Friday, March 13, 2020

Helping Students Choose a Topic

Since the 2019-2020 school year marks the 10th Anniversary of this blog, on Fridays, I’m resurrecting and updating old posts that sparked a lot of conversation or that still have a lot to offer people teaching or writing nonfiction. Today’s essay originally appeared on October 27, 2017.

Not long ago, during a school visit in Rhode Island, fourth graders said something that shocked me. According to them, choosing a topic is the hardest part of the nonfiction writing process. Seriously. They found it completely overwhelming.

I’ve heard students and teachers talk about this struggle before, but never so adamantly and with such resignation. And frankly, I was baffled.

For me, ideas are everywhere. They come from books and articles I read, conversations with other people, places I visit, and experiences I have. Why, I wondered, wasn’t the same thing true for young writers?

It took a while, but I finally figured out the answer. Kids weren’t paying attention—at least not the way I do. I’m always on the hunt for ideas, and when I get one, I write it down. Then I tack the piece of paper on the Idea Board in my office. Some of those ideas lead nowhere, but others turn into books.

Young writers can mimic this process by having an Idea Board in their classroom. Alternately, they could write ideas on the last page of their writer’s notebook. 

If a teacher assigns students an umbrella topic, such as the Revolutionary War, students can use the ideas they’ve recorded to brainstorm narrowly-focused topics, such as what soldiers ate during the Revolutionary War, what kind of clothes soldiers wore during the Revolutionary War, or medical practices during the Revolutionary War.

There could also be a classroom idea jar for struggling students, or children could participate in ABC brainstorming to home in on a specific topic. 

Do you have other ideas that could help young writers select a topic for a report?


  1. Put up a big sheet butcher paper or bulletin board paper in the classroom, hallway, or library w/the words "I wonder..." Have students wrote on paper or use post-it notes.

  2. Use newspapers or news magazines and have students cut out, highlight, or mark topics of interest to them. And I love Kathy Halsey's idea using the word "wonder." Sparking curiosity is the key!