How to Create a Robust Middle School Writing Curriculum Part I: 5 Essential Skills

June 12, 2019

Essential Skill #1 - Choosing the Correct Structure for the Writing Purpose

Students need to know why are they writing their composition and to whom they are writing it. Based on those answers, they can use the chart below to find the correct structure to accomplish the task. Allow your student to practice a variety of writing structures so they can see how the structure suits the purpose.

Essential Skill #2 - Crafting a Variety of Sentence Types

Sentences are the building blocks of compositions. Students start by writing simple sentences and end by using a variety of all four sentence types. 

The rhythm and tone of a piece of writing are primarily determined by how sentence types are combined. 

Short, simple sentences tend to be factual and abrupt. They speed up the pace of the composition and help build tension. 

Longer, complex sentences give the reader information and require more attention. They slow the pace and give the writing a more contemplative feel. 

Using all short sentences exhausts the reader because they allow very little thinking time between ideas. On the other hand, using all long sentences exhausts the reader by forcing them to continually think through and process ideas. A mix of sentence lengths and types keeps the reader engaged to the end. 

Allow students the time to play with sentence structure. Listening to audiobooks will help students start to hear the rhythm formed by combining sentences in different ways. Once they recognize rhythmic patterns in what they are hearing, they can begin to emulate those sentence patterns in their writing. 


Skill #3 - Giving Each Paragraph a Clear Purpose

A cohesive paragraph uses a structure that enhances meaning and includes only sentences that match its purpose. 

Students have at least twenty seven different kinds of paragraphs to choose from when crafting the body of their essay. To see which one most effectively presents their information, encourage them to write using a few different kinds of paragraphs using the same information. 

Once students are comfortable writing paragraphs with a clear purpose, they're ready to add transitional words and phrases within each paragraph. 

Including transitional words and phrases takes the writing to the next level as it allows the reader to move effortlessly through the content of each paragraph. 

Next, students will connect these paragraphs to craft a unified composition. 

Essential Skill #4 - Connecting Paragraphs Correctly

Start by introducing the topic, then use transitional paragraphs to ease the reader from one body paragraph to the next. Finally, tie it all together in the concluding paragraph. 

Introductory Paragraphs

Introductory paragraphs, at minimum, include a hook and a thesis statement. The thesis statement provides the framework for the composition. Adding a transitional sentence at the end of the introduction, before the first body paragraph, eases the reader into the meat of the essay. 

Transitional Paragraphs

Add transition paragraphs after the first draft of the essay has been completed. During the revision stage, students confirm that each paragraph has a single purpose and then add transitional paragraphs to provide segues from one concept to another. These transitional paragraphs help the reader make connections between ideas. 

Transitional paragraphs only need to be as long as it takes to move the reader from one topic to another smoothly, sometimes only a few sentences. Shorter compositions may only need a single transition sentence.

Concluding Paragraphs

A basic concluding paragraph summarizes the main points of the essay. It serves to tie the ideas together in a way that leaves the reader satisfied. Depending on the purpose of the essay, the conclusion may include a reflection or a strong call to action. 

The goal is to establish the purpose in the introduction and then in the body paragraphs, move the reader smoothly from one idea to the next so that by the time they get to the conclusion they understand the topic they were introduced to in the introduction. 

Skill #5 - Using Proper Writing Conventions

Readers will not read content they cannot easily consume. For a student's voice to be heard, they must learn to use words correctly, use correct spelling and grammar, and format and punctuate correctly.

Vocabulary

Choosing the right word matters. Your student's writing voice will become more refined as their vocabulary increases. The more diverse their vocabulary, the easier it will be for them to select the word that best suits the tone of a composition. Words need not be long; instead, they should be specific. 

Spelling

Studies have shown that students that are confident spellers write more because they don't struggle to put every word on the page. Their cognitive load is less, and they can focus on the content of their writing. There are many spelling programs out there, often requiring less than 15 minutes/day of practice for a marked improvement in spelling competency. Improving spelling generally also builds a student's vocabulary - win/win. 

Grammar

Although there are many dedicated grammar programs available, studies show that students retain grammar best when learned in the context of their writing projects. Resist the temptation to correct every grammar error in each writing assignment, instead focus one or two recurring issues and help your student work through those first. 

Formatting and Punctuation

It's all in the details. If a composition is formatted and punctuated correctly, it makes it easier to read. A reader is more likely to engage with the content if it looks easy to consume. There are a variety of formatting standards, choose one appropriate for the type of writing your student is doing, and master that format. 

Invest in a good punctuation handbook. "A Writer's Guide to Perfect Punctuation" by Victor C. Pellegrino is an easy to use reference guide that is worth buying. 

As with grammar, students retain punctuation rules learned in the context of real assignments. And as with spelling, they are worth learning to reduce cognitive load while writing. However, during the final proofreading stage, having a punctuation reference guide handy is invaluable. 


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"The only way to learn to write is to write." - Peggy Teeters, Author of Jules Verne: The Man Who Invented Tomorrow