Helping Students Choose Topics

Nov 4, 2008 by

Staring at a blank piece of paper can be very intimidating to young writers (old ones, too!). By helping them generate many topics early in the year, a huge stumbling block can be removed. Students should write about things they are very familiar with, so topic-generating mini-lessons need to focus on things students know much about.

Parent Letter

You may wish to involve parents in the topic gathering process. After all, they know their children and their experiences best. Send home the parent letter and topic form and ask parents to help their child brainstorm and complete. Attach the completed topics lists to each student’s writing folder or journal/writer’s notebook.


“The teaching of writing begins with knowing our students’ areas of expertise and letting them teach us what they know.” –Donald Graves

I believe that effective writing classrooms begin with many rich oral language experiences. Many writers fear the blank page and have difficulty thinking of “something to write about.” By providing opportunities for students to talk about themselves and orally share what they know a lot about or are interested in, we can help them see that they have many ideas to write about. All writers benefit from these activities, but they are especially helpful for second language learners and special needs students.

Storying is an oral language technique that is used to help writers discover that they have many stories waiting to be told. An added benefit is that storying builds a sense of community and helps the teacher get to know students.


  1. Gather in meeting area; sit in a circle.
  2. Teacher starts by telling a story (sets the topic for the day).
  3. Students take turns storying on the same topic (teach importance of good manners).
  4. Focus on oral language—no writing is involved.

Possible Storying Topics:

  • A time you were afraid, sad, excited, embarrassed
  • A special object
  • Someone special
  • A wish or a dream
  • Something you love/hate
  • A family tradition
  • A picture book scenario
  • A “quick draw”
  • Photographs

Click here for additional information on storying.

Write About What You Know

  Some students are always looking for the perfect topic to write a wonderful and exciting story. They need to be reminded that the best stories come from their own personal experiences. Read aloud Arthur Writes a Story by Marc Brown or The Best Story by Eileen Spinelli to illustrate this point.

Modeled Writing Lessons

By modeling our own selection of topics and development of those topics, we provide a window into our brains for our students. Nancie Atwell calls this “taking off the top of my head.” When we present a modeled writing lesson, we can ignite ideas in students who have had similar experiences (see Modeled Writing).

Heart Map

This idea comes from Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School by Georgia Heard. Explain to students that poets speak from their hearts. They write about things they care deeply about. Ask students to look inside their hearts, find what really matters to them and then “map” their hearts. Questions to ask: What is in your heart? What has really affected you? What people are really important to you? What memories, secrets, fears, joys are in your heart?

Heart Map
Click to enlarge.

Chalkboard List

Designate a small section of your chalkboard to model topic selection throughout the day. Encourage students to live a “writerly life” by being tuned in to possible writing topics that surface throughout the day. Tell them that writers are like insects—they always have their antennae up looking for ideas to write about. When a student shares something that would lend itself well to a writing topic, jot it down on the running topics list. The ideas may come from books that are read together, personal experiences shared by individual students, or classroom experiences. The topic may or may not pertain to every student. Just jot it down and comment that it might make a good topic to write about. Make additions to the list throughout the day. When you run out of space, reread the list. Invite students to write down any topics they might like to write about. They can include these topics on their Writing Topics sheet. Erase the list and begin a new one. (Adapted from Practical and Timesaving Strategies to Strengthen Your Students’ Writing byJaniel Wagstaff).

Morning Meeting

Many topics of discussion arise during morning meeting as students share their news. Remember to jot down ideas on the running topics list on the chalkboard (see above).  The following sample was written by one of my students after a classmate shared a story about a bird’s nest during morning meeting. Click images to enlarge.

Children’s Literature

Children’s literature provides a wonderful springboard for writing. In addition to books that can be used to model rich language and specific writer’s craft techniques, there are also books that deal specifically with the act of writing and can be used to teach students how authors come up with their ideas.

Memory Box

Some of the best topics come from our own memories. Read aloud Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge by Mem Fox. This book is about a young boy who tries to help his elderly friend regain her memory. After reading the book have students bring in a shoebox or paper bag filled with 5 objects representing memories (something warm, something from long ago, something that makes you cry, something that makes you laugh, something as precious as gold). For 5 days have students share one object each day with a partner and then write about the memory.


  • Have students take one piece through the entire writing process.
  • Take a picture of the student with the object.
  • Make a class Traveling Book.

More Memory Ideas

While it is important for writers to learn to generate their own topics, it is sometimes helpful to give them topics to jog their memories. These topics often become “seed” ideas for future poems, memoirs, or personal narratives. Below is a list of questions that can be used as “storying” topics or writer’s notebook topics or just added to students’ personal writing territories or topics lists:

  • What are your first memories of home?
  • Have you ever moved? What was that like?
  • What was your favorite activity as a preschooler? First grader?
  • How did you make your first friend?
  • How did you feel when your best friend moved away?
  • Write about pets you’ve had over the years.
  • What has been the most significant event in your life? Why?
  • What are the small everyday moments that you treasure for some reason?
  • Write about a trip you’ve taken that has had a lasting impact on you. It could be a cross-country vacation or a trip to the mall.
  • Write about a special tradition your family celebrates.
  • Interview family and friends about your past.
  • Get out your old photos and free-write about them.

Poetry Walk

To help students sharpen their senses and gather ideas for writing free verse poetry, take them on a “poetry walk”. The poetry walk can be done indoors or outdoors—poetry can be hiding anywhere (see below). Have students take clipboards and pencils with them. Encourage them to write down what they see, hear, feel, and smell. After returning to class, allow students to share their notes with one another. Invite them to use their observations to compose free verse poetry.

Where Poetry Hides

This is another idea that comes from Awakening the Heart by Georgia Heard. Ask students to take home their notebooks and spend some time searching their houses for places where poems are hiding. Many poems are written about everyday, ordinary objects and often, seemingly mundane topics. The key to turning the topic into poetry is to be as specific as possible and to create images or word pictures for the reader. Reading aloud poems from books like All the Small Poems and Fourteen More by Valerie Worth can help students see that poetry hides in the most obscure places.

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