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How to Reach Reluctant Writers

Student sits and contemplates in front of laptop computer

We love the title Kelly Boswell chose for the opening chapter of her new book Every Kid a Writer. She called it “The Shrug, the Slump, and the Sharpening of Pencils.” The title is a nod to those all-too-common reactions students have when they are asked to write in class.

You have probably witnessed similar scenes in your classroom, as students fiddle in their seats or stare at the ceiling or race for a bathroom pass . . . anything to avoid writing.

In her book, Boswell assures us these reactions are normal. We shouldn’t blame ourselves, and we shouldn’t blame our students.

After all, almost everyone is a reluctant writer from time to time. As longtime teacher and writing enthusiast Donald Murray put it, “Even the most productive writers are expert dawdlers, doers of unnecessary errands, seekers of interruptions—trials to their wives or husbands, friends, associates, and themselves.”

How can I connect with reluctant writers?

When interacting with students who feel uneasy about writing, assure them their reluctance is not a sign of failure, that even the best writers rarely dive headfirst into writing.

Start by sharing examples of times when you felt reluctant to write. Think back to the last time you really did not want to write something. What made you feel that way? (not sure what to say . . . intimidated by reader . . .) What did you do to avoid it? (scrolled through Instagram . . . folded laundry . . .) What was the result? (wasted time . . . fewer wrinkles on clothes . . .) Students connect with and appreciate honesty.

Once you acknowledge your own hesitancy, invite students to share stories of their struggles. Boswell suggests posing this simple question for discussion: What reasons do you avoid writing? Let students answer the question in small groups. Then display the answers for your whole class to see.

The point of this exercise is not to wallow in writing misery but to show students that reluctance is a common feeling among writers. As an added bonus, your students’ insights can help you create conditions, lessons, and activities to overcome reluctance.

How can I empower reluctant writers?

Use these nine practices to empower reluctant writers. Learn more about each practice here and in Every Kid a Writer.

How can I help reluctant writers get unstuck?

Even if you deliver a well-executed lesson plan and invite students to write about a topic of personal interest, when the time actually comes to write in class, some students may still shrug, slump, and dawdle to the sharpener.

To help these students get moving, share strategies and techniques for getting unstuck, such as reading a mentor text, freewriting, exercising, or talking through ideas with a friend.

Then ask the class: What do you do when you get stuck as a writer? Brainstorm a list, perhaps adding to this infographic:

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Standards Correlations:

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