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How can I motivate young writers?

Joan Sedita
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Produced by Reading Universe, a partnership of WETA, Barksdale Reading Institute, and First Book
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Motivation and engagement is one of those things that when I'm out in the field training teachers on how to teach reading and writing, it's the first thing that they bring up. "My students aren't motivated, I can't keep them engaged." And there is no one single magic bullet for this, right? But we know from experience and from the research that's out there that it's actually a group of things that we can do. And the more of these things that we can do, the better the chance we are at keeping kids motivated and engaged. So, what are those things? One of them is to give them opportunities to work collaboratively with their peers. And that could be at a thinking stage, planning stage, writing, revising. Another thing we know is allow them to write about things that are meaningful to them. Have it be about things in their everyday lives that they can connect to or about the news that's important to them.

We also know that if students feel like they're connecting or writing to an authentic audience instead of just, "Well, I'm writing this and the only person who's ever going to read it is the teacher and it's for a grade." The power of writing authentic audiences can't be overestimated. It's something that when you actually get somebody to respond can be unbelievably motivating. And let me give you a couple of examples. We've worked in a lot of schools where the teachers are purposely trying to give students authentic audiences. So, they might have students write letters to children in the grade before who are coming up into that grade, or they might be writing something to the principal and the principal actually writes them back. But they could also do things like write to the head of Microsoft Word or write to the head of the electric company on an issue related to climate change.

And every once in a while when someone from those organizations writes back to the student or the classroom, you immediately see the motivation. The other example that I can give you is one that I saw in the news recently. This was a young 4-year-old child who loved, — I won't name the name of the company -- but a certain kind of muffin that came four in a pack. And he complained to his mom that " ... why don't they put five in a pack? "And so his mom said, "Let's write a letter to the company." And he couldn't actually write, but he dictated. And he said to the mother, they talked about what he should say, and the mother wrote it down. And then he put his signature, which is an X, and the mom sent it off. And guess what happened? A few weeks later, a box came in the mail with 20 of the muffin packages and a little explanation about why they can't put five in a pack ... but we hope you enjoy these. That kid saw the power of writing to an audience and that people will listen to what you say. And guess what? Even if that kid's a struggling writer, he's going to always learn and want to write because of that thing that happened to him at 4-years old.

Reading Universe is made possible by generous support from Jim & Donna Barksdale, the AFT, the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation, and three anonymous donors.

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