9 Ways to Get Secondary Students to Enjoy Writing
"Uggghhh! We have to write another essay?"
Isn't that the response we all want to hear from our students regarding writing? Of course not. But! How do we change that mindset when students are already convinced they aren't good at it, don't like it, or just plain aren't going to do it?
Altering negative mindsets is challenging, but not impossible. Sometimes, it takes more than the work of one teacher. It can take an entire school year where every teacher that student has during the day is pouring positivity and encouragement the student's way. Other times, it takes longer than a year.
Just because we feel we can't single handedly change the attitude of a student or group of students doesn't mean we shouldn't try. Our students deserve more. How can teachers chip away at clouds of negativity that pervade students' thinking when it comes to writing?
Slowly. Patiently. Creatively. We have to be willing to try different approaches. Think about your least favorite subject in school. Now, try to recall which teacher made that class most engaging and enjoyable for you. What did he or she do differently? Sometimes adjusting our strategies to meet reluctant writers is helpful. Let's explore what some of those adjustments might look like.
1. KNOW YOUR STUDENTS AS WRITERS
It's important that we get to know each of our students as writers. We need to talk to them about past writing experiences, frustrations, and victories. Teachers can have these conversations during workshop time, during independent reading time, during an advisory period, or at any other time your school's schedule allows.
Certainly, writing surveys can help, but there is more than one piece to the puzzle. Building relationships with students and showing them that you genuinely care about them will be a foot in the door many of the child's previous teachers might not have won. These conversations will bring you to a place where you can work with the student to set manageable and realistic goals for growth.
2. FOCUS ON GROWTH
When working with students who are struggling writers, it's important to focus on growth. If you ask a struggling writer to produce the same type of work as one who is performing at or above grade level, that student is likely going to quit. Why try? Differentiating expectations for ability levels is one of the keys to reducing frustration.
Instead of using the same rubric to assess every student after completing a research paper, first give students a pre-assessment. This year, I asked my 7th graders to answer this debate (as we are a 1:1 school): Argue whether iPads are more helpful or harmful to your education.) I used a simple rubric that allowed me to highlight their current strengths and weaknesses. After working with these students and providing scaffolding, I assessed their final essays with the same rubric. Then, I looked for growth from the initial rubric to the final one.
3. Embrace Mistakes
Think about how we as teachers feel when we receive only or mostly negative feedback on evaluations. It's disheartening. It makes us wonder why we entered the field. Worse, it makes us question our worth.
In the same way, students need a balance of constructive feedback and praise. Granted, the essay in question may very well be a hot mess, but pointing out every single mistake a student made is not going to result in them enjoying writing. If enjoyment is the goal - changing a mindset - then we have to practice restraint. Stick to a one to one ratio. At the minimum, for every piece of advice, offer a form of praise. Keeping the list of "skills to develop" short is also helpful.
Ultimately, we want to develop a culture in which mistakes are celebrated. If a student writes a question as a thesis statement, we can choose to write, "This is not a thesis statement." Or, we can say to the whole class, "You guys! I'm so glad someone just wrote a question as a thesis statement. This presents us with an amazing learning opportunity." Then, we can proceed to build up that student's confidence by thanking him or her for writing a question instead of a statement and have a discussion about why we structure claims in a certain way. Mistakes open doorways for meaningful discussions, so students can't be afraid to make them.
4. START SMALL
At the risk of sounding cliche, Rome wasn't built in a day. Boosting students' confidence as writers sometimes means we have to start small. Would you rather have six paragraphs that demonstrate mastery of zero skills, or one paragraph that showcases a student's ability to revise and edit in order to form coherent sentences? In September, argumentative paragraphs might be a more realistic goal than argumentative research papers. Small victories win the war.
5. PROVIDE AN AUTHENTIC AUDIENCE
Sometimes students don't enjoy writing because it feels like busy work. Other times, they don't see the connection to real life. As often as possible, give them an authentic audience. Let them know their writing will reach a specific person, organization, or business.
For instance, ask students to write professional emails, letters of complaint, cover letters, editorials, product reviews, eloquent social media posts, or open letter blog articles.
