Category Archives: motivating writers

To encourage student writing, publish it

When I was in fifth grade, I wrote an article about how a piece of paper goes from being part of a tree to being a page in a newspaper.  I turned it in.  My teacher returned it with a good grade.  I was satisfied.

Days later, I was asked if I could return the article.  The eighth graders were publishing a school newspaper and wanted to use my article.  They wanted to print my article.  Oh my gosh, I thought to myself.  I’m a writer.

If you know a student whose writing you wish to encourage, publish it.  How?

  • Type it up, print it and make it look good. Or ask the student to.  When I show students versions of their work printed on white paper with no erasures, no cross-outs, and no mistakes,  they are speechless.  When writing looks professional, students think it is professional, and by extension, they think of themselves as writers.


  • Turn the writing into booklets. Type the words in small sections about three inches wide.  Carefully cut the sections apart and paste them at the bottoms of folded white paper.  (8 ½ by 11 computer paper is fine.)  Ask the child to illustrate the top of the page in crayon or colored pencils.  Or cut out illustrations from magazines or clip art online.  Add a cover page which includes a title and the student author’s name.  Add an “about the author” page at the end with the student author’s autobiography and photo.  Staple the pages together along the fold.


  • If you are computer savvy, do all that online and download it or email it to special people—grandparents, former teachers, friends.


  • Start a family blog and include your student’s writing with family news and pictures. Make it possible for your child to show her friends her online writing via an app.


  • Encourage your child’s school to create a “Writers’ Wall” where the good writing of students is displayed for classmates to see.


  • At home begin a three-ring binder of student writing and display it on your coffee table for guests to browse. At school do the same thing for classroom writers with tabs to section off each student’s work or the work of each grade.


  • Make a video of your child reading his work aloud. Email it.  Add it to a family blog.  If appropriate, let it serve as your family’s  holiday greeting.

It’s not the publishing, but what that publishing means in the mind of students.  Their self-perception changes from the fifth kid in the third row to published writer.

If we want to encourage anything, we need to celebrate it.

How a grandmother encourages her seven-year-old grandson to write

I received a note from a reader, describing how she teaches her grandson to write.  The boy, who turned seven this summer, is an active skateboarder, bike rider and swimmer, but he finds school work hard.  I contacted the grandmother, and here is our conversation:

Does your grandson like to write?

No.  He hates to begin.  But once he starts, he relaxes and actually enjoys it.  He feels pride in his work.

How do you get him started?

Late afternoon is best when I am getting dinner ready.  He sits at the kitchen table.  It takes lots of conversation while he tries to negotiate a way out of writing. It is difficult to endure but I persist.  If I let him wait until after dinner, he is too tired. So I refuse to change the time.  I bribe him with food treats, which I would give him anyway.  Or I promise a chance to play on my iPad for 15 minutes after he is done.

And then?

I give him a choice of three topics to write about.  More discussion.  Eventually he decides on one topic.  I write that word in the middle of a PLAN paper and now we decide on three ideas about the topic.  I write three more idea words.  He connects those words to the topic word in the center of the page. The key is the PLAN.  Now the struggle s over.  He has a plan to follow, so there is no more pulling info out of him.  It is a task to be completed.  He can work independently for a moment using the notes in the PLAN.

I try to walk away and let him do his own writing.  I will spell a word or write a big word on his PLAN paper if he asks.  It is quite amazing how his attitude changes once he has a sentence written.  He is happy that his sentence is written.  He loves being praised for how nice he makes letter A. He rereads his first sentence to me.  I ask if it is missing anything at the beginning or the end.  Then he gets his first reward, one m&m for each word.  Now we proceed to the next sentence.

He writes three sentences for each writing task.  He enjoys reading his entire essay.  Then we are done.

His mother has said that it is difficult for him to remember his ideas when he is writing.  I hope this technique will help in the future.  I’ve learned most of it from reading your blog.

Is that it for the day?

No, next is flash cards, computer reading apps, or a real book.  With flash cards, I have him hold each card and make a little colored mark in the corner if he knows the word.  This keeps him from fidgeting and gives him an activity.  The cards get marked up, but so what!

How to encourage primary school students to write better

If you are helping a student in kindergarten through second grade to learn how to write, you might want to check out Conferring with Young Writers  by K. Ackerman and J. McDonough.

ConferringWithYoungWritersThese primary grade teachers decided that they could have the most impact by changing the way they conference with student writers.  Here are some of their tips.

Establish trust with the student before trying anything else. How?  Let students see you writing and encountering problems.  Focus on the meaning of the child’s words and ignore sloppy spelling and punctuation.  Compliment students on their writing, focusing on particular things they do well.  Listen when the child talks about the writing process.  Get to know students as whole people first and as students and writers second.

