Try these tips to help your students defeat writer’s block!
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So you’ve launched Writing Workshop. You’ve taught your students how to find their own writing ideas. Even if things aren’t quite smooth sailing, you’re on a good path. Teaching writing isn’t so hard after all!
Until that dreaded day (which may in fact be the very first day) that a student has writer’s block.
She may write a few sentences and declare “I’m done!”
Or he may stare at his story … and stare and stare. By the time the writing period is over, he’s written a scant two sentences.
What’s a teacher to do?
10 ways to help your students overcome writer’s block
1. Remember that writer’s block is normal.
I don’t know about you, but when I teach writing I like to see everyone on task. I want to see all my students’ pencils moving, with only short breaks as they re-read their work and prepare to write the next sentence.
But there’s a problem with that picture.
It’s completely unrealistic, not to mention unfair.
I certainly don’t write that way. Do you?
If professional writers have unproductive writing days (and they do!), we must grant our students permission to have the same. When we remember that all writers get stumped about what to write next, we’ll be more empathetic and less demanding.
And students are much more likely to break writer’s block when they have a supportive teacher at their side.
2. Allow time to think.
I’m certainly guilty of assuming the worst when a writer is staring into space or fiddling with his pencil. I may assume that he’s playing, stalling, or being lazy.
But thoughtful writing demands thinking. When you see a child staring into space, don’t jump in immediately. Watch him out of the corner of your eye for a few minutes before you assume that his brain is somewhere else.
3. Reread what’s already written.
Always have students who are stuck begin by reading what they’ve already written – even if that’s just a title. Reading it out loud is especially helpful. Kids can cover their ears with their hands and read in a quiet voice. This will keep them from distracting others while letting them hear their own words loud and clear.
4. Write “off the page.”
Sometimes students are afraid to write because they aren’t exactly sure how they want the piece of writing to go. They don’t want to commit something to paper – even draft paper – if they’re unsure.
Encourage your students to brainstorm different options on a separate piece of paper or a different page in the notebook. Borrowing a phrase from Nancie Atwell, we call this “writing off the page.”
Model first. Pull out a piece of your own writing in progress. Consider how you might move the piece forward. Try several different options on a separate piece of paper. Then choose one to put into the draft.
5. Set small goals.
Sometimes the issue may not be that the child is unsure how the story should go, but that he simply has trouble focusing on writing more than a few words or sentences. Set a goal that the student can meet.
“Write up to this line. Raise your hand when you get there so I can check on it.”
“What do you think is a reasonable amount of pages you can write in one writing period? Half a page? Hmmm… I think you can do 3/4 of a page. I’m going to draw a line here. I expect you to write at least this amount today.”
The challenge with this method is that some students define the quality of their work by how much they’ve written, not by the writing itself.
Consider this a baby step. You’ve got to get something on paper before you can assess its quality.
6. Make a sketch.
Some students pre-write by drawing. This is an especially good tactic in the early elementary grades, but it can be effective in older grades as well. The challenge is to help older students use drawing as a tool, not a substitute for writing.
If you find that your students in grades 3+ are drawing too much, limit it to the first ten minutes of the workshop. Or set a timer for students to use it as a way to bust out of writer’s block.
7. Do a fastwrite.
A fastwrite, sometimes called a quickwrite, is when students write without stopping for a specified period of time. They don’t worry about punctuation, spelling, or grammar. They just write.
Students with writer’s block may need to do a quickwrite about an entirely different topic just to get their writing brains back on track.
8. Move to a different spot of the story.
Students can get stuck on a word or section and waste an entire writing period trying to figure out what they want to say. Teach your students to star the troubling spot, leave some space, and move on. Their brains can take a new look at it the following day.
9. Use a graphic organizer.
When students are stuck, it can be helpful for them to visually organize their thoughts. You can buy many beautiful graphic organizers, but I’m not talking anything fancy here.
If your student is writing a fictional story, draw a mountain on a piece of paper. Have her write the story’s climax on the mountain’s peak and write events on either side of it.
If your student is stuck while writing a piece of nonfiction, show him how to write a web or chart to organize his thoughts.
10. Change the environment.
A student may need to move to a different part of the classroom. Have him sit at a different desk, at a table with lots of room, or even in a cozy corner on the floor.
Writer’s block is frustrating for both the student and teacher. Sometimes you need to accept that today isn’t going to be productive. Maybe it’s the weather, a scratchy shirt, something happening at home, or simply an “off” day.
When you give your students 4-5 days to write each week, you can afford an off day once in a while. You’ll have a fresh start tomorrow!
Want to have a successful Writing Workshop in the classroom or at home?
This guide will get you there.
Check out our guide for teaching writing!
Writing Workshop Guide K-8
Whether you’re new to the Writing Workshop or an experienced workshop teacher, you’ll love this giant handbook for teaching writing in grades K-8. In addition to this helpful guide, you’ll also receive over 150 pages of printable resources!