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Our 2020-21 Writing Curriculum for Middle and High School

A flexible, seven-unit program based on the real-world writing found in newspapers, from editorials and reviews to personal narratives and informational essays.

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”<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/07/17/books/review/17snider.html">The Writer’s Retreat</a>,” originally published in The New York Times Book Review in 2014.

Update: Find our 2021-22 writing curriculum here.

Our 2019-20 Writing Curriculum is one of the most popular new features we’ve ever run on this site, so, of course, we’re back with a 2020-21 version — one we hope is useful whether you’re teaching in person , online , indoors , outdoors , in a pod , as a homeschool , or in some hybrid of a few of these.

The curriculum detailed below is both a road map for teachers and an invitation to students. For teachers, it includes our writing prompts, mentor texts, contests and lesson plans, and organizes them all into seven distinct units. Each focuses on a different genre of writing that you can find not just in The Times but also in all kinds of real-world sources both in print and online.

But for students, our main goal is to show young people they have something valuable to say, and to give those voices a global audience. That’s always been a pillar of our site, but this year it is even more critical. The events of 2020 will define this generation, and many are living through them isolated from their ordinary communities, rituals and supports. Though a writing curriculum can hardly make up for that, we hope that it can at least offer teenagers a creative outlet for making sense of their experiences, and an enthusiastic audience for the results. Through the opportunities for publication woven throughout each unit, we want to encourage students to go beyond simply being media consumers to become creators and contributors themselves.

So have a look, and see if you can find a way to include any of these opportunities in your curriculum this year, whether to help students document their lives, tell stories, express opinions, investigate ideas, or analyze culture. We can’t wait to hear what your students have to say!

Each unit includes:

Writing prompts to help students try out related skills in a “low stakes” way.

We publish two writing prompts every school day, and we also have thematic collections of more than 1,000 prompts published in the past. Your students might consider responding to these prompts on our site and using our public forums as a kind of “rehearsal space” for practicing voice and technique.

Daily opportunities to practice writing for an authentic audience.

If a student submits a comment on our site, it will be read by Times editors, who approve each one before it gets published. Submitting a comment also gives students an audience of fellow teenagers from around the world who might read and respond to their work. Each week, we call out our favorite comments and honor dozens of students by name in our Thursday “ Current Events Conversation ” feature.

Guided practice with mentor texts .

Each unit we publish features guided practice lessons, written directly to students, that help them observe, understand and practice the kinds of “craft moves” that make different genres of writing sing. From how to “show not tell” in narratives to how to express critical opinions , quote or paraphrase experts or craft scripts for podcasts , we have used the work of both Times journalists and the teenage winners of our contests to show students techniques they can emulate.

“Annotated by the Author” commentaries from Times writers — and teenagers.

As part of our Mentor Texts series , we’ve been asking Times journalists from desks across the newsroom to annotate their articles to let students in on their writing, research and editing processes, and we’ll be adding more for each unit this year. Whether it’s Science writer Nicholas St. Fleur on tiny tyrannosaurs , Opinion writer Aisha Harris on the cultural canon , or The Times’s comics-industry reporter, George Gene Gustines, on comic books that celebrate pride , the idea is to demystify journalism for teenagers. This year, we’ll be inviting student winners of our contests to annotate their work as well.

A contest that can act as a culminating project .

Over the years we’ve heard from many teachers that our contests serve as final projects in their classes, and this curriculum came about in large part because we want to help teachers “plan backwards” to support those projects.

All contest entries are considered by experts, whether Times journalists, outside educators from partner organizations, or professional practitioners in a related field. Winning means being published on our site, and, perhaps, in the print edition of The New York Times.

Webinars and our new professional learning community (P.L.C.).

For each of the seven units in this curriculum, we host a webinar featuring Learning Network editors as well as teachers who use The Times in their classrooms. Our webinars introduce participants to our many resources and provide practical how-to’s on how to use our prompts, mentor texts and contests in the classroom.

New for this school year, we also invite teachers to join our P.L.C. on teaching writing with The Times , where educators can share resources, strategies and inspiration about teaching with these units.

Below are the seven units we will offer in the 2020-21 school year.


