Essay Helper Ideas for Middle School


Learn the winning essay helper ideas that allowed this middle school teacher to have top writing scores!

My middle school students range in ability level from very proficient to no experience with essays at all (because they are new to the United States).  You can imagine that I have had to get creative with essay helper ideas to get my students to learn essay writing.

I have done many things, from creating essay graphic organizers with sentence starters to creating differentiated lessons for citing evidence.

Those all are very useful but what I find my students needed was step-by-step plans for the writing process and each part of the essay.  Think of it as training wheels.  To do this I made step-by-step notes with anchor charts to match.

Anchor Charts are super essay helpers for struggling middle school writers remember how to write an essay!

Get a FREE copy of the digital writing anchor charts in my resource library for subscribers!  These are super essay helpers for students to refer to when they are writing or reviewing.  They give each step of each part of the writing process and each part of the essay itself.  Those steps are:

The Writing Process:

1. Read the Prompt

2. Flip the Prompt

3.  Read and Mark the Texts

4.  Plan

5.  Write

6.  Revise and Edit


1.  Hook

2.  Bridge

3.  Thesis


1.  Topic sentence with transition and reason from the thesis
2.  Evidence #1
3. Commentary
4.  Evidence #3
5.  Commentary
6.  Conclusion


1.  Affirm the thesis
2.  Trim the point
3.  The Call to Action

The notes I made were printable guided notes that match the structure from above.  

Guided Notes for Essay Writing Were the Essay Helpers That Made My Middle School Students Understand the Structure of Essays!

You can see that these notes are broken into sections and resemble Cornell notes.  The difference between these notes and Cornell notes is that these notes are fill-in-the-blank and have spaces for images to represent the information instead of questions.  

Each step has its own space and going back to review information was much easier.   I like the printable version best because when students write something by hand, it imprints on the brain and students remember it better.  But - there have been students needing digital versions for online learning so I made those too.

But the game-changer was that I recorded lessons that matched the notes.  If students were absent or if they wanted to review, they could re-watch the videos.  This essay helper made it easy for them to be able to fast forward and pause wherever they needed.   It worked really well because there was a plan for each phase of the process.  And if someone was struggling with a certain part, I had an easy reference point in the videos to which they could refer.  

Here's a sample of my video for informative planning:

I made them using a program called screencast-o-matic.  I placed links to these videos on our learning management system, Canvas. I really, really loved them as it came closer to state testing time and parents would ask me how they could review with their child for the exam. I would send them to the videos and explain there were notes to match.  

I received a lot of compliments, not just for the videos themselves but also for providing differentiation.  The videos provided another way for students to access the content and achieve the standards.  

Want to have these video lessons and notes too?  You can!  Click here to view the Informative and Argumentative Essay Units with printable notes and video lessons!

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Essay Writing Help for Struggling Learners


Learn how to support the struggling essay writers in your middle school ELA classroom with this quick tip!

Struggling learners come in all shapes and sizes.  Some have diagnosed learning needs and others do not.  What they all need is something to use to help them remember what they are supposed to do.  I recognized this early on and created writing "toolkits" with my students.

I gave each student a manila folder that was to be kept in the room.  They decorated the outside however they wanted, but their name had to be in the name space.

Then, as we learned about citing evidence, for example, I would have them add a list of citing evidence starters into the toolkit.  We also added commentary starters, lists of transitions, and synonyms for overused words.  You can get a free sample of the evidence starters in my free resource library!

But we didn't stop there!  Once we learned how to plan an essay, we put different planning sheets in the toolkits too!  One planning sheet had a great deal of scaffolding and others had less.  Some were vertical with sentence starters and some were horizontal like a kind of flow map.  These really helped my students organize their writing.

Then we added our essay outline, or skeleton, as I called it.  This wrote out what each sentence should be in an essay.  This was perfect for my students who insisted that had never written an essay before. Now they had a roadmap to follow! 

We also kept our writing samples and grading rubrics in this folder.  This was great for parent conferences and any other meetings when I needed to show progress and what I did to support that progress.

