How to write without writing

How to write without writing

By Rachel Phillips,
OER Project Learning Scientist

OK, so the title of this blog is a bit oxymoronic…but let me explain. Have you ever heard of the concept of reading to write? The idea of reading to write has been explored fairly widely in education research. Numerous studies have shown that different kinds of reading can have a positive (and statistically significant) impact on student writing and writing quality. And not only does reading have a positive impact, but that impact lasts over time! This got me thinking…how else can we help our students become more skilled writers—without actually writing

Well, obviously, as mentioned, there is reading. And it turns out, different kinds of reading impacts different kinds of writing. Sometimes we are literally reading for writing—by that I mean we are reading sources and documents so we can use them as evidence for the historical claims we make in our papers. This kind of reading for writing is what our students are probably most used to doing in social studies classrooms. And indeed, teaching students skills and strategies for identifying and tracking information found in texts can be one powerful way of improving writing without doing any actual writing. But thankfully, this isn’t the only way! Close reading is another well-known method for helping improve writing. If you’ve been giving Three Close Reads some side eye, you might want to revisit this practice to improve writing in addition to reading comprehension. Also, reading varied and sometimes more difficult texts can contribute positively to writing. It’s science! 

Now, there are a whole bunch of other ways I’d like to suggest we get students writing without writing. While there might not be the same kind of science behind these ideas, I think many of us can agree that simply telling students “Just write!” over and over again is not a recipe for success. For starters, it’s really, really hard to “just write” without any kind of inspiration. How many minutes have you spent in your life staring at a blank page, waiting for lightning to strike? I think we’ve all been there, and watching our students sit uncomfortably in that space isn’t a whole lot of fun. Writing gets a whole lot easier when they have an idea, a bit of excitement, or even just an argument to make.  

So, how do we get the juices flowing? Here’s a smattering of possibilities:  

  1. Listen to music. Maybe the music has words, maybe it doesn’t; maybe it’s new, maybe it’s old; maybe it reads like poetry. So many options! 
  2. Listen to a story. OK, so it’s a lot like reading (Audible would say it IS reading). We have audio versions of almost all the readings on the OER Project website. Listening to those might get students going. It might be the style, the tone, or the content that inspires them.
  3. Take a walk. Sometimes we need to clear our heads to fill our papers. Have a school track? Maybe your students just need to take a lap, or spend some time communing with nature.
  4. Paint or draw. Painting and drawing are very much an alternative medium to writing. Some students might want to get their ideas out visually before getting them into words. The Big History Project asks students to create comics in Unit 3 and again in Unit 6—your students could do this using the templates provided as a way of storyboarding their ideas. In the World History Project, students have the opportunity to draw in activities like Draw Your History and Draw the Frames, and students might also find inspiration in the series of graphic biographies as way to help them organize their thinking around a certain topic.
  5. Skim through a reference book. OK, this one may sound obvious, but reference books are full of information. You never know when they might spark some new thinking. 
  6. Have a chat. I find that talking through my ideas with a “thought partner” enables me to write them down. Students might want to do this in pairs, or if it’s early in the process, you could even hold some quick rounds of “speed dating” so they can blast through lots of ideas together. 
  7. Imagine you can’t write. What would a world without writing look like, and how would you express your ideas without writing? Have students generate ideas about the other ways they could express themselves; in sketching out those types of plans, they will be doing a lot of writing work without actually writing.  

OK, OK! So I realize some folks might be thinking that this is just prewriting. But really, what we’re discussing here is more than that. We’re not coming up with thesis statements, outlining a paper, or identifying evidence. I like to reframe these writing-without-writing methods as the “soft skills” of writing. These are the skills that get us into spaces where we feel inspired and ideas are sparked, and we should encourage our students to develop these skills. If we give our students the space to write without writing, they will find topics that are personally relevant to them, a practice that will foster interest, which leads to engagement, and then before you know it, they’re off to the races and actually writing.   

Do you have your students write without writing in your classroom? What are your tricks for helping students fill up those blank pages? We know that you have some tricks up your sleeves—head over to the OER Project Online Teacher Community to share these ideas, and pick up some new writing-without-writing strategies from others!  

About the author: Rachel Phillips, PhD, is a learning scientist who leads research and evaluation efforts for the OER Project, as well as develops curriculum for their courses. She is elementary certified, has taught in K-12 schools, and currently serves as an adjunct professor for graduate courses in American University's School of Education. Rachel was formerly Director of Research and Evaluation at, faculty at the University of Washington, and program director for National Science Foundation-funded research. Her work focuses on the intersections of learning sciences and equity in formal educational spaces. 

Cover imageDrawing comics. © mediaphotos / iStock / Getty Images Plus. 

  • I have first through third graders who are not just gaining confidence with communicating and recording ideas, but also can be struggling with pencil control.  I keep a basket of tracing paper and colored pencils next to the reference books so they can focus and explore things at their own level, even if not actually reading or writing about them yet.

  • Great read here, Rachel.  We must be tracking each other, I moved our class into our stadium on Friday. We took off our masks, talked about resources, and chatted. It was nice to see my students’ faces as a group for the first time this year. It seems to have reinvigorated the kids this week, I highly recommend thinking about changing the kids’ geography, if only for a day.