Engagement as Enzyme for Learning: Are Students Excited about Writing?

Hands hold a pen over a blank page in an open notebook

By Patricia A. Dunn

To devote energy to their writing, children need to see it as empowering, as something that can change the world, as something they’ll want to do throughout their lives. Experienced teachers know that students must be engaged in writing the narratives, arguments, and informational/explanatory texts required in the Common Core.

Students will need this engagement, not only for the tasks required on high-stakes tests but also for the real-world writing projects they will encounter five or ten years from now when they are out of school—new, multimodal genres not yet invented. They’ll need the fluency, flexibility, and confidence that come from completing many successful writing projects aimed at readers who will not simply be assessing their writing but will be informed, moved, persuaded, amused, or entertained by it. They’ll need to develop strong editing and proofreading skills, hard work that requires effort beyond the hope for a good grade. Good writers will also need the more elusive skills such as persistence, responsibility, curiosity, and other “habits of mind” named in the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, an important document on college readiness written by professionals with both academic and practical experience teaching writing. The following are questions to help determine if students are developing this important element of engagement.

Three Questions for Parents about Your Child’s Writing

1) Is your child excited about writing?

Some stress is natural. Writers serious about their work want it to be effective, want lots of people to read it, and want it to make a positive difference in the world. Like the good kind of stage fright needed for an energetic and inspired  performance, some nervousness about writing can provide motivation for further revising and editing, as well as the creative energy needed for high-level analytic or artistic thinking. “Engagement with learning is essential,” argue Irwin, Meltzer, and Dukes in their book on adolescent literacy.

For writers engaged in their project, this feeling is more excitement than negative stress. If your child avoids writing, is bored by or overly stressed about writing, find out what he or she is being asked to do in school. Make sure the writing is for real audiences (not just the teacher with a red pen), for real purposes (to inform, persuade, amuse, entertain, or argue), and in real genres: reviews, blogs, news stories, journals, narratives, fan fiction, short stories, letters, and so on. The writing should be challenging, engaging, varied, frequent, and, at least some of the time, enjoyable.


2) Does your child write outside of school?

In order to obtain the practice they need for continued improvement, students need to write on their own, in addition to what they’re doing in school. A 2008 Pew Internet Poll showed that many children do write outside of school, but that they do not think of the writing they’re doing on their own time as “writing.” (This fact makes one wonder what activities called writing are taking place in the classroom.) Students also said that they knew writing was important for their future success and that they had many suggestions about how to improve writing instruction in the school, though few adults ever asked them about those suggestions. In the same poll, parents, too, said that their children were doing much more writing than they themselves ever did at that age. We should all inquire about our children’s writing, in or out of school, and encourage the writing they do for blogs, fan fiction, or even social network writing, if it is appropriate. All these tasks have real audiences and real purposes—crucial elements that can be missing from school writing.  Laura Robb’s research also shows that many middle school students are writing at home, in journals, book reviews, letters, etc. However, many—even most– teachers are not aware of this writing: “Only 8.7 percent of students surveyed report that their teachers know about their outside-of-school writing” (15). Robb goes on to argue that by at least knowing about this writing, teachers can get to know their students better, which can help motivate them and influence the design of better in-school writing tasks.


3) Does your child read outside of school?

The Common Core’s focus on text complexity notwithstanding (pages 4-10), students need to read—and read a lot—in order to write well. No matter how complex an assigned school reading might be, it won’t matter if children aren’t reading it, or if it’s turning them against reading. Good writers read all the time–in school, at home, in the back seat of the car, at the beach, or under the covers at night. They always have with them their book or e-reader. They read for information and knowledge and sometimes because they have to, but most of all they read for pleasure. By reading so much, they seamlessly learn vocabulary words their non-reading peers might be trying to cram in for a quiz the next day, only to forget the day after that. Voracious readers absorb all sorts of background knowledge on science, culture, geography, history, food, nature, clothing, animals, places, or whatever their book-of-the-moment can teach them. They learn about story grammar—the textual features of different genres such as mysteries, novels, memoirs, biographies, and so on. They absorb sentence structures and punctuation conventions. Whatever students read—young adult novels, music reviews, blogs, graphic novels, instructions on playing the guitar or tips on winning at video games—all these texts will contribute something to their literacy and engender in them a positive attitude about reading. So if some of the suggested texts in Appendix B of the Common Core (Patrick Henry’s “Speech to the Second Virginia Convention”?, Ronald Reagan’s “Address to Students at Moscow State University” are not turning your children into life-long readers, consider their interests. Tap into their passions to find whatever texts will get them to open a book, read, and keep reading—even when they’re not supposed to.

Works Cited


Patricia A. Dunn is a former high school teacher and two-year college instructor who has written several books on the teaching of writing: Learning Re-Abled: The Learning Disability Controversy and Composition Studies (1995 and 2011), available online at http://wac.colostate.edu/books/dunn/; Talking, Sketching, Moving: Multiple Literacies in the Teaching of Writing (2001); and, with Ken Lindblom, Grammar Rants: How a Backstage Tour of Writing Complaints Can Help Students Make Informed, Savvy Choices About Their Writing (2011). She is currently an Associate Professor of English at Stony Brook University in New York, where she teaches current and future teachers of English and writing.

