Adapted from The Quick Guide to Reaching Struggling Writers By Colleen Cruz
When many of us picture our ideal writing workshop classrooms, we imagine students spread about, heads bent to the task, writing utensils filling page after page of writing, perhaps with some soft music playing in the background. We imagine conferring and pulling small groups in order to teach rich strategies and to give encouragement.
Our realities can look somewhat different than that. We might see students who can’t seem to get past their second sentence. Others who write one quick paragraph and call themselves done. And others still who, during the entire writing period, put nary a speck of writing on the page. When we go through our students’ notebooks and folders we’ll find students who have hardly any writing.
We know many things count in writing: craft, structure, significance, knowledge of genre, voice. We also know many strategies to teach those things. Unfortunately volume can be a hurdle in the way of our students reaching those goals. If there is not much writing on the page, it can be very challenging to teach into some of our loftier writing goals.
Following are five quick, easy strategies for increasing volume in your writing workshop classroom:
5. Change furniture and seating arrangements
This might not have been one of the ideas you expected first on the list. However, one of the first things occupational therapists ask about when discussing a student’s writing is about their positioning. Where is the student sitting during writing time? Is the student able to write with both feet firmly touching the ground? Is the writing surface easy to reach for the writer – not to low, not too high? Has the writer tried writing on an elevated surface like a writing wedge or slant board? Odd as it may sound, sometimes the reason the writer is not producing as much volume as we’d like is that the writer needs his furniture to be more conducive to the way his body works to productive writing. By simply swapping out short chairs for tall chairs, lowering or raising tables, or having some students try writing on a raised surface, we might see a boost in volume.
4. Schedule writing time every day (even just a little)
When we expect something is happening regularly, we think about it all the time. If we know we always go to the movies on Friday night, we think about which movie we’d like to see all week. When we know we’ll be having coffee from the same shop every morning, we start to get ourselves ready for what we’ll order next time, even as we’re finishing our last sip of today’s cup. Writing is no different. When we make sure that writing is scheduled predictably, and students know that they will write every day, they start to live their lives differently. They start to think of how to fill up pages even before they sit down. Even if you can’t manage to fit writing workshop into your schedule five days a week, even offering a quick writing activity as a ‘Do Now’ or as part of morning routine can let kids know that this is a class where we write every day and they will live accordingly.
3. Try quick writes
You might already be familiar with quick writes as a strategy for getting over writer’s block. Writers take a short time (1-10 minutes, on average) and write as much as they can, fast and furiously, about anything. They don’t worry about structure, content or even conventions. Instead, the idea is to simply record the writer’s stream of consciousness. They are great for showing kids that one of the best ways of getting past writing road blacks is to write through them. Also, use quick writes to work on writing volume. Typically start with five minutes and coach the kids as they write to keep their pens moving. Then, when the time is up have them draw a line under the entry and count all the words they wrote. They celebrate with a partner all of the writing they managed to do in just five minutes. Then, in a little while, maybe a week, maybe two, do another quick write, challenging the students to try to write even more. Then have them compare their word counts. By doing this regularly, students see how this strategy can help them warm up their writing muscles, but also help them gage their writing fluidity and efficiency.
2. Find a student’s go-to topic or strategy
[img src=”http://readingandwritingproject.com/public/themes/rwproject/images/articles/5easytips2.jpg” alt=”Boy Writing”>Most of us teach students a repertoire of strategies for gathering and developing ideas in writing. For most students this is great because it gives them options and choice. Other students can be paralyzed by the choice. Alternately, some kids are singularly passionate about one particular topic. It’s tempting sometimes for teachers to emphasize variety of strategy or topic. However, that can create an obstacle for students who shine when they are allowed to be single-minded. We can try to help students locate that one strategy or topic that works best for them by looking through their writing for the spots where they were the most successful. We can then name that topic or strategy for them so they know that the next time they get stuck, they can use what has worked for them in the past. We might say, “Lin, I notice that when you write about people that matter to you, you just can’t stop writing. Maybe the next time you get stuck in your writing you can turn to that strategy – whether it’s essay or poetry or whatever.” Or, “Tom, I’ve noticed that whenever you write about basketball your writing seems to go on for pages. I’m thinking that might be a topic for you to turn to whenever you’re writing and need some fresh ideas.”
1. Swap writing utensils
Of all the tips that occupational therapists have given over the years, the one that makes the biggest difference the fastest is: students should not be writing long pieces in pencil. Graphite can be hard to push across the page. It requires a certain amount of pressure that can become tiring after awhile for those of us with strong fine motor skills, let alone those who struggle with them. When students write with pen, especially felt tip pen, several things can happen that can help increase volume. First of all, pens are easier to push across the page. Secondly, since the pens will bleed and not go if too much pressure is applied, the writer learns self-modulation of pressure. Third, the color of the ink stands out, making it easier for students to see their own writing, and easier for them to spot spelling and punctuation errors. Also, with pen, since students no longer can erase their work, but will instead learn to cross out with one line – precious data that shows their attempts at spelling, word choice, etc. will be preserved. As an added bonus, there’s no more pencil sharpening, pencil breaking or repeated erasing.
It’s also worth noting that for some students, the best path to writing volume will not be a pen, but rather technology. Whether this is access to a laptop or tablet, or else scribing technology, some students will be best served by learning how to use technology to record their writing and using it often.