If you’ve been teaching writing for any amount of time, you’re bound to have heard the words, (sometimes in a whining voice), “I don’t know what to write about.” Children, with their vast and creative imaginations, can still have difficulty coming up with ideas for stories. Writer’s block can strike at any age. It frustrates students and can leave teachers baffled as to how to inspire children to generate their own thoughts for a writing piece. Instead of expending energy pulling those ideas from students like you’re pulling teeth (and it’s just as painful for the teacher and student alike), we are here to help. Let our 6 ways to generate ideas for writing assist you. This blog post will help give your elementary students ideas that will inspire fascinating stories.
Centers and stations don’t have to be reserved for younger elementary students. They can be utilized in the Ideas/Brainstorming stage of the writing process for all ages in elementary. Oftentimes, we do not spend enough time on the brainstorming stage of the writing process. Some students can think up story ideas at the drop of a hat, so the brainstorming stage is passed over quickly. Other times, students have a huge list of rotating ideas already formed and can just pull one of those from their brains. More students than not, need to spend a devoted amount of time forming ideas, fleshing out characters and plot lines, and really contemplating and developing their stories.
Art centers or stations are a less-intimidating way to do form ideas. Put together a variety of stations in which students can explore ideas using their senses and art. Artistic expression helps generate writing ideas for students as art encourages creativity, self-expression, and individual identity.
Students spend time at each center with a journal and pencil to jot down any ideas that come to mind as they explore. First, we recommend giving students some structure within writing prompts to help formulate ideas. Some writing prompts your students might explore include writing about a magical adventure with your best friend, writing about a day in which you wake up to a blizzard, and any other prompts that can help give your students a starting point.
1. Play-Doh/Clay Station:
Place a variety of colors of Play-Doh or clay, some instruments such as rolling pins, clay scissors, cookie cutters, and other fun items, and have students create 3-D setting and characters that their story may include. Studies show that by working with their hands in a sensory way, children have reduced anxiety and are better focused, which is definitely needed when starting a story.
2. Bead Art:
My son’s second-grade teacher implemented a Bead Art Center on Fun Fridays. He begged me to get him a kit at home for us to do together. It was so much fun to do with him, but one day the idea struck me about how this could be used in a Brainstorming Writing Center.
As he was designing an octopus out of beads, he suddenly decided to make the octopus wear a tuxedo. From there, he created an idea of a story about an octopus who dresses up in a tuxedo as a disguise but is really a superhero. Then, he thought of an ocean city full of fancily-dressed sea creatures. I believe because he was relaxed and focused on creating, he was able to then let the ideas flow freely. Students can create setting and characters out of a variety of bead art templates.
3. Makerspace Areas
Makerspace areas are popping up in libraries and classrooms all over. It is a collaborative area in which students explore, learn, and create. Makerspace can be simple. Put some construction paper, markers, lego blocks, cardboard, cotton balls, glue, scissors, and a variety of craft materials. Have students design their settings and possibly characters in the makerspace area. Makerspace centers help students focus, create a maker’s mindset, and allow story ideas to be fostered.
4. Themed Sensory Kits
If you assign a specific writing prompt to your students, you can create a themed center to help get those ideas flowing. For instance, if students are tasked with writing a dinosaur story, grab some dinosaur toys from The Dollar Store, sticks, rocks, and maybe some dinosaur bone toys and create a sensory center for students to explore. As they play with the themed center, ideas will start flowing. Have them write them down in their journals.
If you have money to invest from a fundraiser or from a specific fund for your classroom, Young, Wild, & Friedman makes amazing themed sensory kits. For one year, I bought one kit a month. They are reusable and now we have a closet full of sensory kits such as Unicorns, Pirates, Trains, and Construction. These themes are wonderful starting points for stories and exploring each hands-on kit will get the ideas circulating.
#2 Scavenger Hunts/Nature Walks
Design a themed scavenger hunt that students are to complete to help them brainstorm. For instance, when assigning descriptive writing based on the seasons, I have students complete a simple outdoor scavenger hunt. For example, they must find a collection of colorful fall leaves for a writing piece on fall, or a variety of new blooming flowers for a spring descriptive poem.
Perhaps, students aren’t writing about a season, but a scavenger hunt can still work. If your students have to write about a day in their life at school, design a scavenger hunt for specific things they must find in the classroom that relate to their day. If they must write about something relating to their home, a scavenger hunt for specific items at their house would be a fun homework assignment. It can generate ideas. Have them check off each item on their list and also have them keep their writing journal close to jot down any ideas that come to mind.
Nature walks are wonderful to gain more ideas for sensory words and adjectives when describing an outdoor setting or when writing a descriptive piece. Even if students are writing a story that has nothing to do with the season or an outdoor setting, just by being in nature, students feel calmer and more focused. It improves their moods which also allows for more cognitive space to create ideas.
