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Teaching Ideas for English Composition Teachers--Activities and Writing Assignments

Writing really is a craft and an art--that takes a lot of practice.

Writing really is a craft and an art--that takes a lot of practice.

How to get students to write

What are some activities for the English Composition class? This article lists several, all of which I have used myself in my college teaching experiences.

The key is to find different methods to get students involved in brainstorming ideas and carrying them to paper. Besides the act of writing itself, students' sharing their thoughts and gaining other perspectives from their peers is also a way to improve what a student puts on paper.

While these methods are ones I've used mostly for college level students, they can easily be used for high school students, and even younger. At one point, I used similar methods with an Upward Bound class of teenagers (varying ages) who were in a summer program to help them prepare for college. They responded well.

Write about past experiences & expectations

One of the activities I find helpful with students is getting them to share their past experiences with writing and current expectations for the class. Have they written a lot? Are they comfortable with their writing at this point? As a teacher, encourage them to share their weak areas along with their successes.

Then, what do they hope to get from the class? I usually joke with them, saying "besides a grade." Seriously, though, what do they hope to improve on? As a teacher, getting their answers helps me to adjust the syllabus and lesson plans for the semester as appropriate in order to help meet their goals. I usually get them to address their past experiences and current expectations on the very first day of English Composition class.


Freewriting is an excellent way to get students to think and write. Time them for five to ten minutes. Usually you'll give them a topic, but you can also let them choose whatever is on their minds.

Freewriting is a good activity to use to encourage brainstorming. Consider it as a pre-write activity to use to help create essay ideas.

Bulletin boards are useful for school teachers

Bulletin boards are an excellent way for secondary school teachers to give visual reminders to students about the writing process.

Bulletin boards are an excellent way for secondary school teachers to give visual reminders to students about the writing process.

Write essays based on current topics

Another way to get students more interested in their writing is to center their essays around current topics. Many texts are helpful in that they have readings in them that touch on current social and political issues of the day.

You can give students freedom to choose their topics, perhaps with your final approval. Students can practice their research skills through online searches and trips to the school's library to find their own sources about the topics in which they are interested.

Group presentations

Group presentations work better with literature-based composition courses. Students can be assigned or choose a particular, poem, short story, or perhaps play to present to the class. What's the main point? Their interpretation? Rhyme scheme? History of the author? I have seen students be really creative, even coming up with a game show to help their classmates learn more about the work.

Group discussions

Whatever your topic for the day, group work is a terrific way to get students engaged with each other in sharing different ideas and perspectives. Groups can work in different ways. When teaching summarizing, I have instructed students to individually write summary sentences of paragraphs and then get in groups to compare all the responses, choosing the best one in the group. Students can even write their answers on the board for the whole class to review.

When looking at a work such as an essay, students can come up with answers to directed questions in their groups. Groups work well in a composition class that is focused around literature, coming up with interpretations of assigned poems and short stories.

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Give students specific questions to answer

Peer reviews

Having peers review their writing is a great method of sharing perspectives. Following a guideline of questions, students read each others' rough drafts, giving input.

I instruct students to make two extra copies of their papers to give to their group in order for their peers to be able to write on the papers themselves. Sometimes, I ask for an extra copy for myself in order to take a quick look at key elements.

I generally divide the class into groups of three--four if there are uneven numbers. Students tend to find this activity helpful, both in my face-to-face and online classes.


Writing in a journal is a way that students can express how they are feeling about their progress in the course. Taking up the journals and reading them every few weeks also allows the instructor to see how the class is doing and can adjust lesson plans as needed.

Most entries should be directed, as students shouldn't expect this to be a personal journal. Still, you might give them some leeway on what type of "personal" entries they can make.

Individual Conferences

Meeting with students individually gives them a chance to privately share their progress and fears in your class. These meetings should last only ten or fifteen minutes. As a college instructor, I hold these in my office. High school teachers will have to keep the rest of the class occupied with other work while taking a couple of class periods to meet with each student.

Besides general purpose, these conferences can be geared to specific assignments. For example, I cancel class the week before the students' final research papers are due in order for us to meet privately about their papers.

Keep on writing!

All of these ideas can work for both college and high school composition courses. Even junior high or elementary student writers can benefit from many of these methods.

The key is to keep students engaged in the craft of writing. Encourage the sharing of different ideas and critiques as they review the works of other writers, including that of their peers.

Writing is an ongoing learning process that requires practice in order to expect improvement. Instructors can use a variety of methods to ensure that this happens in their classrooms.

© 2012 Victoria Lynn


Susan Holland from Southwest Missouri on August 26, 2018:

Awesome, Vicki! I have used all of these, and I can attest that they reach a diverse group. Writing freedom is great! When students begin a paper, I tell them to brainstorm in whatever way they want: free writing, webbing, listing, etc. I also love the peer review. They discuss topics and they seem to listen to each other when they critique each others' papers.

I love this hub!! :-)

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on September 14, 2012:

Maria, you are so kind! Thanks for all that input. I love hearing from fellow teachers. I bet your students are very lucky to have you! Thanks so much!!!

Maria Jordan from Jeffersonville PA on September 13, 2012:

Dear Victoria,

What a valuable and inspiring hub for all teachers. I also teach adults, yet they are nurses expected to write LOTSA papers.

Like you, I gauge their comfort level with writing, also oral presentations in the first class (especially as most classes are 5-weeks in this accelerated program). I love journalling and encourage it even in classes where it is not a required 'assignment', like Holistic Nursing.

All your modalities of feedback, especially peer review and individualized sessions (phone calls) as needs arise are awesome.

