Teaching writing skills can be a daunting task. Students are quick to thinking writing is punishment or prompt you with what the absolute minimum on any writing assignment is. But teaching writing doesn’t need to always be like this. In this blog post, I have teamed up with 10 amazing English Language Arts teachers to give you some ideas on how to revamp your writing curriculum.
Incorporate Creative Writing
One of my favorite ways to improve my students’ writing skills is by incorporating more creative writing into my curriculum. At my school, most of our underclassmen take Creative Writing as a class so that they get more exposure to low-stakes writing skills that transfer over to high-stakes testing and real life.
In the Creative Writing Curriculum I use, I have students do everything from analyze several excerpts from literary giants like Jane Austen and Guy de Maupassant, and then look into specific elements of writing narratives so they can study, imitate, and then apply what they learn on their original writing.
Incorporating creative writing is also a great way of tackling the Author’s Craft standards! If you are interested in taking a closer look at my creative writing lessons, you can check out this blog post here or take a peek on my TPT here.
Literary elements such as theme, plot, character, and conflict form the foundation of any good story. While many students may enjoy reading books, they may lack the skills to properly analyze and interpret written works. That is why it is important for teachers to explicitly teach about literary elements in their English classes.
Samantha from Samantha in Secondary assumed that by high school, students would already know how to identify and analyze specific literary elements. What she realized as a 9th grade ELA teacher was that many of them knew the terminology, but needed a refresher.
The process generally looked like this:
- Introduce and define the literary element. Take guided notes on the most important information so students have it handy any time.
- Complete practice activities together to reinforce the learning. Explicitly model the skills involved so that students can see the strategies in action. For example, students can be shown how to show character traits using an acronym like PAIRS or STEAL.
- Give students a way to show what they’ve learned. In this example, they can be given a choice of popular characters from movies or TV shows and show characterization using the acronym.
By explicitly teaching literary elements, students develop a deeper understanding of a story’s meaning and are better equipped to appreciate the messages that the author is trying to convey. Additionally, explicitly teaching about these elements helps students develop critical thinking and analytical skills, which will serve them well beyond the English classroom. Ultimately, teaching about literary elements helps students become better readers and more literate individuals.
Samantha has a bundle of six literary elements mini-lessons you can use to explicitly teach character, plot, conflict, dialogue, pacing, and setting. These mini-lessons can also be used as a seamless part of a full narrative writing unit as well.
Paragraph Chunk Quizzes
Here’s something that writing teachers never talk about: sometimes we try to teach too much all at once.
There, it’s been said. It’s out in the open.
When giving a formative assessment and asking students to respond to a short answer question, scaffold your expectations for students. Consider “chunking” the paragraph and focusing on only one or two parts at a time (depending on where you are in the year).
For example, let’s say you asked students at the end of Macbeth Act 2 the following question:
Based on what we’ve read and watched in Act 2, which do you think was the more powerful force in his decision to kill Duncan: his own greed and ambition OR the persuasion from the witches and Lady Macbeth?
To paragraph chunk this quiz, you might do any of the following:
A: Provide a claim. Student then have to prove or disprove the claim with evidence and reasoning (and you only grade evidence and reasoning!)
B: Provide one piece of evidence that they have to use. Then, students write the claim and the reasoning around that evidence.
For a full walk through on the setup and use of the paragraph chunk quiz, the Brave New Teaching podcast has a webinar that will take all of the guess work out of the question and set you up for success. Sign up for the free webinar Down with the Reading Quiz for support in using formative assessments — especially this one to support your writers!
Just as banks teach their employees to spot counterfeit money by focusing on the qualities of genuine currency, students need to study quality texts in writing. Carolyn from Middle School Cafe recognizes this and emphasizes the importance of students engaging with mentor texts. These texts serve as examples of well-crafted writing and provide students with models to learn from and emulate in their own work.
Using mentor texts can be highly beneficial in improving student writing. Here are some ways mentor texts can help:
- Modeling writing techniques: Mentor texts serve as examples of well-crafted writing.
- Building vocabulary and language skills: When students engage with mentor texts, they encounter new words and expressions, expanding their vocabulary.
- Guiding structure and organization: Mentor texts can serve as guides for structuring and organizing written pieces.
- Inspiring creativity and voice: Mentor texts can inspire and motivate students to find their own writing voice.
Overall, mentor texts provide students with real-world examples of effective writing, guiding and inspiring them to improve their own writing skills in various aspects, from language usage to structure, style, and voice.
Want more ideas to help motivate and inspire your students? Listen to Middle School Cafe Podcast.
Lesa from SmithTeaches9to12.com likes to be able to double-up on some skills practice when possible, particularly when it will help her students improve their reading AND writing skills. For her, it makes the most sense to focus on inference skills as a reader and a writer.
Inference skills require a close reading of evidence and interpretation of that evidence. This translates when students are writing their own work too.
Lesa likes to start with an inference skills warm-up using photos – you can grab your own image-based freebie here to do that in your classroom.
From there, students work to identify evidence to support interpretations in a mentor text like this freebie with Sandra Cisneros’ short story “Eleven” and then use the same skills in their own writing. In fact, they can do it in the same freebie with writing prompts that ask them to think about the story and their own experiences.
And practicing these skills is never a one-time only experience. Lesa writes often about inference skills and different ways to incorporate them into class on her website SmithTeaches9to12.com. Plus, she has a bundle of short stories with built-in prompts and writing activities that you can check out. The best part is that these make a great sub plan! So when you have to be away your students can still be working on their skills – a win-win if ever there was!