So now when we work on writing in the classroom, students have something to which they can refer.  It gives them ideas and confidence that they can write an essay.

I think of the toolkits as a great way to show that I am providing accommodations and support for those struggling learners.  They are terrific reference sheets that allow students to gradually imprint the ideas into their brains rather than having to memorize them all at once.  

Ready to try this in your classroom?  Save TONS of time with my toolkits for both informative and argumentative essays that are ready to go in print and digital formats!  Click here to get them!

Support your struggling middle school writers with reference sheets that included sentence starters, organizers and more!

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Find out how to create a toolkit to support your middle school struggling learners!

Citing Evidence Help for Struggling Learners


Support your struggling middle school learners by breaking down the concept of citing evidence into these 4 steps!

Maybe it's just me, but I always have students who like to cite evidence by just picking anything from the text.  Of course, I teach what relevant evidence is, but always struggled with getting kids to use their knowledge until I started breaking it down and taking students through the entire process:

1.  Read the prompt and determine what the claim or statement is that is being made.

After reading the prompt, it is critical that students know what information they are looking for.  

So for example, if the prompt is "Write an argumentative essay in which you take a position on whether DDT should be banned or not.", then students need to be looking for information on both sides of this issue as they read the text.  

Why both sides?  Because the side with the most evidence is the one to write about in the essay (even if the student doesn't personally agree).

2.  Locate evidence that can be used to support the claim or statement.

This sounds easy enough, but students need to be reminded to ask themselves "Does this sentence answer the prompt?"  Using the same example, just because the sentence mentions DDT doesn't mean it's about it being banned or not.  Students need to be reminded to continually check.

3.  Determine if the evidence is relevant and sufficient.

When I teach this, I talk about relevance in terms of answering the question in #2, but for sufficiency, we need 2 pieces of evidence for each body paragraph.  So in order for there to be enough evidence, there need to be 3 sets of 2 sentences that support the claim.

4.  Cite evidence by preparing and quoting.

Now that students have collected the evidence, they need to know how to insert that into their writing. I came up with this silly idea of "Minding your Ps and Qs".  This is an old idiom that refers to "minding one's manners" which to me is about doing things right.  So in order to do things right when citing evidence, one needs to mind their Ps and Qs by Preparing and Quoting the evidence correctly.

These steps are in my FREE citing evidence digital lesson.  Click here to get a copy in my resource library!

Need more detailed lessons with editable lesson plans?  You will love my entire printable citing evidence bundle that provides a vocabulary worksheet, vocabulary game, interactive guided notes, a processing (practice) menu, a quiz, and remediation and enrichment.  It's differentiated and ready to go!

A perfectly differentiated unit bundle that will help you teach, assess, reteach and enrich your middle school students for citing evidence!

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Use these 4 steps to break down the concept of citing evidence for your struggling middle school learners!

3 Ways To Differentiate Middle School Essay Writing


Differentiate Your Middle School Essay Writing Lessons with Ease Using One (Or More) of These Strategies!

This year there is more of a focus on differentiation than ever.  The idea is that not all of the students need to be doing the same thing at the same time. But how does one make that work in the regular classroom?  I have a few ideas:

1.  Have students work in centers (stations)

In Middle School, I create centers by placing all the items that students need into containers/baskets.  The students don't move, just the containers.  

I made centers for each area of essay writing:

Focus - There are 4 activities that I can assign to students - one for purpose, one for audience, one for task, and one for all 3 areas.  This way students who need more practice in a particular area can get it and those that have a pretty good grasp on this can work with all 3 areas at once!

Organization - There are 4 activities for the structure of an essay:  

1.  Critical vocabulary like "cite" and "commentary" foldable

2. Hands-on organization of sentence strips into an essay

3.  "Grading" an essay

4.  Task cards for introduction practice 

They're all different activities for different needs.  Maybe all of my students need to complete all of these centers or maybe some students only need some of these centers. What do I do with those those don't need them all?  I have them create something new that would help others learn these skills.  For example, I have them make an essay organization poster with key vocabulary.  

