Teach Students How to Write Topic Sentences

Over  the years, I’ve tried so many different ways to teach students how to write topic sentences. And, I’ve definitely learned that if I assume students know how to write one, I end up kicking myself for not starting with the basics!   This year, something popped in my head that seemed to help my students, so I wanted to share it.

My magic idea?  Umbrellas!

I was trying to find a way to teach students how to write a topic sentences for an introduction and topic sentences for each body paragraph in an argumentative essay when I stumbled upon the idea.  I drew a large umbrella around my topic sentence in my introduction.  I explained that everything in the paper would have to fit under this umbrella.  For the three body paragraphs, I drew smaller umbrellas.  I told students that while each body paragraph had its own topic sentence (umbrella), these three topic sentences still had to fit under the larger umbrella – topic sentence for the entire essay.  The illustration explains it better!

topic sentence umbrellas


This is basically what I said to my students to explain:  The topic sentence in the introduction is like an umbrella, a big huge one that lots of people could fit under.  You see, everything in the entire paper must fit under this big umbrella and that’s why you must choose a good one. Then, in each of the three body paragraphs, there is also a topic sentence- represented by smaller umbrellas.  Only the information in that paragraph must fit under it.  However, this umbrella still fits under the big one in the introduction.

If my big umbrella is something like “The Burmese python is a beautiful creature” then all of my small umbrellas will have to be something about what makes the snakes beautiful.  This would be hard to do.  Under my first small umbrella, I might write the following topic sentence:  The patterns on the snakes body make the Burmese python beautiful.  This works well as it fits under my big umbrella.  However, I can’t think of anything else to say under my next two umbrellas.  There is just no way I can write that many paragrraphs about why this snake is beautiful.  This means one thing, my topic sentence under my big umbrella is not a good one.  I need something else.  What if I changed it to the following: The Burmese python is an interesting creature.?  Now, i’ts much easier to come up with my smaller topic sentences for the body of my paper.  I can still use the umbrella about the snake being beautiful, but under my next umbrella, I can write the following topic sentence: The Burmese python has interesting eating habits.   Under the last umbrella, I could write the following topic sentence: The Burmese python kills its prey in a unique way.

topic sentence umbrellas mistaketopic sentence umbrellas python example

So far, this illustration I used to teach students how to write topic sentences has been wonderful!  I even brought in a big umbrella and a smaller one as an illustration.  My next idea is to look for the “umbrellas” in informational texts.  Hopefully this will help us with identifying main ideas too.

You can print all of the illustrations above by clicking here.

Happy Teaching!


Middle School ELA Christmas Writing Activity

I wanted to share my favorite middle school ELA Christmas writing activity that I do each year a couple of days before our Christmas break.   We  play a gift exchange game, but students do not have to spend any money.   The best part is that students have a ton of fun, and I tie in some writing instruction as well!

So, here’s how this middle school ELA Christmas writing activity works.  Students bring in something from home – nothing new and something that they can give away. They can bring it in wrapped or wrap it at school with wrapping paper provided by me. The number one rule is that they must not tell anyone what their gift is, not even their BFF!  It can be a gag gift but must be appropriate for school. I’ve had students bring in everything from a potato to a cute pencil pouch.  Some students get really creative.  One girl brought in a can of beans with a note that said “homemade bubble bath”.  I usually spend some time giving examples of what is and what is not appropriate.

Once students have brought in their gifts, we complete the first writing assignment.  I explain to students that we will be playing a gift exchange game and that someone in the class will choose their gift.  The thing is, however, students will not be able to open the gifts that they choose.  Instead, they will read the paragraph out loud that describes the gift.  A day or two before the game, students must write a paragraph describing the gift in an interesting way.  They cannot use the name of the gift or anything that would be a “dead give away”.  Instead, they must describe what someone could do with this gift in an imaginative, creative way.  For example, if a student brings in a potato, in the paragraph, I could not write, “This is something you bake or boil and eat.”  I could not use the word potato.  Instead, I would have to describe an imaginative use for it, like, “This will be a perfect paper weight.  If you are often bothered by your papers flying all over the place when your windows are open, then this is the ideal gift for you.  It is just the right size, weight, and color to nicely hold your papers in place.  Also, this gift can be used as a pencil holder.  It can hold at least ten or twelve pencils or pens nicely.”

Once all of the wrapped gifts are in class and all of the paragraphs are written, we are ready to play the game.  This is perfect for the day before the break!  Each wrapped gift has the paragraph with it.  I pull Popsicle sticks with students’ names on them to decide the order in which students choose gifts.  Each student chooses a gift and reads the paragraph out loud.  No one can open a gift until everyone has one.  Students can “steal” a gift from another student when it is their turn or choose from the pile.  Of course, the only thing they have to go on is the paragraph, but if a paragraph does a good job describing some wonderful use of the gift, people will want to “steal”it.  I allow a gift to be “stolen” three times before it is “frozen”.

