What to Do with Writers Who Refuse to Write

What to Do with Writers Who Refuse to Write

Just like you have reasons that you don’t do certain things, reluctant writers have their own reasons for not writing.  

Personally, I do not sing in front of people.  Reason?  I had a friend tell me I was terrible when I was very young, and ever since I’ve been terrified of criticism about it.  Though I love singing by myself, I don’t want other people to bring that love down.  One year I had a student who refused to write all year, only for me to find out towards the end that he wrote NOVELS at home.  What??  Turns out, he just didn’t want anyone to taint the love he already had.

I also don’t play football.  Why?  Every message I received growing up said I wouldn’t be good at it and it wasn’t for me.  I never saw anyone that looked like me doing it.  So, I had no motivation to try, and was quite certain I’d be terrible even if I did.  I suppose I wanted to avoid judgement from peers, too.  Many of my writers have felt themselves in this boat, due to gender, race, reputation, or friend-group.

Finally, I don’t eat blueberries.  Why? I just don’t enjoy eating them, despite the dozens of people that have tried to change my mind.  (Seriously, why do people care so much??)  If you try to make me like blueberries, I will push back harder.  Sound familiar with any of your reluctant writers?  

We all have legitimate reasons for doing what we do or don’t do.  My goal for reluctant writers is to try to figure out what’s the reason that’s holding them back (if that’s possible), and then trouble-shoot.  Sometimes trouble-shooting comes before figuring out the reason.

Here is a list of strategies I’ve used to create an environment that’s more friendly to reluctant writers in addition to some trouble-shooting ideas.  

Ideas for Fostering a Reluctant-Writer-Friendly Classroom:

  1. Provide sentence starters for every assignment or prompt you give.  I’m talking for elementary all the way through high school.  I tell kids that transition statements and sentence stems are like “refueling” tools for writing.  They can help a student get started, and they can also help all students push themselves to go deeper into elaboration.  They can also help your Emergent Multilingual students immensely.  
  2. Teach students in your class to talk to each other about their writing.  Some ideas for this are:
    1. Model collaboration for students before having them do it.
    2. Provide rubrics for quality of collaboration and have students evaluate models, each other, and themselves regularly so that students have an idea of what quality discussions about writing are.
    3. Provide questions for students on the board or an anchor chart to ask each other in order to help each other write.
    4. Have students speak their paragraph to a partner, then when they run out of steam, their partner used a sentence stem from the board to prod the writer to keep going (“For example…” “This connects to my claim…” “He smelled…”).
  3. Provide opportunities throughout the year for partner- or group-writing with either students alternating writing sentences/paragraphs, writing sentences together, or writing parts of a project and putting them together.  Every writer excels under different circumstances.  It’s important to give young writers a chance to experiment with what works best for them.
  4. Encourage writers to write in the language that they’re most comfortable with writing, even if that’s not a language you understand. Believe it or not, not only does this help students access your writing content, but it will help them access English, too.  You want them to WRITE. Don’t hold them back because of YOUR language abilities.  There is always Google Translate, and you can always help them translate it in the end if you feel it necessary. Would YOU be confident composing your thoughts first in a second language?
  5. Approach students like the professionals you want them to be.  My favorite line is, “What’s your next step with what you’re working on?”  or, “What part of this are you working on now?”  It’s usually a great launching point, and provides me a platform to praise their ideas.  Even if they just respond with, “I don’t know.  This [pointing to their writing].”  I can respond with, “Awesome, so you’re starting with (insert great, specific first step),” which the student can smoothly latch onto.  
  6. Don’t leave a conference until you see students gain momentum.  Unless the student seems too uncomfortable with me there, I try not to leave a conference until I know they not only understand the next step, but I’ve watched them complete the first sentence, bullet point, etc.  That way, I am able to see (and praise) something before leaving, which usually also helps momentum.
  7. Value ideas over grammar.  And make this clear to your students from day one. Grammar, spelling, and punctuation will all come in time.  I can assure you that they will not come if a student is refusing to write.  I learned to love writing and began writing in my spare time because I had teachers that praised my ideas and overlooked my errors while I was busy creating.  There is a lot of research out there that supports this approach.  If you’ve never tried it, it might be the secret to unlocking the potential in some of your most reluctant writers.
  8. Orient assignments for authentic publication and for an audience your students care about.  An argumentative unit can transform if you replace turning in an essay with mailing it to school board members; an information unit can come alive if students write about topics they’re passionate about in order to explain to an interested audience.