Support - These stations focus on evidence, elaboration (commentary) and opposing claims.  I set this up as a friendly competition.  Students work in groups and are looking for the best evidence and creating the best commentary for their claims to win!

Conventions - Complete sentences, capitalization, and punctuation are the 3 centers I made for this area as they are the most common areas of need.  In Florida, these areas only count as 20% of the grade whereas the Focus and Organization count as 40%, and the Support (evidence and elaboration) count as 40%.

Wouldn't it be a massive time saver to have all these centers ready to go?  They are!  Click here to check them out!

Practicing essay writing doesn't have to be writing another essay!  Try these enters instead!

2.  Scaffolded Planning Sheets

Some students need a lot of visual cues, while some need very little.  I teach all my students the same basic structure, but some students use a planning sheet with more scaffolding and others with less.

Differentiated Planning Sheets for Middle School so all learners can get what they need!

I include all types in my Writers' Toolkits and you can get a free copy of the most scaffolded version for informative essays in my resource library!

3.  Interactive Guided Notes

I made 4 versions of notes for the structure of essays and for the definitions of key terms.  

These middle school essay notes have 3 levels of scaffolding but all with the same content so every learner can get what they need to be successful!

Most scaffolded: Pre-printed pictures and pre-printed content.  Students highlight key words.

Less scaffolding:  Pre-printed pictures and fill-in-the-blanks for content  OR Positionable picture flaps and pre-printed content

Least scaffolding:  Positionable picture flaps and fill-in-the-blanks for content.

Now every learner can get what they need to be successful while all still learning the same content!  

These are my top 3 ideas to differentiate essay writing lessons.  Your students will love the variety and different kinds of interaction and I think you will love the results!

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You can make sure every Middle School Learner gets what they need to better essay writers with these strategies!

3 Essay Writing Interventions


3 Interventions For Middle School Essay Writing Skills

This year, more than ever, I can see that our middle school students lack some basic essay writing skills.  When it came time to determine what they know about essay writing, it was clear that they had had a firm foundation at one point, but had lost many of the bits and pieces along the way before arriving in middle school. They absolutely struggled with being able to organize an essay and could not seem to remember how to approach the whole essay writing process.  It was clear to me that we needed some interventions.

1.  Simply the framework.

I found that many of our students simply forgot what the structure of an essay is all about.  They need a clear-cut plan for writing.  Now, this may seem a bit formulaic and as teachers, we like to give our students options to exercise their creativity. BUT - when students are lost, they aren't worried about creativity - they're worried about understanding what to do.  That's where these notes come in:

These notes help middle school students review the structure of an essay quickly and easily!

These notes lay out the pattern of writing an informative essay in clear, plain language.  Once students have mastered this basic structure, then I will surely add nuances including different ways to elaborate.  But for now, the intervention is all about getting that structure down-pat.

2.  Use Essay Frames

By essay frame, I mean a fill-in-the-blank essay.  This one is from the book Tangerine:

Essay Frames are a great intervention to use with struggling learners in middle school!

As you can see, I put all the structure in the frame and the students had to fill in the blanks with their evidence and elaboration.  It's a great way to put some training wheels on the essay.

3.  Provide different kinds of practice that are not writing full essays

So maybe this one seems obvious.  Students need practice but writing a full essay is absolutely not going to work.  So what to do?  

Well for introduction practice, I made these "micro" texts and asked students to write an introduction based on them.  You can either do one per day as part of a bell work routine or you could have students complete them in groups.

Practice Essay Introductions in Middle School Without Writing An Entire Essay!

I also made a body paragraph practice where students read one text and then are given an introduction paragraph.  Then their job is to use the given materials to write 3 body paragraphs.

Body Paragraph Practice for Middle School Students Provides a Great Intervention Without the Headache!

If you need to get your students up and moving, create a gallery walk using these task cards that review introduction components like hook, "arch" (transition sentence between hook and thesis), and thesis as well as relevant and irrelevant evidence and commentary.  Not only does the movement engage students, but the cards also allow you to walk around and facilitate.  Plus, this is easy to grade!

