12 Small Writing Strategies That Yield Big Results!

1. Help Students Introduce Quotations

Do you ever get tired of reading, "The text states.." or "He said" over and over and over in student writing? Me, too!

Once students have completed a paragraph or essay, I teach a mini lesson on how to introduce quotations in a more specific, meaningful way.

  • Step 1: Who's Speaking? -- We want to avoid saying "The text states," or "In the book it says". Instead, identify the specific person who said the quotation. If the speaker is unnamed, you can use "narrator".

  • Step 2: What's Going On? -- Writers often jump straight into what the speaker says without giving any description of what was going on when the quotation was said. If you're writing about a book, it could take the reader awhile to figure out where in the book you're talking about. Instead, give your reader a little context before introducing the quotation.

  • Step 3: How Does the Speaker Deliver the Quotation? -- We want to avoid using "says" or "said" or even "states" over and over again in our writing. While it's okay to use them sometimes, it is repetitive and vague when we overuse them. Instead, think of how the speaker feels in this moment. Is he/she mad, happy, tired, etc.? Then, think of how the speaker delivers this quotation. Often times, we need a more specific word than just "says".

  • Step 4: Putting It All Together -- You can use this template to string together your quotation introduction. Once you become more comfortable, you can practice rearranging the different parts to vary your writing. [context] + [speaker name] + [strong verb] + comma + quotation marks + [quotation] + period + quotation marks.

You can check out the student friendly handout here.

2. Introduce Synthesis Writing & Flipped Lessons

For Amanda from Mud and Ink Teaching, writing instruction has always felt like something that was put on the back burner. In her experience, it seemed like most curriculums were read, read, read, then write about what you read. The writing instruction piece was present, but a byproduct of the reading.

There are a few issues with that. First and foremost, when the only writing instruction students receive is based on something they may or may not have read, how will that truly tell a teacher how well the student can write? Isn’t that more a measure of their reading compliance? And furthermore, to only give students a chance to write in the form of some type of reading response and to neglect all other kinds of writing is a tragic waste of student potential.

Two little tweaks have made a huge difference in writing instruction for Amanda: the introduction of synthesis writing and the use of flipped writing lessons. Synthesis writing, while still typically used as a summative assessment, has drastically shifted the creative thinking process behind writing. Now, instead of responding to one question about one reading, students are developing arguments and synthesizing from a broad range of sources that they’ve been exposed to over the course of the semester. And all those pesky frequent errors and skill based missteps? Amanda started recording those lessons to insert into comments for students to rewatch during the revision process. If she teaches claim writing at the beginning of the year, Amanda records the lesson and keeps it ready to reuse when students need a refresher or are still struggling. Both of these moves keep the curriculum moving efficiently, foster true inquiry, and provide time for true writing instruction and revision to occur.

3. Use a "Feedback Rubric" for Detailed Feedback

Marie from The Caffeinated Classroom gets pretty pumped when it comes time to start a week of Writer’s Workshop in her classroom - writing instruction is her cup of tea!

However, we all know that writing instruction is only as effective as the personalized attention and feedback students get on their actual writing, and that feedback takes TIME

and ENERGY. (Two things that are quite the hot commodity in the teaching world!)

Enter the feedback rubric. Each student gets the specific and tailored feedback they need in order to improve their writing, and teachers don’t spend all of their life force writing comments for hours that students may or may not look at when all is said and done.

The feedback rubric is quite simple - take your grading rubric with all the categories and criteria, and infuse it with the most common comments you write on student work. Then, use it as a means to give students feedback on a draft of their writing.

Easy peasy! For more specific strategies and uses for the feedback rubric and other highly effective writing instruction practices, check out The English Teacher Lab, Marie’s monthly membership just for secondary ELA teachers.

4. Showcase The Power of Outlines

Just like most writing teachers, Amanda from Amanda Write Now learned to teach writing with the traditional writing process...brainstorm, draft, revise and edit.

But what if this process doesn't work?

Experienced writing teachers notice that the traditional writing process often falls short and leads to disorganized writing. Also, struggling writers are often very resistant to revising their draft because it took so much effort to write in the first place!

This is why it is so important to teach students how to outline. In addition, students who need the extra support can be given an outline template depending on the type of writing students are expected to do. Outlining has many benefits:

  1. Outlines teach students the structure of writing genres. Students need to know the structure before they can be successful writing within that genre.

  2. Outlines break down the parts of a writing piece into small chunks, making the process of writing much more approachable for struggling writers.

  3. Outlines provide students with a plan they can follow while writing.

When you are ready, Amanda has the tools you need to make outlines a priority in your writing classroom. You can sign up here to access editable outlines for every genre of writing!

