Ways to scaffold writing in middle and high school

 Teaching writing to middle and high school students can be an adventure, can't it? You may have students who can write better than you, as well as ones who struggle to create even a single coherent paragraph. Then there's that big group in the middle that's hard to keep on task. Regardless of where your students fall on this spectrum, each one can benefit from supports during the writing process.  Try some of these ways to scaffold writing with middle and high school students, and you will see some big improvements.

If your students struggle to get started when you assign writing, there can be a number of reasons. It could be that they:

✅ Don't know what to do or how to do it

✅ Have ideas but are unsure how to present them coherently

✅ Know what to do & are capable of doing it well, but perfectionism has them paralyzed

✅ Don't want to work. That's another issue I'll deal with below... you'll find a link at the end of this post.

When we provide all students with writing scaffolds, we can take away the barriers that keep them from starting. We can give them a roadmap for a successful piece of writing, no matter what level they are starting from. Then, they will have the confidence that they know what to do, and a belief in themselves that will lead to greater motivation - and better writing.

Scaffold with sentence starters

One of the easiest ways to scaffold writing in middle and high school is with sentence starters.

Sentence starters, or frames, are templates you can provide your students to give them a leg up. By giving students a few words or phrases - and even some mentor sentences - you provide them with a structure for expressing their ideas. These patterns can help all students, regardless of their writing proficiency, because they help anyone struggling to start for any of the reasons mentioned above.

Those who just don't know what to do have a pattern to copy. Those who are worried they aren't going to do it the right way can use the starter to get over their perfectionism paralysis, and those who just don't want to start are losing their excuses!

👉🏻 You can grab some starters that I use for opinion writing here and for literary analysis here.

Using  sentence starters during class discussions provides another scaffold for the writing process because it gets students in the habit of using them whether they are giving a quick response to a question, doing a turn-and-talk, or having a small group discussion. Ask your students to frame their comments in a way that strengthens their analytical muscles.

If your students get used to chatting about their texts using language that focuses on analysis, then they will create a habit that will help them when it comes time to write. You can read more about this process - and check out the posters I use to provide daily scaffolding with sentence starters - here.


Provide patterns for paragraph writing too

Yes, your middle and high school students should know how to write a paragraph. I hear you. But I know you've struggled through unfocused, disorganized piles of sentences despite that fact.

So why not do an activity that scaffolds the skill of writing a well crafted paragraph? This is an extension of the sentence starters idea because you give your students a nudge for each sentence in the paragraph.

You start with a phrase that focuses their topic sentence and then you give them an idea for what to put in the sentences that follow, all the way up to the concluding sentence. This strategy works well for individual writers, but it's also a really fun activity to do as a group. Each student gets a different starter for the topic sentence and then, after they write one, they pass their sheet to the next student, who writes sentence number two.

This process gets repeated until the paragraph is complete. However, during the activity, students are prompted to use a variety of strategies for developing the paragraph. By the time they are finished, they've had practice with building a paragraph and have a model to use when they write independently.

If you like this idea and want to get the activity ready to print and go, you can check it out here.

Scaffold writing skills by showing, rather than telling

When we teach writing, we often tell our students to show, rather than tell. We want them to create pictures in their reader's minds using well chosen diction and imagery. Likewise, creating a picture for your students that illustrates good writing is one of the most effective ways to provide them with scaffolds.

teach writing by showing not telling

One of the most successful activities I ever did with my students showed them how to write a literary analysis paragraph. Analyitical writing is an area that many struggle with, but this exercise helped them see what they needed to do to be successful. By giving them the ingredients and the chance to work together to build an analytical paragraph, they got the skills – and the confidence – they need to do it on their own.

To do this activity, you need to:

✔️ Write a short analytical paragraph on a text you read together

✔️ Use large font and blow it up on the copier

✔️ Cut each sentence intro strips and mix them up out of order

✔️ Give each group all of the mixed up strips

✔️ Have a competition to see who can put them together correctly first

👉🏻Click here to get more detail and to access the directions for this activity

Teaching writing

Use color-coded samples to scaffold student writing

When I want my students to try something new, I start with a sample, a model that let's them see what a successful piece of writing looks like. We also start small, with short paragraphs rather than longer pieces of writing. That way, they can build their skills and confidence before I ask them to do longer, more complex pieces.

The "Quotable Quickie" was a very successful example of this scaffolding strategy. My students always got overwhelmed when thy had to analyze some aspect of  a text AND provide support and explanation. So, we slowed down the process and focused on analyzing one quote only. I gave them a sentence frame to use and color-coded all of the components I wanted.

They had to choose a significant passage from a text and then createdmtheir own quotable quickie. They also had to color-code and label it like mine, so they enusred that they followed all the steps of the process. And guess what? Their writing and analysis improved drastically! Read more about this process here.

Scaffolding the writing process

Devote class time to the process

The absolute BEST way to scaffold writing for your middle or high school students is by devoting lots of class time to the writing process. Students need to see that good writing doesn't just magically flow from a pen or fingers; instead, it comes from lots of thinking, rethinking, revising, and reworking.

One step that gets skip over - or that students really struggle with - is the one that comes even before prewriting: thinking. So, the more time you can devote to helping them think through their ideas, the better their writing will be. 

I made a big deal about the fact that prewriting was very much a thinking process, and provided lots of opportunities for students to work on this before we ever started talking about a particular writing assignment. For example, before we did persuasion and argument, we would discuss debatable topics in class and get students to think about and justify a stance. This provided them with the skills they needed to start planning and organizing their persuasive essays. Read more about that here.

argumentative writing

Then, when it was time to work on a longer assignment, like their persuasive research essays, we took it one step at a time, learning strategies for getting focused and organized, for creating engaging openings and effective conclusions, and many ways to engage the reader in a well developed argument. 

And, we spent a lot of time in class working on these components of a good essay. Students were provided with lots of samples to help them see the path to success, activities to build their skills, and time to reflect on feedback they got from me and their peers. I explain that process on this post.

So, those are my favorite ways to scaffold writing in middle and high school. I hope that you've found something to help you in your classroom. Please reach out if you have any questions!

👉🏻 Is your problem that students just won't do any work? Read this: Get students to do work that's not graded

You might also like to read:

✅ Teach writing with short assignments

✅ Three strategies for teaching writing

Thanks for reading!

Jackie, ROOM 213

👉🏻 Get more scaffolding ideas from my friends here at the coffee shop:

Paragraph of the Week, Presto Plans

Graphic Organizers for Narrative Writing, Addie Education

Creative Writing Round Robin, Nouvelle ELA

Breaking down instruction to build strong writers, The Daring English Teacher

Writing a Summary, Mrs Orman


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