Unit 1: Documenting Teenage Lives in Extraordinary Times

This special unit acknowledges both the tumultuous events of 2020 and their outsized impact on young people — and invites teenagers to respond creatively. How can they add their voices to our understanding of what this historic year will mean for their generation?

Culminating in our Coming of Age in 2020 contest, the unit helps teenagers document and respond to what it’s been like to live through what one Times article describes as “a year of tragedy, of catastrophe, of upheaval, a year that has inflicted one blow after another, a year that has filled the morgues, emptied the schools, shuttered the workplaces, swelled the unemployment lines and polarized the electorate.”

A series of writing prompts, mentor texts and a step-by-step guide will help them think deeply and analytically about who they are, how this year has impacted them, what they’d like to express as a result, and how they’d like to express it. How might they tell their unique stories in ways that feel meaningful and authentic, whether those stories are serious or funny, big or small, raw or polished?

Though the contest accepts work across genres — via words and images, video and audio — all students will also craft written artist’s statements for each piece they submit. In addition, no matter what genre of work students send in, the unit will use writing as a tool throughout to help students brainstorm, compose and edit. And, of course, this work, whether students send it to us or not, is valuable far beyond the classroom: Historians, archivists and museums recommend that we all document our experiences this year, if only for ourselves.


Unit 2: The Personal Narrative

While The Times is known for its award-winning journalism, the paper also has a robust tradition of publishing personal essays on topics like love , family , life on campus and navigating anxiety . And on our site, our daily writing prompts have long invited students to tell us their stories, too. Our 2019 collection of 550 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing is a good place to start, though we add more every week during the school year.

In this unit we draw on many of these resources, plus some of the 1,000-plus personal essays from the Magazine’s long-running Lives column , to help students find their own “short, memorable stories ” and tell them well. Our related mentor-text lessons can help them practice skills like writing with voice , using details to show rather than tell , structuring a narrative arc , dropping the reader into a scene and more. This year, we’ll also be including mentor text guided lessons that use the work of the 2019 student winners.

As a final project, we invite students to send finished stories to our Second Annual Personal Narrative Writing Contest .


Unit 3: The Review

Book reports and literary essays have long been staples of language arts classrooms, but this unit encourages students to learn how to critique art in other genres as well. As we point out, a cultural review is, of course, a form of argumentative essay. Your class might be writing about Lizzo or “ Looking for Alaska ,” but they still have to make claims and support them with evidence. And, just as they must in a literature essay, they have to read (or watch, or listen to) a work closely; analyze it and understand its context; and explain what is meaningful and interesting about it.

In our Mentor Texts series , we feature the work of Times movie , restaurant , book and music critics to help students understand the elements of a successful review. In each one of these guided lessons, we also spotlight the work of teenage contest winners from previous years.

As a culminating project, we invite students to send us their own reviews of a book, movie, restaurant, album, theatrical production, video game, dance performance, TV show, art exhibition or any other kind of work The Times critiques.


Unit 4: Informational Writing

Informational writing is the style of writing that dominates The New York Times as well as any other traditional newspaper you might read, and in this unit we hope to show students that it can be every bit as engaging and compelling to read and to write as other genres. Via thousands of articles a month — from front-page reporting on politics to news about athletes in Sports, deep data dives in The Upshot, recipes in Cooking, advice columns in Style and long-form investigative pieces in the magazine — Times journalists find ways to experiment with the genre to intrigue and inform their audiences.

This unit invites students to take any STEM-related discovery, process or idea that interests them and write about it in a way that makes it understandable and engaging for a general audience — but all the skills we teach along the way can work for any kind of informational writing. Via our Mentor Texts series, we show them how to hook the reader from the start , use quotes and research , explain why a topic matters and more. This year we’ll be using the work of the 2020 student winners for additional mentor text lessons.

At the end of the unit, we invite teenagers to submit their own writing to our Second Annual STEM writing contest to show us what they’ve learned.


Unit 5: Argumentative Writing

The demand for evidence-based argumentative writing is now woven into school assignments across the curriculum and grade levels, and you couldn’t ask for better real-world examples than what you can find in The Times Opinion section .

This unit will, like our others, be supported with writing prompts, mentor-text lesson plans, webinars and more. We’ll also focus on the winning teenage writing we’ve received over the six years we’ve run our related contest.

