George Lucas Educational Foundation

Before Writing, Getting Students Unstuck

When students struggle to get their thinking on the page, here are a few practices for getting the ideas flowing.

April 16, 2021
Allison Shelley for the Alliance for Excellent Education

Writing can sometimes feel like “a prickly hedge that we inadvertently plant around students, preventing them from being able to fully reach out and share their true level of understanding with us,” writes Curtis Chandler for MiddleWeb.

The ability to write clearly and with purpose is an essential skill—there’s no way around that and all students need to grapple with learning how to express themselves. But writing is hard and might not always be the right medium to begin with: “I simply had too many kiddos with powerful insights and ideas that seemed to vaporize the moment they were asked to put them down on paper,” writes Chandler, an education professor at Brigham Young University-Idaho, former middle school teacher, and 2011 Kansas Teacher of the Year.

In writing tasks, Chandler noticed that it was often the “higher-order, open-ended questions” that caused his students to struggle, even after he implemented the typical scaffolds, prompting them to think about their audience, their purpose for writing the piece, and coaching them by reviewing familiar strategies. In other words, when the writing tasks became more complex, requiring more sophisticated thinking and verbal abilities, students froze on the page.

Here are a few practices to help students get unstuck, reducing anxiety and allowing them to process and clarify their thinking before you consider assigning a follow-on writing exercise later. On tasks where writing isn’t the focal point, these same practices can offer different ways for students to share what they know.

Play the ‘Next Question’ Game

To get students discussing what they have and have not learned on a topic or unit of study, Chandler suggests a game of Next Question.

“Teachers work to develop a variety of questions at various levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy for students to review and discuss in groups,” he writes. A Bloom’s level 1 question that checks for remembering might be: “How do carnivores survive?” A Bloom’s level 4 question, requiring analysis, could be: “Would you classify a cat as an herbivore, carnivore, or omnivore? Explain why?” Each question, written on a strip of paper, is placed in the middle of the group and students take turns picking a question and answering it. Classmates can jump in to correct or amplify, if needed.

To play the game using a shared laptop, try using a random question generator—Chandler recommends this one from WordWall—with an interactive function, like a wheel that each student can spin to randomly land on a question.

Record the Brainstorming Phase of Writing

Because speaking in front of classmates can be stressful for some students, preventing them from fully investigating their ideas, Chandler suggests giving kids a list of topics or questions to study in advance, and then randomly assigning a few of these for students to respond to at home using the voice memo function on their phones, or simple recording devices like Loom or Screencast-O-Matic.

Voice recordings are also a straightforward way for students to “talk their way into learning, remembering, or clarifying,” writes Marissa King, chief of staff for the non-profit Teaching & Leading Initiative of Oklahoma. King recommends using voice recordings for brainstorming at the beginning of a research project: “Although more fluent writers can quickly fill the page with possible topics and plans, hesitant writers may struggle to jot down even a few ideas,” King writes. “With audio recording, struggling students can focus on the creativity and thinking instead of stressing over spelling errors.”

Before narrative writing projects, consider asking students to record themselves answering a series of open questions, or targeted prompts, to help bridge the gap between brainstorming and drafting. It’ll allow them to “hear their own voices add drama through pauses, repetition, or startling comparisons,” says King, giving some students “the confidence and ease they need to let their voice shine through their writing.”

Work From a Transcription

When the barriers to getting started writing are particularly high, consider encouraging students to either speak their essay into a recording device and then transcribe it, or use a speech-to-text tool, and then work on editing the transcription, shaping it to meet the requirements of the assignment.

It’s a simple but powerful tweak that communicates to students that even the most hesitant writers can produce ideas and express themselves on the page, writes Alexandra Parrish Cheshire, an educational consultant.

“Our concern is not whether a student communicates through a pencil and pen, keyboard, chalkboard, audio transcription device, or other means,” Cheshire writes. “Our real hope and goal is for individuals to capture their high-quality thoughts and convey them effectively to others. The sooner students (and teachers) see that writing has nothing to do with a pencil, a piece of paper, or a keyboard, and is simply communicating, the sooner they will start making incredible progress. Barriers will come down. The hesitation of putting the pencil on the paper to write will go away.”

Jot It Down

Particularly in middle and high school, short, ungraded writing tasks like journal jots—unpolished and relaxed and therefore not especially anxiety-provoking for students—tend to take a back burner as larger writing assignments take the fore. But that’s a missed opportunity and can hinder students’ continued progress as writers, writes Rebecca Alber, a literacy specialist and an instructor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education. Fluent writers write and fail often, flexing their writing skills, stretching their thinking, and challenging themselves to communicate difficult ideas and concepts even when it’s not flowing well.

Practiced frequently and routinely, low-stakes writing builds confidence, allowing struggling writers to “jot down their thoughts about a question or idea, share those thoughts, and feel just as successful as everyone else in the room,” Alber writes. They also foster language fluency in a low-pressure way and increase writing stamina for those longer, more complex writing assignments. Jots and other quick writing tasks can be as short as a paragraph or a half page.

Some of Alber’s suggestions for simple prompts include: “What is your life’s motto and why?” or “Respond to this famous quote. Agree or disagree. Also make connections from your life—something you’ve read or observed, or something happening in the world.”

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