Middle school is the first-time students learn in-depth writing, and it usually starts with essays. Although writing intimidates many children, the good news is that tweens and young teens have many interests, opinions, and ideas that teachers can help draw out and shape.
Middle-school students are old enough to have experienced a healthy dose of “life,” and with that comes family stories, memories of imaginative play when they were younger, knowledge gleaned from books they’ve read, and curiosity piqued by places they’ve been and events they’ve witnessed. So, they can certainly have a lot to say. Teaching writing to middle schoolers can be an excellent opportunity for educators to really get to know their students and allow them to express their own unique voices.
Here are eight middle school writing strategies teachers can use to improve these skills for students.
Teaching Writing to Middle Schoolers
Tip 1: Give Them the Freedom to Freewrite
Some middle schoolers may look like the proverbial deer in a headlight when you tell them it’s time to write. While writing can be a positive experience and thousands of people write for enjoyment, stress relief, and other productive benefits, some students might find it intimidating. One positive approach is to give students the opportunity to freewrite in personal journals that they will not be required to share unless they choose to. Set a timer for five minutes and tell students to write whatever comes into their minds, without stopping, for the duration. What they write is up to them—it can be a list of random words, a description of what they had for breakfast, or sentences such as “I have no idea what to write!” The important part is to keep the pencil moving across the page. Grammar and spelling don’t matter for this exercise, and students will not be graded or judged on their work.
Tip 2: Start with Poetry
Another great access point to writing is to start with poetry. Glenis Redmond, a poet and teaching artist, says, “When I enter a classroom, I always begin with praise—a praise poem, that is—an introductory poem of origin—because it is an accessible poem form for students and teachers to begin writing. It also allows me to assess where students are developmentally…These poems are made up of metaphors and similes—forms of comparison relating the writer to an object, a person, a color, or a feature in nature.”
“There is a strong correlation between readers of poetry and writers of poetry,” says Ekuwah Moses, an elementary educator, nonfiction picture book author, and literacy specialist from Las Vegas. “Some teachers set up a staged area of their classroom for students to perform weekly open mic time. This is an opportunity for students to read poetry they have written out loud to their peers or read aloud a poet's work. It is a community-building celebration of writing, reading, speaking, and listening.”
Tip 3: Use Anchor Charts
Anchor charts can be an excellent collaborative tool to engage and motivate students in their writing. According to this document from the International Literacy Association, “Anchor charts are organized mentor texts co-created with students. Charts are usually handwritten in large print and displayed in an area of the classroom where they can be easily seen. Used to anchor whole group instruction, the charts provide a scaffold during guided practice and independent work.”
Anchor charts are intended to be homemade—capturing what the students have learned and then remaining on display as an artifact for future reference. Although bold lettering and bright colors can make an anchor chart stand out, you don’t need superior artistic skills to create one; just a pack of markers and some large chart paper will do the trick! An anchor chart for writing could, for example, capture a list of words students could use to replace overused words such as “said” or “very.” It could be an inspirational “doodle-style” sketch of all the reasons writers write, e.g., to share their feelings, to tell their own story, to persuade someone, or to inform people about important events. Or it could show a diagram of how to create an organized paragraph with a hook/topic sentence, details, and a closing statement.
Tip 4: Create a Toolkit of Graphic Organizers
It’s helpful for middle schoolers to organize their ideas before they put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). You can make toolkits by assembling file folders with a selection of graphic organizers that can help them brainstorm ideas and create an orderly sequence of thoughts. For example, students could use this word web to break down the larger topic of “The Arctic” into details such as “wildlife,” “climate,” and “geography.”
Ekuwah Moses adds: “Keep the brain in mind when using graphic organizers. Handwritten or hand-drawn organizers are the best method for learning to write. The process of drawing and writing teaches children how to organize information for long-term retrieval, versus relying upon or always searching for a pre-made document.”
Tip 5: Break It Down and Give Frequent Feedback
Students can sometimes feel as if writing is subjective. What makes one short story “better” than the next, anyway? Indeed, some of this does relate to a gut instinct: We know when a story or an essay moves us and captures our attention. We know when a character feels real, and we can hear when words are used lyrically to make a piece of writing “sing.” But by showing students that a great piece of writing comes from a series of steps that include prewriting, drafting, and revision, you can demystify the process.