At a time when media literacy is more important than ever, we also hope that our annual Student Editorial Contest can serve as a final project that encourages students to broaden their information diets with a range of reliable sources, and learn from a variety of perspectives on their chosen issue.

To help students working from home, we also have an Argumentative Unit for Students Doing Remote Learning .

Unit 6: Writing for Podcasts

Most of our writing units so far have all asked for essays of one kind or another, but this spring contest invites students to do what journalists at The Times do every day: make multimedia to tell a story, investigate an issue or communicate a concept.

Our annual podcast contest gives students the freedom to talk about anything they want in any form they like. In the past we’ve had winners who’ve done personal narratives, local travelogues, opinion pieces, interviews with community members, local investigative journalism and descriptions of scientific discoveries.

As with all our other units, we have supported this contest with great examples from The Times and around the web, as well as with mentor texts by teenagers that offer guided practice in understanding elements and techniques.


Unit 7: Independent Reading and Writing

At a time when teachers are looking for ways to offer students more “voice and choice,” this unit, based on our annual summer contest, offers both.

Every year since 2010 we have invited teenagers around the world to add The New York Times to their summer reading lists and, so far, 70,000 have. Every week for 10 weeks, we ask participants to choose something in The Times that has sparked their interest, then tell us why. At the end of the week, judges from the Times newsroom pick favorite responses, and we publish them on our site.

And we’ve used our Mentor Text feature to spotlight the work of past winners , explain why newsroom judges admired their thinking, and provide four steps to helping any student write better reader-responses.

Because this is our most open-ended contest — students can choose whatever they like, and react however they like — it has proved over the years to be a useful place for young writers to hone their voices, practice skills and take risks . Join us!


6 Research-Based Interventions for Writing

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A few months ago, Branching Minds did a deep dive into our 5 Most Common MTSS Reading Programs Used in 2020 . Many of these programs have associated writing supports embedded into their platforms, but these primarily target reading intervention.

When creating a comprehensive MTSS support or intervention plan , it’s important to note that literacy interventions need to incorporate both reading and writing. Reading skills help develop a student’s ability to comprehend ideas communicated by another writer, while the act of writing allows a student to develop and communicate his/her own thoughts. While these are two very different skills they each impact the growth of the other, and intervention plans will need to account for both reading and writing support.  

Below, we outline 6 Research-Based Writing Interventions for RTI/MTSS. We include various supports, ranging from free strategies to paid programs to address each school and student’s wide variety of needs. These RTI/MTSS Writing Interventions are available in the Branching Minds Library, the most robust library of evidence-based learning supports and interventions across academics, behavior, and SEL.

Writing Conferences

Writing conferences are a free, research-based writing activity for grades 3-8, and appropriate for all tier levels in MTSS . They’re conducted in a whole-class setting and allow students to share and reflect on their own writing throughout the revision process. Writing conferences also allow for immediate feedback from teachers and peers, clarification on questions, promotion of positive attitudes regarding writing and topics, as well as the incorporation of social benefits such as peer-sharing and collaboration. Research shows that when paired with peer-editing, writing conferences can significantly improve comprehension and application of revision and editing during the writing process.

When planning a writing conference, it’s essential to outline a clear goal for the students to achieve during the process. Teachers model the process before beginning, create a structure to focus on discussion and revision, and demonstrate solutions to problems encountered during the process. Students may be paired up or placed into groups for role-reversal in peer-editing, allowing for additional social support throughout the intervention. 

Graphic Organizers

The use of graphic organizers is a free, research-based writing strategy that can be used for grades K-12 and is appropriate for all tier levels. Although there are a variety of organizers available, the root of this strategy remains the same.

Organizers help students break down complex texts into manageable chunks and construct meaning from what they have read. When incorporated at the beginning of the writing process, organizers help students compile their thoughts before putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard in this modern age).  

Graphic organizers are beneficial for students who struggle with reading comprehension and memory. Research has shown that graphic organizers effectively improve narrative and expository writing skills, particularly in students with learning disabilities. Teachers can model how to fill out a graphic organizer while reading complex texts and scaffold as needed as students complete the organizer independently or in small groups.

The Branching Minds library has a wide selection of free graphic organizers available for teachers, all grade levels, and writing selections.