6. GIVE VOICE AND CHOICE
Build trust with students by giving them a voice in the type of writing they want to do. Allow them to select a genre they'd like to study. Ask them to investigate common author's style, appropriate word choice, and the general language of that genre. Then, have them work on building their own writing stamina as it relates to that genre of writing.
Research has proven that choice is the key to a student's buy-in when it comes to learning. This fact is so true for disengaged writers. Students need to know not only that they can explore an area of interest, but also that by doing so, they should be driving their own learning. As Spencer and Juliani (2017) write in their book Empower,
No matter how diverse industries will be, our students will all someday face a common reality: Every single one of them will need to think like an entrepreneur in order to thrive in a changing world. They may not invent a company, but they will have to invent and reinvent their jobs in order to stay relevant. (70)
Teachers need to provide students with a safe place where they can explore what it means to be both a self-starter and a self-manager. If students see they have the choice to explore writing that relates to their interests and even their future careers, they will begin to view it as less of a chore and more of an opportunity.
7. ADD VARIETY
But what about the standards? Yes, they can be met even when allowing students choice. Let's say, however, that you give students complete freedom, and no one chooses to write an argumentative research paper.
We can still teach that standard by offering choice. Teachers can allow students to write one of several different types of argumentative pieces. Or, we can provide choices for topics within one style of essay.
Whatever we do, we need to focus on spicing it up! Just like most people would get bored with eating the exact same lunch every day for a year, students (often struggling or disinterested writers) get tired of writing formal essays without opportunity for creative freedom.
A multi-genre research project or a passion project are perfect examples of how teachers can incorporate writing with choice while still tying assignments and content directly to learning objectives and standards.
8. MAKE IT SOCIAL
Collaborative writing is a powerful experience. It takes the pressure off of individual students and allows teachers to model how to work with a group to achieve a common goal. I wouldn't advocate for every writing assignment to be collaborative, but students should have at least one experience each year. Plus, it cuts down on the grading load and makes conferencing and providing feedback more feasible.
Another way to make writing social is to allow students to give one another feedback. Through peer conferencing, digital tools, and writer's workshop, teens have the ability to learn what it means to give quality descriptive feedback.
9. LURE THEM IN WITH CREATIVITY
Give your students writing assignments that are do-able but also ENJOYABLE! Students can write about their year using music. You can ask them to summarize high-interest nonfiction texts, write creative responses to nonfiction, or make connections between poetry and short films. Creativity helps to hook reluctant writers. If you are lacking inspiration, just do a simple Google search. Or, skim Pinterest and Instagram.
If you're anything like me, you're always collecting resources on how you can teach writing better. This is the Pinterest board where I save my favorite articles and resources for teaching writing. Follow along to add some ideas to your toolbox.
And there you have it: nine ways teachers can help secondary students enjoy writing. It may seem like a Herculean task, but with a little patience, love, and relationship building, we can begin to reshape how students view themselves as writers. Will we always be able to revolutionize the way students think about writing in one academic calendar? Realistically, no, but if we don't at least try, we'll never know what difference we could have made.
If you're searching for more guidance on how to help struggling writers, don't miss these posts:
It's important that all students know how to write analytically. This analyzing texts bundle is full of scaffolded and engaging tools for struggling and reluctant writers. They can be used with any text, and the activities aren't intimidating for students.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Melissa is the creator of Reading and Writing Haven and a collaborative blogger on Teachwriting.org.
A middle and high school English teacher for over a decade now turned instructional coach, Melissa is an avid reader and writer, and she loves sharing ideas and collaborating with fellow educators. Melissa use her degrees in English, Curriculum & Instruction, and Reading as well as her Reading Specialist certification to ponder today’s educational issues while developing resources to help teachers, students, and parents make learning more relevant, meaningful, and engaging.
When she's not teaching, Melissa lives for drinking a good cup of coffee, loving on her family, working out, and contemplating the structure of a sentence as well as how she can lead her students to deeper reading comprehension (Melissa's true nerdy passions).