Advice for a 6th Grade Writing Teacher

Today’s post is a question I received via email yesterday from a first-year teacher about to take on a summer school assignment:

Hi Laura,
I am a huge fan of your channel and blog! I am currently finishing my first year of teaching and am seeking some advice regarding a summer school placement. It is my dream to one day teach high school English since I am secondary certified, and I always envisioned that for myself; however, to my surprise, I ended up teaching 6th grade Reading and Language Arts.

This fall, my school is thinking of changing the curriculum to having Reading and Language Arts be two separate classes, so for the summer they are splitting up the two classes to trial the idea. My assignment is going to be Language Arts for the summer and I will be teaching incoming 6th graders. Personally, I believe the two classes should be taught together, and I am stumped for what to teach the 6th graders this summer since it is just Language Arts taught in isolation. Class will be about 40 minutes for 5 days a week for 4 weeks, which means I will need 19 lessons.

If you were in my shoes, I’m curious as to what your thoughts would be. Should reading and writing be taught separately or together? If you were to teach just writing, what would that look like? Any suggestions would be wonderful.

*Not her real name. Email used with permission.

Hi Olivia,
Thanks for your kind words and for thinking of me as a resource! Congratulations on landing your summer assignment and taking on the challenge of helping those sixth graders start their secondary years on a strong footing. In my experience, it’s a common practice for middle schools to split the classes like this, though it’s usually the same teacher leading both sections with the same group of students. The scheduling of the classes this way gives teachers the extra time needed to help students build those critical reading and writing skills, and lots of folks blend their reading/writing/thinking/listening skills within that two-period block as the year rolls along and the teacher learns more about students’ specific needs. I’m hoping your administration’s decision to assign separate teachers for these two roles is solely a byproduct of limited summer staffing options and not the plan for the regular academic year. For reasons of both efficiency and effectiveness, I’d lobby that one teacher should lead the two-period block.

Regardless of those larger structural decisions, it looks like you’re going to be a writing teacher this summer. I know this job feels daunting, but you’ve actually been given a gift with this assignment. Let me explain.

First, as you already know, incoming sixth graders are really young. This is the perfect time to help them realize the power of their words – knowledge that could possibly change their lives. Next, a 40-minute class is really quick. If you try something and it doesn’t work, no worries – the class will be over soon. If you try something and it does work, well, look at you, you’ve just laid a foundation to revisit and build upon tomorrow. Finally, the term is for only 19 sessions, more like an extended writers’ workshop than a regular English class. Students will improve their writing skills while you’re adding to your teaching toolbox. Win-win!

Here’s the rough plan of what I’d do:

• Start each day with a MUG/grammar practice slide set. First half of this video models the mechanics/usage/grammar process. Click here for MUG classroom materials. Note: These were built with older students in mind, so be prepared to move more slowly through the exercises and teach more explicitly as you explain some higher-level edits. You might prefer to use just one sentence a day instead of two. You might want to give them a number, like “3,” and have them find just three errors. You might takes turns – they find one error to fix, you find one error (usually one of the more complicated ones) to fix. Lots of options.

• End each day with a Commonly Confused Words (homophones) slide set. Click here for YouTube video of this process. Click here for Commonly Confused Words classroom materials.

• Use the first day station rotation to break the ice, but swap out my questions with middle school and writing-themed sentence stems. Click here for a video of this process. Click here for a free set of First Day Stations materials.

• Get a baseline sample paragraph. Sometime within the first three days, use this Neil Gaiman quote:

Click here for the Neil Gaiman quote/writing materials. On Day 18 of class, use one of the other quotes in the free download to gather an exit writing sample. On Day 19 (last day of class), lead students through a compare/contrast of their two written pieces. Ideally, there will be noticeable growth.

• Embrace the basic funnel in/funnel out structure. Usually, I’d take older students through a personal narrative writing unit and then follow-up with a heavier mode, like argument or research, but your littles won’t be ready for all that. Instead, focus on getting them comfortable with a simple three-paragraph structure – introduction, body, conclusion. Teachers in later years can flesh this out; for now, keep things basic. Teach them a clear format for intro., body, and conclusion paragraphs and then be ready to practice these patterns – a lot.

Intro. paragraph format: Hook, bridge, summary, thesis.

You can use my free template here, but you’ll want to write your own simplified example paragraph that isn’t focused on literary analysis.