Trouble-Shooting Tips for Teaching Reluctant Writers

  1. Draw a line somewhere on the page as a goal for the writer. Ask them to write to that line.  Tomorrow, add a couple lines to that volume, and repeat.
  2. Make sure you’re asking students to write about something they know.  If they haven’t written anything all year, is there another, modified project you could assign them instead of that literary essay that would get at the same argumentative skills?  One time I modified our fiction-story unit for a reluctant writer into being a video game project.  He had to teach me the parts of a video game story and then create one himself.  
  3. Ask the writer to explain their ideas about their writing, and then you write them down as they talk.  When they’re finished, repeat what you wrote back to them, and help the writer section their paper for each idea.  Give them some sentence starters to start each section.
  4. Partner the student with friends.  What would be more intimidating to a self-conscious or hesitant writer than to talk through their writing with a complete stranger?  I’ve made incredible strides by giving in and doing this, especially for resistant writers.  
  5. Modify a project to be smaller chunks of writing with more pictures–like a comic, infographic, or even a verbal debate.  If you recorded a verbal debate, you could always have the student transcribe it.
  6. Have students draw their story first.  Then have them label it. Then have them write  sentences…etc.
  7. Anonymously praise sentences from students in front of the class.  Sometimes I pull sentences from writing and share them at the beginning of the next day, purposefully sprinkling in sentences from reluctant writers.  Being anonymously praised can be extremely motivating for any writer, but especially a self-conscious one.
  8. Teach the students how to use Voice-typing on Google Docs, or something similar.  Many times it’s not that struggling writers don’t have ideas, it’s that the need a way to write as fast as they can think.  
  9. Give the student the option to write in a room by themselves.  Sometimes writers are just self-conscious.  Even if you can’t provide this every day, if you know it works better than anything, that’s important information for you.
  10. “Chat” the student online instead of conferring in person.  One time, I had a student that had refused to write for weeks.  I knew he was struggling, but in-person conferences bore no progress. So instead, while I saw him staring at his blank Google Doc from across the room, I opened his document on my computer and started asking him questions, just as I would a conference.  We had an entire conversation about his writing on his page. He went from writing 0 pages in 2 weeks to an entire page in a day. Sometimes, students are just more comfortable in an online “chat”-type form.  If you don’t have access to Google Docs, you could also do something similar by passing back and forth a piece of paper.
  11. Call home and elicit help–particularly with brainstorming.  It can be HUGELY helpful for guardians to talk writers through their thinking and help them brainstorming ideas. In most cases, who better knows the student’s experiences than their guardians? By filling them in on the project, they can help boost their child’s confidence (and their number of ideas) before coming the next day. Plus, it gets guardians on your team from the get-go.  This can be pretty useful when the deadline’s approaching and the student is behind.  
  12. Call or visit home and ask about the student’s writing skills and history.  Ask about what their past experiences with writing have been.  Ask what kind of writing or talking they do at home. Do they tell amazing stories at dinner?  Do they write the grocery list?  All of these can serve as clues for strengths you can build on in class.

My philosophy to teaching is to push students from where they were yesterday rather than get them to where everyone else is today.  If you are uncomfortable with any idea below because you feel it would be lowering the bar, ask yourself: if this student was successful with this approach, would that success be better than what they accomplished yesterday?  If it is, then sounds like it’s worth it to me.  We can always work from there.

What are some ideas that have helped your more reluctant writers?

You may also be interested in:

How to Teach Students to Own that Speech post–how to encourage even the most reluctant speech-givers to get up and rock it.

3 Ways that Recording Lessons will Transform your Differentiation–if you’re interested in ways to serve all levels of your students, this is one of the most fascinating ideas I’ve tried.

Teaching Writing Pinterest Board–My spot to collect all the most useful resources I can find for teaching writing–if you like this post, you’re sure to like this collection.

ELA Resources Pinterest Board–A collation of engaging, best practice resources for ELA teachers.

Teaching Emergent Multilinguals Pinterest Board–More ideas on how to make your classroom ELL-friendly

My Teachers Pay Teachers Store–I’ve taught writing for 4 years, so that’s my store’s specialty!

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