21 thoughts on “Engagement as Enzyme for Learning: Are Students Excited about Writing?

  1. Dr. Dunn is a personal hero of mine, so I hesitate to suggest that her post is in ANY way wanting. (Clearly this is all very smart, and parents should DEFINITELY ask themselves these three questions.) I would, however, posit a fourth question: Do your children see YOU reading and writing? Children actually do “learn what they live,” and it’s important for them to see literacy practices as part of their families’ daily lives. Finding things that you enjoy reading and finding real reasons to write as a family can go a long way toward making children enthusiastic readers and writers.

    • Excellent article! And Claire, very good addition that couldn’t be more accurate. My kids will snuggle up in bed or on the couch with their own books while I’m reading, they sometimes do the same when I’m writing.

  2. We’ve always had to work beyond as well as within the curriculum to help our children get a good education. All of us who work in the field of education need to, as Professor Dunn does, continually question whether what we’re expected to do in the classroom is really in the best interests of our students, and to think about ways to supplement classroom work to give our students the best possible entree into life.

    • Thanks for your comments, Gene. As Freire wrote, “Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.”

  3. Prof. Dunn is a favorite of mine too. I admire her work and could not agree more with her thinking and especially with the 3 questions she asks. Make reading and writing exciting and enjoyable and you will create a new world for your child.

  4. Thank you, Patty, for making the plea for more reading and writing outside of school and for authentic learning everywhere. One of the reasons that academic service learning projects such as connecting students in college courses as mentors for writers in middle/high schools work is because all those involved are writing for a ‘real’ audience. I only wish that more assessments (including those forthcoming for the Common Core State Standards) would take that into account and use portfolios which might include students’ writing in and out of the English classroom.

    • Kia, I agree that it’s the “real” audience that can make such a difference for student writers. The stakes are high in that context, and so are the standards. But students are so much more invested in their writing when it’s written with a real purpose, in a real genre, and for people reading it because they want to, not because they have to grade it.

  5. These are wonderful suggestions. As a parent, I’m going to keep them in mind as my five and three year olds start reading and writing. In fact, these tips seem already worth adapting into stories that I tell my five year old about how his role models in the family became smart students. These are also great ideas to take into the classroom.
    As a teacher, however, one challenge that I haven’t figured out how to tackle yet is how to help the avid readers and confident writers from high school to use their desire and talent for reading and writing toward doing the same successfully in college. Many of these savvy readers/writers seem to assume that “academic” reading and writing are too boring, too challenging, etc. I refuse to buy into the idea that students should “unlearn” what they’ve learned in high school, and instead I want to help them “translate” their skills and talents.
    I wonder if their views about college reading/writing has something to do with reading too little non-fiction and doing predominantly personal writing. Maybe the trick is in finding the “excitement sauce” in the reading and writing assignments that I give them; but I also want to challenge the faulty perception that “scholarly” modes of thinking and communication are universally boring. With upper division students, I’ve been able to get them excited about academic writing, even dismantle the artificial boundary between academic and “real” writing (I engage them in blogging, showcasing their writing in eportfolios, developing their professional profiles, practicing professional writing skills, doing research-based writing, etc). I’m much less successful with freshmen writers. I need to translate your ideas for getting the latter group more engaged/excited.
    Thank you for sharing these thought-provoking ideas.

  6. Shyam, I think it’s smart to help students “‘translate’ their skills and talents.” The projects you mention sound like they would go a long way to helping students do that. I agree that there are interesting, even fascinating, complex scholarly texts. How do we pick texts–or help students pick texts–that will engage them enough to to comprehend them? True engagement will always trump simple assessment in getting students to develop as sophisticated readers and writers.Thanks for your thoughts.

  7. Dr. Dunn,

    Your article reminds me of my own writing development. It was with a lot of passion that I needed to engage in debate online. Yes, I needed an audience and needed to get my point across. Writing better was not the purpose, but just naturally co-arose with this process. So, how do I leverage my experience with my 3 children at home?

    One who just graduated high school and is struggling with college papers (he also has mild Asperger’s syndrome), one gifted who never had to study, got a perfect score on the 5th Grade ELA, is now passionate about guitar, but now is no longer in Honors English as an 11th grader- says he doesn’t write well enough, and an 8th grade girl who loves writing.

    I think I will get the first one, in college, to get involved in online discussion of current events. He’s got a strong interest in politics. As far as the guitar player, he has the skills, just some discipline may help. Carrots for good grades?

    My girl, gonna leave her alone…

    I do find the Common Core doesn’t help at all (I am also a teacher). Good teaching always encouraged critical thinking and expression of the corresponding ideas. But, with the hyper-vigilance and corresponding testing associated with the Core, it will backfire. There will be no room for joy in the activity. No intrinsic interest.

    • Dear John, Thanks for your reply and your question. (I’ve not been to this page in a while, so please forgive the late response. I agree with you about the need for joy in the activity and engagement. That’s a great idea about getting your oldest involved in online discussions of current political events.

      For the guitar player, what about getting him to write about guitars, or about those who play them, or about music made with them? I don’t know much about guitars, but there are publications that pubish reviews of new ones. If he reads at all about guitars, or follows blogs about them, maybe he’d like to write about them in some way? Good luck, and I hope he can learn to enjoy writing.

      Thanks again for your response.

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