Establish a routine for writing—a set time and place with pencils sharp, erasers in reach and plenty of paper.

Focus on one writing goal per lesson or unit. The goals should include choosing good ideas, structuring the writing appropriately, using conventions properly, sticking to one main point, writing in a natural voice, and providing details.  Teach those goals, model them, practice them and discuss with students how they can do them better.

Follow up on the points which they should have shown in their writing. The book shows several assessment tables, rubrics, and checklists which can be adapted by parents or classroom teachers.

Encourage students to choose their own writing topics and genres. Students will be more engaged and cooperative if they have choices.

Let students know it is not only okay but good if they talk to one another about the process of writing. Encourage them to read their writing aloud as they work.

Help students find good ideas to write about. Deciding on topics is one of the hardest things for some children.  Conferring with Young Writers offers several approaches to helping students identify what they might enjoy writing about.

Conferring with Young Writers offers a three page bibliography of books about teaching writing to children as well as an index.  At 144 pages, it is a quick but rich read for parents and teachers who don’t know how to begin teaching writing to primary grade students.  For more information, go to

Peer evaluation of writing

Is it worth taking time to let students evaluate others’ writing?

Recently I asked second graders to write stories based on the picture book, Flora and the Penguin by Molly Idle.  Since the book is wordless, the students were forced to write their own versions of the story relying not on the author’s words but rather on the illustrations for guidance.

Later, I selected portions of two students’ stories for comparison.  I typed and printed them side by side, so students could compare how the two students wrote the same parts of the story.

Here are some of the comments students (second through eighth grade) made:

  • I like Student One’s opening because it tells when the story happens.
  • I like Student Two’s opening because it names the girl.
  • I like the word “poked” by Student One because it shows exactly how the penguin acted.
  • I like all the ways Student Two shows what Flora and the penguin did. They skated, danced, jumped, twirled and slid.  You can see it happening.
  • I like the dialog that Student Two uses when Flora asks, “What are you doing?”
  • I like Student One’s word, “outraged.”  That is a strong word.
  • I like Student Two’s word, word “disgusted” because it shows how Flora felt.
  • I like Student One’s writing where it says that Flora feels sorry because it shows that Flora cares.
  • I like when Student Two says “just like a fishing net.” I can see it.
  • I like when Student Two says “they tugged and tugged,” but maybe there are too many “tugs.”
  • I like Student One’s ending because it says Flora and the Penguin are happy.

After their blow-by-blow analyses, I asked my students what they learned from evaluating other students’ writing.  They said:

  • Use details, lots of details.
  • Use dialog or thoughts.
  • Use names.
  • Show emotions of the characters.
  • Verbs are really important to show action.
  • Use good vocabulary words.

One second grader, who rushes through her writing, compared her  plain version with the two shown here and said, “I’m starting over.”

A seventh grader who read the two versions, said, “Second graders?  Really?  I didn’t think I could learn good ideas about how to write from second graders.”

Is peer evaluation of writing a good idea?  You decide.

Getting one reluctant child writer to write

Last week I worked with a third grader on writing.  Knowing that it would take time to figure out a topic, I brought a picture book which she read in five minutes.  She read in an engaged fashion, commenting as we read and paging back and forth to check a fact or to compare an illustration.  She understood the book well, including the emotional inferences.


I asked her to write down the story in her own words.


I asked her to make changes in the story—a different setting, a boy instead of a girl main character, or a different ending.


I suggested we make a list of what she liked about the story and what she didn’t like, and we write about that.


This went on for a while.  Not prepared to struggle any longer, I suggested we move on to grammar.

Today I returned with a different strategy.  Yesterday I went to the library and checked out a handful of books that I thought would delight her.  Before today’s lesson began, I said that I would give her the books to read if for our writing lesson she would promise to write about the book we had read last week.  She looked at the stack of books and looked at me.


But after a half a dozen lines of writing, she stopped, eying the enticing books.


“Not done.”

I pulled out a piece of notebook paper and started writing my version of the story we had read the past week.  She read over my shoulder.

“Janie X. Cuse?  What kind of a name is that?”

“A funny one.”

“Hey, you put my baby sister in there.”


“Whoever heard of a teacher named Mr. Snooze?”

“You did.  Just now.”

Shereturned to her writing, scowling at me.  She changed the word “school” to “Small Creek Elementary” because she goes to “Big Creek Elementary.”  She named the teacher in her writing Mr. Snooze.

“Hey, you took my teacher’s name and put it in your story,” I said.

She grinned.

“Well, if you are going to do that, then I want you to write the name of this character in my story in Chinese.”

She erased the name I had chosen, thought for a minute, and in Chinese characters wrote. . .something.

“What does it say?”

