, and they are proud to say, “I’m done!” It is important for students to know that good writing takes many drafts and a lot of time and effort. In my experience, the best way to teach this is by modeling your own piece of writing. I always have a draft going right along with my students, usually in the same genre of the unit we are currently working on. When they can see the multiple drafts and revisions it takes to get to a final piece, they are more likely to do this work on their own.
10. Celebrate! Most important, take time each day and at the end of each unit to celebrate in some way. This could be highlighting one small thing you noticed or having a celebration party at the end of a unit. Writing is personal and hard work—it deserves a celebration! My favorite way to celebrate is to have students get into small groups, and each student gets to read their piece to their group members. It is always fun to have treats to add a little something special.