As educators, sometimes we need to get creative! In one of my first years teaching First Grade, I found myself standing in front of a large group of disinterested and reluctant writers. Whenever I said the words “Time for our Journal writing”… I heard audible groans and disgusted faces. Paper and pencil weren’t working and they were really growing weary of using our whiteboards to practice our CVC words and sounds. So, I began to ponder how to incorporate some writing without pencil activities I learned from some extremely creative Occupational Therapists in my early years of teaching in Early Intervention.
Hands-on, multi-sensory activities provide students more ways to connect to the content of the lesson making it more enjoyable and memorable. When students are engaged, the activities result in better memory of the skill taught. Although all students can benefit from multi-sensory learning, it can be particularly helpful for kids who learn and think differently. By incorporating some (or all) of these ideas in your room, you are taking into account the varying needs of all kids and their learning styles. Make sure to take a look at Number 11, it is my favorite!
1. Shaving Cream Writing
I couldn’t imagine starting off this list of ideas with any other material. Shaving cream is one of my students’ favorite activities (and mine)! Kids love the texture and it doesn’t break the bank because I usually buy the cheap shaving cream at the Dollar Store. I found this type of shaving cream is actually more fluffy and easier to work with.
Some of my favorite aspects of using Shaving Cream: 1) It makes the classroom smell great! 2) Easy Clean Up: I spray a bit on each student’s desktop. I schedule this activity prior to the entire class leaving the classroom (Lunch, Recess, Specials) because it will dry on their desks and will be easier to wipe and clean up. 3) It provides a natural consequence if students are not following expectations. At the end of the lesson, I will always allow some time for students to draw in the remaining cream if desired. However, when I am stating my expectations with the shaving cream, I always say that if you are drawing in it during the review or not using it to write your words (or letters) it will disappear and we can’t get another squirt.
2. Write the Room
I always like to incorporate movement into my students’ day. This unique way to review and practice not only gets kids up and moving but allows for differentiation. This individualized resource allows you to differentiate for every student in your room from working on just identifying the picture to writing a full sentence with each picture. Not only throughout ELA but Math as well!
Always a classic, chalk is a simple go-to for our writing activities. I know I love to get my students outside as much as possible. We read outside, bring our clipboards and activities as well as write outside! Finding a nice area of sidewalk, lot, or appropriate school space that you would be allowed to let the students create on. I feel sometimes the change of scenery helps my reluctant writers too! Sometimes I find their mood immediately shifts when they see the paper and pencil coming in their direction.
I’ve also done this activity where I provided two different colors to my students. When we wrote the words on the sidewalk using our chalk, I had them write in one color and “mark it up” with a different color (for example circling the suffix, underline digraphs, mark up vowels), you can also have students write the vowels in one color consonants another. Wait for a rainy day and you can return to your spot to create some more!
4. Sensory Trays
A teacher can be extremely creative using various materials on or in a tray! I purchased a bunch of the small metal trays at the Dollar Store a few years back and still use them regularly! They are great for magnetic letters as well as tactile manipulatives! The following list of materials is great to use to”write without a pencil”.
- Kinesthetic Sand
Word Of Advice / After-thought… Several years ago I forgot to mention in my directions and expectations “DON’T EAT THE SPRINKLES!”. I allowed two students to work together in a center to practice writing their list of spelling words on the trays full of sprinkles. I thought, how cute, colorful and one of those ‘teacher of the year’ moments to be so creative and motivating. Well, when my timer went off and my students froze for directions I saw two sprinkle-covered hands, two sprinkle-covered lips, two sprinkle-covered faces! So always remember… “Don’t Eat the Sprinkles!” or any of these materials for that matter!
Who knew table salt was so practical? Using those same trays I mentioned above I filled them with a layer of table salt. Students are instructed to use a finger to write the prompt in the salt. When finished they would take the sides of the tray and lightly shake it back and forth and the letters magically disappear! I love using this because you can re-use the salt across multiple sessions by pouring it back into a container and students are calmer because they need to shake the tray lightly to erase or the magic doesn’t work. Recently, on Pinterest I saw that you could put multi-colored paper down in the tray first, then the layer of salt on top. When students are writing the letter or word it shows up multi-colored.
6. Paintbrush & Water
All you need for this is a cup of water and a paintbrush! Oh yeah…and a sunny day! This simple, yet effective activity will get your students being creative and writing! Those reluctant writers will flock to this activity! Using their paintbrush, the student will paint their word, letter, spelling/sight word on any surface outside. We used the sidewalk as well as the brick of the building. On a warm sunny day, students will see right before their eyes their writing disappearing over time.