She told me—in Chinese.

“But what does it mean?”  She grinned.

And so we went on.

This girl is motivated by competition.  And by humor.  And by good books to read.

Whatever it takes.

How to motivate reluctant child writers

If the problem is physical—holding a pencil or pen, having illegible handwriting, or sitting still long enough to write—you can help if you

  • EPSON MFP imageAsk the child to dictate the story to you. You write down exactly what he says.  Coax the child to help with revision.
  • Ask the child to write on a keyboard, phone or tablet. Sometimes technology entices.
  • If the child is willing to hand write, you type and print his work.

If the problem is perfectionism—erasing every mistake, insisting that she start over again and again—you can help if you

  • Reward the child for every line or paragraph written without starting over.
  • Offer to type the writing once it is done so the child can have a clean version.

If the problem is inexperience—too young or too sheltered to have a large mental “data” base—you can help if you supply the story structure.

  • Read a picture book together, discuss how the author began, what the author included, and how the book ended, and then ask the child to rewrite the book, using only the pictures for reference.
  • Find wordless picture books and ask the child to write the story.
  • Find a cartoon strip, cut out the words, and ask the child to write the story. Later you type and print the child’s words and paste them into the cartoon.
  • Introduce the child to storyboards and ask the child to draw her story’s main parts. Later she can add words to her drawings.
  • Encourage the child to find models of the kinds of writing she wants to do, and to follow those models.

If the child is a poor speller,

  • Encourage her to use technology with embedded spelling checkers when she writes.
  • Let her write a first draft by hand without interruptions. Later, underline the misspelled words and together work on fixing them.

If the child has no idea how to begin a story, or how to sequence it, or if she forgets what she wants to happen next,

  • Teach the child to create a mind web before she writes. Using color coding and numbering, help her to sequence the information.  Remind her to check her mind web as she writes.
  • You compile a list of ways to begin a paragraph or essay and review that list with her before she begins. Together come up with several possible ways to begin her particular piece of writing.  You say three or four possible beginnings and discuss the advantages of each.  Then let her choose.

If the child’s vocabulary is limited

  • Create a word bank the child can use and leave it next to her as she writes. Add to it as she describes what she has in mind.
  • Ask her to underline words that she thinks could be said better. Offer suggestions.  Teach her how to use a thesaurus.

If the child has failed at writing before, and fears failing again,

  • Find examples of the child’s past writing and analyze it for why it was done poorly. Many times the reasons are lack of detail, limited vocabulary, and run-ons.
  • If the reason is lack of detail, practice drills of extending sentences. Take a sentence the child wrote, write it on a new piece of paper, and then take turns adding details.  Do this with a whole paragraph and then read the newly written paragraph.
  • If the reason is run-ons, practice finding run-ons. Use the child’s own writing when possible.

Practice, practice, practice.  Writing is a skill, like playing the piano or swimming fast.  Research shows that to write better, a person must practice, practice, practice.

Share your writing with students to improve yours and theirs

A couple of months ago I shared the first scene from a story I am writing with two of my students, an eighth grade brother and a sixth grade sister.

Teacher typing on a laptop seated between a young boy and a young girl.

Their feedback was insightful:  how I started off in the middle of a tense situation, how my short sentences made that tense situation even tenser, how they liked the tenderness of the main character, how shocked they were by something that happened just like the main character must have been, and how real the dialog of the children sounded.

I had previously taught them that writers today are encouraged not to provide back story at the beginning of a narrative, but rather to jump right into the action and weave the backstory in here and there.

“Oh, now I see what you mean,” said the brother.  “You have the mother trying to stop the car, and the 18-wheeler zooming up behind her, and the pickup ahead of her zig-zagging and trapping her.”

“Yeah, and only then you learn there are children in the back seat who are yelling because they’re scared,” said the sister.

“But you don’t tell anything about them except their names.”

“Yeah, but you still care about them because they’re kids and they’re scared.”

From this short exchange, I was reminded how useful it is for the writing teacher / tutor / parent to share her own writing with a student.

  • Sharing your writing proves that you know how to write, so your praise and criticism are respected by your students.
  • Sharing your writing makes the lesson more collaborative. The students give feedback, ask questions and suggest areas that could be improved, adopting the role usually reserved for the teacher.  The teacher, meanwhile, learns how to improve her writing.
  • Demonstrating the kind of behavior you hope your students will show, such as listening carefully to what they say, adding more information when they say that an idea is vague, and drawing arrows to move ideas around for better sequencing, will lead to the same good writing behaviors in your students.
  • Taking the students’ suggestions seriously models life-long learning, a lifestyle we hope they will adopt.
  • And perhaps most importantly, showing that you do what you are asking them to do builds their respect for you as their teacher.