TRT Podcast#24: What to do when your writers WON’T WRITE
You want your students to love writing time … but some of them don’t. And their refusal to get started is starting to make you dread writing time as well!
How can we help our learners who just won’t write?
In this episode you will discover:
- Why it’s not that surprising that some students won’t write
- The one goal you should have for each of your students
- Simple strategies that will give struggling writers the support they need
Listen to the episode here
Full episode transcript
You are listening to Episode 24: What To Do When Your Writers WON'T WRITE.
As I was thinking about this episode and doing a little research online, I Googled what to do when your students won't write. Wow! There were a lot of articles! I mention this to let you know that this is a very common problem. So please, don't think that just because you have a student (or three or four) who sit there and won't write during Writing Workshop, that this is because you're a terrible teacher. This is normal! We should all expect to have at least one student per year that just sits there and won't get started. Most likely you'll have more than one, so don't be too hard on yourself. Today we're going to go through a lot of different strategies that you can use to help students who just won't write.
The first thing I recommend is to get to know the student better. Think about how the student behaves the rest of the school day. Do they refuse to do their reading work? Do they refuse to do their math sheets? Do they refuse to participate in social studies and science, or is this just writing time? If it's mainly just writing time, we can probably rule out a behavior issue or an attention issue. It has to do with something about writing. Now, if you ask the student, "Why won't you write?" They'll probably say something like, "I don't like writing" or "I hate writing," but it goes deeper than that. Even if they don't know the answer, it's your job to help figure out what it is and then address the issue.
A lot of times, I think it's just that kids are afraid. They really don't know how to do it and they're afraid that what they do will be wrong. Maybe they're little perfectionists and they know they can't write perfectly so they don't want to try. Maybe physically, it's just hard to be holding that pencil for a long period of time. Honestly, it may just be because there are other things they'd rather be doing. This isn't at the top of their list, so they'd rather just not be doing it. We need to figure out what's causing them to be stuck and address the issue.
I have a quote for you from Two Writing Teachers, which is a great blog for learning strategies for teaching writing. The author wrote this, "When people ask me what to do when kids won’t write during Writing Workshop, I worry that they are hoping for a magic cure. The one amazing minilesson or conference that will get kids writing. Believe me, I wish I could say, 'Abracadabra!' and POOF! Everyone writes!
"Unfortunately, my answer isn’t usually what people want to hear, but it’s the truth. Assuming you’ve already done everything humanly possible to set up an inviting, safe, inspirational classroom environment, that you’ve partnered the student strategically with others, you’ve provided all sorts of resources, materials, space, strategies… The truth is, you can’t solve this problem without doing more work. You have to do work to get to the bottom of the problem. Otherwise, this will happen again and again and again for the student. This year, and next year, and possibly every year until somebody somewhere figures out why the student has so much trouble getting started."
Again, that's from Two Writing Teachers and I will leave the link to that blog post in the show notes. My point of reading that long quote to you was just to reiterate that we can't solve this problem with a snap of our fingers. It's going to take some time but it's worth it. If you help the student break through that writing wall, you are setting them up to be successful as a writer in all future grades. So you have an important responsibility here and I have every confidence that you're up for it.
In this episode, I'm going to give you things to fill your toolbox. I'll give you ideas and things that you can try when you have a student who just won't write. I hope that at least one of these will do the trick and make all the difference for your writer!
The first thing I want you to remember is this quote from Teacher Off Duty, which I will link to in the show notes. "My philosophy for teaching is to push students from where they were yesterday rather than to get them to where everyone else is today." I cannot agree with that more. In fact, I often say that same sort of thing to teachers and parents. Our goal is not to get everyone to the same point on the finish line. It's to get them farther than where they were when they started the year. Remember, it's baby steps. Get them a little farther than they were yesterday.
Along that same vein, this may have to do with length of their writing. So if you have a third grader who's writing three sentences and that's all, you could draw a line on their paper and say, "Today, I want you to write up to this line." The next day, you can make that line go just a little bit farther.
Something else I want you to do is to start from a place of empathy. Think about something that you will not do in front of other people, whatever that may be. Maybe it's dancing, singing, playing an instrument. For me, it's team sports. I can tell you exactly why this is: PE class, way back when I was in fifth grade. I was a new student at a big school. My previous school was very, very tiny, and all of a sudden I was in this big school with hundreds of kids. We had structured gym classes which I'd never had at our tiny school. I knew next to nothing about sports because my parents weren't sports people. We didn't even play catch in the backyard.
So here I was and it was like the first day of school. We were playing volleyball which I honestly didn't know anything about, and we were standing in different places when the teacher told us to rotate. All of a sudden everybody was going in all these strange directions, and I had no idea what they were doing. All of a sudden, I find myself standing in the corner of the court holding a ball. I didn't know what to do with it! I really didn't! Everybody was yelling at me, "Come on, stupid! Serve the ball!" I wanted to just shrink right into that gym floor. I didn't even know what that meant, to serve the ball. I didn't know what I was doing, and I was an extremely shy child, extremely. So this just made it so much worse.
