Three Proven Strategies for Teaching Writing

Three Proven Strategies for Teaching Writing

When it comes to teaching writing in the middle school ELA or high school English class, it can oftentimes feel like there is just so much content to teach. And in all honesty, that is entirely true.

We simply do not have enough time to teach students every single thing they need to know in order to be the best writers they can be. However, we can focus on essential skills one at a time to build strong writers.

When I first teach a type of writing to my students, I provide direct instruction and activity-based assignments so that students have an understanding of the genre of writing and what is expected of them. At the beginning of the new unit, I use this ELA writing instructional resource to directly teach students about either argument, narrative, or informational writing, and then we spend time each day working on developing the information using some of the included writing graphic organizers.

In addition to sharing the above resource that I use for teaching writing, this blog post will also include three strategies to help you improve your writing instruction.

Teaching Writing Tip 1: Simplify it and Break It Down

Teaching Writing Tip 1: Simplify it and Break It Down

One of the most vital steps in teaching writing to middle school and high school students is simplifying and breaking down the writing instruction into small, manageable chunks. One of the easiest ways to do this by focusing on less. Rather than having my students write an entire essay or paragraph, I will ask for three sentences: a topic sentence that answers the prompt, an evidence sentence with a properly introduced and cited quote, and one commentary sentence for an explanation.

By breaking down the writing process into small, manageable chunks, students are less intimidated and more focused on demonstrating their writing abilities.

You can read more about how I break down writing instruction and snag a free download by reading this post about teaching writing in the secondary ELA classroom.

Teaching Writing Tip 2: Use Sentence Frames

Teaching Writing Tip 2: Use Sentence Frames

One of the most effective ways to scaffold writing instruction is by providing students with meaningful sentence frames. There are so many benefits to using sentence frames in the classroom, and even high school students benefit from them as well.

When teachers include sentence frames during their writing instruction, they are teaching students HOW to academically organize and write their ideas.

To read more about using sentence frames in the classroom, you’ll want to visit this blog post about scaffolding writing instruction through the use of sentence frames. This blog post also contains sentence frames that you can use today in your classroom as well as a free sentence frame download!

Teaching Writing Tip 3: Incorporate Grammar

Teaching Writing Tip 3: Incorporate Grammar

In addition to simplifying writing assignments and using sentence frames, another key area to help students become stronger writers is by focusing on grammar. When students know how the parts of speech work together and when student understand how language works, they will naturally become stronger writers.

The three biggest grammar lessons that I’ve found help students improve their writing abilities are the parts of speech, dependent and independent clauses, and sentence structure. By focusing a little bit of time on these conventions, your students will become stronger writers.

You can read more about how I incorporate these grammar lessons in my classroom and download a free parts of speech interactive notebook activity by reading this post about helping students improve their writing skills by focusing on grammar.

After incorporating these three strategies into your writing instruction, you might also be interested in three more tips for teaching writing and three strategies to boost student writing.

Teaching Writing Resources:
Writing a Persuasive Essay Portfolio - by the SuperHERO Teacher
MLA Style and Format - by Tracee Orman
Writing Activities - by Presto Plans

Three Proven Strategies for Teaching Writing

Make Poetry More Accessible to Students


Jackie, from Room 213

National poetry month is coming up soon, and it can sometimes be a challenge when it comes to getting students excited about it. However, there are lots of strategies that you can use to make poetry more accessible to students, ones that don't require you to do all of the heavy lifting.

Let Youtube help you with your poetry lessons

First of all, we don’t always have to do all the singing and dancing to get students interested in poetry Luckily, Ted Ed has all kinds of things on youtube that can help you, from readings of poems to actual lessons that you can use. 

Poetry is meant to be read aloud and you can find some wonderful readings that will allow you to just sit back and listen along with your students. 

I've curated a list of some of my favorites, complete with all of the links you need. Grab it here.

Teaching the Language of Poetry

Before they can start to analyze, students need to know the language of poetry. And when we teach terminology, it's always a good idea to do this through an active learning process, rather than a passive one.

Instead of sending students a handout of terms, you can pair or group your students and assign each grouping a poetic device. Get them to create a poster with the definition, some examples from literature, and some original examples that they write on their own. This could also be done online, using a one-slider like the one below:

One-sliders for poetic devices

Once they are done, each group can use the one-slider to teach the term to their classmates. You could follow this with a gallery walk (actual or online) where the students have to record the definition of each word and one or two examples. Click here to get tips for doing online gallery walks.

