4 Simple Tips to Improve Student Writing

4 ways to help high school and middle school students improve their writing.
Although what is considered to be “good” writing is lofty and subjective, we wouldn’t be English teachers if we didn’t try to improve our students’ writing skills. Here are some general tips and suggestions that can help polish any paper.

1. Use just and that sparingly
Most writers have words which they repeat without noticing throughout a paper, much like how some teenagers will say ‘like’ every other word or how an inexperienced public speaker will pepper their speeches with ‘um’s. For students, I find the most common, ineffective words they repeat are just and that. You might suggest your students do a ctrl + f  search for these words on their computers before they turn in a piece of writing and weed out as many of them as they can.

4 ways to help high school and middle school students improve their writing.
2. Place emphatic words near the beginning and at the end of the sentence
The eyes of readers tend to be drawn towards the white space at the beginning as well as at  the end of a sentence. As such, it is natural that the most exciting, crucial words are placed strategically in these positions. It takes a lot of practice and reading to get a natural feel for what makes a word emphatic, but generally, they’re the words which describe the most important aspects of the sentence and what it is trying to get across.

For example: “I have a dream,” said Dr. King, “that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” In this sentence, emphasis is placed on Dr. King’s hope, his dream, that people of color would one day be treated as human beings, judged solely on the content of their character - a beautiful sentiment and alliteration. Dr. King’s strong sense of emphasis can be found throughout his speeches and are a big part of what made him such an effective orator.

3. Use adverbs to modify
The problem with adverbs is that most students use them to state the obvious, as in: “She whispered quietly.” A reader can already assume that if someone is whispering, they’re doing it quietly and therefore the writer has wasted precious space. However, if someone were to go against my expectations and whisper loudly, that is something I would want to know. In short, try to use adverbs to modify the reader’s perspective of the verb rather than state what we can already assume. This type of descriptive writing enhances one's writing.

4. When to be passive and when to be active
When a subject is active, it acts, as in: “Jimmy ran for his life.” In this sentence the verb, ran, was performed by Jimmy, the subject. When a subject is passive, it is acted upon, as in: “The students were taught.” Both the active and passive voice have their uses. In general, students should use the active voice because it helps make writing more concise and speeds a narrative along. However, passive voice helps bring attention to the receivers of actions. For instance, if I wanted to write about how lazy students get near the end of the year, the passive voice can emphasize how the students are acted upon rather than acting themselves. For example: “The students were reluctant to start.” Both types of voices have a purpose in a paper, but it takes a lot of patience and practice to learn how to use both effectively.

Introducing Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies introduction activity
One of my favorite novels to teach is Lord of the Flies because of how it exposes the raw brutality of humanity. In the very beginning the boys do their best to create and maintain civility, but as the novel progresses the boys slowly degenerate into savages.

To help my students understand this concept as it plays out in the novel, I have them complete a scenario-based introduction activity that naturally pits the students against each other. In some of my previous classes, students have either alluded to or directly stated exactly what happens in the book just by completing this introduction.

Lord of the Flies introduction activity
To begin, I inform the students that they are stranded on a tropical island that seems to be deserted and have them record their initial thoughts. I slowly reveal additional information to my students about their predicament and ask them to record their thoughts along the way. For example, I reveal that there are no adults and that they are accompanied by their classmates.

With the opening of this scenario, I like to internally classify my students as either Ralphs or Piggys. Some will be elated to be on the island sans adults, while others will begin to think about various provisions they may need in order to survive. It is very interesting to watch this introductory activity unfold in the classroom because some classes actually play out the novel with this scenario. They are able to predict the boys’ demise and hostility to one another.

As the activity progresses, I have students list their top three priorities and vote for a leader of the island. Selecting what the class should do first and electing a leader to call the shots will naturally begin to divide the students into groups. I use this division to help show what will happen in the novel, and I even encourage a little unstructured debating as to what the class should do first and why.

This introduction can take as little as half a class period, or fill it entirely. It all depends on how much student participation you encourage. Students love this day in my classroom, and they leave the class excited to read the book. As we read the book in class, I will point out similarities from this activity to what the boys experience during their plight on the island. The students are amazed to see just how parallel the similarities are, and the best part of this is that they maintain their engagement with the novel.

You can download this introduction to your Google Drive HERE!

Lord of the Flies Teaching Resources:

4 Ways to Help Students Write Their College Admissions Essays

4 Ways to Help Students Write Their College Admissions Essays
As hyperbolic as it might sound, everything an English teacher teaches their students is in preparation of them writing their college admissions essays. While the stakes for all prior written works were just letter grades, a well written admissions essay could very well be the stepping stone for a student to achieve their goals and dreams. As such, it is our duty to prepare high school juniors and seniors for these pivotal prompts and give them every advantage for starting the next stage of their lives. Here are 4 ways to help your students write their college admissions essays.