➡️ Related resource: Audit Intervention Programs in MTSS/RTI

Mnemonic Devices

Mnemonic devices are a free, research-based writing strategy appropriate for K-8, with some adaptability available for higher grade levels. While suitable for all tier levels, mnemonic devices are especially useful for higher-tier students who struggle with memory recall.  

As a writing tool, mnemonic devices can be used to intervene in grammar and spelling for struggling writers. The common phrase “i after e, except after c” is an example of how spelling mnemonics can help students remember complex spelling structures (though, as we all know, these rules are not always true). Expression mnemonic devices are effective for students who struggle in writing homophones or conjunctions, utilizing popular expressions such as FANBOYS (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So) to aid in memory recall while writing.  

Research has demonstrated a link between mnemonic devices and increased student accuracy in word recall, spelling, and grammar conventions. Mnemonic devices can be utilized throughout the writing process, but before applying this strategy, teachers should note particular areas of difficulty in writing, such as spelling, information recall, or grammar rules. 

Step-Up to Writing

Step-Up to Writing is a paid writing program offering a robust curriculum for students K-12. An offshoot of Voyager Sopris Learning, this program is similar to Voyager’s many other learning programs. The program includes professional development, flexible implementation, curriculum compatibility, and subject-area writing support.  

The program establishes a common writing approach across four grade bands: K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12. The online content supports narrative, informative, and argumentative writing and provides additional support for English language learners . The program’s structure allows for small-group instruction and whole-group instruction, allowing the flexibility of incorporating the program in entire units or in smaller chunks to complement classroom instruction.

Preliminary research has shown Step-Up to be successful in helping students gain mastery in summarization, expository writing, syntax, essay organization, and grammar conventions. This places Step-Up solidly in the “Research-Based” category of ESSA’s levels of evidence.

➡️ Related resource: A Quick Review of MTSS Supports, Interventions, and Accommodations

NoRedInk is a paid writing program appropriate for grades 5-12. One of the newest members of writing interventions, NoRedInk, offers a comprehensive online platform for adaptive writing lessons based on student interests and skills. Reading material is determined by an initial diagnostic assessment that categorizes student interests in different genres to generate texts of high interest to the individual reader. 

This program offers various options for integration into the classroom, including daily writing activities, full curriculum units, targeted grammar exercises, and test prep. Teachers can select activities from the assignment library based on the needs of each student, with support available for English Language Learners.

NoRedInk is fully integrated with Clever, Canvas, and Google Classroom, enabling teachers to seamlessly integrate rosters and gradebooks into the program to allow for easy grading and task assigning. School-based case studies have shown NoRedInk to effectively raise MAP, STAAR, and SAT scores. This places NoRedInk into the “Research-based” category of ESSA’s levels of evidence—an impressive feat for one of the internet’s newer writing programs. 

ThinkCERCA is a paid, research-based close reading and writing platform for grades 3-12, and appropriate for all tier levels in MTSS . Thinkcerca’s units include resources to support routines covering background knowledge and conceptual understanding to improve comprehension, close reading practices such as highlighting and annotating text, and pre-writing routines, including summarizing, planning with graphic organizers, peer editing, and revision. Additional direct instruction and skills lessons allow teachers to target personalized skill development.

Thinkcerca’s implementation resources support literacy routines that allow teachers to work with small groups and individual students. ThinkCERCA meets ESSA’s levels of evidence, showing that students see 2+ years of reading growth and 20% gains in writing when they use it with fidelity. 



Many factors should be considered when building a writing intervention plan. Students struggle with writing for a variety of reasons. An effective and efficient MTSS support plan should include targeted instruction, high-interest material, and a comprehensive scope on the whole student—not just the intervention area.  

This is particularly true in regards to English Language Learners (ELL). When planning writing interventions for ELL students, it’s important to consider each student’s comfort with language acquisition, and priority should be given to developing reading levels. Research supports more minor writing activities for entering ELL students—daily news reports, dialogue journals, and short, persuasive essays. Many of the strategies and programs outlined above provide additional support for ELL students and could be beneficially added to intervention plans in MTSS . 

