You are an English teacher, so I know you’ve heard this phrase many times: I don’t know what to write. It comes from a student who is staring at a blank page, unable to start an assignment. This can be due to a lack of attention or effort but, most often, the student is sincere and really doesn’t know how to start. So, what’s the answer? What do you do when your students don’t know what to write?
Highlights from this post:
✅ Focus on building critical thinking skills before writing
✅ Use relatable topics for quick-writes and discussion to get students thinking
✅ Explore controversial topics via mentor texts & collaborative challenges
✅ Start with short writing assignments to build skills & confidence
Rethinking the prewriting process
I can tell you I felt the frustration many times when students would say “I don’t know what to write.” When we began a writing assignment, I would tell students that they could write about things that were important to them, things that they are passionate about. I would expect to see them pick up their pens and excitedly start to brainstorm, spilling their ideas onto the page – only to see a great number of them googling topics.
“How can the internet tell you what’s important to you, what you’re passionate about?” I would ask in surprise, only to get a shrug. “I’m not passionate about anything,” I’d get in response.
It would dumbfound me every time. Were these students flat souls with no depth, no inner workings of the mind? Were they so trained to “google” everything that this was just a natural reflex? Or were they so worried about my assessment of their ideas that they didn’t want to put them naked on the page for “judgement?” Far better for me to evaluate the ideas of someone else, maybe?
Whatever the answer, I knew I had to do something. I always maintained that the one thing I wanted my students to leave my classroom with was the ability to think critically and to communicate their ideas. Whether they could write a beautiful research paper, an analytical essay, or a poem really didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things; but if they could think and problem solve and talk to others….well, that does matter.
Back to the writing dilemma. I decided that it made no sense to be asking students to follow a formulaic pattern for an essay where they just plugged in someone else’s ideas. That was just going through the motions – a hand-writing exercise. What I wanted, instead, was a thinking one
I knew I had to slow things down and spend more time getting students thinking, and so we preceded our first essay with weeks of preparation designed to get them thinking critically and discussing ideas. If their persuasive essay came in mid October instead of the third week of September, did it really matter? Not if that essay was well done and a representation of that students thoughts, rather than a mechanical “get ‘er done” exercise.
And I get tell you, categorically, that this switch in approach lead to much less “googling” and a lot more thinking when my students wrote their essays. So let’s look at the things I did to get there:
Use relatable topics for quick-writes and discussion
Whether you call them bell ringers or writing prompts, whether you do them at the beginning of class or in the middle, quick writes are a very effective way to get your students thinking. Used often enough they can prevent students from saying they can’t think of anything to write when it’s time to do longer assignments.
Choose a topic, one that your students can relate to, and give them a few minutes to write a response. At the beginning of the year, I start with two minutes and then keep adding time until we are up to five. Students are expected to write the whole time and they don’t have to focus on word choice or proper syntax – they just have to stay focused on the topic and get their ideas down on paper. These quick writes can be light and fun – like the sandwich one – or more focused on topics that really affect their lives.
Follow the quick-write with a turn-and-talk so students can hear the ideas of a classmate; this will help them consider other ideas and even debate them. After partners talk, ask for volunteers to share with the class. If time allows, have an informal debate so your students can get into the issue.(Read more about this process here)
If we discuss in parters or as a class, I always ask students to go back to their quick-write after the discussion and add any new ideas they got from the discussion.
This process gets students to consider new ideas, gives them practice supporting them, and creates a collection of responses they can revisit when it’s time to write something longer. (You can find lots of writing prompts, like the ones above, in my Bell Ringers Resource)
And later, when students don’t know what to write, you can tell them to look back through their notebooks to find ideas and inspiration from what the wrote earlier in the term.
Explore controversial topics via mentor texts & collaborative challenges
Give students practice thinking more deeply about their ideas with some reading activities that take the quick-write activity to another level.
Start with an engaging topic and get students to do a reflection about how they feel about it. You can even revisit one of your quick-writes.
After the initial reflection, provide students with some texts that explore both sides of the issue. Have them look for the writer’s main argument and the ways they support it. Show them short videos that give more information and food for thought. Then provide opportunities for students to discuss these ideas – and their opinions with their peers.
Once again, you can have them revisit their initial response. However, this time ask them to provide evidence from the texts they read or viewed. By doing this, you are adding another scaffold to the process and they are practicing not only critical thinking skills, but also how to embed evidence.
You can read more about this process here, and if you want some ready made lesson plans for the process, check these out:
Another fun – and very effective – way to help students build critical thinking skills is via collaborative challenges. By working together to share and build on ideas, students get the practice they need for the writing they will do later. Check out my Persuasive and Argumentative Challenges for some ideas.
Build skills and confidence with short writing assignments
I am a huge proponent of building student skills with multiple short assignments before students write longer ones. This keeps them from getting overwhelmed and builds their confidence, their belief that they can do it. Lack of confidence can be a big factor that leads to students saying they don’t know what to write.
What they sometimes mean is “I don’t think what I write will be any good.”
Short assignments proeevide students to focus on a few skills at a time and, because they are short, you can give feedback more quickly. Imagine a coach throwing her players into a big game without doing the drills and practice before hand and then trying to give everyone feedback on all the things.
To put this into writing terms, imagine that you gave a quick write aksing students when someone should get their first phone. Later, you gave students an article to read on the topic. Then, you ask them to write a short paragraph that states one reason why they think the age they chose is appropriate. Tell them they need to support their reason with one quotation from the article they read.
Your students get practice with focusing an idea and supporting it with evidence. You get to read short assignments and give feedback on their success. You can even give back these paragraphs and ask them to immediately fix any errors. Lots and lots of learning!
In a nutshell, the best way to deal with the statement: “I don’t know what to write” is to prevent it. You can do this by using engaging activities that help your students build their critical thinking skills before you ask them to write longer assignments and essays.
Reach out if you have any questions about what to do when your students don’t know what to write. I’d be happy to help.
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