In a recent post, I shared a strategy for developing writing fluency in students. One comment asked about grades for journal writing, suggesting that if students don't receive a grade they won't be motivated to write.
The approach I was writing about, as described in the book Rain, Steam, and Speed: Building Fluency in Adolescent Writers, by Gerald Fleming and Meredith Pike-Baky, suggests how to grade journal writing. Basically, it's a C grade if a kid fills half a page, one side full is a B, and one front and back page equals an A. When I taught using this method it definitely motivated some reluctant writers and provided a way for some struggling students to be successful.
But what really motivated my students to write volumes of quantity prose was when they were offered an authentic audience, an audience with whom they genuinely wanted to connect.
Writing to other Students
Just before the Iraq War started in the winter of 2003, my middle school students had English-speaking pen pals in an international high school in Iraq. My students were very concerned about the impending war and they wanted to hear different perspectives on the brewing conflict; they also wanted to impress their older pen pals with their writing skills and so they wrote, re-wrote, and revised their email letters until they were polished.
And after they got responses, they were even more motivated to write long, detailed letters full of explanation and description -- and without a single grammar, spelling, or convention error.
I've always found that students are motivated to write letters to other kids and have found many ways to connect students with other children in our city, as well as in other cities and countries. I also learned that students loved writing letters to politicians, authors, actors, family members, incoming students, and so on. Students wrote letters to family members who had passed away or who were no longer in their lives. There was something about the format of a letter -- personal but structured, an invitation to dialogue, the anticipation of response that always got kids writing.
Writing to Inform Others
Another way that I motivated students to write was by providing them an audience who needed information, an audience who they could teach. For example, my students once researched and wrote about public health concerns such as the avian flu. They created informational brochures dispelling myths and providing information. These were translated into the various languages spoken in the community and dispensed throughout our community center. Adults appreciated the information and commended my students. They felt useful, valuable, and motivated to share their knowledge in a coherent format.
Sharing Family History
For another assignment, students interviewed their family members about rituals and traditions from their native countries or cultural heritage. Students used the information to write short essays. These were compiled into a book that was copied and shared with their families.
Students saw their own writing representing their families and their cultures and traditions. They felt proud. They felt motivated to continue working on their writing skills.
The Secret Sauce
As a teacher, I very rarely assigned writing assignments that no one else but myself read. Writing assignments always had an intended audience; at the very least, students would read each other's writing. When they got positive feedback from each other, they were again motivated to keep writing.
Audience was the secret, I discovered, to motivating my students to write, but that seems so obvious! As a writer, I am supremely motivated by the thought that someone out there is reading my writing, that it's influencing or moving someone or provoking a thought or feeling or idea that wasn't there before. Would I write if no one ever read my writing? Maybe. Writing does help me sort out my ideas and feelings. But I probably would never work on revising or refining my scribble-scrabble. I only do that because I know I have an audience and I want my audience to read me!
How have you motivated students to write? What kinds of audiences have you established for your students? How do your students share their writing? Please share your stories!