7. Hair Gel
I promise I am not going to suggest pouring it on the student’s desk, but into a Ziploc bag! Again, I buy the cheap stuff and you can add a few drops of coloring into the bag to make it more appealing and try to take as much of the air out of the bag as you can. Feel free to make it personalized by adding some glitter, small beads, etc into the bag. Once the bag is sealed, I would suggest taping it shut so little fingers cannot pry it open and spray the gel everywhere.
Once complete the student can press and write onto the bag and the gel will move around creating the letters. As an extra bonus, you can place the already written word underneath the bag and when the student is spelling it he/she could self-check and auto-correct as needed.
8. Comic Strips
Comic books are typically very appealing to students, so why not create an activity that is truly interest-based?! If you type in “comic strips template” into a google search the options are endless. I bring these into my instruction when we are discussing sequence and character traits. The students love them and ask for them during indoor recess and if they finish a task early to write and create on their own! I couldn’t even believe that some of my most reluctant writers are requesting to write in their own free time!
9. Chocolate Pudding (“Mud”) Writing
Okay, so this one I haven’t personally tried yet. It has the same expectations as would the shaving cream and other mediums presented. By placing some chocolate pudding on a plate or tray, students can write without a pencil in “mud” to spell out different words and sounds.
Oh… the same rules apply… Don’t eat the mud!
10. Play Dough
Playdough is so appealing for children and they love to use it in the classroom. Using clay or play-dough it is probably easier to focus on creating letters and reviewing sounds. It is possible to create CVC words, but would more than likely be time-consuming. Using mats is a great way to go for students to review correct letter writing.
Another great twist with this topic is to make your own playdough in the classroom! Here is a recipe for you to use and feel free to adapt it by adding glitter or a few drops of your favorite essential oils!
This YouTube Channel is one of my all-time favorite activities that not only I enjoy, but my students love too. These short drawing tutorials were my go-to brain breaks for a while and since my students this year loved them so much turned into a reward and reinforcement. After seeing how much my students responded to them, I thought how could I use this with my teaching?
Here is where the writing comes in! Even my most reluctant writers are creating multiple sentence stories with these! I have the paper that has a large square on the top and writing lines on the bottom. First, I allow the students to draw the image in the rectangle. Next, they need to write about their image. For example, an animal we picked to draw. We brainstorm about what they could write about…what is their name? It lives in ____. The animal eats _____. He/she/they look like _____. Finally, once they’ve written they are allowed to go back and add color and background to their illustration.
12. Rainbow Scratch Paper
This school year I really had to get creative when it comes to hands-on activities. We are not allowed to share materials or have students in centers or move around the room currently. I had to get creative with individual tasks to practice writing spelling words, sight words, and even sentences.
Rainbow Scratch Paper! This turned out WAY better than I imagined for all of my students. To be honest, sometimes the student hits the right piece of the paper at the right moment on the right surface and makes that “nails on the chalkboard” sound that goes right through me. Overall, though these are a success and will remain a constant in my writing centers for years to come!
13. Tactile Materials to Write
By using a variety of textures you can allow reluctant writers to “feel” how to draw letters. You can cut out pieces and glue them together to form the various letters of the alphabet for students to trace with their fingers. These could be utilized with basic alphabetic principles, but also build onto CVC words, digraphs, and more!
- Sandpaper Letters
- Different clothing textures (time to cut up those old pairs of jeans or stained shirt)
- Fuzz Felt
- Dried Glue (write the letter or word in Elmer’s glue and allow it to dry, you can see and feel the raised glue)
- Glitter Letters
I hope this list provided some inspiration for you to incorporate into your classroom or at home with your own kids. With all of these materials, I always provide alternative options for writing with them. Some students may have sensory or tactile concerns and to make sure everyone can participate I provide some alternatives. Instead of using a finger or their hands, other options include an unsharpened pencil – use the eraser side, Q-tips, paintbrush).
I hope you found some great ideas in these 13 fun ways to get your reluctant writer writing during your next literacy lesson! All of these materials could be easily used in any environment: Early Childhood up through School Age. You can incorporate these ideas into any lesson or review of Sight Words, Spelling, Make-A-Word, Letter Recognition, Letter Sounds, Sentence Writing, and Structure, etc.
How else do you engage your reluctant writers? Do you have daily writing instruction in a block of dedicated time or do you attempt to pair it in with your Reading/ELA series? We would love to hear from you in the comments below. Please don’t be shy when it comes to adding your strategies and fun activities for our reluctant writers!
Written by: Christopher Olson
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