Another way to make poetry more accessible is to use some Figurative Language Challenges to help students have learn to really understand how poets use these devices. Once they learn to use figurative language themselves, it's much easier to figure out how and why a writer uses figurative language, and analyzing will be come easier. And, the bonus is, they have a lot of fun with these!

Use poetry brackets to create buzz

The perfect time to do this is in March, when March Madness is happening, but this is an activity you can use anytime you want to expose kids to a variety of poems - and to get them excited about some of them. It's also an activity that is easily adaptable for both in school and online learning. You just need to choose a selection of poems, create a bracket, and let the games begin!

There are many free templates you can use for this, like the one Secondary Sara has below. I also have a bundle of activities all ready to use that focus on ballads and inspirational poems. Each resource starts with quarter finals with four poems per side, and many options for implementing the activity with your students. You could use it to fill one class or an entire week!

Poetry Bracket

Introducing poetry analysis

By the time students get to secondary, they know what poetry is - or at least they think they do. For most, it's akin to deciphering hieroglyphics and something they dread. However, it doesn't have to be that way.

Former Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, has stated that many people's absence from poetry is based almost completely on how poetry was presented to them in school. Often that absence is based on a bad memory, because when most people are exposed to poetry in school it’s often anxiety-inducing.

And how do we reduce that anxiety? First of all, don't start with a bunch of difficult poems. Ease into your study of poetry with ones that are more accessible. Then, slowly scaffold the skills your students will need to tackle the harder poems, using ones that they find easier to understand (more on that below!)

I have a new bundle of lessons that help you introduce the concept of studying poetry here. In it, students work together to tackle the question "What Is Poetry?" and then what it means to analyze one. Each of the lessons is in an engaging format designed to be used either online or in class.

Scaffold the skills for poetry analysis

Analyzing a poem - especially a complex one - can be overwhelming. That's why I like to take it one step at a time, and let student focus on a few things at once.

So, I might give them a poem and ask them to look at the sound devices only, or just the imagery and metaphors. Then, with the next poem, we can add in another layer. That way, students can build the skill of seeing how individual techniques can create meaning in a poem.

Here's something you can try: copy a poem and paste it into the middle of chart paper. Group your students and put each group in charge of one thing: sound and rhythm for one group, sensory imagery for another, figurative language for another, etc. Instruct each group to annotate the poem looking for their assigned technique only. Then, they will brainstorm ideas for how a device contributes to the poem.

Finally. each group can present their conclusions to the class; then, you could show them how each group's ideas could fit together to create an analytical essay.

If you like the idea of scaffolding this skill, I have analyzing poetry stations that are all already to go. It's a resource that comes with in class stations, as well as ones that you can share with your students online.

Let students have fun with poetry

Poetry can be a wonderful source of inspiration and comfort for us humans. Unfortunately, when students see it as something that only fusty old English teachers enjoy, they miss out on something that could give them joy. 

In a few weeks, I'll be starting poetry with my tenth graders. I'm going to start with my inspirational poems bracket and then ask the kids to find and share a poem that inspires them. We will use them for discussion and response only because if we pick the meat off the bones every time we read a poem, then that inspirational piece can be lost. Our next step will be to explore the poetry in ordinary items, with a unit on odes that praise everyday things.

However, we will move into analysis, because sometimes taking a moment to figure out a difficult line can shed some light on a poem, and it can transform from difficult to inspiring. We just need to find a balance.

And when we find that balance, the high school poetry experience can be a thing of beauty.

More resources from my friends in the Coffee Shop:

Tracee Orman, Write Like a Poet

Addie Education, Poetry Activity Bundle

Presto Plans, Digital Poetry Writing Bundle

Secondary Sara, Free Poetry Madness Bracket

The Daring English Teacher, Digital Analysis Task Cards

The Classroom Sparrow, Poetry Mini-Book

The SUPERhero Teacher, Poetry Journal

Nouvelle ELA, Poetry Escape Room Review

Thanks for reading! I really hope you found some ideas that you can use to make your life easier. You can get more tips and ideas from me right here.

Teaching Symbolism


Teaching Symbolism
by Tracee Orman

Symbols take many forms in literature and non-fiction: characters/people, objects, events, places, and more. Writers will often use symbols to introduce, convey, and reinforce a theme. And even though symbols are all around us and used daily to relay messages, students struggle with identifying, analyzing, and simply understanding symbols in literature.

To help our students, we can take a few simple steps before and during reading that will allow them to gain deeper meaning into the themes and the text overall.

We use symbolism every day. Emojis are probably the most widely used symbols for communicating various messages, emotions, and ideas. It helps to point out to students that they are already utilizing symbolism in this way. 

