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Helping Students Find “Voice” in Their Writing

Elementary teachers set the foundation for the work.  Middle school teachers begin to build the framework to master structure.  High school teachers work to support students to go beyond frameworks and truly discover their personality on the page.  Each of these steps are critical to an emerging writer’s journey to finding their voice.  But voice is a tough battle to fight. 

We all know what it looks like when a student is stuck to a rote structure.  That robotic voice and stiff flow, as a student does their best to replicate writing formats they have been taught to follow step-by-step.  We know that’s not them; not writing that comes from the heart.  It’s a student completing a task to please their teacher.  But how do we encourage students to explore their own writing style when they are still struggling with internalizing the basics of organization and writer’s purpose?  Today, Education World examines teaching the elusive “voice”:  ways to explore it with students, some strategies for teaching it, as well as some helpful resources to extend the work.

The Importance of Structure

Pablo Picasso once said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”  When we’re talking about voice, it is most certainly that moment when the rigidity begins to bend.  Students must begin to capitalize on what they have learned, to create a piece that is uniquely theirs.  However, we must also recognize that learning structures (like, perhaps the five paragraph essay), is key to establishing the groundwork for comprehensive writing.  Even Picasso studied the masters at the School of Fine Arts in Barcelona and the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid before forging his own path to Cubism.  Likewise, students need to first master the introduction, the body paragraph, the conclusion…and have a fairly clear understanding of what is expected by the reader at each stage of their argument, narrative, or exposition.

Voice and the Standards

So what do we mean when we talk about “voice” then?  In brief, we’re talking about the specific personality, style, and point of view unique to each writer.  It’s not always something you can teach in the traditional way.  Instead, it must be nourished, encouraged, and explored.  In the Common Core State Standards, you will find this idea engrained in the writing expectations at all grade levels,  whether asking students to “establish the significance of claims” and attending to their “audience’s knowledge level, concerns, values, and possible biases” (W.11-12.1), or “create an organizational structure which ideas are logically grouped to support the writer’s purpose” (W.5.1).  No matter what purpose students might have for writing, while catering to their audience, we should still hear the human behind the keyboard.  It is how good writers connect to their readers.

Strategy:  Exploring Student Voice with Questioning

It would might make things much easier if we could simply tell students what their own voice sounds like.  We could simple say, “It’s like this,” pointing them down the path they’ve been looking for all along.  More often than not, it seems, all we can do is identify when it is clearly missing.  But we ca also facilitate their own exploration around what it might sound like.  To start this investigation, you might ask students to put to practice some of the following inquiries:

  • Ask yourself:  What are five things about me I can still integrate into my writing and still sound academically appropriate to my audience?
  • Ask a peer:  What is my voice?  What do I sound like?  Or ask yourself:  If a close family member or friend were reading this, how would they know it was me?
  • Read a piece you have already written, and ask:  Is this something that I would read?  If not, you need to change your voice.
  • Do I enjoy what I’m writing, as I’m writing it?  If it feels like hard work, you might not be writing as yourself.
  • Create a first draft, completely written the way you talk.  Then, go back and revise it with your audience in mind.
  • Do I really know what I’m talking about?  Does this matter to me?  You won’t sound comfortable in your writing if you haven’t done your research and found out why it’s important to be writing about.  Be informed and find a route to caring.
  • Spend a little time exploring who you are.  What are your values?  What are the non-negotiables in your value set that need to be represented whenever you write?  Taking a moment to identify what is most important will allow you the permission to comfortably integrate into your writing.

This sort of “inquiry into the self” is an essential step to helping students understand how they can come across on the page.  However, don’t allow them to forget about their audience.  Knowing your audience is key to finding how to use your voice most effectively.

Strategy:  Reading Voice

Another route to helping students recognize how voice can come through in a piece of writing is to give them a variety of examples to closely examine.  As they do, they should be asking:

  • Which words and phrases show the writer’s unique personality? 
  • Which words and phrases were specifically chosen for the audience?

Whether using a graphic organizer or simply highlighting form a computer screen, having students identify these choices will help them to understand that authors do indeed make these choices when constructing a piece of writing.  The more students are able to notice this practice, the more they will start to turn to their own work, asking these same two questions.  Here are a variety of excellent example pieces that can be used at a teacher’s discretion to identify choices authors make around voice:

Strategy:  Playing with Voice

Sometimes identifying your own voice can be as simple as distinguishing it from the voices of others!  After reading through a variety of pieces and analyzing their voice, it is often helpful (at all levels) to have students “try on” different roles or personas, writing to a variety of audiences.  Not only can this be fun (and easily adapted into a game-like format), it allows students to practice how they can use particular words and phrases to appeal to their audience, while keeping a personality attached to the work.  Without the anxiety of writing as themselves, students feel free to explore choice and intention in their writing.  These prompts can range from silly to serious, depending on your classroom’s content and needs.  Use some of the following recommendations as inspiration for practice:

  • Write an argumentative piece as a nervous pirate, asking the Captain to for more vacation days.
  • Write an informative how-to as Kanye West, describing to future ambitious artists the “step-by-step” guide to becoming famous.
  • Write a letter of complaint to the maker of Lucky Charms cereal as Peter Griffin (from the TV show “Family Guy”), angry that there are not enough marshmallows in each box.
  • Write a piece as Superman, explaining to comic book fans, in detail, why he is a better superhero than Batman.
  • Write a journal entry of a literate medieval serf, dreaming of becoming a squire, yet up against the harsh feudal system.
  • Write a narrative as Mahatma Gandhi, telling the story of the Salt March.
  • Write an argumentative piece as any of the presidential candidates or noteworthy politicians, explaining to the general populace what the country/world needs.
  • Write a love letter from a prison cell to someone you may never see again.
  • Write an article as a CEO of a large company, explaining to health-conscious parents why GMOs are necessary to keep the expanding world population fed.
  • Write a dialogue between historical colonizers and the indigenous people of a period.

Giving students choice in the above suggestions is always good practice.  Afterwards, have students read each other’s pieces, asking “why did you make the choices you made?”  As a second option, you might have students all work on one prompt, before sharing to the class and discussing why one student made one choice and another made a different choice.  This can lead to great discussions about how words can both create and hide a writer’s persona.  Most importantly, you should have students write one piece (potentially using one of the above prompts) as themselves and examine how that voice differs from the rest.  This will lead them to new insights in identifying the fine details of their own unique voice.


Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Contributor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher and teacher trainer in Connecticut.