After spending all weekend working out the best way to teach a genre, locating the required resources and then executing the perfect minilesson, the last thing a teacher wants to hear when they send their students off to write is “but I can’t think of anything to write about!”
Even when a topic is provided (which is the least preferred option if we’re serious about teaching students to become lifelong writers), there are many students who still just can’t think of something to write about. What is their problem? Are they lazy? Are they just not creative? Is it something else?
What is going on here and what can we do about it?
The first thing I would ask you to do here is to reflect on the gradual release of responsibility. What explicit instruction (modelling/demonstrating) have you provided to students on how writers come up with ideas? What guided practice have the students been involved in? What role are the anchor charts in your room playing in supporting students with this? How have you built your students’ knowledge and capacity to enact this skill independently? Has it been a gradual release of responsibility or is it time to revisit some of the first phases of the Gradual Release?
Just as we spend time teaching students about the structure and organisation of writing, we need to spend time teaching them about how writers develop their ideas in the first place. Students can, afterall, know everything about the so-called structure of a narrative or a persuasive piece, but if they don’t have an idea to write about (or it either isn’t strong or one they care about) it will all be for naught.
On this very topic author Jackie French says: “Thinking is the most important part of writing a story. A badly written story with fascinating ideas will be fun to read. But even the best writing in the world can’t make boring ideas into a good book.”
Why? Because, as Vicki Spandel (2013) states:
“Ideas are the heart of the matter. They influence- and are influenced by- every other trait. How we organise information, the voice with which we express ourselves, the words we choose, the way sentences flow, even the formality or playfulness of conventions: all, all are deeply, profoundly affected by the message.”
Teacher tips for building ideas for writing
1. Study mentors
As with any writing skill, I suggest you start by consulting the wisdom of some high-quality mentors. Read through their texts and then inquire with students about how they think the author came up with their idea.
Some books, such as Phil Cummings’ book Touch the Moon, include an author’s note telling the reader exactly how they came up with their idea. Some authors, such as Mem Fox, have a Q&A section on their website where they answer the question every kid wants to know- where do your ideas come from? (Her answer: “real life; books; and feelings of the deepest kind”). Other authors, such as Jane Godwin, have an explanation on their website for every book they have written. (Jane’s site is fantastic for this!)
For your own reference, here is a quick cheat sheet of where some of our most loved authors got their ideas for their books. You can also download a PDF version here.
2. Create an anchor chart
Get discussion going with your students about how writers come up with their ideas. Create an anchor chart to help remind them of this when they are stuck. Make sure you include ways the writers in your class come up with their ideas and then add some of the way published authors have come up with their ideas. Talk to the students about how YOU come up with ideas too! From the table above we already have a list of ways writers can come up with ideas and I’m sure your students can find many more. Remember to keep referring and adding to this chart throughout the year.
3. Practice the art and skill of coming up with ideas
Provide visual prompts for students and encourage them to turn and talk about what it reminds them of from their own lives or from books or TV (the images on author Sue Whiting’s Instagram account would be terrific for this). Get your students talking! Once they have had the chance to talk about things it reminds them of, get them to write a list of possible ideas they could write about that come from this visual. Don’t force them to write about it though, just get them to list the ideas. We want them to practice the skill of coming up with the ideas, not writing about them (yet). Have students share their lists. Repeat this activity multiple times to warm up the ‘idea generation muscle’ in their brains.
4. Practice developing ideas from words.
Author Jen Storer says words are like magnets because they attract ideas to them. Give students a few words and get them to sit and think of possible ideas these words might conjure up. If a narrative contained the words ‘spray can, dog and boot’ for example, what could a possible story be? Have them talk about their ideas with other students. They don’t always need to write about them, they just need to practice coming up with them. This is true for persuasive writing too; if I was writing to the council to ask them to fix the fence at my local dog park (true story), what might be some reasons I could give them? Don’t write the piece, just write the reasons as a list. By the end of a unit on generating ideas students should have a large number of options for persuasive topics they could write about (some given to them, some created by themselves), along with some early ideas of reasons to support their argument. Get them to select the topic they feel most passionately about to take further into a full piece of writing.
5. Engage students in Writer’s Notebook activities
The Writer’s Notebook is designed to get students to notice the world around them. It encourages them to think about events, feelings, people and places from their own lives. As we have seen with lots of published authors, so many of their ideas come from their own lives.
Visit the Oz Lit Teacher Writer’s Notebook Ideas slide deck for ideas on writers notebook activities to use with your students. (You can print the ideas in this deck for use in your own class- don’t forget to add other activity ideas you have used to share with others).
Want more lesson ideas?
See Jennifer Serravallo’s Writing Strategies book. She has a whole chapter on different lessons for developing writing ideas with students.
Ideas is the first trait in the 6 traits of writing because, as Vicki Spandel says, it influences all the other traits and is influenced by the other traits. If we don’t give our students explicit instruction in how to develop ideas, we can’t expect them to successfully enact this skill independently, And, if we skip this very important skill, it won’t matter how wonderful our persuasive, narrative, recount, procedural (or any other genre) writing minilessons are, our students’ writing will not get off the ground or shine without the foundational layer of good ideas.
Don’t forget to share your own lesson plans and ideas with the rest of the Oz Lit Community. How do you help those students who don’t know what to write about? What has worked for your students? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below or on the Oz Lit Teacher Facebook group.
Spandel, V. (2013). Creating writers. Boston,: Pearson, p.63.