How to Help Your Students Improve Their Writing

improve writing

The editing process was not my favorite thing to teach middle schoolers. It was a struggle to pull a rough draft out of many of them, and then going through another lesson on editing at the end of a project used to feel like too much. I couldn’t possibly give all of my students in all of my classes sufficient feedback, and often, when they peer edited (even in guided stations), I wasn’t sure that they were truly receiving useful or applicable critiques.

Enter Newsela. I’ve used Newsela for a long time now as a reading resource. It’s great because each article is rewritten at various lexile levels, so it provides access to information for all of your students. I’d often assign the same article to a class, and then walk around the room as they read on their Chromebooks, noting the difference in vocabulary, syntax and structure between the different level of articles.

I decided to use this feature to help my students analyze and improve their own writing. I chose a high-interest, current article from Newsela (which are easy to find!), and had my students read this article at the lowest reading level, usually around the 2nd grade mark. We summarized the article and noted the length of the sentences, the vocabulary used, etc.

Then I raised the lexile level of the article up a few hundred points. We re-read the article and noted that now, the sentences were more complex, some of the vocabulary words were more sophisticated, and the author included more details in each paragraph.

Finally, we read the article at the maximum reading level and again noted the differences. I had my students choose any other article they would like to read on the site and repeat the same activity, observing the changes as the lexile level increased. I asked them to observe 3-5 specific improvements in the article, and then apply those improvements to their own writing project.

Before we tried this activity, my students would always default to vocabulary as a way to improve their writing. They would simply plug each word into a thesaurus, pick the word that sounded the most complicated, and shove that word back into their essay. Often, the connotation no longer fit the purpose of their essay, and the tone would become clunky and indirect.

I realized, however, that this was really the only strategy they had been taught to improve their writing. I’m a big fan of mentor texts and giving students as many concrete examples of good writing as I possibly can, but I tended to only use these as a jumping off point for writing projects. I see now that they are perfect resources for editing, and I no longer dread the editing phase of my students’ writing projects.

Here is a more thorough example of the kind of lesson I did with my students:


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