How to Help your Students Overcome Their Resistance to Writing
English teachers at all levels are familiar with the disappointment, if not outright rebellion, they encounter from students when they announce that it’s time for another writing assignment. There may be nothing the typical student likes less than trying to come up with a few original ideas, arranged in a coherent structure, and expressed in grammatically correct sentences. It’s a battle that English teachers often dread fighting—a battle that leaves them feeling metaphorically bloody and bruised, and, too often, defeated. But there is a way to win this fight.
Restore their Confidence
First, we have to recognize why students have such a dislike for writing. Teachers often attribute a student’s unsuccessful writing performance to nothing more than laziness. While it’s true that writing is hard work for students (and for most adults) and that many of them would rather not put forth the effort required, the root of the problem often lies elsewhere. This “elsewhere” is a place that may not be immediately evident in the students’ behavior or personality. But, more often than not, students write poorly because they simply lack confidence in their own ability to write well.
Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” For years, your students’ academic writing has been criticized, probably earning them poor grades and discouraging comments (in the form of oceans of red ink scribbled all over their papers) from frustrated teachers who rightfully expect better results from their students but don’t know how to get them. At this point, these students think they can’t produce an acceptable piece of writing for their English teachers. Your first job then, is not to teach them to write, but to convince them that they can write.
Show Students that Writing for You will be a Different Experience For Them
Give your students a writing assignment that will let them know that writing in your class isn’t going to be business as usual. For this particular assignment, give your students a good grade just for getting the work completed and turned in on time. When it comes to actually giving feedback, just focus on the major things like complete sentences and fragments; it’s not yet necessary to note every comma or capitalization error. When you return their papers with a good grade and a positive comment or two you will begin the process of changing their attitude about writing.
I’m not saying that you will never enforce writing standards in your class, but to make meaningful progress with struggling writers, you must first convince them that they are no longer going to be subjected to the painful criticism that they expect.
You Have to Change a Little Too
To get students to look at writing differently, you are going to have to be a different kind of teacher. This is going to require that you do something that, as an English teacher, you might find difficult, even sacrilegious: For a little while at least, you’re going to have to overlook the small mistakes (spelling, fragments, run-ons, capitalization, etc.) that trip up so many young writers.
Remember, your goal is to get students writing without the fear and loathing to which they have become accustomed. Only after they start to produce original writing on a frequent basis will they be ready to begin to address the technical problems that have plagued them on their way up the educational ladder to your class. Below is a process that has worked for me for years.
Get Started Right Away
Early in the term (in fact, there’s nothing wrong with doing this on the first day of class), have them write about something personal, something that they can’t help but have plenty of information about. Possible topics include:
o Discuss your summer vacation (I know, it’s been done a million times. But remember, the point here is to get them writing—it’s doesn’t have to be something groundbreaking).
o Introduce yourself (give them a list of things to tell you about themselves, but tell them it has to be written in paragraph form).
o Write about how you usually do in English class. What do you do well in? Where do you struggle? What do you like best about it? What do you like least about it? I particularly like this assignment because it often gives me some valuable information about my new students.
Here’s the caveat for the student: Tell them that although this will be a graded assignment, you won’t be looking at spelling, grammar, conventions, etc. yet.; they just have to address the topic fully and completely. You'll be surprised at how this allows them to open up as writers. Many of those cases of writer's block that plague your students will vanish.
It's really not that difficult to change the writing culture in your classroom, but it does require that you look at things a little differently than you have in the past. If you're not satisfied with the way your students approach writing, give these ideas a try.