Middle School students love using task cards as part of a gallery walk to review parts of an essay!

These are just a few of the informative essay writing interventions you could try with your students.  Hopefully, I have given you some ideas that you can try!

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3 Things you can do when your Middle School students don't get it.

6 Steps for Teaching Essay Writing


Need a plan for teaching middle school students how to write essays?  Use this one that has 28 years of experience behind it!

The beginning of our second semester is largely focused on Argumentative Text Analysis and Argumentative Essay Writing in my neck of the woods.  I have students from the most capable to the least capable all in one room at one time.  It can be tricky to make sure everyone gets what they need which is why I have put together this plan to do my best to get the job done well:

1.  Set Writing Goals

I use a special goal sheet that we keep in our toolkits to help students not only examine the state rubric, but also to create an action plan that will guide their progress.  You can read more about this and get a free copy of my goal sheet by clicking here.

2.  Teach Vocabulary

It's super important for everyone to begin with a common vocabulary.  You might think words like "cite" and "commentary" are firmly embedded in your students' minds, but some of them may have forgotten.  I use a special vocabulary sheet that differentiates for all levels so that those that do know the words can demonstrate that while others who do not know the word can (hopefully) learn it:

The perfect vocabulary worksheet for to reach all learners in your middle school classroom!

Get a free blank, editable copy in my resource library.

3.  Teach Structure (Organization) - "I Do"

I teach essay structure in a very step-by-step way using fill-in-the-blank notes and examples.   

We first start with the pre-writing process where we:

1. Read the prompt

2. Flip the prompt

3. Read and mark the texts

For each step above, there are notes and examples using a prompt and text set.  Then I do the same for the sentences that belong in an introduction in a new set of notes, the body in yet another set of notes, and the conclusion in a final set of notes.  (I also do a separate set of notes for argumentative essay counterclaim paragraphs when I teach argumentative essay structure.)

Then we move into the introduction where I teach students a special acronym for both Informative and Argumentative Essays:

H - Hook

A - Arch (Bridge)

T - Thesis

Just like you put a hat on the top of your head, you put a hat on the top of the essay!

Next are the body paragraphs.  I have a special acronym for these too!

A - Answer to the prompt with a reason from the thesis

C - Cite Evidence

E - Explain with commentary

I - Ingeminate (repeat) the cycle of cite and explain with new evidence.

T - Top it off with a conclusion

One special kind of body paragraph for Argumentative Essays is the counterclaim paragraph.  The idea of this paragraph is to pour on the convincer for the essay's position!

F - Feature the other side (the opposing claim)

A - Affirm the opposing claim with evidence 

U - Underscore the essay's position (refuting the opposing claim)

C - Cite evidence (for the essay's position)

E - Explain with commentary

T - Top it off with a conclusion

Lastly, is the conclusion:

A - Affirm the thesis

T - Trim the Point

T - The Call to Action

What's the last thing you grab before you leave your house?  Probably your cell phone - your AT & T which is why you need AT & T before you leave the essay!  :)

4.  Practice Structure (Organization) - "We Do"

After each section of notes, we practice what we have learned.  So for example, after the introduction notes, we practice writing introductions.  

After all the sections of notes and matching practice items have been completed, then I have students complete some practice activities for the entire structure like a Cloze Activity, Color By Fact Activity or a Digital Puzzle.

Need ways to practice essay writing knowledge without writing an essay?  Try one of these!

Once the students have learned all the parts of an essay and have practiced those parts, I teach them how to plan.  It doesn't make much sense to plan the parts of the essay until they know what all of those parts are!  

5.  Put it All Together  - "We Do"

Now it's time for the students to put this all together in an essay - but not just any essay - this is a collaborative essay!

It's easier than it sounds - basically, students work together to write an essay using task cards!

Collaborative Essay Writing is a great way to help your struggling middle school learners!

I made a prompt and text set.  Then I made a task card for every single sentence that belongs in the essay with a matching answer sheet.  

The task cards are taped to the students' desks and they work in groups of 4 to answer the cards.  The answers are the sentences that belong in the essay.  Each task card is numbered and students write the complete sentence answers on their answer sheet in the matching number space.

