13 Ways to Engage Reluctant Writers

an example of a visual writing prompt

I don't feel like a fantastic reading teacher. I'm still trying to figure out sixth grade math and science. However, I feel confident enough in teaching writing to share a few thoughts on how to engage reluctant writers:

  1. Make it practical. There are some students who hate writing, because all they've ever written is stories and poems and they've never learned about the clarity of prose or the need to be concise in a functional text. 
  2. Make it impractical. Allow students to be fantastical, bizarre, witty and off-the-charts crazy in their writing.  
  3. Allow freedom. At least half of what kids write in my class begins without prompts. I tell them that they can choose the topic or the genre as long as they've hit each genre by the time we're done. I also don't set requirements for length. They respond well to this type of freedom, often going above what they had previously thought they would do. Similarly, I teach kids four or five ways to pre-write and then I let them choose the approach that they prefer. 
  4. Help struggling writers. It isn't wrong to create diagrams showing how to construct paragraphs. I keep word banks of transition words. I work with lower-level ELL students on higher grammatical structures and creating compound sentences. There is nothing wrong with scaffolding. The problem, however, is that teachers often use this approach with every student in the class.
  5. Meet one-on-one with kids instead of pulling small groups. Simply sitting down and conferencing for makes a huge difference in editing. 
  6. Write more. We do a disservice to kids when we treat every piece of writing as a long, laborious process with pre-writing, drafting, editing and final drafts. Sometimes they just need to practice writing more. 
  7. Make it more interesting. Change up the writing prompts. In other words, find topics that engage them either by being novel, unusual, creative or deeply meaningful. I've found that visual writings prompts can make a huge difference in helping students want to write more.
  8. Find a real audience. Let them create podcasts with their writing. Let them record videos based upon their writing (visual poetry works well for this) and let them blog on topics that they find interesting. Allow them to engage with one another in a written format. I've found that blogging comment sentence stems can really help them learn how to use meaningful discourse. 
  9. Make the space inviting. I'm struck by the term "binder vomit" to describe classrooms covered in chart paper. I don't want that. It's not where I go to write. I like to write at Starbucks or in a comfortable chair or outside by a garden. The space matters. If you walk into my classroom during writing time, you'll see kids sitting down against a wall, moving their chairs in focussed solitude or finding comfort in their own desk, because it is "theirs." There is free movement, but it never feels crazy. There is a general hum of talking, but it never gets loud. 
  10. Share your passion for writing. If you don't have passion for writing, find someone who does and bring them in as a guest speaker. I tell my students about my blogging, journal writing, magazine editorials and novel-writing. I want them to know that writing is more than simply an activity one has to do for school.
  11. Don't break it into silos. I don't buy into the idea that we should do three weeks of expository and then two weeks of poetry and then four weeks of persuasive text followed by a month of functional text. They wear out when it's hyper-structured. I think it works best to cycle back to genres. 
  12. Create projects. Documentaries are heavy in writing and heavy in research. However, the research isn't simply "a phase." Similarly, business proposals and budgets require a ton of writing without it feeling like a "writing project." Want kids to peer edit? Let them co-write a website. 
  13. Be creative. I like to have students design things. It can be a treehouse, a baseball stadium, a perfect school, a new course syllabus. Just let the mind wander, find something passionate and then write about it until it feels like it could be real to you. 


John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler.
He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard
and the co-founder of Write About .

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