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Strategies to Help Struggling Writers

Rusul Alrubail

Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project
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Older boy sitting on a large cement planter in a school courtyard writing in a spiral notebook

It's the day that my first-year college students are sharing the outlines/rough drafts of their final essays with their peers. As I walk around the classroom, a few students put their hands up for me to take a look at their work and give feedback. I look at 5-7 students' work and feel so proud that their outlines are detailed, meticulous, and clearly structured. I pause and think, "This is amazing. They're writing really well and even enjoying it!" I look at other students' work, the ones who are sadly gazing down at their outlines or laptop screens, and the ones still reviewing the stories to pick a topic to write about. These students are my struggling writers, and they need my help more than the others.

The most challenging part of being a writing teacher is more than teaching struggling writers how to write -- it's teaching them how to love writing. According to data from the National Center for Educational Statistics, four out of five students are not proficient writers. Those stats reflect my students' stats in the classroom -- 5-7 out of a class of 35 students were proficient writers and did not need any further assistance from me. But what about the rest of my students? How can we help students who struggle with writing?

Assign Authentic Topics

Many struggling writers experience a disconnect between what their writing assignment is focused on and what they perceive to be relevant in their lives. Students' passion is often ignited by completing work that relates to who they are and what they truly care about in and outside of school. Allow students to choose topics that are within their interests. It might help to provide topics that are broad, which they can focus and narrow down in relation to what they want to discuss.

Introduce Students to an Authentic Audience

Even when students are writing about a topic that is authentic and relevant to their interests, it's also important to note that struggling writers often have a hard time writing for their teachers as their sole audience. Many students feel discouraged and under pressure to meet the teacher's expectation. This type of pressure can shut them down and can be the source of their struggle with writing. To help your students overcome this, provide them with an authentic audience. Introduce blogging as part of their writing practice. In this way, students are still writing, but the audience is authentic and real. Have them write for their peers, classmates, and other classrooms. Have them collaborate with each other. This motivates students, engaging them in writing something that they can share with real people. (If you need help or have questions about blogging with your students, please don't hesitate to ask me, either in the comments below or by connecting with me on Twitter.)

Focus on Knowledge and Comprehension

Some students struggle with writing because they lack comprehension of the material related to the assignment. Your best remedy for this is checking for students' understanding of the content to make sure that they're prepared to write about it. Here are a few ways to check understanding:

Ask the 5 W questions (plus one H).

Everyone is familiar with these questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how? It's OK to make this part of students' shared brainstorming process for their topic. It will help remind them of the important themes in the text, and will also allow you to see the areas in which they need further explanation.

Ask them for their opinion.

What did they find interesting about the topic? How do they relate to it? How do they not relate to it? Do they have a story to share about the topic?

Be Consistent With One-on-One Feedback

Once you've provided some sort of guidance, it's vital for writers to have consistent feedback on the work that they produce after your meeting. This ensures that they'll stay on track in terms of completion and motivation. Of course, consistent feedback is often hard to do with every student in the classroom, which is why peer-to-peer feedback becomes essential. Schedule time for students to share their work with their peers and to get feedback from each other. Here, a teacher's role is to facilitate peer-to-peer feedback by providing students with guiding questions to ask and elements to look for in each other's work. Consider the following questions:

  • Does the author have a strong main idea about what he or she will be discussing throughout the essay?
  • What is the thesis statement or main argument? Write it out in your own words.
  • How does the author support his or her thesis/main ideas?
  • What is the single most important thing that the author needs to work on before submitting the paper?

For struggling writers, it often takes a lot of effort from both the teacher and the student to start writing with ease and even to love writing. It is doable with a strong teacher-student relationship and a consistent understanding and communication between students and their peers.

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Tiffany's picture

To be honest, not a lot of students love writing - in fact, they dread it! I'm glad you mentioned that giving students something to write that they can truly relate to is a great way for them to appreciate writing. Because when I was in school, it always sucked all my energy to write something I didn't care about. I think this is what schools and teachers should do - give students the option to write whatever they like, as long as it's informative, engaging, and has value.

Great piece, Rusel. :)

Ashiedu Jude's picture
Ashiedu Jude
Founder Edujetage and ICT instructor at Grace Schools, Lagos-Nigeria

Enjoyed this piece. I believe adults need to also implement this writing strategies in their personal writing skills.

A.Henke's picture

I love that you point out that students need to write about something that they find relevant in their personal lives. I am a middle school teacher and students at this age are very self absorbed. I enjoyed the idea of being proactive rather than reactive to checking for students understanding of the material before they begin writing.

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Thanks so much for your comments Tiffany! I totally agree with you, that writing about something you're not interested in takes a lot of energy out of us. And that can be so draining for students and demotivating. I hope that slowly more and more students would start to love writing.

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Thank you! I agree that students at that age love to talk about their interests and their worlds, it only makes sense if we allow them to share that with us, in one way it benefits them when it comes to writing, but in another way, it makes our jobs a lot easier when it comes to helping them to love writing!

MichaelEdits's picture
Author, editor, proofreader, book junkie, hiking nut, NFL addict, cat lover

I've been a reading and writing junkie for about 40 years, and I was also a writing teacher for four of them. This article contains a good combination of strategies I used and strategies I wish I'd used.

Ines's picture
I'm a Tutor and Responsible for a Writing Workshop

Thank you for this Post. I confirm that when we let our students chose their own topics we can lit up the sparkle of the love of writing. My students are young, but they have so much to say, if only we take the time to look for the right questions that will denounce their interests and passions. We usually publish our texts in our blog and each student is offered a coloured copy to keep at home. They enjoy reading each other texts and looking at the red dots in the world map of visitors. With time and experience they all come to discover that writing is a powerful way to make life stronger and more beautiful. They also distinguish, through training, several inventive ways to cope with writing and many different goals to reach when writing is at stake.

Christina Gil's picture
Christina Gil
Former Classroom Teacher, Current Homeschooler and Ecovillager

Love all of these points! Teaching writing is so tough--which is one reason why I so love teaching it. When you do get them to see that they can produce a quality product, it's such a transformation.
I have a free checklist for teachers to use during writing conferences that might prove useful to some:

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