Build Your Students Writing Stamina

I was shocked by my student’s lack of writing stamina. A lot like physical stamina, writing stamina takes practice. Not just the physical act of writing but the focus and recall and ability to organize thoughts quickly and coherently takes practice. Students need a lot of writing practice and they need many opportunities to build their writing stamina.

But I don’t want to grade essays

Neither do I. And you don’t have to. If your students are just beginning, are weak writers, or are reluctant they don’t need to write for very long but you need to make it part of the weekly routine.

I began with Free Write Wednesdays. This is an English class exercise that I stole from my high school English teacher and repurposed for my history classes. A real free write is an exercise where you write whatever comes to your mind even if it is disjointed, unrelated, or incomplete. This is how I began with my students. “Write whatever comes to your mind even if it doesn’t make sense. You get no points if you stop writing. Your pencil must write something for the entire time.”

I always gave them ten or fifteen seconds to calm themselves and get focused and then they began.

Weeks one – three: 30 seconds. They only had to write for thirty seconds. By the time you get to week three 30 seconds will be easy for them. Plus this is only a few sentences and it is very easy to grade. You can read all of them plus write replies to their thoughts (don’t correct the grammar or spelling – that isn’t the purpose of free writes) during your planning period. Like I wrote above, I didn’t even grade it for quality because you are not going to get quality writing. It will be junk. Grade for completion.

Students received full credit as long as they wrote the entire 30 seconds as instructed. Even if what they wrote was complete garbage they got full credit.

Weeks four – six: 45 seconds. Just like when you are beginning to work out, take a baby step. Building a solid foundation of writing confidence will yield dividends later. Still don’t correct grammar or spelling and only grade for completion. They either followed the rules and wrote for the entire time or they didn’t.

Weeks seven – ten: One minute. Same as above. Students can write whatever. Don’t grade spelling or grammar.

Weeks eleven – fourteen: One minute. Now introduce a little more structure to the writing. They now need to be concerned with spelling and grammar. Now they can earn a grade other than completion. I made every free-write worth five points (at the end of the nine weeks it added up to be fairly significant for their grade) but now instead of all or nothing they could earn a 1, 2, 3, or 4 as well.

I graded based on how much they wrote. At this point, I know how many sentences each of them is writing and if they don’t write roughly what I know they can achieve then they don’t get a five. If they spend too much time worrying about spelling or grammar they lose a point. These three weeks will show significant learning gains in their writing. You will begin to see the difference in everything they are writing.

Between weeks fifteen – eighteen I increased the time but it was different for each class period. Some classes needed less time added, others had more. Make it your goal to increase the time every week. See if you can get them up to two minutes with spelling and grammar graded. Resist the urge to get to five minutes because you probably had winter break in here. You will have some rebuilding time as students readjust to school.

Now that your third grading period has begun, push those students. Many of them will be glad of it and have probably been begging to increase the time anyway. Make a big jump in the time. Students will have some stress about it but they will push and succeed. They have had time to build that confidence and their writing is much better. At this point, you are not necessarily responding to every student writing and you aren’t necessarily grading them in one planning period.

My end goal with some of my classes was five minutes of writing. My most advanced class spent 15 minutes once a week writing whatever they wanted. When we worked on essays questions students were more willing to think aloud and discuss in class. Short answers had actual answers rather than filler words like before. I even had a few compliments from other teachers in other classes who found out about the free writes which gave students writing confidence in other classes too.

When it came time for the big standardized test at the end of the year my students were not worried about the writing aspect as much. They knew they could find something to write about and they knew their hands and minds could stay focused.

If you are going to try this strategy in your classroom I encourage you to adjust for your students. I only shared details as a way to understand my process rather than declaring this to be the only way. But get those students writing no matter how you approach it.

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