3 Simple Techniques for When Students Can’t Think of a Writing Topic


One of the most frequently asked questions I receive when I lead professional development on writing instruction is: “What do you do when kids just don’t want to write?”

It’s a fair question because it can be one of the most challenging parts of teaching writing.

Why Students Struggle with Writing

In my experience, I have found two main reasons that kids (grown-ups, too) won’t write:

  1. They have never been given explicit instruction on how to write. (Instead, they have just been assigned to write).
  2. They don’t know what to write about.

Reason #1 is beyond the scope of what I can address in this short blog post, but you can find some tips on explicit instruction in my blog series called Telling Isn’t Teaching.

In this post, I’d like to address reason #2: students don’t know what to write about.

Don’t Do This–Learn from My Mistakes

When I first started teaching writing, I used to assign a journal topic every day. I wrote it on the board and assigned students to write about it. You know, those topics like, “If I were six inches tall…” or “If I were a pencil…”

Not the most authentic topics, right? Some kids liked them, but many others did not and they continued to stare at the blank page.

As I progressed in my knowledge of how to teach writing, I learned that writers need to choose their topics. Choice gives students agency and increases motivation and engagement.

This new learning prompted me to say this each day: “You can write about whatever you want in your journals today. If you can’t think of something to write about, here is a prompt.”

You see, I just didn’t trust that my students could think of their own topics. I knew some would, but what about the rest? I was afraid they would just sit there.

And guess what? They did. My problem wasn’t solved.

As I continued to deepen my understanding of the teaching of writing, I learned that generating writing topics is part of the writing process. And just like students need strategies for every other part of the writing process, they need strategies for generating ideas, too!

Can we say “gamechanger”?!

What to Do Instead

So I switched my focus to actually teaching students how to generate topics. And like magic, I dramatically decreased the amount of writer’s block in my classroom and the number of students who “couldn’t think of anything to write about.”

I wanted to share some of my tips, so I created a YouTube playlist for you. It’s called:

I Can’t Think of Anything to Write About!

I will continue to add to this playlist, but for now, these are 3 of my favorite, high-leverage strategies for generating writing ideas:

  1. Running Topics Board
  2. Mine Your Memories
  3. Write About What You Know

Check out the videos for step-by-step instructions and be sure to

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