As an English Language Arts (ELA) Instructional Coach, one of the most common questions I get from teachers is how can they get some students to write more. Earlier this week I discussed ways to increase reading volume, so today we will switch to a focus on increasing writing volume.
Creating an Excitement Around Writing
Just as in reading, we need to create an excitement for kids about putting their thoughts on paper. This can be a scary proposition for some kids. We make ourselves vulnerable when we write our thoughts. One of the best ways to create this excitement at all grade levels is to share your own writing. Kids love to see their teachers writing and sharing from their own lives. It also works to create a sense of community and safety in sharing our writing.
One sure way to create excitement is to make a student a “star”. Showcasing their writing (or even a small part of a piece) to peers during the mid-workshop interruption or the share time at the end can go a long way in building momentum for a student. Of course the surest way to make them a star is to display their work or show it to a classroom visitor along with a genuine compliment about the piece. Our end of unit celebrations can be a way to make all of our student feel like writing stars. My favorite celebrations to attend are the ones where I can interact with the students and leave written comments about their pieces. I have seen 5th grade “cool” boys who proclaim celebrations to be “no big deal”, read their written comments on a piece and try not to smile around their peers (they usually are unsuccessful and the smile shines through).
Motivation by Choices
Most workshop teachers already implement the basic philosophy of student choice in selecting topics to write about. As in many districts, we work in units, usually genre driven, but students are able to choose their daily writing topics. There are many other aspects of workshop where providing a choice can motivate students to write more. One of my favorites is providing a large variety of writing utensils. Sometimes a reluctant student has lots to write about if provided a glitter pen in their favorite color. Or a student with a love of a particular sports team might be willing to write more when the team logo is on their pen.The secret to being successful with this technique is the pens are only available during writing workshop. Collen Cruz from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project (TCRWP)and author of The Unstoppable Writing Teacher writes about other reasons to provide felt tip pens in this article from TCRWP. Many of the reasons from Colleen’s article center on the physical aspects of handwriting and on other tips from Occupational Therapists.
I read recently that if all student projects look alike then it was no better than a worksheet. I think the same can be true for our published writing. Choice in publishing formats can be motivating to students as well. Using technology can really change up how students final products look. For years our fourth graders all made salt dough maps of the regions of Texas. They all looked exactly alike and although it was fun to play with the dough, it was a forgettable assignment. This year the teachers gave the assignment to make a 3D map of Texas regions, with salt dough being just one option. We have such a variety, students made pull-tabs with animals from each region, some created QR codes to link to websites with more information about the regions, and others wrote their own descriptions to attach to the maps. By providing choice, the learning went to much deeper levels than ever before. Students did much more than was expected of them. The same is true in writing when we provide choices about publication.
An Audience is Key
I have seen first hand how much an audience can motivate our students to write more. When they know others are coming to their celebrations, it ups the ante for production. Many of our teachers are using the SeeSaw app (more information can be found here) this year for digital portfolios. This app is amazing for many reasons, but one of the best features is that there is student ownership over it. Students (as young as kindergarten) take pictures, videos, or voice recordings of their work using their own icon for their account. Students can annotate on the picture showcasing what they are most proud of. Once the teacher approves the post it goes into their digital learning journal where parents who set up an account are notified of the post and can comment back. What a fabulous way to get feedback from a audience they care deeply about! Of course, blogs are another great digital tool to get writing to a larger audience.
There are ways to get our paper versions of our writing to larger audiences too. Adding student published work to the school and classroom library can be very motivation to students. They are truly authors with others reading their work. Just this week in our district sponsored chat over The Unstoppable Writing Teacher, Colleen Cruz shared the idea of guerrilla publishing. That is putting student writing in places where readers will most likely find and read it. Maybe adding writing pieces related to sports to the gym or putting pieces in the front office for students and parents to read while waiting. I plan to add a basket to the front office area with student writing.
Strategies Can Teach How to Write More
Many of the strategies in Jennifer Serravallo’s book, The Reading Strategies Book, can be flipped to work for writing. Serravallo discusses setting page goals with readers. With writers we can put a sticker on a page with how much we expect them to write in one day. Celebrate when they reach the goal. Similarly, she presents a strategy of a “party ladder” for reading. We can do the same in writing: write 2 paragraphs, take a break for a drink of water, write two more paragraphs, celebrate by going to read what you have written to your younger sibling in another class. The stamina charts for reading can also be switched to how many words (or how many minutes of writing) were written.
For all students the oral rehearsal can be beneficial to writing a great piece, and for some writers it is absolutely essential. Student who need more oral talk than talking with a partner can use technology to help. I have used the Dragon Dictation app with good results. The student dictates their story and the speech is translated into text. What I especially like is this is just a starting point. The student takes that and must add in punctuation and other conventions. It is a great way to get a quick draft down and the student feels like there is momentum they can sustain going forward.
This summer I attended a training with Jeff Anderson using his book 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know. His first rule is all about increasing volume, it is writers have motion. He has several ideas to get writers going in this chapter. One that I especially liked is Power Writes. You give students two words (unrelated words) and let them pick one of the two words. You then time students for a few minutes writing to the chosen word. At the end of the time have your writers count how many words were written. Then choose two more unrelated words and have them choose one. Again time them for the same amount of time and count the words at the end. Doing this a couple of times a month and keeping track of the words written can really help to increase how much they write. We know that what gets practiced is what we strengthen. This strengthens their writing muscles to be able to write more in each workshop session, just as training for a race by running for increasing distances strengthens our muscles to run longer distances.
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