5. Implement Editing Stations Before the Final Draft

For years, Elizabeth from Teaching Sam & Scout distributed writing assignments to her students, then set one deadline and expected them to turn in a finished, final draft of their essay on that date. This is how she remembered being assigned essays in high school and college; so, it made sense, and it worked - kind of.

Eventually, Elizabeth realized that, while this method of Distribute → Deadline usually produced a finished paper, that’s ALL it produced. Even she was guilty of waiting too long to get started on the paper, then cranking out ONE draft, and pressing “Submit” with hardly a glance back over the content. This led to a first draft being turned in as a (very mediocre) final draft.

This realization led her to reconsider how she was assigning and collecting writing in her high school English classes. Her students were doing the exact same thing -- hurriedly writing first drafts of formal

essays and passing them off as final drafts on the due date. She knew something had to change, and the solution was EDITING STATIONS in class before the final deadline for a major paper.

Now, Elizabeth sets two deadlines: a “complete draft” deadline when students are expected to bring a finished essay to class (typically just saved on their computers) AND a “final draft” deadline for the next class period - when students are expected to submit a thoroughly edited, revised, and refined essay to be graded. The stations are a little different for each assignment, but they almost always include a station where students read their entire essays OUT LOUD to themselves, a station where students score their own essays using a rubric, and a station where students swap papers with a classmate to give feedback on each other’s writing.

During the stations, students are encouraged to write in the margins and take good notes for themselves so that they can make appropriate changes before submitting the FINAL draft next class.

This has been a very simple new routine to implement, but it’s been a GAME CHANGER in terms of the quality of writing her students are submitting; and, even better, it is developing habits in them that will serve them well beyond high school.

6. Use Mini Lessons

Mini-lessons have completely transformed the way that Samantha from Samantha in Secondary teaches writing. These quick wins allow for students to gauge a concept, practice, and then implement the strategy in their own writing.

Here is the general gist of a mini-lesson: Start by teaching the ins and outs of the literary element you want students to focus on in their writing. If you are teaching setting, for instance, make sure that students understand that setting includes both time and place. (Students often forget one!) Then, dive into all of the details that make setting important to a text. Show plenty of mentor texts so students can see how expert writers use setting in their own stories. (Samantha personally loves using historical fiction pieces to teach setting. All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a MUST-include for this element!)

After you feel that students understand the general concept, start practicing. For setting, Samantha loves to include a fun “Guess the Setting” game where students write a short micro-story demonstrating both time and place. Students should be creative with these! Read them out loud so everyone can guess the setting. This activity allows you to gauge understanding and also provide quick feedback for those still struggling.

Spend the rest of class allowing students to implement their new learning into a writing piece. Peer feedback on the specific element can also help enhance understanding. This is an excellent technique when you want to focus on specific literary elements in student writing- plot, setting, character, conflict, dialogue, pacing, and the list goes on!

Samantha has many of these mini-lessons in a bundle if you’d like to save time with her tried and true activities. Using mini-lessons has completely transformed the way she teaches writing, so she hopes you’ll try this technique in your own classroom.

7. Try The Writing Makerspace

Ever heard of the writing makerspace? Betsy from Spark Creativity first discovered this amazing tool through Angela Stockman’s book, Make Writing. For students who struggle with writer’s block or think they’re not good at writing, making first can have a big impact on their process and their success.

You don’t need a lot of fancy materials to experiment with making writing. Many things you might

have lying around, like whiteboard markers, chalk, post-its, playdoh, popsicle sticks, or colorful index cards can make up the components of your first writing makerspace.

Kids can build arguments with a rainbow of post-its on a section of wall, create characters with a watercolor paint set and some printer paper, create a storyline by taking photos with their iphone and saving them in order onto a Google slide. Maybe you want them to design sets before writing dramatic scenes, or build puppets before writing a dialogue.

There are so many ways to integrate making into your writing instruction. This podcast interview with Angela Stockman, the inventor of the writing makerspace, will give you a quick background to help you get started right away.

8. Focus on The Writing Process

Students have to grasp that writing is more than filling a blank page. Molly from The Littlest Teacher finds that students’ goal is usually nothing more than to fill the page, and turn it in as soon as they’ve met the minimum length requirement. To combat this, Molly scaffolds the writing process (Plan - Write - Rewrite - Edit - Publish) for each writing assignment.

The writing process is not a flashy new strategy, but the way you implement it can make all the difference.

Rather than just teaching what the writing process is, build the writing assignment around the writing process. When you assign a writing project don’t just give a due date for the final project, but give a due date for each step of the process. Don’t leave it up to students to work through the steps on their own.

