Improving Writing Fluency in Reluctant Writers
In a typical classroom of elementary or middle school students, writers can most likely be grouped into three categories. First (and usually the fewest in number) are those students that have a natural affinity for writing. They never have a shortage of ideas and will write for as long as you allow, often wanting more time! Then there are the students who may not love to write, but they can usually do what is required of them without much prompting. Finally, there are the reluctant writers. You know the ones…they complain they can’t decide what to write about, they use every stalling tactic ever tried, and they may even be outright defiant, simply refusing to work. This article will teach you three basic, but key, strategies that you can easily implement into any grade level classroom, which will encourage writing. The strategies include building stamina, writing across the disciplines, and writing for authentic purposes.
Strategy 1: Building Stamina
Doug Fisher, a well-known educator and speaker, once said, “If you can read everything your students write, you’re not assigning enough writing.” Now that is not to suggest that you should give your students pointless writing assignments that you have no intention of ever looking at, but the bottom line is this: it is only through frequent writing that your students will improve their writing. Quantity naturally leads to improved quality. However, you cannot expect to start off with assigning a sixth grader to write a five page expository composition, or a first grader to write a one page narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. You have to teacher your students to work up to these more challenging assignments. Like anything else, they have to build stamina for writing.
So how do you build writing stamina? By starting small of course! Find a topic that is engaging to all students, one they feel strongly about. It could be as simple as what they want to dress up as for Halloween for younger students, or for older students, it might be their opinion on group work or homework on weekends. Just as the conversation is getting heated, and you have even heard from your reluctant writers, challenge them to write down their thoughts on the subject for one minute. Just sixty seconds….encourage them that anyone can do that! As the timer is running, you may need to offer suggestions to your reluctant writers. Simply remind them of what they contributed to the conversation and have them write that down. Most likely, more thoughts will follow!
After the one minute is up, have them draw a line across the page, and count up the words they wrote, recording that number on the page. Now, have them read through what they wrote and underline their favorite part. Ask if there are volunteers who want to share their writing aloud. After a few have shared, let your writers know you are going to give them another minute to either continue where they left off, or to start a new piece based on what they underlined. They might even want to write based on what someone read aloud. If you really build the anticipation, they will be eager to pick up their pens and pencils again. Once again, when time is up, have them draw a line and count up their words. Most of them will be excited to see that they wrote more words this second time around. Like before, you can have a few share their writing aloud. It would be excellent to have one of your reluctant writers share their writing so you can offer genuine praise.
At this point, you will need to make a judgment call: go one more round, or call it a day? Building stamina won’t happen in a day, so it is best to stop while your students are still enjoying the activity! When you try it again on a different day, you can challenge them to write for two minutes. Over time, you will gradually increase the number of minutes they write. This strategy is often referred to as power writing, and is a great way to increase your student’s writing stamina.
Strategy 2: Writing Across the Disciplines
Writing should not be an isolated subject that you only teach during a certain part of the day. Your students will naturally improve their fluency if they are writing for multiple purposes throughout the day. It can, and should be done, in all subjects including reading, math, science, social studies/history.
Students can write responses to literature during their reading time, explain their thinking during math, record their predictions and observations during a science investigation, or create a written timeline of important events in history. If those are not enough ideas to get you started, take a look at our Writing Across the Disciplines resource below. This idea guide is broken down into the four core subjects, and provides you with suggested writing tasks for each subject. These tasks can easily be adapted for a wide range of grade levels and writing abilities.
If you still feel like your students would not know where to begin, consider providing them with a sentence stem. Sentence stems are a great tool to help your more reluctant writers who may not know how to start. A sentence stem is simply the framework of a sentence that your students can copy and then fill in the blanks with their own ideas. For example, if you are discussing physical properties in science and you want students to compare and contrast the properties of two items, you could provide this stem:
The physical properties of ___________ and ____________ are similar because ___________________. One difference they have is that ____________________ is ______________________, while ___________________ is ______________________.
If you continue to build writing into all parts of your day, it will gradually become expected and not something to be dreaded.