As groups finish their set of 4 task cards, they rotate to a new group of 4 more task cards.

By the time students have filled in all 28 spaces on the answer sheet, they have a skeleton essay!

Then using the organizer/checklist, students mark where paragraphs should be on the skeleton.  Now they can write out a final copy.  All essays should be the same which means easy grading for the teacher!

6.  Put it All Together - "You Do"

Now it's time for students to put all that they have learned together into one essay that they write independently.  But that doesn't mean it has to be boring!  I like to call this a "Challenge Essay".  

Use this challenge as a culmination activity for your middle school essay writing unit!

This challenge requires students to go through each step of the writing process and write an essay.  I allow students to use their toolkits and notes.  As they complete each step accurately, they get your initials and one puzzle piece.  

By the end of the designated time (it was 5 days in my class), students earn whatever their assembled puzzle shows.  Some students only earned a few items but others earned the entire puzzle worth of treats!  Our puzzle was of "mud pies" - pudding cups with all kinds of mix-ins - but you could choose any reward!   The students were motivated by the challenge of earning all their puzzle pieces and they were learning at the same time!

Ready to try these things with your students?  I have 5 weeks of these activities PLUS 5 weeks of editable lesson plans ready to go in these bundles:

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Use this well developed plan for teaching your middle school students how to write an essay!

Setting Writing Goals in Middle School


Give your middle school students a plan for essay writing success!

When I begin our argumentative essay unit in my middle school class, it's usually late January (after we learn how to analyze an argument) and I always start with a pep talk.  First I ask the names of the teams that are going to play in the Super Bowl.  Then...

Me:  "So when the (two teams that are going to be in the Super Bowl) are getting ready, do they say 'Man!  This stinks!  I don't want to play in the stupid 'ol Super Bowl!' ?"  (I walk around and kick at the floor with an exaggerated tone.)

Students:  "No!" with sincerely incredulous looks on their faces. (They probably think I might have just lost it.)

Me:  Right!  Of course not!  Instead, they run around screaming "We're gonna win because we're the best and we're awesome and the other team doesn't stand a chance and when we win, we're gonna go to Disney World!"  (And I literally scream this like I was a football player.  So then they would be sure I'd lost my mind!)

But then I'll say "Our big state test is like our Super Bowl - a Super Bowl for writing.  You should be excited to go in there and win by showing that you are the best!

After that pep talk, students need to take ownership so we set goals.  Now, these goals aren't just wishes and dreams, these are going to be those writing "sit-ups" and "push-ups" I talked about in my pep talk.  We are going to make a plan of ACTION.

1.  Determine the score goal

I give students a worksheet that we keep in our writing toolkits and we first discuss the best score possible on the assessment.  In Florida, it is a 10.  That's a perfect score of 4 in purpose, focus, and organization, a perfect score of 4 in support and elaboration, and a perfect score of 2 in conventions.  We now examine the rubric carefully.

I discuss the fact that while we are all striving for a perfect score, that an 80% should be their minimum goal.  That would be a 3-3-2 on our rubric.

2.  Determine the challenges

Now I ask students to determine where the challenges are in terms of their knowledge in these areas.  We again look at the rubric and then I ask students to tell me what they think they don't know by coloring in the appropriate box on the goal sheet.

We will have practice items in class that match each of those challenges and the students will be able to record their progress on this sheet as we complete them.  I like to use color-coding with yellow for making progress, blue for mastered, and red for needs attention.  This will show students their writing progress at a glance and in my class, it's all about progress - not perfection.

3.  Determine the strengths

I strategically save the strengths for last because I want to end the activity on a high note with students feeling like they do have knowledge on which to build.  There will be activities that we complete in class that will review some of these strengths and some that add to these strengths.  

We will refer back to this sheet often to show students that they are making progress and will be able to meet that 80% or higher goal.  If they think they can, they will!

You can get a free, editable copy of the goal sheet I use in my free resource library

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It's important to set writing goals with middle school students before they begin writing essays to help them focus on progress, not perfection!