This was great! Thank you. Voted UP and UABI. Hugs, Maria

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on September 11, 2012:

agusfanani--I'm glad you got ideas from this article! I think it's neat that you display your students' work for others to see. I'm sure that makes them proud! Thanks for the input!

agusfanani from Indonesia on September 10, 2012:

I've got valuable ideas from this hub how to create activities for teaching composition. Thank you for very much Lynn.

I sometimes ask my students, prior to their holidays, to write about their experience and submit their work when they come to class. They seem enthusiastic and show better results, and to make it more interesting they put some photos on them which make their composition more attractive to read. I appreciate their compositions by displaying them on a notice board to let other students to read and learn.

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on August 30, 2012:

Hey, My sweet lord! You're right about Gizmo. He knows a lot of good English! :-)

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on August 30, 2012:

Thanks, Ellen! I hope I make it through the semester! I teach at 7:30, and I am a NIGHT OWL!!! LOL!

Joseph De Cross from New York on August 30, 2012:

Thanks for the Tips Victoria! Your hub is full of life and extremely useful my friend. You are helping us all along. Well, Gizmo is lucky to have you!

Ellen Karman from medina, Ohio on August 29, 2012:

Victoria Lynn, any student will be lucky to have you guide them with their writing! I wish you good luck this semester with your teaching! Have fun, Ellen PS keep us updated on how your classes are going!

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on August 28, 2012:

Ellen, I'm so glad you like my article! When I started writing this, I didn't realize that I would be asked to teach some face-to-face classes this semester. (I had been teaching online!) So, it was a good refresher as to what kin of activities I had done in the past. You are so right in all your statements about reading and journaling, etc....

Thanks so much for your awesome comments. It's always a pleasure to see you.

Ellen Karman from medina, Ohio on August 26, 2012:

Oh, I too, did not like peer review in my writing classes in college!!! I remember crying my freshman year after reading what one student had written, I knew it was a girl from her writing, but, oh, she was mean! Lol. But, I loved my writing professors and they pushed me.

I wish I had a class structured like the one you describe and teach. It seems like you help them to feel free to find their own voice in a safe environment.

I remember READ, READ and READ as readers make better writers. And, write what you know about. Also, your readers are smart so don't over write.

Journaling is so important to as you point out! I have so many filled journals that are really all short stories about the hilarious and heartbreaking moments a mom goes through while living on a farm and raising children and other animals. As, I am in the middle of pulling out the stories I like and re writing and editing, I thank you for this great read!! Great to be following an English Professor!! Ellen

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on August 23, 2012:

kjforce--Thanks! It was helpful for me, too, as I'm starting a new semester of teaching in the classroom after not having done so--only online--for a few years!

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on August 23, 2012:

teaches--Thanks! I've had great luck with the peer reviews and with them not being negative. I give them specific questions to follow, such as pointing out where the paper might need more detail or examples. Did they find a clear thesis? I think these types of questions lend themselves to solid answers without being negative. It has seemed to work, anyway. :-)

kjforce from Florida on August 23, 2012:

Victoria Lynn...that was an awesome hub..very well researched and interesting...great start for a new English educator/teacher at the beginning of a new school year....thank you for sharing

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on August 22, 2012:

Vellur--thanks! I appreciate your comments!

Dianna Mendez on August 22, 2012:

Interesting and full of great ideas in encouraging students to write. I see that you have peers critique each others papers, I would love to see how you handle this and keep the negative feedback to a minimum.

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on August 22, 2012:

midget!! Thanks so much! I'm glad it's helpful for teachers. It's hard to get started. -)

Nithya Venkat from Dubai on August 22, 2012:

Very useful with great tips for teaching compositions in class. Your ideas will make teaching composition very easy. Voted up.

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on August 22, 2012:

X-Con, I love meeting other English teachers! I think that's wonderful that you teach conversational English! I don't see that at a lower level. I'm not sure I'd know how to write a hub on teaching conversational English, but I'll look into it! Thanks!

Michelle Liew from Singapore on August 21, 2012:

This will be shared, Victoria. It's really useful especially for new teachers who are stumped when they first step into an English Class. When I first had an English Class to teach, I wished I had a hub like this. Thanks for the great write!

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on August 21, 2012:

Thanks, KD, for that input and for voting and tweeting!

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on August 21, 2012:

Relationshipc--You're a real writer then, naturally motivated. That's awesome!

X-Con from The Free World! on August 21, 2012:

Good tips. I'm an English teacher, myself. Although, at a lower level. I teach conversational English at a private language school, here in Poland. It's one of the few worth wile things I could do since I was deported from the United States. If you wrote a hub that dealt with methods on teaching conversational English, I would be grateful.

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on August 21, 2012:

Yes, thank you, iheartkafka, for the input! Much appreciated!

Victoria Lynn (author) from Arkansas, USA on August 21, 2012:

Yeah, Bill, I was never too fond of being put into groups by the teacher, but I make my students do it! LOL!

KDuBarry03 on August 21, 2012:

Great ideas and valid points...but yeah, I hated peer reviews back then! Group discussions were so much fun though (if the teacher knows how to apply it creatively). Very valuable, informative, and awesome suggestions :) Voted up and tweeting!

Kari on August 21, 2012:

Nobody every had to keep me engaged so I would write. Although, I did find my junior high English teacher's enthusiasm for writing a motivator, and I think a lot of these ideas would have helped my fellow classmates. But even after college I was my own best motivator. I wanted to write essays - and this was during the years of partying, boys, and confusion. Writing was what grounded me.

iheartkafka on August 21, 2012:

Great hub; free writing is so valuable as it mirrors how they can use wiring in the real world.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 21, 2012:

Oh God I hated peer review!!! LOL Very valuable hub my friend; great suggestions to spur the writing in students. Great job Vicki!

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