Before pens and pencils even hit paper, students in Jamie Sears’ class would moan and groan with reluctance. “Ugh,” they’d mutter, “do we have to do writing today?”
Some simply don’t like to write “because their previous writing experiences haven’t been enjoyable,” the former elementary school teacher explains. Whether it’s lack of interest in the assigned topic, fear of being judged for their mistakes, or good old fashioned writer’s block, the act of putting your thoughts down on (virtual) paper can be daunting. By the time students reach middle and high school, the pressure has peaked, and the prospect of writing a flawless research paper or the perfect essay is enough to send shivers down their spines.
But writing can be made easier for those who are reluctant or anxious, and “how we mediate student perception of writing is as important as teaching the skills” of writing, explains education consultant Jonathan McCarthy. Getting kids to write more often across a range of styles—supported by an equally rich range of strategies—ensures “that when a student struggles to write, a different approach is readily available.”
From film scripts and short stories to poetry, book reviews, and travel journals, providing myriad low-stakes opportunities to explore what writing looks like in all of its different forms can help put students on a path toward “refining one’s voice, organizing and reorganizing one’s thoughts, and learning how words spill out of one’s head and onto the page,” says English teacher Matthew M. Johnson.
For some students, getting started is often the hardest part, especially if they think of writing as purely “fixed and formal,” writes assistant headteacher Clare Jarmy recently for TES Magazine. She, like McCarthy, recommends demystifying the process with lots of “specific activities for students to do before and after writing,” which help them to “trial ideas, structures and arguments—while not losing their own views along the way.”
BUILDING A STRONG FOUNDATION
Students can often be their own worst critics, tearing their work to shreds to get ahead of the negative critique they fear they’ll receive, writes eighth-grade English teacher Christina Torres Cawdery. Allotting time for students to “break through their own judgments” and practice low-stakes writing can help them move away from a “mindset of defeat” when it’s time to be graded.
Build the Habit: According to writing researchers and teachers, students should spend “between 30 and 60 minutes every day” writing, Johnson says, but it’s fine to start a bit smaller. English teacher Meghan Rosa uses daily seven-minute writes while in Cawdery’s classroom, for the first five minutes of each period, students engage in daily journaling—responding to a range of prompts like “Tell me about your favorite place,” discussing assigned reading, or reflecting on a piece of media. But if they’d like, students can write about anything.
When time is up, they record their word count with an aim of reaching 200 words daily. Every two weeks, journals are submitted and Cawdery reads them. “I will also occasionally make casual comments on what they write, like sharing that I also love watching reruns of The Office,” she says. “It’s a great way to get them writing and also build connections with them.”
Bolster Their Authority: Who am I to say what the author meant, a student might wonder. That’s a common problem, Jarmy says. “Students often feel they lack the authority to make their own contribution to the subject and question their ability to write something well-informed.”
To help them understand that their theories and analysis are important, Jarmy has classes evaluate and critique essays produced by generative AI like ChatGPT. Using assessment criteria discussed in advance, students study ChatGPT’s outputs and find places where they can strengthen or improve the work they’re reading. “They might find an essay that ChatGPT produces on Plato and Aristotle’s views on mind and body is largely accurate, but that it lacks judgment or evaluation,” she writes.
Motivate With Mentor Texts: One of the best ways to inspire kids to write well is to get them reading great writing, Sears suggests. Provide examples of what success looks like across a variety of genres, and as different skills present themselves—from realistic dialogue and descriptive details to a strongly communicated argument—students can mark them, saving each passage as a resource for when they need to do the same themselves.
“Pick fun, engaging stories that students will relate to,” she says. “When they see examples of good writing, they’ll be motivated to write better themselves.”
OVERCOMING THE FEAR OF GETTING STARTED
Filling a blank page can be intimidating, but much less so with a plan of action. Pre-planning activities allow students to carve a path forward for themselves in a “safe and well-resourced environment,” Jarmy writes. “It helps to build their confidence and allows them to break up the task of essay writing into manageable chunks.”
Share a Snowball: Writing can be a lonely pursuit, so allowing students to put their heads together and swap ideas can de-escalate any negative feelings. Try a snowball task, where each student begins an outline for what they’re writing—an essay, blog, or the beginnings of a debate argument—then passes it to a classmate, who builds on the ideas of their peers. The process continues, Jarmy says, until a fully fleshed out plan has been created.
An alternative she uses is the three-minute planner, where students map out the main features of what they’re about to write: for example, “three key argumentative points they’d make, plus a conclusion,” in three minutes' time.
Writing Your “Worst Draft” First: Students often misconstrue the writing process as linear and squeaky clean, but the etymology of the word “essay,“ Jarmy writes, stems from the French word essayer, meaning “to try.” Sharing this with students leads them to see writing as something malleable “they can play with, rethink and redraft.”
