I’ll never forget the very first writing assignment I graded as a fifth grade English teacher.
I had planned the exercise for days, looking up fun writing prompts, giving direct instructions about the type of writing, and working on systems for how the classroom should feel while we were writing. I even bought a candle and put on some atmospheric music to set the mood!
When I got home, I opened my folder of student assignments, ready to soak in the brilliance of their until-now hidden observations. I flipped over the first paper and saw just one word:
That’s all the student had written.
The prompt, mind you, wasn’t about, “Do you want extra homework tonight?” It was one I had spent hours crafting. In just a few seconds that student taught me a big lesson about writing: most students hate doing it.
If you’ve taught for any length of time, you know that it can be like pulling teeth to get students to write. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible! With a little elbow grease, a hefty dose of patience, and the help of these four tips, you can make even the most reluctant writer into a scribe.
Tip #1: Provide Structure
One of the biggest mistakes I made as a writing teacher was assuming my students wanted creative freedom. They did (more on that in a minute), but too much creative freedom was scary for them.
Whether you’re providing structure on the style of essay (e.g. telling them they have to write a persuasive essay but letting them choose the topic) or the topic (e.g. telling them they have to write about suspensions in schools but leaving it up to them to decide the format), giving your students some boundaries can help them feel like they have a safer space to truly create in.
Tip #2: Allow for Creativity
Once you’ve decide on your structure, it’s time to loosen the reins a bit. As I mentioned before, you can allow room for creativity in a couple ways. Perhaps you let students choose the topic if you’ve dictated the type of assignment. Perhaps you let them pick the form of expression if you choose the topic. Either way, giving them space to think and create freely encourages them to learn and express themselves.
Tip #3: Empower Students to Be Their Own Editors
Many students hate writing because they fear the editing process. After all, who likes getting an assignment back that’s been marked up with red ink? One way around this is to empower students to be their own editors.
Instead of doing the bulk of the editing work yourself (which is, of course, a really big job), have them edit their own papers. Set them up with a rubric to edit each other’s work or use an editing tool to allow them to edit their own. If you have access to computers in your classroom, I highly recommend using ProWritingAid — not only does it catch student errors, but it helps them learn why those errors are wrong, so they don’t make the same mistakes again. Your students are saved from the fear of red ink and you’re saved from a mountain of paperwork.
Download the ProWritingAid Teacher's Manual for practical advice and easy-to-use exercises in the classroom
Tip #4: Give Students’ Work a Chance to Shine
Who doesn’t love to see their name in print? Encourage your students to work hard on their writing by providing them with a tantalizing prize: a real, physical, bound copy of their work.
When I was in high school, my English teacher collected our short stories, bound them, and sold them at the school book fair. Just the knowledge that other people (besides our teacher) might see our work was enough to make us sit up a bit straighter and take a more critical eye to what we turned in.
Incentivize your students by investing in their work. You don’t have to bind every assignment, of course, but if you make it known that you as a class are working towards a print edition, your students will likely work harder. Everyone likes to show off, after all!
Writing is scary for many students. But it doesn’t have to be. With the help of a good writing teacher, all students can flourish as writers. All you have to do is strike that perfect balance of structure and creativity which should be easy for you — all teachers are superheroes, after all!