I remember the teacher looked at me and I remember her saying something like, "Hang on. Maybe she's never played volleyball before." This never occurred to anybody because they'd been doing this for years!
Ever since, I've hated any kind of team sport because I have to say, unfortunately, that experience repeated itself with all the other sports in gym class over many years. What would it take for me to be willing to play volleyball, an actual volleyball game, in front of people?
I'll tell you where things changed a little bit for me, and that was in college. When I was in college, that's a whole other subject about why you would have to take gym class in college, whatever. But my classmates were unusual in that, just like me, they were all planning to be teachers. Guess what? Nobody called me stupid and everybody was patient. In fact, there were even students who went out of their way to show me how to do something, even though they didn't have to do that. Suddenly, gym class wasn't so bad. I still didn't like it, but I didn't hate it and I even had fun once in a while. Your student NEEDS you to be their cheerleader and their coach, not the one who hangs over them and tells them they haven't done it again. If the reason they're not writing is because they lack confidence, you can change that! You can change that by accepting whatever they do, at least at first.
This is a quote from Third Grade Doodles, which again I will link to in the show notes. "As your students are getting to know you and your classroom environment...ACCEPT EVERYTHING that they write, give lots of praise and publicly acknowledge their efforts as a writer....even if it is only one little sentence...or even just a word!! When they begin to feel safe and trust you, then you can begin to help them to set writing goals." That is such good advice, but very hard to follow because we want to see everyone get to the same finish line at the same time. That's not going to happen if you have more than one student in your classroom which, of course, you do!
Something else you can do when students just won't write is to consider working with the parents. This will not work in every situation. But I mentioned in another episode about how my daughter's first grade teacher came up to me in the parking lot. She told me that she was really struggling during writing time. She said she hated writing, was crying, and wasn't writing anything. For me as a parent, this was disappointing to hear, but not surprising. I mean, my daughter is known for flopping on the floor at home when she doesn't get her way or is frustrated by something. I also know she's a very smart little girl and very capable of writing.
So I knew this wasn't because she couldn't do it. It's because she was hitting some kind of roadblock, and in talking with her teacher, it seemed to be topic selection. That day after our family finished our Friday chores (because I like a clean house on Saturday so we clean on Friday nights), I walked with her to the local Walgreens. We picked out a tiny little notebook that she could use to store writing ideas. She really wanted some foil stars that she could put on each writing ideas so we bought those too.
I did this for two reasons. Number one: her love language is individual time with her. So I knew that just she and I walking to the store and getting this notebook was the way to go, versus me stopping in the store after school and grabbing it while the big kids were in the van with the little kids. Number two: she needed a tool. She needed a way to store the ideas that she had, something she could bring back and forth between home and school. We've only been doing this for a few days, but I know that things are going better. I also expect she will have more writing roadblocks because that's just real life. But it means we've found a solution, at least for now, to this problem. It works for as long as it works. When it stops working, we'll try something else.
The point is that we did some problem solving! I thought about something that would help, and we tried it. Thankfully, we were successful. It also helps me as a parent to know this is a problem, because then I can talk with her in everyday life when there's something she could write about. For example, the other night she was playing with her friend, jumping in leaves in the backyard. At supper that night, I said, "Hey, I thought of another idea you could put in your idea book about the time that you spent jumping in the leaves with your friend today!"
Including parents is a great idea when you feel like the parent will be supportive. If you think the parent is going to be punitive and kind of make this into a bigger issue than it really is, that may not be the way to go.
But if you can tell the parent, "Your child's not in trouble. I just want to help and I think that you are a great person to help in this situation. We are looking to help your son or daughter write more than one sentence, or learn to enjoy writing, or come up with writing topics, etc. Here's something I'd love for you to try at home." Or you can do what my child's teacher did, which is just tell me about it and then I found a solution. Do whatever you think is going to work, but getting parents on your team is a great idea.
Something else to think about is giving the child more time to write. What we don't want to do, although I admit I've done it, is hold threats over the child's head during writing time. For instance, "If you don't write now, you're going to write during recess!" I know, I've actually done that before. I hate to say it. I understand the frustration, especially when you have a child who is just so distracted and so not getting down to work, and they'll never do it unless you say something like that! I'm not saying you can't ever do that, but I am saying that's probably not the best tactic because we don't want to turn writing into some kind of punishment! We don't want it to be something they have to do when they've been bad.