 ➡️ On-Demand Webinar: Supporting English Learners Within MTSS

Mollie Breese

Mollie Breese

Mollie Breese is the Content Manager at Branching Minds. She helps streamline the support library, so schools can identify and access the interventions they need to support student success. She researches the newest strategies, activities, and programs to add to the robust library, providing a wealth of resources for partner schools. Prior to joining Branching Minds, Mollie worked in the classroom as an English teacher, Reading teacher, and ESL instructor. Mollie earned her B.A. in Political Science from the University of Missouri, and her M.A. in English Literature from the University of Glasgow.

Connect with Mollie Breese

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The Edvocate

18 Ways to Teach Struggling Students to Wait on Assistance From the Teacher

Logic: everything you need to know, most interesting utopia essay topics, utilitarianism essay topics, american history essay topics to write about, most interesting urbanization essay topics to write about, most interesting urban planning essay topics to write about, most interesting uniform essay topics to write about, essay topics on unemployment, good research topics about uncle tom’s cabin, the secret to teaching middle school writing.

middle school writing interventions

Middle school writing is an experience like no other, for both the students and their teachers.

Teaching middle school writing can be one of the most rewarding experiences you might have, and if you incorporate some of these strategies, your students will find it equally rewarding.

As Ryan Tahmaseb has discovered, middle school students are “full of imagination and creativity.” This makes the middle school grades the best time for teaching students the writing skills they need. Students in middle school are often more adventurous in trying new writing strategies than at any other time in their lives.

Middle school writing strategies like these will help you develop the writers you know your students can be.

Engage both sides of the brain

Writing can seem like a one-sided analytical task to your students.

Offer your students creative ways, such as graphic organizers , to think about their writing. Graphic organizers help students see organizational patterns, and the graphic structures have words and phrases for additional support.

The idea is to immerse your students in the language they need for writing while providing visuals. Display their completed graphic organizers and keep words lists handy for students.

Every classroom has a Lowry, Rowling, or Riordan

Middle school students like to try their hand at a variety of writing styles, so let them model their sentences after the ones written by their favorite authors.

The goal is to mimic writing styles. Imitation is not only the sincerest form of flattery, but it also teaches students about grammatical structures within sentences. As an added bonus, your students get to visit some of their favorite texts.

Write for a variety of purposes

By focusing exclusively on essay-writing, you’re limiting what your students can do with their writing skills. Hands-on writing techniques are especially effective for the boys in your classroom because these activities are engaging. Involve your students in writing screenplays, scavenger hunts, and more.

Avoid teaching grammar in isolation

Teaching grammar in isolation is ineffective. It’s also boring. Students rarely make connections between stand-alone grammar and what they’re writing. It’s almost as if they are two separate worlds.

Instead, teach grammar concepts by using your students’ writing. Middle school students are more excited about learning concepts when their writing is the at the center of the lesson.

Play with language

Encourage your students to identify clichés, make up idioms, and revel in onomatopoeia. Encourage your students to make up poems and raps, rhymes and songs that exaggerate literary devices.

Let your students tell stories

Storytelling is powerful. We connect across cultures when we share our stories, and with good reason. They captivate us and inspire us. Share some of the power of the written word by letting your students write the stories of what goes on around them.

Make writing relevant to student interests

Middle school students are curious about the world around them. Tap into their natural curiosity and make assignments relevant. Assign authentic tasks, like write a persuasive paragraph in favor of your grade, or introduce real-world examples of good and poor writing.

As you incorporate middle school strategies like these in your instruction, remember that writing with your students will be as much fun as you allow it to be. As a result, your students will be more likely to enjoy writing as they get older.

They’ll undoubtedly be able to express themselves better, too.

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Oct 13, 2022 | 0 comments

Writing strategies for middle school students that help them break through writer’s block – your middle schoolers can use these strategies for the rest of the school year and, quite frankly, for the rest of their lives.

Why I teach writing strategies to my middle school students

Year after year, I ask my students if they had ever been taught these strategies before they were in my classroom. Often, they say that some teachers make them do one or two of these strategies once in a while. However, after using the writing strategies I teach and we use throughout the year in my class, these strategies have become a part of their writing process.

For instance, this school year Nicholas admitted something to me during a writing conference. He said, “I wasn’t doing some of them during your lesson, but then I got stuck when I got to my computer. Then, I remembered what you taught me, and so I pulled out my journal and used one of your writer’s tricks. I used to think it was a waste of time to plan before I write. But it really helps.”