Ask students to remember the last emoji they posted on social media or in a text message. What did it imply to the recipient? Did it need context for its message to be clear? For example, a symbol such as a cake with candles 🎂 doesn’t really need context to understand it’s implying a birthday. But a bomb symbol 💣 would obviously need a frame of reference to understand its intended message. 

Explain to your students that symbols in literature come with many context clues that help readers understand the meanings.

Students love puzzles and games. Framing symbolism as a puzzle or mystery to be figured out can help with the buy-in. Tell them there are clues scattered throughout the text that will help them solve the mystery. 

Direct them to look closely at:
• the title of the work
• physical objects
• characters
• events
• places

They should also make note of any recurring images, items/objects, or past events. Repetition of any of these is a big clue that it’s a symbol. 

Download this FREE handout (also includes digital version for sharing on a secured site) to help guide your students while they are reading. It can be used with any novel, short story, play, or poem.

Once students have identified a symbol, they should look for context clues for the writer’s meaning. Sometimes the writer will imply the meaning and readers must infer it. Have your students look for the use of figurative language such as metaphors. Using the comparison, students can infer the meaning of the symbol. 

For example, in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the author writes, "My father was particularly fond of mockingjays. When we went hunting, he would whistle or sing complicated songs to them and, after a polite pause, they’d always sing back. ...there’s something comforting about the little bird. It’s like having a piece of my father with me, protecting me.” (pages 43-44) Collins uses a comparison between the narrator’s father and the mockingjay pin. Students can infer that the mockingjay pin becomes of symbol of security in this moment.

It’s important to note, of course, that symbols can evolve and change throughout the text. In The Hunger Games, for instance, the mockingjay’s meaning will transform and deepen by the end of the novel and series. 

Symbols can take on different meanings for different readers, so it’s essential to keep an open mind when students are analyzing the text. There have been many, many times throughout the years where students have analyzed the text in ways I had not considered. Our ultimate goal should be to allow them to find that deeper meaning and understanding of the text rather than shoot it down because it’s not what’s on the answer key. 

If you are looking for more examples and details, I have a Google Slides presentation (it can be downloaded as a PowerPoint, as well) that covers everything here with detailed examples and a student handout. 

My Coffee Shop friends also have some excellent resources to help teach symbolism. Check them out here:

Symbolism and Allegory by Nouvelle ELA

Literary Analysis Flip Book by The Daring English Teacher

Thanks for reading, Friends!

Writing Beyond the Test: An Approach to Preparing for Standardized Tests

I am an instructional coach, and a few weeks ago, I was doing a little grading with one of my teachers. After reading the “nth” response, a feeling settled in the depths of my gut - it was a mix between nostalgia and panic. I felt like I was on a loop reading and rereading the same response over and over again. No, I am not complaining that too many students accurately answered the question or that students were cheating. I was experiencing the impact of teaching students R.A.C.E. (i.e., Restate the question, Answer, Cite evidence, Explain evidence)  to answer open-ended responses.  As a result, the phrases: my evidence is, the text says, and this proves repeatedly cycled through each answer without any depth of ideas in their writing. I wondered,  “how did we get here?”

The impact of high stakes tests on testing practices 

Honestly, I believe most teachers (at least at my school) have administrators deeply invested in how well they perform on yearly standardized tests. To be clear, the roots and reality of standardized testing are racist, and it only takes a quick Google search to read the reports and data. And, the test culture is real. There’s hype, weeks (or even months) of preparation, giant countdown posters, pep rallies, and mock assessments all aimed at improving student performance. There is nothing wrong with getting students excited about school. There is a problem when schools get bogged down in student labels and numbers. 

To achieve results, teachers have curated an endless list of tips and strategies for students. Again, there’s nothing wrong with rooting for students and providing a roadmap to navigate a high-stakes test. However, we must remember that scoring well on a standardized writing assignment doesn’t assure excellence. The high-stakes era of testing has caught countless teachers between a rock and a hard place. Many teachers feel under siege with testing agendas that have detained their creativity and confiscated their autonomy. This experience is exacerbated in under-resourced communities where deficit-based descriptors are often used to mischaracterize students and teachers, and administrators feel the weight of needing “perform” on tests to prevent the state from taking over, or in worst-case scenarios, closing schools. Most importantly, the push for favorable outcomes has polluted the student writing experience with practice tests and feedback rooted in scoring well versus developing voice. 

Does it have to be this way?

