Using Variety to Support Writing in Middle School

Middle school students may get inspired about writing if they’re offered exercises that support different methods of expression.

June 18, 2024
LumiNola /iStock

Teachers and students might have a range of feelings about writing instruction, from excitement to anxiety. The purpose of this post is to share how I’ve approached writing across contexts and found joy in using writing as a regular part of classroom instruction. Hopefully, these ideas will help middle school teachers find more and more opportunities to have students respond, naturally building writing as part of instruction and lessening the feeling of burden that sometimes comes with composing.

We know that reading is an invisible process unless we have students share out loud from the page. So, how do we know what they’re thinking and how they’re processing what they’re reading about in class? Aside from discussion, which can often allow students to fly under the radar, writing is the only way I know to make this process visible.

In my class, we use writing and composing to talk about how students can explore ideas and use language to build toward deeper thinking.

Drawings and Digital Composing With Adolescent Readers

Often, definitions come first. What do I mean when I say the word writing? Some might automatically think of the essay form—the routine five-paragraph (or more) approach. While essays can be fruitful expressions of thought, they aren’t necessarily the highest form of communication.

So, what is? Maybe writing that fits the contexts and circumstances that the author needs. Maybe we should first broaden composition by thinking about how writing can be redefined and used with middle school students. This way of writing means that a variety of exercises—short jotting or a long-form response, a brief sketch note or a full digital presentation—can be part of writing and composing.

When it comes to writing, approximations do indeed count in terms of literacy. The first draft is still a draft, and brainstorming or forming ideas is a key part of the process. If we only valued writing that existed perfectly from the first pen stroke or keystroke, not many texts would exist. 

I have tried a fairly simple way of connecting reading and writing instruction through the use of illustration and visualizing. First, I introduce three to five vocabulary words to my students. Next, we define these words together and talk about them. Then, I ask students to do something creative.

Since we’ve talked about the vocabulary words and what they mean, I ask students to draw or describe a character who might use this word as their namesake. (Pixar’s Inside Out does this quite well with emotions.)

For students who crave opportunities to express their ideas in art, this is ideal. It’s also an invitation for students who want to write and compose using words—and they often find more words to explain the character they have in mind as they explore the concept related to the vocabulary word they choose.

Sentence Stems and Mentor Texts with Middle Grades

From print to digital, a writing-centered curriculum for the middle years can include expanding on how students begin to build complex texts and write for a variety of audiences. In fact, I believe it really should. The first time I wrote a dissertation (which is also, according to my plans, the only time I’ll write one ), I looked at several examples of dissertations, and I read the work of my doctoral committee members.

Mentor texts are essential for helping writers find their way through a new kind of writing and expand their strengths. When I use sentence stems and mentor texts, it’s an opportunity to read and analyze with students, and it’s a chance to get so creative with my own response that students would be hard-pressed to use it exactly in their own work. The mentor text is a guide and a model, after all, and not something that should be replicated word for word. 

For more on mentor texts, I highly recommend Write Like This, by Kelly Gallagher. Gallagher has a variety of resources for reading and writing on his website, and I also had the chance to talk with him last year on a podcast about the value of mentor texts.

By helping students expand their writing repertoires, teachers demonstrate the “why” of writing along with the “how.” Writing doesn’t exist in a vacuum and isn’t simply something done at school just because—it’s a vital practice and is part of professional and personal purpose. Exploring our voice and story helps us remember what is important and true, and it also helps us process difficult questions and experiences.

Moving to Sophistication

From this initial work with illustrations and digital tools, as well as mentor texts, students can engage in sophistication—a more detailed mentorship practice with developing complex ideas, evaluating perspectives, and exploring nuances. In a recent lesson, I worked with students to explore what sophistication means. 

This was no easy task. We spent months reading a variety of written works, from poems to essays. We wrote and practiced together. As a final exercise, we worked together to compose a fairly simple definition of democracy. We did this using knowledge from social studies classes that the students were taking at the same time (especially civic literacy) and artificial intelligence (AI) tools. We co-composed this basic definition, and then I asked students to think of examples from history and from their lives to add to the definition.

What was it about democracy that stood out to my students? As we crafted together, we discovered that the worldviews that my students carried with them could not easily be replicated by AI. My students saw that their understanding of government and liberty went beyond the definition and included personal examples. By building upon student approximations, using a variety of tools, and continuing to center writing as a regular and expected part of the classroom experience across content areas, we can help students explore these nuances and practice part of the joy of craft—writing and composing with meaningful purposes.

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  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School

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