Another student, Eva, had pages of lists, mind maps, etc. all unassigned by me. During her writer’s conference, she told me that she had this story in her head for a very long time and didn’t know how to get it onto paper. “With this class, I can now!” Her enthusiasm was all I needed to keep teaching these “magic” tricks to break writer’s block.

To have students internalize which strategy works best for them in a particular moment – that is gold! You taught them a life-long skill!

How to teach writing strategies for middle school students

First, I use a writing workshop in my classroom. Also, these strategies are used before we read as well, to allow students to think and connect with the topic or theme of a text we will study. For more information on writing workshop, click here for: Writer’s Workshop Middle School: The Ultimate Guide

Start with the five most used strategies first. Those are: asking questions, listing, mind mapping, writers sprints (freewriting), and drawing to write.

In order to get the best results, teach each writing strategy to your middle school students step-by-step, and practice a lot. 

When you employ these strategies, you will see a difference in your student writers in less time than it might have taken to teach writing before you taught these strategies and with less stress, too.

The two secrets to teaching these strategies are using a timer and making it common practice .

I like to call my 5 best writing strategies “the 5 writer’s tricks.” Using a magical theme helps it stick in the student’s mind, and what middle schooler doesn’t like a little magic?

This is what I do: I teach one trick per day for five days, and then after that I use them almost every day in bell ringers, reading annotations, pre-writing, reviewing concepts, etc. Therefore, any time I want my students to think and write down their thoughts, I employ one of these strategies. I always use a timer, too.

On my YouTube channel, I have created a playlist of videos that walks you through how I teach these 5 writing strategies or “writer’s tricks.” Each Monday, I will publish a video covering one of the tricks in depth. 

Click here to watch those:

My Five Top Writing Strategies

Blog Posts that Go Deeper into the 5 Tricks Writing Strategies for Middle School Students

Click on any of the blog post links below to read more about how I use these “magic” tricks with my students:

List Building

Mind Mapping

Writing Sprints

Drawing to Write

As I add more writing strategies to my classroom this year, I will add them here for you.

Click here for the 5 tricks that Break Writer's Block Teacher's Guide


This contains:

For TPT products that use these 5 writing Strategies for middle school students, click on these links:

Writing Description Sensory Details Flip Book with Writing Activities

Listing Strategies

Writing Strategies Mind Mapping Practice

Journal Freewriting Activities Presentation Slides

Digital Mind Maps and Notebook 


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How To: Master Spelling or Sight Words: Cover-Copy-Compare

This intervention promotes the acquisition of spelling or sight words. The  student is given a sheet containing words to practice.


Writing Instruction: Effective Elements

Spelling: repeated review of spelling words with shared rime.

DESCRIPTION: The student practices the reading and spelling of words from word families that have similar pronunciation and shared spelling patterns (rimes) (adapted from Conrad, 2

Conrad, N. J. (2008). From reading to spelling and spelling to reading: Transfer goes both ways. Journal of Educational Psychology, 100, 869-878.

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Jim's hints.

How To' Strategy Sheets on Writing Topics. You can find a library of well-written strategy sheets on advanced writing topics such as defining audience, reorganizing drafts, and making transitions between sections of a paper. The site is sponsored by the Writing Center at the University of North Carolina.

Articles on Writing Instruction. This page contains links to articles on such topics as helping children with disabilities to access skills required for effective writing, employing instruction in memory techniques to teach writing, and the uses of computer-assisted writing instruction. The page is sponsored by the Access Center.

College Writing Center Directory . Some of the best on-line resources for writing instruction and intervention come from college and university writing centers. This page from Purdue University's Writing Lab provides a directory of links to writing centers across the nation and in other parts of the world.

Writing Interventions: A Collaborative Project. Part of a larger collection of intervention ideas, this page contains practical suggestions to improve writing instruction. 'The CSSS Project' is a collaboration between the Illinois State University Departments of School Psychology and Special Education and the Peoria (IL) School District.

