What do writing anxiety and a trip to the hospital have in common?

15 ways to help your students overcome writing anxiety and become more confidence writers. Tips that can be used in writing workshop, literature centers, and whole class instruction.

As of the date on this post, I’m recovering from a double mastectomy and breast reconstruction. 

While I was in the hospital, I spent a good part of the day (and nights) discussing, describing and rating my pain.

This was facilitated by a helpful pain chart on the wall.  You’ve probably seen one — it includes grimacing faces and descriptions of pain.  Of course, all I could think about was the hysterical post on Hyperbole and a Half…and all of the emojis that I love! ??

How to help students overcome writing anxiety

But, like most teachers, it made me think about students.  What are the “pain points” our students experience in learning? I like to use little emojis at the bottom of exit cards or feedback sheets for students so they can quickly circle  them to let me know how they feel about whatever we’re working on that day.

These emojis are really helpful for planning small group work, conferences, and mini lessons, but what other ways can we alleviate writing anxiety?

What are “pain points” for students?

Writing, in particular, can be a huge hurdle for middle school students.  They are asked to write increasingly longer and more complicated pieces of writing using more complex logic.

But we also know that middle school students aren’t going to just come right out and say, “This is really hard for me!” or “I’m struggling here!”

Fortunately, there are things we can do to “bake in” help for our students who are experiencing writing anxiety.  

Tips for overcome writing anxiety

1. Talk about the pain-points of writing.  Adults experience them just as much as students do!

  • You’ve probably heard the quote, “Writing is easy.  You just open a vein and bleed.” Of course, that’s not a quote you’d want to share with your students, but if professional writers can relate to that quote, imagine how your students feel!

Survey your students at the start of the grading period or year — how do they feel about themselves as writers?

  • Have your students to respond to a writing survey at the start of the year or quarter.  Ask them do describe what they feel they do well as writers and what they struggle with.  As the year progresses, ask them to review that survey or even retake it.
  • Some questions for your survey:  What about writing is easy for you?  Are any parts of the writing process difficult? What is something you wrote in the last year that you’re proud of?  How would you describe your writing style?

You students may never have thought of themselves as “writers,” but they are!  Empower them by taking time to discuss where your students (and you!) are as writers.

2. What would real writers do? Most students are familiar with the novel Holes by Louis Sachar.  They might not know that he rewrote the novel five times. Five times.

  • Professional writers also keep writer’s notebooks – and they write every day.  Share that with your students as you introduce and use writing notebooks. 

3. Use a pain scale (but not that pain scale!).  Help students reflect on how they feel about the current writing you are focusing on in class.

  • It is difficult for middle school students to admit when they are struggling.  That’s why an exit card/ticket is helpful in giving you feedback and allowing students to ask for help.  Since they are private, students are more willing to be honest — rather than rating their feelings about an assignment or task publicly.
15 ways to help your students overcome writing anxiety and become more confidence writers.  Tips that can be used in writing workshop, literature centers, and whole class instruction.

4. Make writing part of every day.  Just the simple act of writing on a regular basis gives students confidence.  Use journals or open-ended writing prompts. With practice, students develop fluency, comfort, and familiarity.

  • Have students keep a writer’s notebook (see #2 above).  When you value the process of writing everyday, keeping a notebook of writing ideas, research notes, or even just journal prompts helps build writing fluency and helps empower students.
  • You don’t have to grade every piece of writing.  Your school or district may require that you read it, but you don’t have to grade practice writing, journals, or quick writes.  They may wonderful formative assessments — but, again, you don’t have to grade everything.

It is difficult for middle school students to admit when they are struggling.  An exit card provides private communication between you and the students.

5. Use the workshop model — this is one of the best reasons to use a workshop model in your classroom!  The focus of writing is a process — not something magical that happens the second someone starts writing. When students understand that writing products evolve, the terror of “getting it right so I don’t have to rewrite it” diminishes.

6. Teach the writing process.  These are the skills your students can use like  tools in their toolbox. Even though you may not want to teach students to write a restrictive five paragraph essay, if they know that process,  how to write a five paragraph essay is a tool that students can rely on when they are getting started with a writing it can get a student started and help them find a form for their ideas.

7. Get technology on your side.  Students often see the task of rewriting or revising as punishment.  It’s burdensome. If you can, have students draft on the computer. Revising and editing is much, much easier.

8. Find joy in the steps. Take time to teach the writing process as an act of discovery and creativity.

9. Ask for feedback.  Whether it’s the “pain chart” or another form of feedback, give students the chance to let you know how they are feeling and what their struggles are as they work through a writing project.

10. Take out all the mystery of grading. Provide students with a rubric at the start of the writing project.  Use your rubric for your mini lessons.

11. Share your own writing as students share theirs.  Yup.  Do it.  It’s a game changer.  Your students see that you struggle with writing as well.  My favorite way to do this is to sit right down in a student desk and respond to the writing warm up prompt of the day.  Then I read it to my class.

When you are invested and writing alongside your students, you are sharing their struggles.  

12. Conference.  Again, the workshop model is ideal for this.  Spending even just a few minutes reviewing student progress can make a big difference.  Not sure how to start a conference? The easiest question is, “What are you writing today?”

13. Use mini lessons.  Another huge game changer for how I taught writing.  Give your students a baby-bite lesson and then ask them to practice that skill in their own writing.  Even though it’s a mini lesson, you will be amazed at the amount of material you’ll get through.

14. Use peer groups.  Not all of your students will need a lesson in comma splices.  Group students who need help with particular writing tasks — it could be comma splices, transitions, sentence structure — and have them work together to revise and check their own and each others’ writing.  Start by teaching a mini lesson in a conference to the peer group, then allow them to work together to review and revise.

15. Always be assessing.  Those formative assessments will help you know where your students are in their writing.  Quick check ins with a checklist, conferences, or exit cards (that pain chart comes in handy — again!) will help you keep track of students who are struggling and those who need a challenge.

Can we help students become confident, fearless writers?  I know we can — and we can make that pain chart help us do just that!

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