1. Teach what colleges don’t want to read.  Avoid the cliches!
Just like with a resume or a cover letter, a college admissions essay has to “sell” the student. As obvious as this may sound, too many students fail to promote themselves properly, which leads to the admissions officer being unable to differentiate them from the thousands of other “sales pitches” they read that week and subconsciously ignore them, just like how a tv watcher zones out when they see that commercial for car insurance for the umpteenth time.

The two major overused types of essays that almost always elicit a groan from admissions officers are the “Person I admire essay” and the “volunteer work” essay. The typical pitfall for students who write about someone they admire is that their writing tends to focus on their role model and they forget that they’re trying to promote themselves! And while volunteer work is admirable, it is not enough to impress anymore considering how popular it is amongst college bound students. Students need to write something only they could have written in order to stand apart from the competition.

2. Teach what colleges do want to read.
Colleges want to recruit students who will be successful, obviously. They want candidates who are motivated, love learning, and will be successful in their future field. This doesn’t mean the student has to have spectacular grades (although that certainly helps), but it does mean they have to be passionate about something and can portray how diligent they would be in working towards what drives that passion. That is the beauty of the admissions essay; It allows colleges to see the side of a student that a transcript doesn’t.

Probably the best advice you can give a student when writing a college admissions essay is to be unique; only write about experiences that he or she could have had. This is important because it sets them apart from the crowd and is more likely to incite passion in what they write. As a teacher, I think I speak for all of us when I say  the indifference is apparent in a student’s writing when he or she doesn’t care about the topic. To summarize: Have students write about events unique to them that display their potential and capability to succeed in higher education.

3. Analyze essays that worked.
Once your students have an understanding of what colleges want to read, you can move on to examples of successful college admissions essays and analyze what made them effective. A lot of universities will gladly offer examples of successful essays. While reading through the examples provided by John Hopkins University, I was charmed by how unique and creative they all were. One man wrote his essay in the form of the game 20 Questions while a woman wrote about her perception problems due to having a glass eye which transitioned to a story about how her perception of the swastika changed after living with a foster family in India. Aside from being attention grabbers, these essays were effective because I felt like I came to know the writers as well as understand what would make them successful students.

4. Revision
For anyone who has been through the drudgery of a job hunt, you know what I mean when I say that college admissions officers treat admissions essays a lot like how recruiters treat resumes - they’re looking for any excuse to toss one out. Admissions officers receive thousands of essays each cycle and have a relatively short amount of time to read them. As such, they look for any reason to quickly narrow down their search. This means they will not hesitate to toss out an essay that has minor errors, is formatted wrong, or is written in an irregular font, regardless of how good the content is. That is why revision of their essays is so important!

Have students print out the college’s essay guidelines and make sure they are following them to the letter. It might even be worth a class to have the students highlight and annotate the guidelines in regards to font, word count, and structure as a homework assignment. Have them edit, re-edit, and then have someone they trust also edit for them, looking for both grammatical, factual, and structural errors. If the essay prompt is a specific question, comb the essay thoroughly to make sure everything in the essay builds up to answering that question without any tangents. Use natural vocabulary, not words you would expect to find in the SATs. Use action verbs and avoid “to be” verbs like “was.”

If your students find your revisions excessive, remind them that a few extra hours of editing is worth it to ensure their all their hard work doesn’t end up at the bottom of the recycling bin.

4 Ways to Analyze Audio with Listenwise

States recently released standardized test scores, and teachers and administrators all across the nation are looking for ways to improve their scores. One particular area of assessment that can be quite difficult for educators to incorporate into everyday instruction is listening. Listening is an essential skill that many of our students need to work on; however, in today’s fast-paced, technologically-driven world, listening attentively to audio files can be quite challenging for today’s youth.

For this reason, I include Listenwise.com in my curriculum. Listenwise is an edtech site for educators that combines audio news stories, primarily from National Public Radio, with content-rich and academically-focused discussion questions. I began using Listenwise last year with many of my teaching units, and my students’ test scores improved!

Here are four different ways you can have your students analyze audio content on the Listenwise platform.

4 Ways to Analyze Audio Using Listenwise
1. Analyze for main idea
Being able to understand the main idea of a text is a stepping stone to the essential skill of summarizing. A simple way to analyze a story from Listenwise is to have students identify, explain, and summarize the main idea. What is the main idea and how does the author support it?

