Does Student Choice in Writing Really Matter?


I recently had a conversation with a group of teachers about whether allowing students to select their own writing topics really matters.  In the words of Lucy Calkins, “Choice matters. Not a little, but a lot.” In this case, she was talking about self-selected reading, but I think it applies to writing as well.  Since this question seems to surface often in my professional development work, I thought it was worth exploring a bit in a few blogposts.

For today, I would like to address just three key reasons why I believe choice in student writing does matter.

1) Engagement

When students find their work meaningful, they are more engaged, motivated learners.  “Intrinsic motivation arises from a desire to learn a topic due to its inherent interests, for self-fulfillment, enjoyment and to achieve a mastery of the subject.” (Karin Kirk)  Try doing a Google search with the phrase “student choice and motivation” and you will find a wealth of research that points to choice as a key motivational factor.  You will also find that motivation is linked to achievement. When students write about topics they care about, they are more engaged and they simply write more and write better.

2) Agency

In order to empower our students, we must help them develop a sense of personal agency—the knowledge that they are competent and in control of their own learning. In his book, Choice Words, Peter Johnston writes that “this desire for agency persists throughout life and is so powerful that when people feel there is no relationship between what they do and what happens, they become depressed and helpless.  Having a sense of agency, then, is fundamental.” He goes on to say that “children who doubt their competence set low goals and choose easy tasks, and they plan poorly. In the long run they disengage, decrease effort, generate fewer ideas, and become passive and discouraged.”  I don’t know about you, but that is NOT how I want children leaving my classroom! “Encouraging students to use their words to change the world is the aspiration of the writing workshop. When students are given choices in their learning, they will feel in control and motivated.  They will question, reason, and analyze important ideas. Most important, they will rise up and change the world for the better.” from Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice by Ruth Ayres and Stacey Shubitz.

3) Independence

I’m wondering how students will become independent thinkers and writers in our classrooms if we always choose their writing topics for them.  “Many teachers fear that giving students more choice will lead to their losing control over classroom management. Research tells us that in fact the opposite happens. When students understand their role as agent (the one in charge) over their feeling, thinking, and learning behaviors, they are more likely to take responsibility for their learning. To be autonomous learners, however, students need to have some choice and control. And teachers need to learn how to help students develop the ability to make appropriate choices and take control over their own learning.” (American Psychological Association)

I could go on with even more reasons for providing choice of writing topics for our students, but I will stop there.  I know that these reasons still leave some unanswered questions like, “What about students who don’t choose to write about anything?” and “What about teaching students to write to a prompt for a writing assessment?”  In the next few days I am going to address these and some other concerns regarding student choice in writing, so stay tuned…

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