Writing Skills Checklist. This 'Writing Skills Checklist' from Intervention Central allows intervention teams to inventory the student's mastery of the components of good writing--including the physical production of writing, mechanics and conventions, content and preparation, and the production and revision of drafts. The checklist also provides intervention ideas to address identified writing problems.

Integrated Writing Instruction

Students with writing disabilities typically find the act of writing to be both difficult and unrewarding.

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middle school writing interventions

Grammar / Vocabulary

Reading and writing interventions: making them work in middle school.

I’m just going to say it.  I believe the United States education system right now is obsessed with the word intervention .  It’s the answer for everything.  A student is reading several levels below grade level?  Let’s put them in a reading intervention.  A teacher notices one of her student’s writing skills aren’t up to par?  Let’s put them in a writing intervention.  I’ll be clear: I don’t disagree with having interventions.  However, after teaching and being the literacy coach at a middle school who is entering into the fourth year of a universal intervention period, I have some thoughts and non-negotiables about what is going to make the time and effort a teacher/a school system takes to plan out interventions worthwhile for all involved.  Also, as I’ll point out below, an intervention alone is not enough to “fix” students’ reading and writing deficits.

1.  Know the purpose of the intervention.  The middle school level is unique.  We have students just out of elementary land, and we’re preparing other students to enter into high school.  This may create different reasons in some teachers’ minds for why students need an intervention.  Is this intervention for (a) to increase reading and writing abilities in a student or (b) to increase reading and writing productivity in a student.  There is a big difference between (a) and (b).  Doing an intervention to help increase abilities is going to involve knowing everything about that student as a reader and writer and using specific strategies to help fill in deficits and build on strengths.  Doing an intervention to increase productivity is a behavioral issue that is going to focus in on student motivation and organization.  We must be clear on the purpose because a student who needs an intervention to increase reading and writing abilities but is in an intervention to increase reading and writing productivity is a waste of time for all involved and vice versa.

2.  Provide Teacher PD and Intervention Resources.  As a school system, if you want high-quality interventions done, you must make an investment in teacher expertise and intervention resources.  My school, for example, has purchased Fountas and Pinnell’s Red, Gold, Purple, and Teal Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI) Systems.  Several of the teachers using LLI, including myself, have attended LLI professional development instructed by Fountas and Pinnel themselves.  We also do a beginning of the year refresher and alignment each year.  A school simply cannot expect teachers to provide magical interventions without resources or training.  A significant investment must be made in both teachers and resources in order for interventions to be effective.

3.  Don’t Ignore Universal Instruction.  Before any student is placed in a reading or writing intervention, the question has to be asked: What is happening at the universal level in the classroom?  If a student is receiving ineffective reading and writing instruction each day at the universal level, that problem needs to be fixed first.  We have come so far as educators as far as differentiating at the universal level to meet the needs of all students in our classroom.  Every English Language Arts classroom at the middle school level should have a balance of whole group, small group, and individualized instruction through whole group minilessons, guided reading/writing, literature circles, and reading/writing conferences.  The gradual release of responsibility should also be used during each minilessons so that students are exposed to a specific learning target, modeling of the learning target, a guided practice, and an independent application.  Minilessons should be focused on reading and writing skills  that can be applied to how reading and writing works again and again versus specific reading and writing  tasks  teachers want students to do.  These are non-negotiables.  If these things aren’t happening on a consistent basis, then going down the path of intervention is silly.  Universal instruction must be fixed first.

4.  Don’t Replace Universal Instruction with Intervention.  If you were to ask me what the biggest mistake would be when implementing an intervention for a student, this is it.  Students needing a reading intervention are taken out of reading class to complete that intervention.  It sounds logical right?  Doing this is a total system mistake.  Students truly in need of a reading or writing intervention need universal instruction plus an intervention.  They need that double dose.  Replacing universal instruction with intervention gives that student, who is already struggling with reading or writing, less  than other students in the classroom.  Their instruction at the universal level will be choppy and confusing because they’re in and out to complete intervention, and many teachers don’t adjust their expectations of these students even when they’re missing significant chunks of class to attend the intervention.  This will just put already struggling students further and further behind and also leave them feeling more isolated and frustrated. 5.  Consider a Universal Intervention Period.  My school utilizes an “all hands on deck” approach to intervention by taking the first 40 minutes of the school day to provide interventions and extensions to every single student in our school.  There isn’t a “you’re in an intervention” stigma that students are worried about because every student participates.  Every staff member is involved in providing either an intervention or an extension.  No student has to miss universal instruction to receive his or her intervention.  Also, teachers are more aware of strategies they can use to help struggling readers and writers at the universal level.  It really seems like a win-win for everyone involved.