For the planning stage, require a brainstorm or idea list, an organized outline, and any research needed. For the writing stage, encourage students to write their first rough draft in one sitting, as quickly as possible, not stopping to fuss over word choice,

punctuation, etc. Build in at least a one day break (ideally more) between the first and second drafts of a larger project. Provide a specific editing checklist for students to use as they overhaul their first draft during the rewriting stage. Edit a paragraph or two together in class to model some of the common changes that will be made. A secord rough draft is often helpful for larger projects. Provide a separate checklist for editing the second rough draft, and once again model in class.

Check out this post for more discussion on and resources for employing the writing process.

9. Let Students Grade Former Student Work

Anyone else a hoarder? I’m not talking about the kind who could appear on a TLC show but rather the

kind of teacher hoarder where you have filing cabinets filled with student work, handouts that you *might* just use again, and photocopied articles from before the Internet was omnipresent. Can anyone else relate?

Well, you are in luck because Krista from @whimsyandrigor has started putting all those examples of former students’ work to good use and the results have been magical. She breaks it down in an 8-minute YouTube video that you should definitely check out. Here is the strategy in a nutshell:

  • Dig through the examples of student work (essays, projects, short stories, everything!) Side note: If you don’t have any, start collecting now! Your future self will be very happy.

  • Bust out the rubric you are going to use to grade your current students and review it with the class.

  • Now hand out those examples from your stash and have students get to work grading. Not only do they get familiar with the rubric (yay!) but they also see actual examples of strong work (double yay!). Side note: Krista recommends only showing A and B quality work because, like using mentor sentences, you want students to emulate what WORKS and not what doesn’t.

  • After students have graded the examples, now they get to dive back into their own piece and make any refinements before they use that same rubric to grade themselves.

As Krista explains, the small change of having students grade work from years ago yields massive results because students see exactly what is possible and how to get there. Plus, you feel less like a hoarder and more like a forward-thinking, always-prepared teacher. Kinda perfect, right?

10. Remember that "Reading and Writing Draw From The Same Well"

Samantha from Secondary Urban Legends philosophy is that “Reading and Writing draws from the same well.” If students are reading, they do some type of writing in response to it such as analyzing or synthesizing information. Writing cannot be some afterthought a month before a state test nor should it just be in the form of purely essay writing. Writing is a muscle that cannot and SHOULD NOT only occur when writing essays. Students in Samantha’s classes engage in writing from August to June in short bursts, medium bursts, and longer bursts. Writing also comes in many forms with students conducting Ted Talks, Socratic seminars on topics addressed in books they are reading, PSAs on social justice topics, and more recently, developing their own podcasts fashioned after Smash Boom West.

And just like the common phrase, we are all teachers of reading, we are all also teachers of writing. This can easily be accomplished by low stakes writing opportunities across the content area. For

example, if a Science teacher wants to ensure that the students understand the concepts of DNA, genes, and chromosomes, why not give them a prompt asking them to explain the relationship between the two terms. The biggest issue students have especially in middle school is evidence collection to support a thesis or a controlling idea. Now imagine the collective impact of constantly being asked that in ALL their classes by using RACE, ACE, or any of a dozen acronyms available to collect evidence and elaborate on it. Tips like these and more are shared in her writing framework blog if you’d like to read more.

11. Think Outside of The Box

Jess from Whimsical Teaching likes to bring in something obscure to liven up writing time. She believes that sometimes a zany idea brings in big rewards. For Jess that means taking a number, random object, or reference from pop culture and using that one thing to zap her students out of writing slumps and into writing nirvana. Most recently she used the number 7 in a variety of weirdo ways to ignite inspiration and fun in her classroom. Her first idea was to bring back 7up sentences (often taught in 1st and 2nd grade) back to middle school.

Whenever Jess hands out an assignment, she asks her students to rewrite the directions in 7 words. Rethinking and rewording the directions allows the teacher to see how well the students understood the directions. It eliminates non-stop clarification questions and the teacher can quickly rework the directions in class to make them more easily understood. For more ideas on how 7’s can ignite love for writing in the classroom read more about this idea on the blog post: 7 Ways to use the Number 7 to Teach Writing.


AAAWWUBBIS is a mouthful, but Liz Taylor from Teach BeTween the Lines finds that teaching kids this fun acronym about introductory clauses can get them thinking and help improve their writing!

Understanding the use of After, Although, As, When, While, Until, Because, Before, If, and Since are essential in creating complex sentences. She finds the best way to teach this is through a game. She introduces “AAAWWUBBIS Introductory Phrases Ball Toss Game” (it’s a freebie!), where she writes the phrases on mini beach balls (you can find these at any party store), and students play the game by tossing the ball around in a small group and creating a complex sentence with whatever word their thumb is closest to once they catch it. It is engaging, and definitely a classroom favorite!

She loved using games in her classroom, and explains this game, along with many others, in her blogpost “Grammar Games for the Secondary ELA Classroom.”

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