Strategy 3: Writing for Authentic Purposes
Students need a valid reason to write, and to get excited about writing. Truly reluctant writers will always challenge you, “Why do we need to do this?” But if you are writing for an authentic reason, you will easily be able to answer that question. In this article, we will discuss establishing a classroom blog and persuasive letter writing as two strategies you can use to build writing fluency. If you would like more ideas for authentic writing, be sure to check out our course “Building Reading and Writing Fluency”.
Creating a class blog is a great way to encourage your students to write, and share their writing with others outside of the classroom. Your class blog can serve as an online presence that parents and family members can visit. The best part about a blog is that readers of the blog can leave feedback and comments, therefore engaging your students in online conversations. If you can get your students’ parents involved, and commenting regularly, your students will want to write more just to see the feedback they receive.
Establishing a blog can be done simply, and with no cost, through websites like Blogger or Google Sites. Ideas for blog content include samples of student work, weekly updates of what your students are learning in class, photos with captions of what is going on in the classroom, and notifications of important upcoming events for the class or school. Your students will have plenty of ideas of their own as well! You might want to start by assigning each student, or pair of students, to a particular article. If you have an athlete in the class, encourage him or her to be the sports writer and write about the school’s teams. Do you have any particularly creative writers? Maybe they can have a poetry or short story section. Ask your most reluctant writers to serve as a photographer. Send them out across the campus to take photos of what’s going on in the school, making sure that all students photographed have permission to have their photos posted online, of course! But here’s the catch…for every photo they submit, they must write a one to two sentence caption explaining what is going on. Seeing their photos and captions online will most likely encourage them to write more, and with the lure of a byline, you may have a future columnist on your hands!
Persuasive letter writing is another authentic activity that students often enjoy. If you find that your students feel strongly about an issue, encourage them to write a persuasive letter to the appropriate person. Here are a few ideas to get you started: Do they want a school policy changed? Write to the principal! Are they concerned about too many trees being cut down in a local park area? Write to a local environmental group. Do they feel strongly about a candidate in an upcoming election? Write a letter to the editor of a local paper voicing their opinions. Do they want a new pet, or a pricey game? Have them write a letter to their parents explaining why they deserve it!
This would be another time when sentence stems could be helpful. Provide your struggling writers with proper letter format, as well as the framework to build a persuasive argument. To make this as authentic as possible, you need to actually mail (or email) the letter! Most politicians or organized groups will, at the very least, send back a standard form reply, which will be exciting for your students to receive. It will acknowledge that their voice was heard, and that can be a powerful motivator. Many students will immediately start thinking about who they can write to next!
As educators, most of enjoy writing. But for many of our students, the thought of writing brings on anxiety and feelings of discouragement. You can gradually help turn those feelings around by increasing their writing stamina, having them write frequently throughout the day, and giving them authentic reasons to write.
WRITING ACROSS DISCIPLINES PROMPTS - This is a supplemental resource for participants that provides ideas for writing prompts to be used within math, science, and social studies.
WRITING ATTITUDE SURVEY - This survey templates gives your students the ability to provide feedback to you concerning their needs.
So what is the best way to start trying these strategies in your classroom? Begin by surveying your students about their attitudes towards writing as baseline data. You can use our Writing Attitude Survey resource or create your own. Then, over the next grading period (six to nine weeks typically) try at least two of these suggestions:
- Use the Writing Across the Disciplines resource, and choose at least two (or create your own) cross-curricular writing prompts you can use over the next week within your own classroom. Make it a point to incorporate at least two writing exercises in other subjects each week for the next grading cycle.
- Try implementing the power writing strategy. Begin with one-minute writing sessions, and gradually build up to five minutes over the course of several weeks.
- If an opportunity presents itself, have your students write persuasive letters.
- Start a class blog, with students writing at least 2 or 3 posts per week.
At the end of the grading period, assuming you have actively engaged your students with at least two of the ideas above, re-administer the writing attitude survey. I am confident you will see an increase in positive feelings about writing in most of your students.
RELATED PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT COURSES:
(6 Hours) Participants in this course will learn about the importance of direct phonics instruction and hands-on word work, and how this instruction directly helps to develop the reading and writing fluency of their students.