Why Students Aren't Writing (And What Teachers Can Do About It)

ncte, nwp, national day on writing

Every year the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) sponsors a National Day on Writing. NCTE celebrates writing with a social media campaign which asks people to share why they write using the hashtag #WhyIWrite.  This year (2020) it will occur on Tuesday, October 20th.

Starting with a Bulletin Board

In the past, even though there were many interesting ways to incorporate the day into my classroom, I didn’t have much time to add a new activity to my curriculum lessons. 
writing-instruction, high-school-English
Nevertheless, I still wanted to acknowledge the day.  So at the last minute, I looked at my empty bulletin board and decided my students would write tweets explaining why they write (thanks Glitter Meets Glue and Presto Plans for the clip art and exit slips). Most students were excited to complete this activity, but of course, there are students who don’t enjoy writing, so I gave them permission to be honest.  This resulted in a handful of tweets that said they write “because I’m forced to” or “because I want to pass English.”  This could easily become a virtual activity with Padlet, Google Slides, or another online bulletin board program. 

The Purposes of Writing Instruction

As a person who loves to write, these responses made me sad, so I pondered the following questions:  Why do teachers make students write?  What do we require students to write?  How do we ask students to write? 

The obvious answers are that we ask students to write to pass standardized tests, to meet course requirements, and to prepare them for college and work.  We identify purposes such as “writing to inform,” “writing to explain,” and “writing to persuade,” or we assign argumentative, narrative (enjoy this free narrative writing activity for Halloween), and literary analysis essays.

The National Writing Project

Thinking about how to implement best practices for writing instruction is not a new idea for me as I have worked with the Eastern Shore Writing Project, an affiliate of the National Writing Project, for many years.  In fact, in past summers I interned as a facilitator at our Invitational Summer Institute (ISI) where teachers from around the region in diverse grade levels and contents developed teaching strategy toolboxes for writing instruction to use in their classrooms.

Writing for Human Connection

What I was reminded of during the institute, though, is that a primary purpose for writing is to connect with others. Writing for human connection reminds us that we are not alone in this world.  Our stories connect us through our fundamental human experience.  We are in this thing called life together – whether the people we write for are our family, friends, community members, or seemingly strangers from around the world.  Most importantly, writing for human connection helps us understand one another, build empathy, and hopefully, create a more peaceful world. 

writingRegrettably, with testing mandates and curriculum requirements in mind, teachers may neglect to incorporate writing for human connection.  But it’s important, especially if we want to encourage our reluctant writers to feel positive about writing.  It's often hard to fit these lessons into our instruction, but sometimes we have to do what’s best for our students, no matter what pressures we experience from outside of the classroom.  Students want to write to express their feelings and to have their voices heard by others. During the pandemic, this is more important than ever because students often feel isolated in this virtual world. 

Tips for Supporting Writing Instruction

So how can teachers incorporate more writing for human connection?  Here are some possibilities:
1.  Journaling
Regularly let students write about their feelings, opinions, and reflections on a host of topics.  This writing should be informal and can take various formats such as diary entries, letters, lists, webs, etc.  This can be intimidating for a teacher who then asks, how will I grade these? And maybe the answer is that it’s best not to grade many of these journals. I just collect student journals occasionally, and I ask students to choose which journal they want me to grade.  This way I can give them credit for participation but also respond to at least one of the journals they've written in class.

2.  Choice
Give students choices and creative opportunities in their writing whenever possible.  One way I accomplish this is to provide a “menu” of writing activities (or choice board) that students select from.  For instance, when my students complete their reading of an excerpt from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond, they can choose from nine activities.  Some of these include reflecting on and writing about nature, researching and writing about the Tiny House Movement, or writing an imaginary diary entry with Thoreau’s perspective on life in current society. 

3.  Sharing
To help students connect with others, let students share their writing.  This does not have to be done with every assignment and it doesn't always have to be in whole-class discussion, but there should be frequent times for students to share in partners or small groups.  Teachers can also display student writing on classroom bulletin boards, school showcases, or encourage students to publish their writing in school newspapers, local publications, or online forums. I like to offer students "enrichment" points for entering writing contests like the ones sponsored by The New York Times Learning Network.

4. Inspiration
A participant from our ISI gave each of us a plastic egg with a paper that said, “Your idea can change the world.”  Teachers should encourage students to change the world with the ideas that they express through their writing.  Call students “authors” and reward them for sharing their writing.  In addition to entering writing contests, sometimes I also offer enrichment points to students who will read their writing aloud in front of the class. For distance learning, students could use Flipgrid, or they could record themselves reading their writing with their cell phones, iPads or laptops.  

The most rewarding outcome of the ISI was the opportunity to write for myself.  In years past, I had written eighty pages of a memoir but had stopped because of writer’s block. By responding and writing to daily journal prompts at ISI, I moved past my writer’s block and began to once again work on my memoir. For this reason, I often write with my students. Hopefully, just as the ISI motivated me, I can encourage students to share their voices!



How do you help students write for human connection?  I would love to try out some of your ideas.  Please share in the comments below!
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