Want Your Students to Write More? Tell Them to Write Less.

13 Apr
girl, writing Deutsch: Maedchen, beim Schreiben

girl, writing Deutsch: Maedchen, beim Schreiben (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A blank page isn’t just a piece of paper. To some, a blank page represents possibility and creativity. To most people, though, (especially students) it just looks like a failure in progress.

I have watched hundreds of students admit defeat the moment they pulled out a fresh sheet of paper. They tell me, “I don’t know what to write,” or “I can’t write,” or even, “I don’t feel like writing.” But I have one simple trick that gets them over the hurdle, and it has never failed me:

I write the first sentence for them.

It looks like this:

“Jaquan, what have you got so far?” (Jaquan shrugs passively and looks down at his blank page.) “You mind if I help you get started?” (Jaquan shrugs passively again and I pick up his pencil.) “We’re writing similes for ourselves. So let’s start with weather. If you were a kind of weather, what kind of weather would you be?”

He thinks. “A storm.”

“I like that. What makes you say a storm?”

“‘Cause I get mad.”

“When do you get mad?”

He ponders this for a moment. “When my brother takes my stuff.”

“Great. I’ll write down, ‘When my brother takes my things, I am like an angry storm.’ Is that okay?” I write it down, and Jaquan reads it over, pleased. “Awesome. That’s really good. How about we take turns writing? You do one, and then I’ll come back and write the next one for you. Why don’t you write about an animal. Tell me what kind of animal you would be and why.”

Jaquan picks up his pencil and starts to write.

Sometimes, that’s all it takes. Sometimes I take turns with the student for a few minutes before I say something like, “Oops, looks like Terrell needs my help, too. Why don’t you keep writing and let me know if you need help. You’re doing great.”

So why does it work? I have two theories:

1. It shows your student that you care. By taking the time to write down their words yourself, you are validating their thoughts and showing the student that you care about what they have to say. This alone is enough to inspire most stuck students.

2. It gets rid of the scary blank page. Facing down a blank page can be daunting. By writing down the first few sentences yourself, you help the student overcome their fear of getting started.

Of course, I understand that in a hectic classroom you may not always have time to do it yourself. If you can’t personally write down what your student says, here are some other options:

  • Have students work in teams and write down what the other says. If you have recording devices, this is a great time to use them.
  • Try using dictation software, if you’ve got it.

Do you ever write for your students? How does it work for you?


4 Responses to “Want Your Students to Write More? Tell Them to Write Less.”

  1. Sandra Madeira April 13, 2012 at 11:55 am #

    Great ideas – thanks for sharing

  2. thatwritinglady April 13, 2012 at 5:48 pm #

    Thanks for the feedback!

  3. alundeberg April 13, 2012 at 8:57 pm #

    Great tactics! Sometimes they just need to get started. I normally help them get started and come back to see how they’re doing. If they’re still stuck I question them some more or briefly discuss their ideas with them.

  4. Elsa Pla April 16, 2012 at 10:26 pm #

    I love your blog, Catherine! You share great teaching advice and tips. I’ve actually applied this shared writing strategy with several reluctant/insecure 6th graders, and it has worked like a charm. Not only does it allow these students to be productive, it also strengthens the student-teacher bond. Your description of the process is fabulous.

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