To develop as writers, students need to identify as writers. Instead, many students feel reluctant to write and discouraged by language in general. How can we engage such students, and how can we boost their confidence and belief as writers? This post explores eight teaching strategies for shifting the mindset of reluctant writers.
1. Make a personal connection.
Reluctant writers often feel like outsiders in writing classrooms. To create a welcoming environment, we need to show students that their presence is valued. Simply greeting students by name or asking how their day is going can go a long way to establishing trust. So can identifying and engaging with students’ interests outside of school. For instance, if a student is reading a Field & Stream magazine, we can ask about favorite experiences in nature and share our own. These seemingly small social connections establish bonds that make students more comfortable sharing ideas with us in writing.
2. Invite students to write about personal interests.
Writers of all abilities can write more easily about subjects they know well. An acclaimed novelist will have a tougher time writing about a new spinal procedure than a neurosurgeon who regularly performs it. The same idea holds true in writing classrooms. When students lack prior knowledge of a topic and interest in researching it, they will have a difficult time writing about it. To develop writing confidence, students need plenty of opportunities to write about their own interests and experiences. This is why narrative writing, no matter how de-emphasized by state standards, needs to be a part of writing classrooms. Journaling, blogging, and creative writing are also effective avenues for exploring and sharing personal experiences.
3. Offer choice.
Another way to tap into students' interests and prior knowledge is to build choice into writing assignments. Choice empowers students through options, giving them a measure of control over their own learning. We can offer choice in topics by letting students pick their own writing topics, or for more focused assignments, we can offer several topic options rather than a single, strict requirement.
We can also offer choice through medium—students working on a unit on argumentation could choose to write a standard argument essay, develop an editorial for publication, film a public-service announcement, or host a debate. Offering choice demonstrates respect for students’ personal learning styles.
4. Immerse students in good writing.
Surround students with ideas, language, and stylistic features that they can model in their own writing. For each unit we assign, we should present students with numerous models of effective writing. When choosing mentor texts, we should not exclude challenging readings. Presenting a challenging text shows our students that we view them as capable readers and writers. It also presents an opportunity for the next strategy.
5. Model effective reading and writing strategies.
When we ask our students to write, we should write alongside them, modeling effective practices. By writing with students, we help them understand the choices, dilemmas, and struggles that all writers face. When we make mistakes (and let’s be clear, we all make mistakes), students will see that writing is not a linear process. Mistakes also let us model revising and editing, key skills for any writer.
6. Balance freedom and structure.
Student writers need freedom while they work—freedom to explore their own thoughts, freedom to use their home language, freedom to take a few risks, and so on. But within that freedom, they also need structure to keep them on course. We can provide structure by teaching the steps of the writing process. Breaking projects into a series of steps makes writing more manageable for students, and modeling strategies that experienced writers use supports students as they move among the steps.
7. Focus feedback on solutions, not problems.
When we read our students’ developing drafts, our feedback, both written and verbal, should focus on opportunities instead of errors. Our goal should be to encourage students to keep going—write, rewrite, and rewrite some more. Focusing on errors stifles the process and may surface negative feelings students have about writing.
Compare the following comments.
- Comment 1: You don't develop this idea. You don't give any details. You should have worked harder.
- Comment 2: This is an interesting idea. Could you tell me more about it? I’d love to see some examples.
The first is problem-focused. It tells what is wrong instead of suggesting how to fix it, and it uses "you" three times to accuse the student of failure. Comment 1 presents a fixed mindset, "This is bad," and, by extension, "You are a bad writer." The second is solution-focused. It shows a genuine interest in the writer’s idea, encourages the person to develop it, and provides a strategy (some examples) for doing so. Comment 2 presents a growth mindset, "This can be even better," and by extension, "You are growing as a writer."
8. Be flexible about correctness.
We should not demand error-free writing. Heck, J. K. Rowling has a team of editors and proofreaders. Marking every grammatical error in students’ writing can have a chilling effect on their development. Instead, when we provide instruction on the conventions of English, we should concentrate on one or two common errors at a time, and only in the context of the editing stage of the writing process. When it comes time for grading, we should remember that correctness is only one of six traits of effective writing.
9. Make time for reflection.
After their final drafts are handed in, we should help students reflect on their work. Have them answer a few questions: What was the easiest part of your writing? The hardest? How did you organize your details? What part do you like best? Why? Reflecting helps students lock in their learning and build their repertoire of writing skills.
Empowering All Writers
Writing skills develop gradually and not in a perfectly linear fashion. Different students will progress at different rates. We should expect fits and starts, take pride in small victories, and celebrate successes with students. In the end, we empower reluctant writers in the same ways we empower all writers:
- connecting with and valuing every student;
- providing plenty of time, space, and opportunities to write;
- introducing strategies and models to scaffold student work; and
- offering encouragement and guidance throughout the process.