Five Ways to Kill The Love of Writing

In this day and age, with all we know about what motivates students to learn, achieve and thrive, why are these things still happening in classrooms?  This blog post points out practices to avoid when teaching writers and also links to an important post about the same theme in reading.

Just read Mark Barnes' '6 Ways Teachers Kill A Love of Reading.'

My first reaction is:  I can't believe in this day and age, with all we know, these kinds of things still go on.  But, they do.  Look on any news feed and you'll find countless classroom stories written by teachers, parents, students, administrators.  The same is true for writing.  I could write my own:  'Six Ways Teachers Kill The Love of Writing.'  I'll give a quick list a try:

1) Assign without giving choice.  This is a real worry with the Common Core.  In our zeal to teach the required text types (narrative, informative/explanatory, opinion/argumentation), we forget all humans are motivated by choice.  Can we include choice in our assignments even within the requirements?  Of course we can.  Let the students come up with their own twist on a topic, and/or have a Running Topics List where the class records issues that may be explored within these genres.  These genres can and should be part of students' lives (and, hence, relevant).  They shouldn't only experience them for school-ish assignments wherein all the parameters are dictated.

2) Have students write in a vacuum.  No sharing. No talking.  No feedback (until they get their graded paper back from the teacher.)  Writing is just speech written down.  Even when a writer works in isolation (as I'm currently doing inside my office), there is a monologue going on in her head as she hashes out thoughts and how they might be recorded.  Writers need talk--before, during and after they compose.  They need to hear their words read aloud and get reaction, feedback, encouragement...  The talk feeds the process.  One revision technique we've found effective is to "Just Ask It."  As we listen to a writer read his piece, if a question pops into our minds, we "Just Ask It."  The writer then decides if he'd like to make a revision.  "Just Ask It" is a simple way to teach students to respond to the writing of their peers in a simple conversational way.  Again, it's just talk.  Talk right smack dab in the middle of writing.  Kelly Gallagher wrote about a similar technique he calls "Question Flooding."  This is just one example of how talk helps writers hone their craft.  Most importantly, writers need to feel their voices are being heard.  Which brings me to number 3:

3) Only attend to grammar, usage and conventions.  When we look at a student's paper and the first thing that comes out of our mouths is, "You forgot to capitalize this proper noun," the student is deflated.  He's thinking, "Who cares?"  He wants to know we actually care about the content of his writing.  One of my favorite sayings is:  "Their hearts and minds are on those pages!"  We must hear the writer and let him know he has been heard by the comments we make before we ever, ever look at the mechanics.  When we do look at mechanics, can we work on small portions of the whole piece or focus on a few target areas rather than red-penning the entire work?  Unless a piece is going to publication (which should happen only occasionally), there's no reason to humiliate writers with an overabundance of corrections that overwhelm and are often ignored.  Turn some of the responsibility over to students, and you'll achieve a much better outcome.  If you need a few tips, here's a link to a post I wrote on the subject:

4) Keep the writing static.  When students write for the sole purpose of completing classroom assignments, they don't experience the power of the pen and writing is not a very motivating endeavor.  I love to design opportunities (or invite students to develop their own) that take the writing OUTSIDE OUR CLASSROOM WALLS!  When our writing has a larger purpose, we feel larger ourselves.  Can our opinions be shared with the powers that be: the company that made the product, the principal, the author of the book?  Can our informational writing be shared with target audiences; people who may have a real interest/stake in what we've learned or discovered?  Might our narratives be enjoyed beyond the scope of our classroom community?

5) Only write narratives, informational/explanatory and opinion/argumentative pieces.  Ignore all other genres.  Who needs 'em?  They're not on the test!  I've often begun my year exploring poetry with students--not just reading poems as part of literary analysis but the actual composition of POETRY!  My second graders found they could write a few lines about a simple observation, play with the words on the page, and turn out something surprising.  We'd post our poems.  We'd read and reread our poems.  We'd celebrate our poems and, along the way, we became better poetry writers.  I can't tell you how many parents I've run into that tell me their child still writes poetry years later.  It brings joy to my heart to hear!  We all know writers write for many purposes.  Who knows what type of writing may really turn a student on?  We have to make time to explore varied genres and write for the purpose of FUN and simple exploration.  This point ties into point number 1:  and I'd like to conclude this post with one last pertinent observation:

Real writers in the real world often come up with their own topics and decide which genre (out of many) best suits their purpose and intended audience.  Thus, in school, if we want to produce real writers--writers who are empowered to write outside of school--we can't just make assignments, limit the genres students are exposed to, and limit choice.  If we do, we are not helping our students develop the habits of mind writers need to be successful.

Well, that was only five ways to kill the love of writing.  But, I must stop now so I can work on other...wait for it...writing!!! :)

P.S.  I'm revisiting this post, almost two years later, thinking about what the next school year holds for my son who will be in third grade--the grade when the heavy "high-stakes" testing starts.  I wrote a letter I plan to give to his teacher when school begins in the fall.  If you're interested, you can view it here.  It has a different vantage point on some of the same ideas in this post.  

Best to you and your writers!  Have a wonderful school year!  -Janiel


  1. Thank you for highlighting this issue so, it brought to my mind the story of a six year old who wrote a fabulous little story about babysitting. He got a failing grade because in his story the baby was 5 months old and he crawled around and did things that a five months old doesn't do! Sometimes adults get stuck up in trivial details and miss out on the essence, alas.

    1. Hello Claudine,
      How sad. You have to wonder what lasting effects such an experience may have on a fledgling writer. Plus...why is a six year old's writing getting a grade? Another point to think about.
      Thanks for sharing. I'd love to read his babysitting story!

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