16 Meaningful Writing Activities that Engage Students
When most teachers announce a new writing activity, students typically reply with moans, groans, or a sudden onset of stomach flu that requires a pass to the nurse’s office right now. Which is your favorite response when you announce your middle or high school students will have the privilege to do some writing in your class? No teacher wants to bore or overwhelm students. Of course, we want to engage them, but writing is….well…an essential skill.
Effective communication in formal settings is extremely important. Students need to be prepared to identify their opinions, support them with solid evidence, identify counterclaims, synthesize ideas, and do it all in both formal and informal contexts.
While it would certainly be the easy thing to do, we can’t just throw essays out like bell bottom pants. Sometimes, students need to develop some grit. Essays? They help them to develop confidence, to think deeply, to take charge of their learning.
Yet, part of the trick to helping students learn to enjoy writing is to build their confidence and stamina with smaller writing assignments that allow for more flexibility. After all, writing should also be a creative buzz that tugs at students’ emotions and provides them with an authentic audience.
Teachers should never feel like they have to sacrifice helping to cultivate a love for writing because of the demanding nature of more formal, academic writing. We really can live in the best of both worlds.
So, what types of writing activities do most middle and high school students actually enjoy? I’ll share my top 5 categories (and 16 specific activities!) of writing lessons that make students smile.
Tutor Writing Tip #1: They can’t write without material to work with.
This is priority #1. When parents with elementary kids ask about what they should do for composition, my answer is read, read, read – the kids should read, the parents should read to the kids, the kids should read aloud themselves, and there should be audio books and memory work as well. Hearing and seeing and saying correct English, beautiful English even, will develop their ear, their style, and their vocabulary better than any program.
Good writing says something. Before our kids can write, they have to have things to say. Young children will not be able to write well because they don’t yet have anything to say – they need to build that up over years of reading and living first.
The practice of having students retell fables as a beginning writing technique – like IEW and most classical writing programs – is a smart one, because it gives the students something to say. You can work on the mechanics of composition without worrying about what the content should be. Written narrations are also a way to practice writing skills without having to come up with something to say.
Tutor Writing Tip #2: Require less output, but more revision.
Writing is mentally taxing, and revision is relationally taxing (it is criticism and correction, after all). More is not better. More is stressful. You need just enough to practice, little bit by little bit, over the course of several years.
In writing as with most things, you get more of what you practice. If you require them to write, but do not require them to use correct spelling, correct capitalization, complete sentences, and good style, they will learn the habit of sloppy writing. It will not improve itself automatically over time. Good reading doesn’t automatically make good writers, though all good writers read. Practicing good writing techniques makes good writers. To tutor writing is to practice with them, over and over, until they get the hang of it. It’s better done slowly over a long haul than rushed and crammed.
One well-written, revised, improved paragraph a week is better than 5 mediocre paragraphs a week. Output matters less than habits being learned and practiced and honed. To tutor writing is to take the long view approach.
Currently, my third grader writes 2 sentences a week: a one-sentence narration twice a week. She gives it to me orally, and I write it with correct spelling, capitalization, and punctuation. Then she copies it. She also does spelling through studied dictation, copying one sentence a day. That’s the extent of her writing.
In fourth or fifth grade, learning how to write a paragraph is a skill that takes focused time. When I teach beginning writing to this age, using the retell-a-fable method I’ve modified from IEW, I start by requiring one paragraph every other week: the first week for composing, the second week for revising. By the end of the school year, they write one paragraph a week while also revising their previous week’s paragraph.
Currently, both my 6th & 8th graders (who have both had 2 years of direct writing instruction) write two paragraphs (written narrations) a week, which we go over the same week and always makes corrections, plus participate in a literature class (with me) where I have them write one 5-paragraph paper (with help, piece by piece) every 4-6 weeks.
One thing I always make sure all my own children and all my writing students know is that the first draft is never the final draft. All writers revise. They are writers. They will revise, improve, and correct. Just expect it, every time. All students resent having to rework something. It will take time for them to get used to it, but it’s a necessary step – always expect to rework writing. The first draft is never the final draft, we will tutor writing until I can say, “Well done.”
No matter what you’re writing, taking a last look to check for any typos or mistakes can save you a lot of headaches in the long run. Did you contradict yourself somewhere or leave the verb out of a sentence? Read anything you’ve written out loud if possible. Sometimes things look OK on a screen, but when you try to say them, you realize something’s not right. In a similar vein, you might also print out your writing and correct it on paper, Smith says. Often this is enough to see your writing in a different way, making it easier to spot errors. If the writing has higher stakes or the impression it makes on the reader matters a lot, try to get someone else to read it as well, Goodfellow says.
There are plenty of programs and plug-ins that claim to “fix” your writing, such as WritingProAid, Sapling, Grammarly, and even the spelling and grammar checkers built into word processors. These tools can make it easier to write well, Smith says. But they shouldn’t be your one source of truth. Computer programs tend to miss key context that human readers would understand. “Spell-check can help but there are many words that are ‘correct’ but may not be what you intended,” Goodfellow says.
None of these tools should stand in for a thorough proofread. As a professional editor, I use tools like this to call attention to possible errors, but I always look at their suggestions before accepting them and consider whether they’re actually correct or clear. I also look carefully for errors the tools didn’t catch at all. Computer programs can easily miss homophone mix-ups, tense switches between sentences, incorrect word choice, and other issues. And sometimes you may need to write in a style these tools aren’t programmed to support. For instance, if you’re writing about investing, they might mark stock tickers and common financial abbreviations as errors.
If you’re applying for a writing-heavy job, you may be asked to submit a writing sample along with your application or complete a skills test at some point during the interview process. But you can showcase your writing skills at other stages as well, no matter what kind of job you’re applying to.
In Your Cover Letter
When writing a cover letter (and you should write a cover letter), you’ll want to follow all the same advice as when you’re writing a resume. But cover letters give you more room to really show off your writing skills. Rather than rattling off lists of qualifications you have, use your cover letter to write succinct but persuasive anecdotes that come together to tell a coherent story about why you’re the right person for the job. Choose past experiences that are relevant to the job you want and support your overall narrative. And make sure your sentences and paragraphs flow in a logical way and it’s always clear why information is being included. You can also inject more voice and personality into a cover letter than you can in a resume to give the reader the sense of who you are as a person.
Of course, interviews aren’t often conducted through writing. In fact, unless there’s a good reason for it (such as a disability accomodation for yourself or the interviewer), an all-text interview process may be a red flag for a job scam.
But you’ll still be communicating with your prospective employer via email throughout the process. “Taking the time to craft well-written email responses is a fabulous way to make a solid first impression,” Smith says. “Recruiters and hiring managers will notice a difference between well-thought-out responses vs. rushed comments.”
Remember you’re being evaluated not just for your ability to do a specific job, but for your potential as a teammate. A coworker or direct report who communicates via email in a clear and professional way will make everyone’s work easier in the long run, whereas someone who’s hard to understand in writing might seem like a future headache they’ll have to address—especially if you’ll be communicating with people outside the company through email.
Regina Borsellino is a NYC-based editor at The Muse covering job search and career advice, particularly resume best practices, interviewing, remote work, and personal and professional development. Before joining The Muse, Regina was an editor for InvestorPlace, where she also wrote about topics such as investing and biotech companies. She holds a BA in English language and literature from the University of Maryland and an MFA in creative writing from American University. Find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.