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Pens Versus Pencils: Which One is Better for Writing Workshop?

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In my line of work as a staff developer, I often get the question, “Which do you think is better? Pens or pencils?”

I have to start by saying that I don’t think that pens versus pencils is a make-it-or-break-it issue. If you feel strongly one way or the other—go for it. It’s probably not the pen or the pencil that will turn this year’s group of students into lovers of writing, creators of poems, stories, reviews, essays, and information books. Rather, it’s you, their teacher who makes the difference!

But, choosing your tools for writing wisely is indeed helpful. Imagine a world where kids do not spend their time erasing, but instead simply draw a line through it and just keep going. Imagine never having to sharpen pencils. Imagine your kids writing twice as much as usual—simply because they have a new pen to write with.

Here are a few issues to consider.

Erasing

During writing workshop, do you really want kids to be erasing much? Or even at all?  How will you assess all of the work your students have done if they erase half of it? How much time are they spending erasing?  In general, the less experienced the writer, the longer it takes them to erase, even something small. Not only that, but once those letters and words are erased, you’ll never know what changes the child made. You’ll also never know if she was spending all her time writing and then erasing the same words over and over. We’ve all encountered kids who will draw and then erase, and then re-draw the same little stick man over and over again for the entire writing workshop. It’s disheartening to think how much more writing, how much more practice these writers would get if they weren’t spending all their time erasing. With a pen, erasing is not an option. While some kids will balk at first, demanding they get their pencil and eraser back, after a few days, the pen becomes the new normal, and erasing during writing workshop is a thing of the past.

Sharpening

Let’s face it. Keeping pencils sharp is darn near impossible. Yes, there are systems that, in theory, could work. For example, many teachers tell me they keep a can of sharpened pencils at the writing center (or sometimes at each table) so that kids will never be without a sharpened pencil. However, in over a decade of visiting schools all around the country I have met only one teacher who can successfully keep the can of sharpened pencils sharpened, all day, every day (and she is super-human). For the rest of us, halfway through the day there is a shortage of sharp pencils and kids are back to sharpening during work time. And if you are one of those super-human teachers who keeps the pencil can full, well, just imagine all the other things that could be done with the time spent keeping the pencil can sharpened. Sharpening, as we all know, takes time and it’s noisy. Trust me, once you’ve lived in a sharpener-free classroom, you’ll never want to go back!

Engagement

Kids love pens. I’ve seen the volume of writing in classrooms double or even triple simply by switching from pencils to pens. And then I’ve seen a bump in the volume again mid-year just by switching the color of the pens. New writing tools are interesting and engaging to kids. Who doesn’t love a new notebook, fresh paper, or a new pen? Some teachers even do a little “graduation” from pencils to pens. They have kids sit in a circle, holding their old beat up pencils, and then one by one the teacher goes around the circle, humming “Pomp and Circumstance” as kids plunk their junky old pencils in a can in exchange for a nice new ball point or flair pen.

To summarize:

Pens Pencils
Never have to be sharpened. Have to be sharpened all the time.
Last a long time. Get used up after a few weeks at most.
Are always the same length, size, and color. Consistent and reliable. Get shorter and shorter with use. Can be broken easily. Unreliable.
Cannot be erased, allowing you to see all the work a student did that day. Have the potential to allow kids to spend too much time erasing.
Make a nice, dark, easy to read mark on the page. Can be difficult to read—too light, and often smudgy.
Easy to photocopy. Impossible to photocopy easily.
Fun and engaging for kids. Feels “grown up.” Could be fun and engaging, too, I guess. (Yes, that is sarcasm you detect. However some kids really do prefer a pencil.)

Choosing a Pen

So, what kind of pens work best? Any kind, really. Simple blue or black ball-point pens can be found in office supply and school supply catalogs—they’re cheap and if you buy a case of them they last all year. Try out a few samples before you order in bulk, though. Certain companies, which will remain nameless, are somewhat notorious for pens that fall apart easily—you don’t want those. If you have a bigger budget, you might consider flair pens instead of ball-point. These are my favorites because they leave a nice, beautiful dark mark on the page. They are like a felt tip marker, but with a harder point so little hands can press hard or hold lightly and still make a nice easy-to-read mark.

Management

You probably do not want to choose pens that click (for the obvious reasons—the sound is so annoying!), and you probably do not want to choose a color that is difficult to read, like pink or orange. You may want to choose something that is the same for the whole class, so that your kids won’t be tempted to squabble over who gets which color. Divide up the pens in cups for each table of kids to share, and you’re ready to go. I prefer having a group of kids share a supply of pens, rather than each individual student having his or her own. This way all I have to do is keep 5-6 cups of pens replenished, rather than attempting to have my 20-something (or sometimes 30-something) students keep track of their individual pens.

Last But Not Least

It’s worth mentioning that very young writers might benefit from using color when they draw. Thin colored markers allow them to draw with detail, while thicker markers or crayons provide other advantages. If you teach emergent writers (who mostly draw during writing workshop) then you might want to stick with something in color while they are in the scribbling stage, until they can draw representationally. Sometimes the only thing that helps kids remember what they drew is the color (as in, the blue reminds them that it was a story about swimming in the water, the red reminds them of the pool toy they were playing with). However, once children are drawing representationally and no longer rely on the color to decipher the meaning of their pictures, you will probably find that they produce much more writing when they are not coloring everything in anymore. Many teachers put away the colored markers and crayons once kids are drawing representationally, and save the color for publishing at the end of a unit of study.

