What if they won’t write anything?

I am asked this question all the time by teachers in all grades.

What do I do if a kid just won’t write?

It is a tricky, and important, question. I will give some tips below that I hope will help some of you, but I want to first explain how I feel about the idea that students won’t write. Remember there are many possible reasons for students not writing: they may lack ideas, or they may lack confidence. They may have had negative experiences with writing in the past. They may be perfectionists, and therefore avoid writing because they cannot meet their own high standards. Or, they may be just plain uninterested in writing.

I mention a few of the possible reasons because my first tip is to know your students well enough to try to uncover why they won’t write. An honest, nonjudgemental conversation may be the key to helping some of your resistant writers. You have to listen to their reasons before your offer advice, but I often find that just listening for a minute helps.

To be honest, however, this does not always work because I find many students don’t know why they resist writing – they just resist.

Here area some other tips for helping resistant writers:

  • Ask students to pick between two possible topics to write about after you know some of their interests. For example, if you know a student plays soccer and has a large family, you might say something like: “I want you to pick a story about a time you won a soccer game or a time you were mad at your older brother, then we will get started, okay?” I find that the more specific I am, the better. In other words, I would NOT say: “Pick a soccer story or pick a family story” because then we will end up in the same place: stuck. But when I am specific, even if a student negates what I say, I have a way in. So, if a student responds in this way: “But I never get mad at my brother. He’s cool,” I immediately say: “Awesome. Tell me a story about a time your brother was cool. Start this way: ‘My brother is so cool! One time…’ Go. Tell me the story.”
  • If students have an idea but do not begin writing, then share the pencil with the student (or share the computer). You write or type the first sentence or two, and then ask the student to continue. Many times teachers fear this will lead to dependence, but I have never found this to be the case. I just want the paper to have some writing on it as quickly as possible. I write what the student says (like a scribe), and then I walk away, promising to check in shortly. If there is no new writing on the page when I return, I re-read what I wrote, and then say: “What’s next?” When the student responds, I say: “Great. Just write that part. I’ll be right back to check in on you.” And then I walk away. And I come back quickly. Walking away is the key here: if you stare at the blank page, hoping they will write, you might increase stress. Walking away sends this message: “I know you can get something on the page. I trust you will. And I will be back to see what you have done.”
  • This final tip may seem counter-intuitive, but I have had some success with this approach as well: If you have a student who has ideas but resists writing, then use the student as the model for the writing during your mini-lesson. You will have to make sure the student is not shy, or this approach will backfire! Let’s say you are working on personal narrative. You know of a student (let’s call him Jake) who has an idea, but you also know he will probably avoid writing once the workshop begins. During the mini-lesson, say: “Jake! I know you have a great story about that roller coaster ride you went on last summer at Disney World! Pop on up here in author’s chair and tell the story, and then we’ll work together as a class to help you think of how you could start the story. Then, I will record the first two sentences of our idea on chart paper. Ready? Come on up!” I want to stress that this will not work for all kids, but we must remember that not all resistant writers lack ideas – they may just not like to write. And enough years of avoiding writing must be overcome somehow, or it only gets worse. If you write the beginnings of a story on the chart paper, you have begun the work for the resistant writer, but you have also validated them as a writer.

I hope these tips help!

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