By breaking the writing process—including feedback and evaluation—into bite-sized pieces, you can make the learning more manageable and help students see their progress. Research shows that delivering quality feedback leads to better revisions and results. The real-time, personalized feedback in a program such as Writable helps empower students every step of the way.
Nick Wheeler, a sixth-grade ELA teacher at Bristow Elementary in Kentucky, uses the tools and instructional supports available in Writable to help students take ownership of their writing. The students “are part of each piece of that writing process, from freewriting, to drafting, to revising and editing, and finally publishing,” he says.
Tip 6: Model Your Own Writing Process for Students
Even published authors rarely, if ever, churn out a perfect first draft. It may encourage students to realize that their favorite books were the result of many revisions and, often, collaboration with editors and proofreaders. You can model this process for students in a couple of ways. First, you can talk through the thought process that you go through when writing—for example, a letter to your local town council.
Share your thought process out loud as you write quick notes that the class can see. For example, “Okay, I would like to have a place for my dog to play freely with other dogs. I’d love it if the town created a dog park.” Write “dog park” in the center of the whiteboard as your main topic, and circle it.
You might continue to share further thoughts out loud: “But hmm, I know it might cost money and require community support. What points could I make to convince my readers that a dog park would be a great asset to this town? Maybe I could suggest that the dog park requires a small membership fee, which would bring revenue to the town? Maybe I could suggest that this park might encourage more rescue pet adoptions?” Add “paid membership” and “pet adoptions” to the whiteboard as “spokes” coming from the main topic, as well as any suggestions students might offer.
Then, talk the class through your plans as to how you might organize all these points into a coherent and persuasive piece. Lastly, you could then explain how you might ask a colleague to be your editor and review your letter. Does it make sense to them? Do they find it persuasive? Do they see any errors in spelling or grammar? Students can partner with peers to do the same!
Tip 7: Teach Them to Read Like Writers and Write Like Readers
“It’s important to remember that reading and writing are interconnected,” says Michael Vea, a former classroom teacher and now an education systems-level leader at San Diego Unified School District. “When they read, students can be thinking like writers; e.g., How did the writer of this text craft such a beautiful piece? How did the vocabulary words they chose make the piece more powerful? And when they write, they can think like readers; e.g., How will this piece of writing be received? What emotional reaction might the reader get?”
“One of my favorite mentors in my professional training, Pam Allyn, the founder of LitWorld, used to say that ‘Reading is like breathing in and writing is like breathing out.’,” he adds. “That always resonated with me.”
One tactic to get writers thinking like readers (and vice versa) is to use model writing pieces, such as those available in the Writer’s Notebook in Into Reading, examples of authentic student writing, or photocopies of a favorite passage from a piece of literature. Annotating a sample piece of writing can help scaffold the writing process for students. “We reference the model writing during each day of drafting, editing, and revising,” says Rhode Island teacher Kayla Dyer. “I will prompt students to refer to the model piece as they are drafting so I can have individual conferences or small group conferences.”
Here is an example of how Dyer annotated a piece of nonfiction writing, “The Amazing Sea Pig.”
Tip 8: Use Rubrics
Rubrics are your friend when it comes to writing. They help students build confidence and give teachers a way to help family members understand their grading process. A rubric lets students know and see the expectations and exactly what they will be graded on. Self-review in writing is so important, and a rubric can ensure that students learn to check their work for content as well as for grammar.
“You can further build a writing culture by frequently pulling exemplar student writing, gathered from your classroom or across the grade level, and discussing it anonymously with the class,” recommends Ekuwah Moses. “Project the exemplar, and then use the grade-level writing rubric to highlight where it meets or exceeds the expectations of the rubric. These positive examples help students to see that the ‘impossible' is possible, and students whose work is featured appreciate the praise.”
Another benefit of rubrics is that they can facilitate self-assessment. In addition to evaluating their work against the criteria laid out in the rubric, students can reflect on their writing assignments by answering three questions:
- What did you like best about this assignment?
- What was the most difficult part?
- What do you want me to know about this work you did?
Teaching writing for middle schoolers can be rewarding, frustrating, or both at the same time, but working through the process and giving clear feedback every step of the way can empower your students and help them learn the value of their words. Showing your students how to use their voices can be one of the greatest gifts you can give them, especially if you do it thoughtfully.
Need additional support to improve writing skills in middle school? Try Writable to support your ELA curriculum, district benchmarks, and state standards with more than 600 fully customizable writing assignments and rubrics for students in Grades 3–12. Learn more.
Coach Development Manager, HMH