Read our blog post about a Nature Walk I took with my students to help them write about autumn.
#3 Books as Mentor Text
I have heard from education professors and fellow teacher coworkers, that the more a student reads, the better writers they are. This has proven to be true in some cases. The theory is that students see well-written works and are able to produce their own. Additionally, they also can gain a variety of differing ideas with all of the distinctive characters and plot lines they read about. I’ve also had students that absolutely love to read, but cannot get the ideas flowing in a story and struggle to write. This is why by reading together and aloud stories that relate to a writing prompt, ideas can flow more freely for them. By having the story specifically connect with their writing piece, their ideas can be more streamlined and purposeful for their story.
For instance, read Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett if students will be writing about an unusual weather phenomenon. Read A Bad Case of Stripes by David Shannon if students will be writing about an unusual and wacky sickness.
Mentor Text as Templates
Additionally, choose specific picture books to act as templates or mentor text for students to follow when writing a story. For instance, in Lemony Snicket’s The Dark, darkness is personified and carries on a conversation with the main character, Lazlo. Perhaps, you’re challenging your students to personify an inanimate object or idea. This would be a great way to show students how-to write their stories in the same way.
Grab our full unit on The Dark here.
You can also get writing prompt ideas from picture books, instead of choosing books centered around the writing prompt. You can choose to read a book aloud and ask students to write a fictional story based on any idea that popped into their heads while reading. While reading How to Train a Dragon by Cressida Cowell as an after-lunch read-aloud, I wanted to make the time more purposeful. In our writing lessons, I had students write about anything relating to that novel. Many chose to write stories with a dragon as their main character and others chose to focus on the setting. It was interesting that other students chose to write a story based on Vikings. Some even wrote about waking up one day being able to speak Dragonese.
RAFT is a writing strategy in which students choose their Role (as the writer), Audience they will be writing to, Format (such as a letter, fictional story, newspaper article), and Topic. This writing strategy was first designed to help students understand their role and purpose as a writer. However, it can be used to help focus and create ideas as well. Here is an example below:
|Newspaper Writer||General Readers||Interview/Article||Interviewing a Ninja|
|Ninja Master||Ninjas in Training||How-To Book||How to be a Ninja|
RAFTs are a great way to give students structured ideas. Students can also mix and match the varying categories. They are not required to go straight across but instead could choose to be a Ninja Master writing to another Ninja Master. The letter could be about a How to Be a Ninja. By providing a RAFT for a student, it is almost like an actual raft, or lifeline, to help guide their writing ideas.
#5 Graphic Organizers
Instead of giving students a writing prompt and having them write a list of ideas, provide structured graphic organizers that help them brainstorm. Structured graphic organizers ask specific questions to guide students to various ideas. For instance, if you are having students write about a scientist who creates a time machine, have them fill out a character graphic organizer. It asks questions such as the character’s background, hobbies, appearance, strengths, and weaknesses. They can fill out a similar graphic organizer about the antagonist and even a prewriting one about the setting. The setting organizer can have students fill out information about the location, season, physical aspects, and climate. As students make decisions about information regarding their story’s characters and setting, this helps generate even more ideas as well.
For a full writing unit on superheroes with detailed brainstorming graphic organizers, click below.
For a full writing unit on pirates (Pirate Day is in September!) with detailed brainstorming graphic organizers, click below.
During the brainstorming part of writing, work with students in a whole group to make a master list of ideas. The ideas can be displayed on anchor chart paper or on the whiteboard. The key is that wherever you make the lists, they stay up during the duration of the writing unit. If students are writing a myth about a Greek god or goddess, work together as a class to create a list of ideas. This could include the settings, protagonists, antagonists, and action events. As students speak aloud their ideas, write them into each appropriate category. As these ideas are discussed, more thoughts will flow from other students, generating even more ideas. Students have permission to use any ideas that are on the master lists.
Pair students up to help make partner master list categories. Any ideas generated between the two partners can be used as well. Students each copy the list into their journals and reference them as they flesh out their ideas.
Lastly, another way to collaborate is to place poster board or anchor charts around the classroom. Each poster board has a title such as “Main Characters,” “Villains,” “Settings,” and “Events.” The teacher assigns a topic or genre that students will have to write about such as 1940’s historical fiction story. Perhaps the topic is a spooky mystery. Students work together in groups moving around the classroom, discussing and filling out each chart. Once every group has had a chance at every chart, the teacher reads off all the ideas. Students are free to use any combination of ideas from the chart.
With these six methods, students can form a variety of ideas for their writing pieces. Whether it’s through using sensory stations, scavenger hunts, or nature walks, students can utilize a hands-on approach to gaining ideas. By using books as mentor text, RAFTs, detailed graphic organizers, and collaboration, structure helps generate and streamline ideas. With these six methods, hopefully, “I don’t know what to write,” will drift away and be a thing of the past.