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Discovering the Writer in Every Student

By Cathy Puett Miller

Are you tired of "What I Did on My Summer Vacation?" Do you want to move your students beyond weak, formulaic writing?

Ask them to create a writing autobiography that includes:

  • a persuasive paper (why they write);
  • a memoir/reflective paper (me as a writer - good or bad): or
  • an historical description of their experiences as a writer.

Encourage "outside the box" thinking. One student took the approach of convincing others that writing isn't worthwhile. He ended up proving the opposite as he communicated his ideas.

Play "Synonym Slap"

Choose an overused word from students' writing (with their permission of course). Write the word on the board and set a one-minute timer. In a quick whole group brainstorming session, ask students to provide as many synonyms for that word as possible. Read the context in which the original word was used and let students vote on which word would be the best choice (more precise meaning, creates more of a picture, adds variety to text) to replace the original word.

Resist the temptation to correct every error in red. Ideas are the place to start. I have never taught a class in which kids didn't have ideas with potential. How can you help students develop theirs?

Let them write about their passion.

Teach students that writing is a process. No one produces a satisfactory piece the first time.

Encourage first. Point out potential "diamonds in the rough." Critique selectively; you don't have to solve every issue at the same time. Move them up the scale.

Read good writing every day. Ask, "What makes this good writing?"

Use conversation to help students see connections between oral and written communication. Use prompts such as the ones below to teach idea development (revising):

  • "I like the way you talked about your feelings. Tell us more." (Student explodes with comments). "Now, think about how you can put that on paper. Write what you just said."
  • "Your writing sounds like the old Dragnet TV show -- 'Just the facts, ma'am.' What else can you tell me? Give me more details on the first idea."

Fleshing out ideas engages young writers and opens the door for you to teach more conventional elements: strong word choice, proper grammar, punctuation and fluency. Taught in conjunction with idea development, those components make much more sense to students -- and writing becomes a more meaningful experience for them.

More Writing Resources

* 365 Writing Prompts Writer's Digest
* The 6+1 Traits of Writing: The Complete Guide Grades 3 and Up, by Ruth Culham, Scholastic Professional Books, 2003
* The 6+1 Traits of Writing: The Complete Guide for Primary Grades [K-2], by Ruth Culham, Scholastic Professional Books, 2005
* Writeaerobics: 40 Workshop Exercises to Improve Your Writing Teaching, by Tommy Thomason, Christopher-Gordon Publishers, Inc., 2003

About the Author

Known as the "Literacy Ambassador," Cathy Puett Miller uses her library science degree from Florida State University as the foundation of her work. With more than ten years experience as an independent literacy consultant working with teachers, parents, librarians, and non-profit family-friendly organizations, she has conducted research initiatives and best practice studies in the areas of beginning reading instruction, emergent literacy and volunteer tutoring. She currently is listed on the U.S. Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse Registry of Outcome Evaluators.
Cathy's freelance writing appears in such print publications as Atlanta Our Kids, Omaha Family, and Georgia Journal of Reading, and online at Literacy Connections,, Education World, Family Network, the Reading Tub, The National Education Association, and BabyZone. She also reviews children's books at Children's Literature Comprehensive Database. Her signature is her passion for connecting children and families to positive, powerful experiences with reading; she believes there is a book for every child.
Cathy lives with her husband, Chuck, eighteen-year-old son, Charlie, and lots of friendly, ferociously read books in Huntsville, Alabama. Visit Cathy's Web site at The Literacy Ambassador.