4 ways to get students excited about writing

It can be difficult to get students excited about writing.

Growing up, I liked to write. More specifically, though, I liked to write about things I liked. While I could crank out a decent enough essay like the best of them, my real passion was in creative writing. Buried in the depths of my office closet is a box holding over a dozen spiral-bound notebooks and hundreds of loose pieces of paper (all adorned with my middle-to-high-school handwriting) spinning elaborate tales of drama and adventure, mostly inspired by my favorite fantasy novels.

A few pieces, though, stand out. There’s the short story I wrote for my honors English class in tenth grade, when we were studying the works of Edgar Allan Poe. My teacher gave us the option to either write an essay comparing the themes in multiple examples of Poe’s work or to demonstrate our understanding of the class material by writing an original short story mimicking Poe’s style. I chose the latter. And I got an A.

Looking back at my high school career, I realize how extremely fortunate I was to have English teachers who understood the importance of “leaning in” and getting to know me as a person. The Poe assignment was one of many in which my teachers found ways to tailor writing tasks so that they felt more interesting and relevant. It was their ability to create buy-in on my part that resulted in my not only wanting to write for school but also in my learning to see myself as a writer both inside and outside of the classroom.

There’s a great deal of focus in writing instruction on making sure students consider their audience. Just as we want students to know their audience, however, we, as teachers, need to also know our students so that we can empower them to use their writing voices. Here are four tips on how to go about this in your classroom.

1. Assign authentic writing tasks

My colleague Julie Richardson recently wrote about engaging student interest with authentic writing tasks. Namely, she calls out the importance of having students consider what they want to accomplish with a particular piece of writing, in addition to what their teacher wants. This callout is in keeping with research by scholars including Steve Graham and Sarah Freedman, among others, that demonstrates the importance of considering what sorts of writing tasks students might engage in outside the classroom. Authenticity is an excellent way to get students excited about writing.

By integrating authentic writing tasks into your curriculum, you can help your students see the value in school-based writing. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Making a thank-you card for a friend or family member
  • Using picture books to write simple stories
  • Creating comic books or graphic novels
  • Summarizing and critiquing movies or episodes of TV shows
  • Documenting a family story or recipe
  • Reporting on the unexpected origins of an everyday item
  • Leaving effective online reviews for products
  • Writing a cover letter for a potential job
  • Drafting requests to state and local representatives

2. Get to know your students

To get started identifying authentic writing tasks for your students, ask yourself: who are my students? What drives and motivates them? What are their strengths? What are their opportunities for growth? Why should knowing how to write—and to write well—matter to them?

One simple way to start the getting-to-know-you process is by asking students to complete a writer reflection survey. This not only allows you, as the teacher, to learn more about how your students view and approach writing, but it also gives them a chance to self-reflect and consider, perhaps for the first time, how they view and approach writing.

To gauge shifts in students’ perspectives, I recommend administering your survey multiple times (e.g., once at the beginning of the year and once at the end, or between major writing assignments). Some examples of potential statements you might include, asking students to indicate their level of agreement from strongly disagree to strongly agree, are:

  • I can stay focused when I write.
  • It’s hard for me to remember how to spell words.
  • I write differently depending on who will read my writing.
  • I like adding extra features to my writing, like illustrations or labels.
  • I know who I can go to for help with my writing.
  • I usually understand the directions in school writing assignments.
  • I see myself as a writer.
  • I believe writing is important in everyday life.

For younger students, consider adapting your survey into a classroom activity that gets students up and moving around the room. Designate certain parts of the classroom as “response areas,” then read each statement aloud and ask students to walk to the response area that best matches how they feel about the statement. For example, students who strongly agree with the statement “I can stay focused when I write” might go stand by the back wall, while those who strongly disagree might go stand up front by the whiteboard, while those somewhere in between could stand in the middle of the classroom.

Note, however, that a survey such as the one described here is simply the beginning of an ongoing conversation you’ll need to have with your students as you discover more about who they are and how you can help them feel more confident as writers.

To keep the conversation going, consider asking students to keep a writing journal that they regularly share with you and in which you can provide feedback and answer questions. You might also incorporate peer review sessions into your lessons, as these sessions allow students to hone their writing skills and share their work with peers. Both of these approaches can get students excited about writing and help them begin to see themselves as writers who understand and appreciate the value of writing in their everyday lives.

3. Prioritize an asset-based approach

When getting to know your students, take particular care to use an asset-based approach; that is, do not mistake difference for “less than.” For example, you may have students in your classroom who are more comfortable and fluent expressing themselves in a language other than English. You might have students with disabilities like dyslexia, which can make accurate spelling a challenge. You might have students with ADHD for whom the act of sitting down and quietly drafting a paper is difficult. Does that mean these students have less potential as writers than their peers? Of course not! It simply means that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to writing instruction.

Multilingual students, for whom weaving together words from two or more languages can be as natural as breathing, should be allowed and encouraged to incorporate translanguaging into their writing process. Students with dyslexia or for whom spelling is otherwise a challenge should be provided access to accommodations like spell check and speech-to-text, which research shows can lead to improved writing outcomes. Students with ADHD, meanwhile, may benefit from more explicit guidance on what is expected, prewriting activities such as mind mapping, and having a larger writing task broken down into smaller micro-assignments, as noted by educator Tracy Collins on Edutopia.

The importance of an asset-based approach can’t be overstated and is an invaluable way to get students excited about writing.

4. Aim for inclusivity

Consider that you may also have students whose lived experiences are such that they don’t find some popular assigned prompts relevant. For example, a student who spent their summer at home or working to help support their family probably isn’t going to feel particularly seen if asked to write about what sort of vacation they took while school was out. A student with same-sex parents, if tasked with writing about their family, may wonder if the instructor has considered the possibility that not everyone’s family includes a mom and a dad and whether it’s safe (or even allowed) to talk about their home life at school. Similarly, a female student of color might roll her eyes at being assigned an essay on yet another book written by a white male author who lived in England hundreds of years ago and who never had to deal with the intersection of racism and sexism she faces on a daily basis, or to consider how living at that intersection shapes one’s lived experiences.

Once you’re aware of the multitude of identities in your classroom, you can tailor your writing assignments appropriately. For example, instead of asking students to write about where they may (or may not) have gone on summer vacation, you can ask them to write about the ideal summer vacation, that is, what would they like to do? Where would they like to go, and why? Similarly, if asking students to write about their families, make sure you’ve established that your classroom is a safe space in which diverse family structures are celebrated and are well-represented in the books or other written texts you analyze with your class. Finally, do an author audit of the books assigned as part of your curriculum. Are they all (or mostly all) white male authors? If so, look into alternative books that you could use instead that might be more interesting and relevant for your students. Not sure where to start? Try your school librarian, who will more likely than not be happy to help!

In closing

It can be challenging to get students excited about writing. But as those delivering and differentiating the curriculum, it’s vital that teachers consider the needs, interests, and identities of their students. It is only by knowing them well that you can assign truly authentic writing tasks.

When choosing prompts and designing assignments, I encourage you to make a habit of asking yourself, how can I make this something my students want to write about? How can I cultivate a sense of community in my classroom so that each student-writer can show up comfortably and confidently as their whole, authentic self?

You may also wish to read through NWEA’s stances on writing, which contain a wealth of research-backed information demonstrating what effective, equitable writing instruction looks like.

As noted at the beginning of this article, it can be difficult to get students excited about writing. But if you’ve ever seen that spark in a student’s eyes the moment they realize they’re a writer, then you know it’s well worth the effort to try.


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