Body paragraph format: Topic sentence, transition phrase (like, “For example,”), evidence from article/video/photo/whatever you’re going to present for them to write about, commentary about that evidence, concluding sentence or bridge into next chunk of evidence/commentary, concluding sentence. Again, give them a few age-appropriate samples that you’ve written. What does the end goal of this writing assignment look like? It’ll help them to know where they’re going before they start the journey.

Conclusion paragraph format: Restate thesis in fresh words, answer the “So what?” question, end with a lingering thought.

Again, I have a free template that’ll help, but you’ll want to write a simplified version of the concluding paragraph to share with your students.

• Once you’ve taught them the components, it’s time to put it together. Since they need something to write about and I’m guessing the other teacher is handling literature, use some NYTimes prompts. Preview this massive list and choose an article to share that’s relatively short, high-interest, and appropriate to their age group. The NYTimes site has hundreds of picture prompts, too.

After students have written their responses (I’d assign all of the writing to be done in class to avoid overly “helpful” parents who polish their child’s work), ask a student volunteer to share a few sentences. Write/Project those sentences on the board and then work with the class to improve the writing. Gush about what’s good. Target what’s weak. Circle the verb “got.” Can they upgrade that verb to make the meaning more precise? Point out two short stacked declarative sentences. Can they think of two different ways to combine those sentences into a single stronger sentence? As much as possible, try to make it more of a conversation about writing than a lecture. (Send me a photo of their favorite before/after sentence and I’ll give the class a shout-out on TikTok!)

• When they’ve nailed down the basics of the three paragraph structure, bring in some refinement tools. Help them spot words that lead to weak writing – I, me, my, you, your, would, could, should, may, might, how – and show them how to replace those words with stronger choices. Click here for a free set of these lesson materials. Have them rewrite the sample sentences in that download. Do they see the power that’s added to the writer’s voice when the weak words are removed? Assign them to edit some of their previous work to embolden their own writing voices.

If things are going really well, you might even have time to show them six advanced writing tricks that’ll help them sound like a pro – participles, absolutes, appositives, adjectives shifted out of order, vivid verbs, and similes/metaphors. Click here for the part 1 video. Click here for the part 2 video. Click here for the lecture slides + a practice worksheet.

• Finally, show them that writing can be fun! Seems like you’ll have three or four Fridays, depending on the calendar, so choose from these activities or give students a buffet of options for Fun Stuff Friday:

Storytelling dice/cubes
Paint chip short stories
Micro-Fiction, two-sentence storytelling
Small group preposition song challenge
Luke Neff’s writing inspiration slide prompts

Okay, Olivia, I really hope some of these ideas will find a place in your lesson plans. We’ve heard of summer camp and boot camp – looks like you’re about to launch an incredible writers’ camp! 

Teacher friends, what’s your advice to Olivia and other writing teachers? Can kids become better writers in just four weeks? Add your thoughts, advice, writing ideas/lessons you love in the “reply” thread below.

Header photo licensed via Canva Pro.

4 thoughts on “Advice for a 6th Grade Writing Teacher

  1. Thanks Laura! I cannot wait to use these ideas! I am so happy I contacted you and am so excited to lead my writer’s camp this summer! The abundance of resources in this article is incredible!

  2. Wonderful, Olivia! 😉 I love that camper mentality you’re bringing to this project. Keep in touch and let me know how the summer goes.

  3. Diane Keyes says:

    In MS I have taught a structured one paragraph response, called a Short Constructed Response, to a question. We practiced these over and over. Although I was the writing teacher, we would read a very short story (5 min story) to have something to write about. I can explain this further at another time. My process was excellent. Once you have a great SCR you can move on to the 3 paragraph format. Also, the Institute for Excellence in Writing is an exceptional writing program to look at that uses a modeling
    of fantastic writing by professionals. For 6th graders I used the TPT resource, National Park Research Paper with my own tweaks. Get notecards and go! I assigned the paper using a set of National Park quarters, and wrote business letters for resources to our individual National Parks. Sending the letters in September gave us time to receive the resources. This project lasted two months, and was a hit.

  4. Great suggestions, Diane! I love the reminder to start early in the year to allow time for the authentic audience to respond. I did something similar with business writing focused on a product compliment and companies sent my kids SO MUCH STUFF over the few months. It was fun. 🙂

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