Another thing to consider is that older, more experienced writers are likely to be more fluent writers in general, and may not have any problems with erasing a quick letter or word here and there. If kids are using pencils, you might simply teach them not to spend too much time erasing—just draw a line through it if it’s more than a word or two. If erasing is an issue, some teachers snip the erasers off and provide separate erasers at the times of the day when kids might need them (math, for example). Some teachers use pens during writing workshop, but pencils at other parts of the day.

Ultimately, the decision is yours. To wrap things up, for fun, I hope you’ll participate in this quick little poll!

BethMooreSchool View All

Literacy Coach, Consultant, Author, Graduate Course Instructor, and Mom. Passionate about fostering a love of reading and writing in learners of all ages.

19 thoughts on “Pens Versus Pencils: Which One is Better for Writing Workshop? Leave a comment

  1. Beth, I too love this post. Just today while conferencing with second graders, I noticed several drafts scarred with eraser marks. All that hard work whisked away. I too am going pen shopping! Thank you for the thought-provoking post.

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  2. Another teacher helps out in my Writers’ Workshop so she knew I had the students use pens. Last week, she was in the class when we were writing a response to reading (not part of our normal workshop work) and she came over to me to ask if the student she was helping was allowed to use a pen. “Sure,” I replied “whichever tool seems best. I’m glad he chose pen since he usually erases a lot. I usually push him to a pen.” “Oh, he told me he could but I didn’t believe him.” I find it funny that so many teachers are anti-pen (and anti-choice). Even this woman who I consider an amazing teacher who is always pushing herself to try new things.
    What is it about pens vs pencils?

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  3. I love this post. It SO GOES against our “past practice” and makes me rethink what I do and why I do it! I know that empowering kids is very important and I have advocated for meaningful and purposeful writing tasks for a long time. I have advocated for choices of paper and choices in notebooks and even technology for drafting! I must admit that I have never gone down the pen path even though I let my beginners do their handwriting on dry erase boards. I feel like I have been challenged and I am going to give it a try – tomorrow in fact!

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  4. I use black flair pens and they draw one line through their mistake. They use a green pen for editing. Another reason for using the pens is that it photocopies so much more clearly so that I always have a readable copy for my files. Great post…I will share with my colleagues.

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  5. I love this because I obsess about this as do my students. So many students I have to convince to use pens. They are so worried about making mistakes they want to erase. Then there are the ones who want to white out a mistake which is worse than erasing. I do a lot of modeling where I scratch out my mistakes and mis-starts. To encourage pen usage,we wrapped pens in colorful duck tape and decorated some with flowers at the tip during lunch recess. Now I don’t loose 20 pens a day and student are more likely to use them.

    My next challenge is converting students to write on iPads or computers. I know I took time to be able to think on a keyboard, but once I did my writing life got so much better. I’d love to see this happen for students.

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  6. Thank you for your thoughts! I just started using pens this year, and I am loving it. I agree that pens/pencils do not make or break the workshop. However, I actually have a few students who were reluctant to use pens because they didn’t want to see their mistakes–it wouldn’t allow them to make everything *perfect*. This was such a wonderful teaching moment! So many students are so worried about making mistakes or not having everything perfect. My mantra all year is that one of the best ways to learn is by making mistakes. Mistakes ARE proof that you’re trying. It has been wonderful to see those students begin to adapt to that way of thinking, especially in writing workshop.

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  7. I use pencils for writing and colored pens for revising. Never really thought about using pens or giving them the choice? Those of you who already use pens, do you use something different for revising? I like using colored pens so they can visually see the changes. I think I will try switching and see what happens.

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    • My 2nd graders use blue or black pens to draft and red pens (because they are easy to find in bulk) for editing and revising. I think one thing I’ll change is to separate colors for editing and revising so that my kids keep those ideas separate.

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  8. Pen users of the world unite! My heart is made happy by this post. I let my students choose pen or pencil and almost every last one chose pen and yes, a lot of kids wrote more than ever before! Interestingly enough I find myself writing with pencil now. The CHOICE is what is so important.

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  9. Do you know about my obsession with pens vs. pencils, Beth? Besides all the reasons you give, OTs recommend pens for many, many reasons. Not the least of which is that felt tip pens help kids regulate their grips so that they don’t press down so hard = more stamina! There’s some research about how pens can actually help students with their letter formation and spelling. I could go on and on. But I do think every writing workshop should offer pens to all kids. Such a simple thing to get such big pay-offs.

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  10. There are so many things I like about this post, not even sure where to begin. I have heard of teachers using pens and at one point was going to try this idea…well, I forgot all about it until today! Thanks for reminding me I want to try this and giving so many ideas as far as benefits go when using pens. My favorite line, “…so little hands can press hard or hold lightly and still make a nice easy-to-read mark.” YES YES YES! I have used felt tip markers at the beginning of kindergarten with students who struggle to have enough pressure with a pencil for their drawings. This reminds me to say and think, “Why not everyone?” Thanks for a great post Beth. Pen shopping is in my future.

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  11. I found notebooks with black pages in a dollar store. A bunch of gel pens and my kids were motivated for doing math and writing. These were smaller so great for short poems like haiku. I’m asking them now not to erase, one line so we can talk about where they changed their mind or spelling, even in pencil. A second colour pen for editing shows what changes were made at that stage.

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  12. I love this post Beth. It’s amazing that something as seemingly small as choice of writing utensil is actually quite huge. I’ve seen the switch to pens from pencils revolutionize writing workshop. Putting pens in cups is a great idea. I think it’s important for teachers to not be too protective of the pens – doling them out too sparingly, for example, because of course kids need to be able to access tools with independence and with a chance to take responsibility.

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