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6 engaging writing activities to improve student learning

As a teacher, you’ve probably found that you need to be very sensitive when it comes to students’ writing. Writing is personal — you may have some students who will pour their hearts out. But alas, their grammar still needs some love.

On the other hand, you may have kids who have perfect grammar but struggle with creativity. And then there are the sensitive students who have trouble accepting feedback (think about how you feel when you’re critiqued!).

My point is that there are many facets to writing, and for the majority of us, it’s a hard task!

As a writer and certified English teacher, I know firsthand how difficult writing can be — I’ve practically been doing it forever! Some kids don’t want to write because it’s tricky, others fear it because it’s so personal.

So how do you engage your students in writing while still teaching them to string together a proper sentence? How do you alleviate their fears? Throughout the years, I’ve found some engaging writing activities that have worked well, and maybe they can help you out, too.

Check out these writing activities that could engage student learning in your classroom.

Easy writing activities that boost student learning

youtube homepage screen
Photo credit: Christian Wiediger

1. YouTube reflections

It’s no secret that kids nowadays love YouTube. Some of them even have their own channel — sure, they may use YouTube primarily for entertainment, but at least it’s a platform that makes them happy and willing to share content. Why not leverage that to get students writing?

There are lots of really cool and inspiring YouTube videos out there that have positive messages for kids. Here are a few I would play (the first one puts a lot in perspective):

This activity involves little (if any) prep, which is always a blessing for teachers and students alike. Simply play the video and have the kids write a response. It’s amazing how passionate some students get about these clips when they relate to them!

This is one of the first assignments I would do every year because it would give me an idea of where students were with their writing skills. I didn’t grade them, but you certainly can if you’d like. It was also an assignment that integrated student choice because kids could recommend videos to write about.

YouTube reflections, as I call them, engage students and motivate them to write while integrating their interest in technology and content-sharing platforms.

kids seating in a theater
Photo credit: Tyler Delgado

2. Playwriting

In a previous post, I wrote about students putting on plays as part of a drama unit, and how they’d write and practically coordinate the entire thing as a group. That may or may not fit into your class, but playwriting (even for a short production) is something kids love.

And what’s really great about playwriting is that it requires you to think more creatively and realistically about your writing — because when it comes time to act things out, the hope is that your script will be natural, believable, and comprehensible. If your kids ever write a play, they can also edit the script themselves for some engaging grammar practice.

Who knows? You might have a famous playwright in your mix.

Studying boy with pen writes on paper
Photo credit: Santi Vedrí

3. Short stories

Sometimes, we feel pressed for time and have trouble finishing books on schedule. It happens to the best of teachers. If you’re in that position, consider reading and creating short stories.

Kids rock at writing them! I used to spend an entire quarter on a short story unit, and I even did a sci-fi unit. You can specialize in a genre or keep it open, but a short story unit can focus on the elements of a story (a standard) and teach students how to punctuate dialogue correctly.

Most importantly, students can express their creativity! It always amazed me what kids came up with, and how they’d be eagerly champing at the bit to share their stories with the class. It’s a fairly laid-back unit but places a great deal of emphasis on imagination. And as a bonus for you, the assignments are fun to grade!

a hand writing in a notebook with a coffee and other handwritten paper arround
Photo credit: Green Chameleon

4. Personal philosophy paper

In high school, I was required to write my own philosophy paper, and it’s an assignment that stuck with me (thanks, Mr. Muench!). When I became a teacher, I assigned the same paper to my eighth-grade class by asking them, “What is your personal philosophy?” You could ask yourself this too and have a reflective brainstorm.

This activity gets you thinking about your life while allowing you to put what you believe into words. And as you know, beliefs are strong, and they hold emotion, so you will get one heck of a paper. Plus, some of my eighth graders who planned to apply to private high schools wound up used this paper for their personal essay!

Photo credit: Ricky Turner

5. Metacognition papers

There’s a big buzz in education right now around metacognition. In short, this big word means thinking about thinking. According to research, it improves student outcomes and cognitive thinking.

Make it a key part of writing assignments by picking a variety of different topics to write about. My students had a tough time with commas, and no matter what I tried, the rules wouldn’t stick — that is, until students were assigned to write about implementing commas.

Yes, it sounds boring, but there were choices for the task, and kids love choices. Students could write a regular essay, story, or comic that had to provide examples of proper comma usage, strategies for implementing them, and so on.

After this activity, I saw a change in how my students used commas. This engaging writing activity yielded better results than boring old multiple choice quizzes.

a pile of kids books with a kid mug on top
Photo credit: Annie Spratt

6. Children’s books

What was your favorite childhood book? I was obsessed with Dr. Seuss. I read every single Dr. Seuss book there was in the library, and there were a ton of them.

Children’s books are engaging. And for that reason, you can easily use them to teach concepts such as allusions, parables, fables, rhymes, independent/dependent clauses — the list goes on. You can also relate children’s books to many benchmarks and academic standards. The best part? Kids actually enjoy reading them!

Students can also create illustrations to accompany what they’re reading. If you’re using this activity with older students, they can read the books aloud to younger kids (such as at the local library) for an integrated learning experience.

It’s an engaging activity on so many levels, and there are even online programs that help with children’s books, so you can easily tie in technology as well. One free one is My Storybook.

The truth about writing

You will inevitably stumble across struggling kids who are freaked out by writing. It’s part of the beauty of teaching the confusing language of English.

But if kids don’t write, they won’t get better. Even if students do write but aren’t into what they’re writing, they could have a hard time passionately and clearly illustrating their thoughts. And that’s not what we’re going after.

We want kids to be able to write what they feel and think. If we collaborate and find assignments they really enjoy, then maybe kids will realize that writing is worth it.

One of the most amazing things about these creative writing activities is that some kids will actually write some profound stuff. In my experience, I’ve also learned quite a lot about my students through the process of incorporating these activities.

Sometimes we get lost in the technicalities of linguistics — I know I did. But we need to realize that even though the grammar may not always be there, kids have something worth expressing.

For students, being able to express themselves in writing may take time, but as teachers, we need to do what we can to help them be confident about (and competent in) expressing their thoughts through the written word. We owe them that wonderful opportunity!

Photo credit: Lavi Perchik / Unsplash.com

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