Rubrics. Whether you love them or loathe them, one thing is for sure: you need them! Krista from @whimsyandrigor has seen drastic improvements in what students turn in since she started using the Almighty Year-Long Rubric for her secondary language arts classes. Why? Because students know their target and have specifics to help get them there.
But other than being hyper specific (e.g. Each piece of evidence is clearly and correctly explained and connected to the author’s opinion.) but because the same rubric is used throughout the year, the students KNOW (and love?) that rubric. Before they even start writing that third literary analysis, they know the criteria that will meet the expectations. That is the most powerful part of using the same rubric all year and it makes a significant difference in the students’ writing…which means grading is not as painful for us!
If you want to hear how Krista puts this into action, check out her YouTube video here. If you want to purchase and use/edit her almighty year-long rubrics for both analytical and creative writing, click here. And then give yourself a high five because you are helping students see exactly what they need to do to become better writers and that is magic!
How many times have you assigned a writing task, only to have it handed in and sit on your desk or in your teacher bag for weeks before grading them with relatively no insight on the process students went through, and returning them to students who take a brief look before jamming it into their binder?
If this scenario feels familiar, Katie from Mochas and Markbooks wants you to try incorporating writing conferences into your instruction. Katie spent years assigning written work with a hands-off approach before finally etching out time to conference with her students and give them the tools and metacognitive opportunities to improve their writing.
Essentially a writing conference would consist of checking in with students after their rough copy is complete to reflect on their strengths and areas to improve so that they can use the feedback to create their final draft. This can be done informally, as conversations as you circulate the classroom, or more formally with scheduled conferences at your desk or other designated spot. It may be difficult to find the time to conduct formal conferencing for each writing assignment you do, but finding time to conference at the beginning of a semester or for the major assignments can be invaluable.
If you’re looking for writing conference worksheets to help organize your approach to these conversations, check out Katie’s Writing Conference Worksheets for help!
Sentence stem manipulatives
A few things that work extremely well for Simply Ana P. when teaching writing are graphic organizers, sentence stems, color-coding, and plentiful examples.
Ana usually has notes available for her students online to easily access time and time again when completing writing assignments, but the game changed for her when she printed out these concise writing help manipulatives (or lil’ bookmarks as they were named lol). Ana loves that in one sweep, she was able to offer structure, accessibility, and personalized support for her students.
Instead of having to open Google Classroom and review presentations, each student would already have these handy as they worked in class and when Ana would come by to mini-conference with her students, she could easily reference any section of the notes and ask them to make comparisons and/or corrections.
By offering a range of sentence starters and writing reminders, students can feel more confident in expressing their ideas and organizing their thoughts effectively. Additionally, unlike online notes that may require navigating through various platforms, printed manipulatives offer a convenient and tangible tool that students can access instantly. This accessibility fosters independent learning and encourages students.
Ana’s students would eventually even ask her to bust out the bookmarks before she had even thought to do so, which made her teacher heart happy, knowing they were not only learning to advocate for themselves, but also learning to take ownership of their writing skills.
Modelled Writing (Article of the Week)
One of the best ways Kristy from 2 Peas and a Dog has found to improve student writing is weekly writing practice and modeled writing time. Whenever she begins a writing lesson, she models the writing in real-time in front of the class. This can be done using a whiteboard, a document camera or a projected Google Doc.
Read the assignment or writing prompt together as a class. Then ask the class to set the topic. From there start writing in front of your students. Along the way pause and ask them for suggestions.
For example, if you are modeling the 5 paragraph essay for your students and you want to teach them how to write an opening paragraph, model it in real time in front of the students. They need to see that the writing process is messy and that it takes time.
Another way that Kristy has seen a huge improvement is by using the Article of the Week strategy created by Kelly Gallagher. Each week students read and respond to a high-interest news article.
Not only does this reinforce their writing, but they also get to practice their critical thinking and reading skills. Students need to read the article to craft their written responses. You can find out more about this teaching strategy in this Article of the Week Lesson Ideas for Middle and High School Students blog post.
Today I will be writing about . . .
How obnoxious is it when our students start their essays that way? It is one of Olivia’s biggest pet peeves, which is why she decided to teach essay hooks in a brand-new way.
Now before her students start their introductions, she tells them to start their essays with a Q.U.A.C.K. (quote, unexpected fact, anecdote, controversial statement, or kidding around).
The acronym is super easy for her students to remember, and she never has to put up with those “Today I will be writing about” hooks that drive her up the wall!
If your students need a little practice to help them remember the Q.U.A.C.K. concept, this fun game and activity can help!
Actively Teach about Avoiding Plagiarism
In the era of artificial intelligence, there are no shortage of tools that enable students to take shortcuts in their writing. While these tools have their value, it remains important for our students to continue to practice developing ideas and structuring their writing independently. This is where actively teaching plagiarism comes in handy.
Did you know that there are five different types of plagiarism? Your students might be surprised to learn that plagiarism is more than just copying and pasting! With the right practices in place, you can teach students to avoid plagiarism in their writing.
Daina from Mondays Made Easy recommends a proactive approach: at the beginning of the year, teach your new students about the different ways that plagiarism can occur. This lesson explores five common types of plagiarism in the classroom.
Another strategy to avoid plagiarism is to develop a class-wide policy with your students. You can begin by gauging different opinions about plagiarism so that students have the opportunity to learn from their peers. Then, students can collaborate to create a contract for how plagiarism will be handled in your classroom.
To learn more about teaching plagiarism to your students, check out this blog post.
All in all, there are so many wonderful approaches to incorporating more writing skills in your curriculum.