Knowing WHAT to write
One of the most challenging and frustrating aspects of being a writer is dealing with the times when you are “stuck”. What will I write about? How will I say it? Where do I start? When I’m struck down with dreaded “writer’s block”, I have a range of choices that I can make on how to deal with it. I can take a break and have a coffee, chat with a friend, go for a walk or even do the ironing! When I return to the task at a later time, I am usually feeling more ready to make a start … and ideas tend to flow.
Students will also suffer from “writer’s block” from time to time. I’m sure you’ve all heard the common complaint, “But I don’t know what to write!” Unfortunately, students aren’t often afforded the luxury of being able to put off their writing until another time. When it’s ‘writing time’ in a classroom, it’s time to write!
So, how do we help students overcome this frustrating problem of not knowing where to start with a writing task?
We need to ensure that we plan and deliver a structured writing program that caters for the mixed abilities of the students within our classes. We can’t just give students a writing task and expect them to “go and write”.
The two main areas that students have difficulty with are knowing what to write about, and knowing how to say what they want to say. Let’s look at some ways that we can help students be ready to write!
Why are we writing?
Make the purpose of the writing activity clear. Do the students know why they are writing the piece (purpose) and who they are writing it for (audience)? Discuss these aspects of the task with the students and record the purpose and the audience for the task on the board. For example, is it a report on an animal to make into a class book, a persuasive letter to the principal about buying more sports equipment, a letter to their parents about an upcoming camp, a private journal entry for their own reflection or an imaginative narrative to read to a younger child?
Knowing the purpose of the writing task and who the audience helps the students to come up with ideas more readily.
What are we writing about?
Being engaged in the writing task will help ideas to flow. Try to make the writing task about something that students are interested in or feel passionate about. Authentic writing tasks often come from inquiry topics that students are undertaking in the classroom. Make the most of these opportunities as it is a natural way to integrate curriculum areas and the students will come to the tasks equipped with ideas, knowledge, conceptual understandings, and personal points of view.
Planning for writing is important. Provide time for students to think about, talk about, and record what they know about the topic they are writing about. This can be done independently, in pairs, in small groups or as a whole class and can be done in many ways including:
• brainstorming facts about the topic
• listing ideas for stories
• recording concepts on a concept map
• discussing content (for example you by using the think, pair, share strategy)
• filling in graphic organizers such as a Venn diagram to list points for a discussion, a timeline for listing events for a recount, a semantic web to list technical vocabulary to use in a procedure.
Knowing how to say it
Once students understand the purpose of the task, who the audience is and they know what information they want to include in their writing, they can still feel frustrated because they often do not know where to begin. Students need to be taught how to go about organizing their information.
Show students what to do
Explicitly teaching text structure will help students to know where to start. You can help by “showing” students how to write different types of texts. This can be done on a chart in front of the class. As you write think aloud to demonstrate the decisions you make as a writer. For example, if you are modeling how to write a report you might say: “The first paragraph of a report needs to tell the reader what the report is about – what “thing” my report will provide facts about. My report is on frogs so I need to write an opening statement that tells the reader this.”
As you model your writing, demonstrate both the mechanics of the task (spelling, punctuation, grammar, vocabulary) as well as how to structure the content according to the text type.
Involve students in your modeled writing by asking them to help you make decisions. For example, you might say, “In this paragraph, I want to describe what frogs look like.
How might I say this?” Invite students to be a part of the writing by ‘sharing the pen’. For example, you might say: “I need to write the word skin. Who would like to write this for me?”
Help students plan
Before students begin to write have them complete a plan. For example, if you are working on writing persuasive texts you could have students write a plan that includes an opening statement that outlines their views on an issue, followed by three points that back up this opinion. Or, if students are writing a narrative have them do a plan that describes the main characters, the setting, and the problem and the resolution that the characters will be involved in.
You could create simple reproducible sheets that show the structure of each text type and include boxes for students to write their notes.
Helping Students Avoid “Writer’s Block” – Quick Tips
• Be clear about the purpose of the writing task
• Ensure students are aware of who their audience is
• Have students think, talk or write about the content they will include
• Demonstrate how to write
• Have students fill in a plan to organize their writing
Once students know why they are writing, who they are writing for, what information they will include and how they will organize this information then the rest will come easily. Happy writing!