2. Analyze for rhetorical appeals and strategies
Readers often focus on what the text says, but it is just as important to focus on why a text is effective and how the author is able to communicate an argument or message effectively. To analyze the story for rhetorical appeals and strategies, have students listen for and identify examples of ethos, pathos, and logos. Also, have students identify various rhetorical strategies such as alliteration, assonance, and consonance. What was the author’s most effective appeal or strategy?

3. Analyze for author’s purpose
Understanding the context of a text is another way I have students analyze content from Listenwise. Knowing the “why” behind a news story, political speech, or national address helps build contextual knowledge and awareness, and it paves the way for students to gain a rich understanding of the author’s purpose. Why did the author write this piece? What prompted the author to write this piece?

4. Analyze for cause and effect
Students need to be able to listen to a text and understand the subtle relationships between events. Being able to identify the main event of a story and understand the resulting events that are directly related is an important skill. How are the events in the story related? Because this one event happened, what else occurred?

There are many ways to incorporate Listenwise into your curriculum, and you might be surprised with just how many stories and topics the site offers.

Discover Success: How to Write Better Story Prompts for Students

Anyone who has ever taught creative writing is familiar with story prompts. They’re usually presented in the form of a What if? scenario where the protagonist meets with an unexpected event. For example: Mary wakes up as usual and prepares to go to school, but when she goes to get into her car, she finds it isn’t where she parked it yesterday! What does she do?

On the surface, this prompt seems to have everything necessary for the basis of a story: a protagonist whose expectations are defied by an unusual event. It is very likely that your students have received similar writing prompts to this one since they were in kindergarten. Sadly, it is prompts like these that are teaching students the wrong way to write stories.

The problem with What If? scenarios like these are they promote students to write externally, meaning they write a series of events that the protagonist reacts to. Reactions and unusual events are not enough to make a compelling story. Realize, I’m not criticizing my fellow English teachers. Let’s face it, creative writing is hard. We can teach our students how to master the metaphor and how to place each piece of punctuation perfectly, but the rules for making an engaging narrative are much more elusive than the rules of grammar. After all, if everyone knew the secret to writing a good story, we would all be best-selling novelists.
At this point you are probably wondering if it is even possible to learn much less teach something as ambiguous as what makes a good story. Thankfully, Lisa Cron, a professional story coach, has insight into what readers crave and expect whenever they pick up a book which can be explained through actual brain science. According to Cron’s research, when a person reads a book or even watches a movie, their brain activity mimics that of a participant rather than an observer. The evolutionary explanation for why our brains like to place us in the role of the protagonist is likely because stories were a survival technique for our early ancestors as stories allowed them to perceive and react to potential threats. We enjoy reading about people reacting to unusual events because our brain craves information that will help us adapt to new situations. So when we pick up a book and put ourselves in the shoes of a teenage girl trying to survive in a dystopian future, (think The Hunger Games), our brain releases dopamine, a neurochemical associated with reward behavior, as a way of saying, “Thanks! This information might help me in the future.”

What all this means is that in order for readers to get that dopamine rush that makes it difficult for them to put a book down, they need to be able to place themselves in the role of the participant. In other words, they need to know how the protagonist is reacting internally to the external events forced upon them. Our brains derive meaning from emotion. We cannot effectively perceive what the protagonist is going through unless we understand what she is feeling. If the hero of the story simply reacts to a series of chaotic and external events with no real emotion then the reader will only be an observer watching the events unfold, most likely with indifference.

According to Cron, the best way to instill emotion and an internal struggle into What if? story prompts is to ask your students, “What point are you trying to make with this story?” As simplistic as this sounds, young writers often forget that stories need a point, especially if they are on a deadline. By having the students focus on what point they want their story to make, they can more effectively write the internal struggle of their protagonist.
The point of their stories doesn’t have to be anything profound. For instance, going back to the story prompt of Mary and her missing car, suppose I want the point of my story to be that what we say can have significant effects on others. I could write a story about how Mary, age eighteen, is in charge of her fifteen year old brother while their mother is away on business for the week.  Mary has a huge argument with him the night before and when she sees the car is missing the next day, she naturally freaks out, thinking she drove her little brother to run away. And even worse, he doesn’t even have a learner’s permit yet! By effectively conveying Mary’s internal struggle involving her the fear and the guilt she feels for her actions, I immediately create a more compelling story than if I just wrote a series of events of how Mary reacted to the unusual event. Just remember, if your prompts only focus on the external, readers will also be external to the story.

Check out these resources to help your students with their creative writing!