How to Encourage/Engage Reluctant High School Writers

Convincing teenagers to write when they would rather do anything else is an especially difficult battle. Why? Well, writing has to be carried out horribly over and over until it gets better, and it takes quite a long time until you get better. Anytime I teach a writing class, I remind my students frequently that anyone who can speak or think may also write. Everybody has a voice. Learning how to get words on the page and getting familiar with using them is a challenge, but it’s a challenge worth taking. Composing is a worthy undertaking for everybody.

Here is the very first step towards getting teens to compose. If they know you would like to hear what they have to say, they get the confidence they have to say it. When you’ve their confidence, try finding different methods to encourage reluctant High School writers to write.

Reluctant High School Writers

  1. Make it practical. There are some students who hate writing, because all they’ve ever written is stories and poems and they’ve never learned about the clarity of prose or the need to be concise in a functional text.
  2. Make it impractical. Allow students to be fantastical, bizarre, witty and off-the-charts crazy in their writing.
  3. Allow freedom. At least half of what kids write in my class begins without prompts. I tell them that they can choose the topic or the genre as long as they’ve hit each genre by the time we’re done. I also don’t set requirements for length. They respond well to this type of freedom, often going above what they had previously thought they would do. Similarly, I teach kids four or five ways to pre-write and then I let them choose the approach that they prefer.
  4. Help struggling writers. It isn’t wrong to create diagrams showing how to construct paragraphs. I keep word banks of transition words. I work with lower-level ELL students on higher grammatical structures and creating compound sentences. There is nothing wrong with scaffolding. The problem, however, is that teachers often use this approach with every student in the class.
  5. Meet one-on-one with kids instead of pulling small groups. Simply sitting down and conferencing for makes a huge difference in editing.
  6. Write more. We do a disservice to kids when we treat every piece of writing as a long, laborious process with pre-writing, drafting, editing and final drafts. Sometimes they just need to practice writing more.
  7. Make it more interesting. Change up the writing prompts. In other words, find topics that engage them either by being novel, unusual, creative or deeply meaningful. I’ve found that visual writings prompts can make a huge difference in helping students want to write more.
  8. Find a real audience. Let them create podcasts with their writing. Let them record videos based upon their writing (visual poetry works well for this) and let them blog on topics that they find interesting. Allow them to engage with one another in a written format. I’ve found that blogging comment sentence stems can really help them learn how to use meaningful discourse.
  9. Make the space inviting. I’m struck by the term “binder vomit” to describe classrooms covered in chart paper. I don’t want that. It’s not where I go to write. I like to write at Starbucks or in a comfortable chair or outside by a garden. The space matters. If you walk into my classroom during writing time, you’ll see kids sitting down against a wall, moving their chairs in focused solitude or finding comfort in their own desk, because it is “theirs.” There is free movement, but it never feels crazy. There is a general hum of talking, but it never gets loud.
  10. Share your passion for writing. If you don’t have the passion for writing, find someone who does and bring them in as a guest speaker. I tell my students about my blogging, journal writing, magazine editorials and novel-writing. I want them to know that writing is more than simply an activity one has to do for school.
  11. Don’t break it into silos. I don’t buy into the idea that we should do three weeks of expository and then two weeks of poetry and then four weeks of persuasive text followed by a month of functional text. They wear out when it’s hyper-structured. I think it works best to cycle back to genres.
  12. Create projects. Documentaries are heavy in writing and heavy in research. However, the research isn’t simply “a phase.” Similarly, business proposals and budgets require a ton of writing without it feeling like a “writing project.” Want kids to peer edit? Let them co-write a website.
  13. Be creative. I like to have students design things. It can be a treehouse, a baseball stadium, a perfect school, a new course syllabus. Just let the mind wander, find something passionate and then write about it until it feels like it could be real to you.
  14. Read, Read, Read: Encourage your teenager to read everything: articles, blog posts, poetry, short fiction, non-fiction, comic books, novels. See how other people create with their words and take notes. Reading good writing is one of the best ways to improve your own writing.
  15. Start Small: Many times students hear “500 Words,” and they shut down before starting. By breaking down a writing assignment into smaller pieces, the writing becomes less intimidating. My favorite book about writing is by Anne Lamott. It’s called Bird by Bird, and the title comes from a childhood story, where Anne’s brother sat frozen at a table, faced with the enormity of a report he had to write about birds. Their father consoled the boy by saying, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” Break down writing assignments. Instead of an entire essay, write a paragraph. A good one. And move on.