Let’s talk R.A.C.E 

I’m leaning out of the binary thinking that reviews everything through the right/wrong or yes/no lens. My thoughts on the popular writing strategy are in the “yes/and” category. Disclaimer: I am not blaming teachers who use this strategy. Instead, I hope to invite educators to consider how the method is utilized and the long-term impact on students’ writing. In short, I want to discuss this as a community because that’s how I learn. 

When I taught the RACE strategy, I abandoned research-proven strategies that I knew about writing. Yikes. I leaned heavily on product-based versus process-based writing. The impact stifled student’s creativity and voice in writing. Students became bored, and my class lost its “magic.” Sometimes, in our effort to prepare students for on-demand or standardized writing, we disconnect from the heart of writing in favor of quick tips (e.g., sentence starters, formulas).  Some teachers believe this helps students succeed on the test and don’t consider the long-term impact. No shame, this was me.

Unlearning and Relearning 

There’s a part of me struggling to accept the need for students to take standardized tests. And I know that at least at my school, that’s not an option - yet. So the question is, can teachers effectively cultivate student writing skills in a way that is transferable to standardized tests? 

I *think* so, but it starts with a strong conceptual understanding of who we are writing for and why we write. As a writing teacher, I try to view “test-taking” as a genre and apply the same thinking when navigating standardized tests. There are writing skills required to demonstrate “proficiency” on tests that are consistent with all good writing habits. What if our pedagogical approach was rooted in preparing students to write in various situations and for a variety of audiences? Writing proficiency exams would simply become another “genre” for students to study and showcase their broad repertoire of writing skills and understandings. 

In preparation, teachers would provide opportunities to understand the genre and implement strategies aligned to the purpose and audience. Easy peasy, right? This reorientation takes time and a commitment to unlearning. The papers of students I mentioned at the top of this piece were students I taught for three years. It’s a hard reality to see what stuck with them throughout the years. So what’s next?

3 Ideas for Writing Beyond the Test 

A Note. I don’t want to lose sight of my core belief that standardized tests mostly benefit testing companies with unimaginable profit lines. These tests don’t capture our students’ genius, in particular Black, Indigenous children of color. They’ve held gatekeeping abilities to funding and opportunities for schools and students, and they don’t always paint a clear picture of teaching and learning in a school. 

1. Study mentor texts. There are so many resources from previously released tests that can serve as mentor texts. I utilize them to showcase craft moves, structure, and organization. When it comes to constructed short responses, we dial in on how evidence is introduced and explained. For longer writing pieces, we study real-world texts (e.g., articles, book excerpts, blogs) and read like writers. It’s low stakes, and we can discuss questions like: 

a. What does the author do well? 
b. Which parts are easy to understand and which are not so easy? 
c. Does the author provide details that enhance the text? 
d. Which craft moves are included?

2. Leverage the writing process.  I will admit that this is where I fell short as a teacher. By overly focusing on the strategy, I lost the purpose. With all writing, we start with a topic. I teach students to interpret the prompt by determining what the question is asking them to do and how they will do it. This action is similar to the prewriting step, except the topic and purpose are stated in the prompt. 

Next, students enter the drafting phase and start organizing their ideas by thinking about their main points and where they will get the evidence. Then it’s off to drafting using the plan created. After students draft, it’s about making revisions and unlearning. I leverage mini-lessons to to help students enhance the readability and cohesion of their writing. This might look like reviewing word choice, striking through unnecessary words and phrases (e.g. my evidence is, this proves, this shows), and/or inserting additional information. Lastly, they make edits with grammar and spelling in mind and finalize the piece. 

3. Teach transferable skills. Lastly, this is all about transferability. In the spirit of transparency, I keep it real with the kids. Like really real. I empower students to reflect on testing and why it exists? We read a few different articles with multiple perspectives and I allow students to draw and challenge their conclusions. Taking a critical eye to a complex topic is a muscle I want students to flex. When thinking about raising our collective consciousness, that comes with opportunities to see, name, and challenge oppression. When students know what they are facing and why it does something to the will to persist and resist. It’s so powerful! 

There is a transferable teaching statement that is attached to every mini-lesson. This keeps things consistent with our writing block and focuses on students’ skills to hone when taking a standardized test and beyond. 

I am currently exploring bringing real-world topics that my students are interested in and using them to refine skills and get them a little practice for the test. I will note that it’s saddening to prepare students for a standardized test in a global pandemic, but this is our reality.  What are your thoughts about preparing students for standardized writing tests? I’d love to connect in the comments on this Instagram post!

Interested in engaging your writers in real-world topics that can also address skills in the test?  Try out this new product line of "REAL Writing." 

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