But trying is much more difficult when you’re aiming for perfection, so Cawdery likes to encourage students to embrace the rough and even bad writing they may initially produce. In fact, she often tells them when they receive an initial assignment to “write the very worst version” of the paper or poem they can imagine. Everything from poor grammar and informal phrasing are fair game, because it can all be refined later. It’s even possible that in their pursuit of the worst first draft that a few pearls of wisdom rise to the surface.
Sketch to Start: When writer’s block inevitably comes knocking on students’ doors, assistant professor of secondary education Jonathan T Bartels briefly takes writing off the table and replaces it with drawing. "If I asked you to draw a picture of your topic, do you think you could?,” he asks. It’s helpful to model for students what this looks like with an example—“when writing about a sequence of things, I have often had students draw it out as a comic strip,” Bartels says.
While the act of drawing itself can help students better visualize the topic they want to write about, it's the discussion afterwards that’s most important, Bartels says. Try asking questions like:
- Why did you decide to draw it this way?
- What's happening here?
- Why is this here? (in regards to spatial organization)
- How are these specific items related?
- What did you purposefully leave out?
“Discussing the students' drawing in this way gives me a very clear idea of what the student understands and thinks about the given topic,” he says. “For the student, it is an opportunity to articulate his or her thoughts about the topic in a non-threatening way.”
Talk First, Then Write: Similar to Bartels, educational consultant and former educator Alexandra Parrish Cheshire has also found taking writing out of the equation to be the best accelerant. When she observed that some of her students were able to speak at length about a topic but froze up when asked to translate their thoughts to paper, she had an idea.
“Identify a way your students can record themselves speaking their essay rather than writing it,” she says. Students can “step out in the hall and recite their essay,” for example, then return and write down what they recorded. Anything from a computer with a microphone to an audio recording app on a phone will do.
Alternatively, consider setting up one-on-one sitdown meetings to talk through a topic with students who are particularly struggling. Cheshire writes down students’ bright ideas while they’re talking, providing them not only with a starting point to work from but allowing them to “express their thoughts without the hesitation that makes some students’ minds go blank as they pick up that pen or pencil.”
GETTING THEM TO REFLECT AND REVISE
Revising is one of the “meatiest components of the writing process,” says educator Joanna Marsh. Her students often “resisted editing because they didn’t know how to make their work better.” Providing models of how to engage with critique, what revision looks like, and making the process collaborative can lower the stakes while laying out a clear road map for students.
Feedback Foresight: Before students receive any sort of feedback on their work, high school English teacher Marcus Luther has his students try to forecast what critique they may have received. This not only “increases engagement in feedback conversation/reflections,” but infuses the revision and reflection process with purpose, he says.
Luther creates a slide that he displays for the class to see, outlining six pieces of feedback he most widely identified as areas for growth. “Which do you think will be on your essay?,” he asks. Students can review their work through this lens, looking for places where “textual evidence is mishandled,” evaluating their “rushed finish,” or looking at paragraphs that need to “move beyond summary to analysis.”
Read-Aloud to Revise: Many don’t like to read their work aloud, McCarthy explains, but it’s a beneficial post-writing practice that “helps them catch problems in mechanics, word choice, and sentence fluency.”
First, students read their work aloud at low volume—just loud enough that only they can hear it. As they navigate their text, McCarthy suggests having students mark it up based on the focus problems suggested by the teacher like action verbs or passive voice. Lastly, writers circle back to the regions of the work they’ve indicated as areas for change, reflecting on what needs to be done to improve.
Peer-Powered Review: Feedback doesn’t always need to come from you, explains high school English teacher Jamie Kobs. “Besides relieving me of some of the pressure,” she says, “creating a classroom culture where students give each other feedback has helped me increase engagement and build community.”
In Mark Gardner’s high school English class, students edit each other often, though he admits few ninth graders have “mastered the conventions of writing well enough to function as reliable editors.” So he provides a bit of structure; students' feedback on each other’s work is always reflective, not corrective.
“My students focus on idea development, clarity, and arrangement to make sense of the writer’s text,” he explains. Emphasize providing feedback that is targeted, actionable, respectful, and inspires growth. For example: “I am confused about who ‘they’ are in this sentence” or “I like how you repeated keywords from your hook here in your conclusion.”
Summarize and Strengthen: Having students write an abstract for their essay “helps them to hone their line of argument, while also developing a sense of focus and precision,” Jarmy writes. She asks the class to create 200-word abstracts summarizing the main idea of the stance they took and its supporting points. “If they don’t understand their essay, or they have forgotten what they wrote,” Jarmy says, “this is a great way to get them to invest in their work and take ownership of it - all of which will help them to improve next time.