George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

5 Ways to Increase Students’ Engagement in Writing

Upper elementary teachers can make small shifts in how they teach writing to spark students’ interest and promote critical thinking.

January 20, 2022
Elementary school students writing in classroom
Drazen Zigic / iStock

After a few years of teaching, I started to grow tired of following scripted curriculum to a T. Sure, there are benefits. Children thrive on structure, and it can serve as a tool for teachers, especially those who are just beginning to develop their craft. But if I had to say, “Yesterday we learned… Now watch me as I…” one more time, well, you get the picture.

I was bored—and if I was bored, you bet my students must have been. But out of this boredom (and thanks to the support of my literacy specialist) five strategies blossomed that breathed new life into my teaching. 

1. The Grapple

This is a type of instructional strategy I developed after being inspired by our math curriculum, which starts with an element called the “anchor task.” In her article “Anchor Task: What? Why? How?” Amy Bilek explains that an “anchor task is a problem given to students at the beginning of a math block that provides an opportunity to activate prior knowledge, requires students to collaborate and ask questions of each other, and promotes an environment for students to productively struggle and persevere in problem-solving” while still working in the zone of proximal development.

I thought it would be interesting to try this out in writing. The Grapple features a short inquiry or guided practice in the beginning of the lesson. For example, a teacher might post a paragraph of student writing and ask a broad question such as, “What good choices did this author make? Turn and talk.” Marian Small, author and international professional development consultant, may refer to this type of inquiry as “open questions” because one question can meet the needs of a broad range of learners, since the question is not too narrow. After turning and talking, students can share what they noticed. The teacher then calls on several students until one of them mentions the strategy of the day.

Students feel empowered when they’ve determined the learning target/objective of the lesson before teaching has even begun. This also gives student writers an opportunity to notice multiple strong writing choices. Jo Boaler (professor at Stanford University and author of Limitless Mind) might talk about these as “low-floor, high-ceiling tasks.” Low floor refers to accessibility for students needing improvement in the class, whereas high ceiling reaches the most advanced learners who can continue to find challenges. This concept encourages students to be actively engaged while leading their own learning. 

2. Student-Created Anchor Charts

After participating in a Grapple, students are tasked with trying the strategy of the day in their own writing. I then make an anchor chart naming the strategy with examples of student work. For example, my anchor chart might say, “I can elaborate by adding feelings, action, and dialogue.” I would then attach our mentor text’s example and student examples where feelings, action, and dialogue were added. This would give students motivation to try out the strategy in hopes of being featured on our anchor chart.

Students who were featured felt proud and successful (eventually, all writers are featured at some point throughout the year). Other students referred to these charts as tools in order to help them improve their writing. Were these anchor charts always beautiful and Pinterest worthy? No. But they were authentic and purposeful. Another benefit is that anchor charts support students to develop a mindset of celebrating each other’s successes.

3. Free Writing Time

Free writing time gives students space to let their creative ideas flourish and see themselves as writers. I give my students 5 minutes of free writing time each day. I like to do this after lunch, when students can benefit from a quiet activity to help regulate themselves back into an academic setting. On Fridays, we participate in an Author’s Share time (about 20–30 minutes), when student authors can sign up for a slot to share their writing with the whole class as an audience. Since initiating this, I’ve had more avid writers than ever before.

4. Oral Brainstorming

Oral brainstorming helps build class community. Regardless of the genre, students can share about themselves or a variety of other topics with their peers and teacher. For example, when brainstorming narrative story ideas, students might share using the prompt, “I remember one time...” While brainstorming opinion writing, students might share with the prompt, “Something I love is...” Or, in nonfiction writing, students might share with the prompt, “Something I know a lot about is...” If you’re having trouble fitting this into your writing block, try incorporating these prompts into a morning meeting. 

Research proves that oral planning is key to the writing process. Language arts methods books urge prospective teachers to develop children’s writing ability by building upon their proficiency in oral language. These texts often describe early writing as “talk written down.” Experts acknowledge that writing begins as speech written down. Although this research dates back to 1983, it’s still relevant today.

5. Write an Authentic Teacher Mentor Text

When teachers are vulnerable and share their own writing with students, it pays off. During our narrative writing unit in the beginning of the year, I share my own fourth-grade experience. I write, edit, and revise the story of the time I got called down to the principal’s office. My fourth-grade students connect with this story, become excited about writing, learn a lesson, and see me not only as their teacher but also as a human being and a writer (from whom they are now more willing to accept feedback). By sharing our stories, we share parts of our identity with our students. Doing so creates an environment where they can feel comfortable to do the same with us.

The good news is that these strategies can be incorporated into existing lessons, by making small shifts. They not only help writers improve their craft but also increase engagement. I hope that if you try these small shifts, you will see positive results.

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  • Student Engagement
  • Critical Thinking
  • English Language Arts
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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