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Teacher to Teacher: Helping Students Write

by Lynne R. Dorfman

“I don’t have anything to write about!”  I remember how I felt every time I heard that announcement from one of my students. A few months ago, friend and colleague Rose Cappelli introduced me to Ralph Tells a Story by Amy Hanlon, a charming picture book about a little boy who could never think of anything to write about. Ralph’s best friend Daisy is always writing. She even wrote a story about Ralph. But when the students gather on the rug to share, Ralph’s heart beats wildly as he is called on to read his story. What follows is quite wonderful! Ralph begins to talk about finding an inchworm at the park. Daisy and other classmates ask him questions, and all of a sudden, Ralph is telling the story he didn’t write. His peers love his story, and that is all Ralph needs. Finally, Ralph becomes a writer.

Sometimes, that is all it takes to get a young writer on the right track. Often, there is more work to do. When I am in a classroom where a writer choruses, “I have nothing to write about!” I start by having a conversation with him. I want to find out what the student likes to read, who his favorite authors are, what he watches on television. I ask him about his interests and hobbies. I want to know who is important in his life. Sometimes, I will try to find out if he has written a story, poem, description, etc., that he felt really good about and would like to tell me about that piece.

I look for a topic, activity, or person this young writer has returned to several times. Then I say something like, “I see you often write about soccer. Tell me about that.”  I try to find out something new that this writer can say about his soccer experiences. In addition, I move to his writer’s notebook. Here, I am trying to learn about the student’s knowledge and use of strategies his teachers have taught in the past. I want to discover this student writer’s areas of frustrations. If I am the classroom teacher, I am looking for the tracks of my teaching in that notebook.  If none are visible, perhaps I need to revisit a few mini-lessons as small group instruction or even one-on-one during a conference.

Also, I could ask the student if he writes outside of school. For example, maybe he makes birthday cards for his mom and dad. Maybe he has a graphic novel started or a riddle book. I’m looking for anything that will help me have a conversation with him about writing. I want to know who this student is as a writer. Most important: I want the student to know who he is as a writer. I need to help this student find and develop his writing identity early in the school year. This cannot be placed on the back burner.

Later in a conference, I might ask, “Where do you think other people get their ideas for writing?” This question may be used in a whole group discussion where I would document the thinking of my students on an anchor chart. If my students do not talk about mentor texts that include an author’s note, I will share a few of my favorites including Something Beautiful by Sharon Dennis Wyeth, Six Dots: The Story of Young Louis Braille by Jen Bryant, The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush by Tomie dePaola, and Sky Boys: How They Built the Empire State Building by Deborah Hopkinson.

When students are truly stuck, we need to ask questions and give them strategies to get going. The first logical question to ask would be, “When you get stuck finding something to write about, what do you do?”  I need to know if the student uses his writing territories list or heart map, tries a memory chain, composes an expert list, creates some version or several versions of a neighborhood map. Does the writer have a lot of pages with cross-outs or pages that were torn out of his notebook? Perhaps I need to have a conversation about abandoning a piece of writing and starting new and/or the writing process. If his writing is voiceless, I might ask about his mentor authors. Maybe this student needs a new mentor text – one he is not familiar with – that might bring out his voice.

This September, find out who your writers are!  Do lots of ungraded writing, and have lots of conversations.  Here are some questions to get started:

  • What do you enjoy doing when you’re not in school?
  • How do you feel about writing? Why?
  • What is your favorite piece of writing from last year?
  • What kinds of writing do you enjoy?
  • What is the easiest thing about writing?
  • What is the hardest thing about writing?


Lynne Dorfman is a co-director of PAWLP. She is excited about the completion of a draft for a second edition of Mentor Texts: Teaching Writing Through Children’s Literature, K-6 with Rose Cappelli. The second edition will be published by Stenhouse in 2017.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Abdelillah OUAREST #

    As I once pointed it out writing is a thorny crux for both the teacher and the learner.Teachers very often impose topics that don’t really arouse learners interest.Additionally,when therte’s no reason for writing,it’s too hard for everyone-even adults-to write.I think you’ve provided your students with appropriate reason to write effectively.Hats off.


    September 24, 2016
  2. Great post, Lynne, about an important question.
    I wonder if you’ve thought much about the role of the arts in responding to the issue. At Opal School, we’ve found the arts invaluable in supporting children to find what it is they want to write about.
    Thanks again for sharing this post!


    September 16, 2016
  3. I always want to know the difference between writing sample scores in September and May, not with regard to what students write and how much; rather how well they write as determined by practicing writers.


    September 16, 2016
  4. I love how you invite the writer to think about writing through questions that show how personal writing is. Especially important struggling writers (and those who do not regularly write at all) are the questions about writing outside of school, and the questions about their interests. I try to listen to these students in conversation with others to discover in their chatter the story of the shot s/he made at recess, or the planned trip to a basketball tournament, or the dog who chased away the cougar, or the new video game played. Anything that will allow me to ask a question so the student tells the story, which then can be written. It is those few first stories, that show how writers write about what they know, that begin the development of confidence so that students can find their own story and voice in the days to come, and begin their journey as writer. Thanks for this insight into a writing classroom.


    September 15, 2016
  5. Lauren Baxter #

    I loved your list of questions to get students thinking about writing! I actually use most of them in a writing profile I have my kids complete the first week of school, so I can gauge their comfort level and writing interest. Most mention that they struggle with what to write, which is where I am going to bring in your suggestion of discussing ways to overcome their “writer’s block.” It’s so obvious that if they are aware of how to approach and combat the issue, they’ll be more willing to take risks and think outside the box. I also plan to expand their vocabulary when it comes to what constitutes writing. Admittedly, I can even have a narrow view when it comes to writing in a school setting, and I would have never thought to explain that birthday cards or simple notes count! Thanks for the reminder — I’ll be referencing that, especially with my struggling or reluctant writers!


    September 12, 2016
  6. mbuckelew #

    What a great post for this time of year — Also, what I love about your ideas is that they can be used at all grade levels! I am teaching research writing this semester to undergraduates, and I can definitely see the value of applying your ideas and asking the questions you share to help my writers along! Thank you for this timely piece!


    September 11, 2016

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