Do the Write Thing, Part 4: Engaging with Reluctant Writers

It’s every writing teacher’s dream: the classroom is quiet except for the scratch of pencils flying across paper and the gentle tick of the clock in the background. You can almost hear the gears of creativity and productivity turning brilliantly in each student’s mind. It’s perfect, except . . .

There always has to be an “except,” doesn’t there?

Except for that one student, whose mind seems to be one big blank. The minutes tick by, and no matter what you do to help him, he can’t manage to write a single word. He just stares at the blank page all class long.

You can’t help but wonder: what’s wrong with him? What’s keeping him from being able to do what every other student in the classroom seems capable of doing? And more importantly, how can you help him?

If you’re hoping for easy answers, with a nice three step formula to make it all better, unfortunately, you’re going to be disappointed. Like most things in teaching, the answers are not simple or one-size-fits all. But, that being said, there are some tools you can add to your tool belt that can help your students become more confident and successful in their writing.

One huge issue facing children as they write is simply the neurological difficulty of the task. Writing is hard work for anyone, but especially for children.

Think about all the parts of the brain that need to be working in order for a child to write a story. They are using the motor areas that help them to physically hold a pencil and form words on the page, activating the part of the brain that stores spelling and grammar rules, planning ahead and making decisions, generating creative ideas, concentrating on the task at hand, imagining and visualizing what they’re creating, retrieving facts or memories from long-term storage, and putting thoughts into words through the language production center.

Neurologically speaking, writing is one of the most complex tasks you will ask your students to do. If you can cut back on how many mental tasks students need to do at once, writing can become easier for them.

For some students, the physical act of handwriting uses a disproportionate amount of their mental energy, leaving little left for the other neurological aspects of writing. If you require students to write in cursive, consider lifting that rule for writing class. Allow students use whatever handwriting method is easier for them (or allow typing or talk-to-text, if you have those options available).

Another mental block that can impede students’ flow of writing is getting fixated on grammar or spelling. A simple way to eliminate this problem is to make a policy that students are not allowed to ask questions about spelling or grammar while writing. Some students put so much energy into thinking about how to spell what they’re writing that they have no energy left for the actual writing.

If a student asks how to spell something, you can just say, “Sound it out for now. You’ll know what you mean, and we can fix it later.”

You may feel as though teachers ought to be insisting on correct grammar and spelling at all times. Won’t it give your students sloppy habits if you don’t require them to write correctly?

However, that’s what editing and revising is for. While writing a rough draft, students’ main priority should be their flow of writing.  Freeing up the mental space of their inner editor is one way you can prioritize their brain power for the actual writing quality.

Planning and generating ideas are two more brain faculties needed for writing. If you guide your students through brainstorming activities before they write, they don’t need to both plan and write simultaneously. This can help to reduce the number of tasks they need to do all at once.

Concentration is another neurological task that we can help make easier for our students. One way is to create privacy cubicles from file folders taped together or several opened textbooks.

Another great way to focus students’ minds is to play instrumental music while they’re writing. Studies have shown that for many people, background music is effective at focusing their creative energy. It’s important that it has no words and that students choose to not let it be an extra distraction. But soft classical music can boost creativity, with the added bonus of lending a lovely atmosphere to a writing class.

Struggles with imagination or visualization can also create great difficulty in writing. This is likely what’s happening if you have a student who has run out of words after half a page and looks at you with desperation in their eyes when you ask them to try to write a little more. These students will struggle to come up with creative ideas or any ideas at all.

It’s important to remember that when it comes to creative output, there will be a wide range of abilities in your classroom. That is normal and okay. However, there are some things you can do to help students who struggle with creativity.

One really great way is to read what they have, which is likely bare-bones and skimpy on details, and then ask them lots of questions. So if they have the sentence, “The man walked into the house,” ask them questions and help them to add details. What was the man’s name? Is he tall or short? What colour is his hair? How old is he? What’s he wearing? After you have helped the student build a mental picture of the man, encourage them to write several more sentences about him, adding those new details.

Then you can move on to the words “walked” and “house,” asking them more questions and encouraging them to add more details based on their answers.

Another variation of this process is have the student draw a picture of the man walking into the house, then write sentences to describe the picture. Sometimes just changing the mode of their imagination to visual can help to break down some of those mental barriers.

When simple changes are made to simplify how much mental energy is being used on various neurological tasks, it frees students’ brains to focus on fewer things. All those little things can be a big thing when it comes to helping your students to write confidently and competently.

Sometimes, however, a student’s issues with writing are not related to the difficulty of the neurological process but are tied to fear and perfectionism. The fear of the blank page can be absolutely overwhelming to some children, which is often due to the mistaken idea that what they put on the page needs to be perfect. They have this idea that once they’ve written something down, it can’t be changed. And that creates this incredible pressure to get it right.

It is easy to unintentionally reinforce this mindset. So watch how you talk about a rough draft. If you create an atmosphere of dotting every “i” and crossing every “t” properly in a rough draft, it can communicate that you expect perfection. Again, the simple practice of not worrying about grammar, spelling, or perfect handwriting can help students take the pressure off themselves in a first draft.

Since it is so easy to accidentally communicate that first drafts need to be perfect, it takes intentionality to reverse that. Some teachers refer to rough drafts as a “sloppy copy” or a “messy draft.” That kind of language clearly communicates that rough drafts are supposed to be messy—and by extension, imperfect.

Another way to create a writing class culture that chips away at this paralyzing need to perform is to focus on revision after writing. When students get used to spending significant time revising their work after they’ve written it, they will put much less pressure on themselves while they’re writing it.

One other thing you can try for a child who can’t overcome the big bad blank page is simply folding their paper in half or in thirds. It’s such a simple thing, but sometimes that can be all it takes to get them over that hurdle.

Students’ fear of the blank page, often caused by perfectionism, can take time to overcome. However, the freedom they can find is well worth the time and energy it takes.

None of these strategies are miracle fixes. But with these tools at your disposal, hopefully you can work with your reluctant writers to turn them into confident communicators. And maybe, someday, you’ll have that idyllic writing class—with no “excepts” in sight.

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