Our end goal is twofold: we want them to be good at writing, but we also want them to like it. Because if they don't like it, they won't choose to do it. If they don't choose to do it, they won't get better at it. So when they're really struggling to get anything down on paper during your writing time, you can do a few things. You can make your writing time longer, which may be not be possible, or it may not be what you want to do. That's fine. You might find alternate times for them to write, but please present those in a kind, patient way. So you might say, "I've been watching you write during writing time and I noticed that it's really hard for you sometimes to get started during our twenty minute writing time. What's another time of the day that you think you could do some writing?"
It may be that this child comes in early every day and maybe they're fresher then. Maybe you give them a special writing cubby in the classroom, and after they've gotten their things put away, they sit down and get started. That may not work for every child, but that's just one other possibility. So try to get creative as you give them more time to write. If a child is really struggling to find a topic and nothing seems to work, and you feel like you're just feeding them topics over and over (which gets really annoying and exhausting), you can do something you would not do with the rest of your class. Let them choose between two topics.
Hopefully, you're getting to know your students well, and you can say, "Okay, I know you have a baby sister at home and I know you have a pet dog. I want you to either write a story about your sister playing with you, or write a story about something you do with your dog. Which one is it going to be?" Then they have to choose. They have to because they're not choosing one on their own. Now that's not ideal, right? But sometimes if we just have to get past this hurdle that they won't write at all, we do something like that.
Remember, this is baby steps. We're not going to all get to the finish line at the same time. We're trying to get them farther than they were yesterday. If yesterday was that they couldn't think of anything to write about and nothing was on their paper, today would be getting a topic and at least writing a sentence.
Another idea is from Mark Overmeyer, who has a book all about challenges of Writing Workshop and I'm going to link to his blog post. In his blog post, he suggests sharing the pen. I'm going to read to you what he says, "If students have an idea, but do not begin writing, then share the pencil. You write the first sentence or two and then ask them to continue. Many teachers fear this will lead to dependence, but I've 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's no new writing on the page when I return, I reread what I wrote and say, 'What's next?' When the student responds, I say, 'Great. Just write that part. I'll be right back to check 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'll 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'll be back to see what you have done'." So there is a tip from Mark Overmeyer.
Another idea is to bring the child up with you during a mini lesson and use them as your helper as you do some model writing. You would be working together to write, perhaps a personal narrative based on this child's own experience. Together in front of the class you come up with a topic, you ask them questions, and they help you craft and write the sentences. You may be doing most of the work, but they are there to support you. Then you can call it "Jenny's Story" or "Sam's Story", and they have some kind of ownership with that and they see what they can do with help.
Another idea for kids who just won't write is to give them a partner that they can talk with before writing time begins. Even though we're all very hesitant to do this, you might consider making this person their friend. I think back to myself and sports, and what if the teacher had assigned one child to help me learn to serve a volleyball. I probably would not have wanted it to be a student that I didn't know. If they could give me a friend who I felt safe around, that would have been a better idea. So if possible, assign a friend to this child and they get to be together for maybe three minutes at the beginning of writing time to chat about what this child is going to write about.
Another idea for the whole class and this particular child is to do a lot more shared writing. We often model how to write, but shared writing is when you talk together about what's going to come next on the page. There's also something called interactive writing and that's really great for this. If you're a member of my membership, The Measured Mom Plus, you should definitely watch that training. I keep all the trainings short, usually under 30 minutes, so you can watch them quickly. There's even a printable transcript. You can read it if you don't want to watch it. It will give you a lot of really good tips for interactive writing. I'll link directly to that training in the show notes so if you're a member, you can quickly find it and watch it.
We've talked about a lot of things in today's episode. Let's sum it up: -Don't feel bad when you have a student or more who just doesn't write. This is completely normal. Just Google it and you'll see lots of other teachers who have this problem.
-Get to know your students well and come at this from a place of love.
-Have your writing time earlier in the day when you have more patience and you're willing to work through this with your students.
-Try different solutions, remembering that what works for one will not work for everyone else.
-Consider involving parents if you think that will be helpful.
-Do more shared and interactive writing with the class.
-Have students jot down writing ideas, whether those are drawings or actual sentences in a notebook that they keep and transfer from home to school so their parents can help them think of writing ideas. Their parents know them better than you do. So they'll be able to help them find writing topics even more.
-Be patient, accept everything at first, and remember, your goal is not to create a perfect writer today. It's to move this writer farther than they were yesterday! That may mean getting just one sentence on the page so that a month from now, they have half a page written during writing time.
We're going to cover a lot more things about helping struggling writers in the coming weeks. So stay tuned!
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Links mentioned in this episode
- The Amazing Cure for Students Who Won’t Write (Two Writing Teachers)
- What to Do for Writers Who Refuse to Write (Teacher Off Duty)
- Help! They Just Won’t Write! (Third Grade Doodles)
- What if They Won’t Write Anything? (Mark Overmeyer’s Blog)