6.  Programs Aren’t Always the Answer.  Earlier on in this post, I mentioned the importance of investing in resources.  My school has invested in LLI resources and training for staff as one  option for reading intervention.  Here’s the thing.  Purchasing a bunch of boxed programs and computer intervention programs isn’t the answer either.  The biggest return a school will get on intervention effectiveness is to invest in the professional development of the teachers teaching the interventions.  Purchasing a professional development book, having teachers do a compensated book study of the resource, and giving teachers time to discuss implementation strategies of what was learned will go a lot further than purchasing every fancy intervention system out there.  The reps for intervention systems are extremely persuasive, but a program is just a program when there isn’t teacher expertise to back it up.

7.  Ditch the Computer Intervention Programs.  There are great interventions out there where there is a computer element  to a teacher-led intervention.  That is not what I’m talking about here.  I’m talking about the intervention programs where students walk into the classroom, grab a computer, and sit and complete a reading or writing intervention with zero  connection to a human being/teacher.  My observations of students in an intervention like this is they might start out strong and learn, but there is a quick burnout rate where students become unmotivated and start to despise reading and writing, even though computerized passages and writing prompts are not what authentic reading and writing is, this is what students begin to associate with reading and writing.  There is nothing that any one could say to me to convince me that this is a better option than setting students in front of a highly qualified teacher who knows specific strategies to use with struggling readers and writers.  A teacher like this can observe what a student is doing and make a decision about what direction to take that student.  A teacher performing an intervention can smile, encourage, motivate, and explain.  A computer can do none of these things in a meaningful way.  Students spend enough time in front of a computer, television, or cell phone.  They don’t need any more meaningless screen time added to their day then what already exists.

8.  Focus on Transfer.  The universal reading and writing instruction in the classroom should complement intervention reading and writing instruction.  If there is not a connection between the two, it is highly unlikely that the classroom teacher will see an improvement in students’ reading and writing.  Classroom teachers and intervention teachers (who are sometimes one in the same) need to get on the same page as far as what good reading and writing instruction looks like and make sure already struggling readers and writers aren’t getting complete mixed messages that will confuse them more. 9.  Give Teachers Time to Collaborate.  So much can come from allowing a struggling student’s intervention teacher and classroom teacher time to have a conversation about that student.  If these two teachers can get in the same room and share their noticings about a student with one another, there is no doubt in how much more powerful the classroom teacher and the intervention teacher’s instruction for that student will be.

10.  Use Multiple Pieces of Data to Re-Visit Intervention Placement.  A student should not be placed in a reading or writing intervention based on one piece of data from a 30 minute computer test.  Placing a student in an intervention is a big decision, and in order to make the best decision, teachers, interventionists, and principals need to be looking at multiple pieces of data.  I recommend using something like this  Middle School Literacy Profile  which includes looking at a benchmark assessment, computerized reading test data, a spelling profile, a writing sample, and a sentence dictation.  If your school uses Fountas and Pinnell’s Benchmark Assessment, know that there is so  much information a teacher can pull from that assessment beyond the level the student tests at.  I have created these  Benchmark Assessment Helpers  to help teachers break down the data they receive on this assessment and get the most out of it.  By far the most important piece of student data though is teacher observation and anecdotal notes from the universal level of instruction .  Also, just because a student is placed in intervention doesn’t mean they should stay in that intervention for the entire school year.  Intervention placements should be flexible and reactive to student data continuously.

Please realize that the ten suggestions for interventions listed above are for ideal circumstances.  I know that schools struggle with money and time.  It saddens my heart that more money isn’t invested into schools so that ideal situations are possible to help provide high quality universal instruction and intervention.  As leaders in schools though, it is still our responsibility to do what we can with our knowledge and the resources we are given.  I hope there is something from my thoughts above that get you thinking about how intervention is used at your school and how you could work to improve it.

middle school writing interventions

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middle school writing interventions


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