Once all students have a gift, they open them one at a time so we can all oooh and ahhhh or laugh.  Then, it is time for our final writing assignment.   Students must write a thank you note to the person who gave the gift thanking them for it and telling them how they will use it.  Students must be creative with their thank you notes and be grateful no matter what it is that they received.

christmas gift game for blog

This middle school ELA Christmas writing activity is loads of fun, adds a festive atmosphere to your classroom, and includes two creative writing assignments!  Click here for the free download of the directions, a rubric, and a cute handout for kids to use to write their paragraph.  Merry Christmas!

P.S.  I always bring in a few extra “gifts” for those students who may forget one.  Remember, anything can be a gift, even things like paperclips or erasers in your teacher desk drawer!

Looking for more ELA based Christmas lessons?  Check out our fun and meaningful activity that focuses on analyzing figurative language in the song “Mr. Grinch”!

Affect vs. Effect Mnemonic

The words affect and effect are sometimes hard for middle school students to understand.  Here is a handy trick to use in your ELA classroom!  Use the following affect vs. effect mnemonic to help teach the difference between the confusing words:   RAVEN


Affect is a


Effect is a


This affect vs. effect mnemonic will not work, however, if students do not know the difference between nouns and verbs.   If students have trouble, tell them to plug in the word “outcome”.  If the word outcome sounds right, instruct them to use “effect”.  If it doesn’t, tell them to use “affect”.  Take a look at the following examples:

The medicine had an immediate outcome (effect) on the pain.

Pollution affects our environment.  Pollution outcomes our environment does not sound right, so I know that it’s affect and not effect.

This is a trick of course, so it only works 95% of the time, but for our seventh graders, it has worked wonders!


Check out our Grammar Gremlins resource to find more tricks like this one!

Dead Word Funeral ~ A Lesson in Word Choice

It’s that time again in my seventh grade ELA classroom, time for our “Dead Word Funeral”.  It’s a somber, yet exciting event.  My students dress and act the part.  We carry tissue out to the “grave site” and shed tears as we read our eulogies. We nod our heads and say an occasional, “I’m going to miss him.”   We even sing songs! This is a super fun activity to teach a valuable and unforgettable lesson on word choice.  Here is how I go about it:

  • As a class, we brainstorm a list of words that we want to bury.  I warn students that once we bury the words, we will no longer be allowed to use them in writing assignments. Whenever a student suggests we bury a word like love, I always say, “What are you going to write instead?” When they see that there are not many words to substitute it, we move on without adding it to our list.  Instead, we choose words that have multiple synonyms and words that just seem elementary for seventh graders (big, little, etc.).  Click here to see a list of the words we are saying goodbye to this year in our dead word funeral.
  • Next, I pull Popsicle sticks with students’ names on them to let them choose the word they want.  (I use Popsicle sticks for everything.)  When I pull a stick, that student chooses his/her word, and then I pull another. This is a fair way to let them choose.  I try to come up with enough words for each student in the class to have a different one.
  • Now, students are ready to create both an obituary and eulogy for their beloved word.  This is the fun part, as they have the chance to be very creative with this fun writing assignment.  For example, students must come up with a list of the deceased word’s family and friends.  The word Run could be married to Whisper and have a child named Tiptoe.  Click here to see a list of my requirements for the eulogy and obituary.
  • Students are given an index card on which to write their word.  These cards will be placed in the casket during the dead word funeral.  Students make their words big and colorful and decorate them accordingly.
  • On my part, there are a few things that I do to prepare for the funeral.  Some years, I go all out.  I call our local mortuary and ask to borrow a small casket.  Our local funeral home has display caskets that are small and perfect for this activity.  Other years, when I don’t feel like going through the hassle, I make my own casket out of a box or plastic tub.  If you drape a black sheet over it and call it a casket, it will work.   I set the casket up on a desk or table.   I also have several tombstones that I set up on the floor or ground (if we hold the funeral outside) around the casket.  These can be made out of cardboard or Styrofoam.  You can also find some really cheap around Halloween. One year, I even made cake squares with all of the names of the words we were burying on them!  Most years, I tell students that people always eat after a funeral,  and then I ask some of them to bring in snacks to share with the class.  Oh, I also download some music appropriate for walking out to the funeral.  This always sets the mood.
  • On the day of the dead word funeral, students dress nicely or in black.  As the music plays, we walk quietly and in a single file line to the “grave site”.  I have tissue on hand for those students who are very upset.  I act as the officiator of the funeral and open with a few words about the deceased.  Then, students take turns reading their eulogies.  Once these are read, we sing two songs that I have written for the occasion.  Then, one by one,  students walk in a line to the casket and say their goodbyes as they place the index card with the word on it into the casket.
  • When the music begins again, we somberly return to the classroom to eat snacks.
  • I collect the index cards from the coffin and hang them on a bulletin board.  For the rest of the year, students are not allowed to use the words in their writing.
  • We have created a packet of everything we use to hold our dead word funeral.  In this resource, you will find examples of eulogies and obituaries,a fill-in-the-blank eulogy and obituary for students who may be struggling  with writing their own, the lyrics and tunes of the songs that we sing at the funeral, as well as other practice with writing strong verbs.  Click here to purchase our complete Weak Words, Dead and Gone Packet.
  • Have fun!

Fall and Halloween Activities for Middle School ELA

So, this fall here are some of the fall and Halloween lessons plans and activities for middle school ELA that I’m brewing up in my 7th grade classroom.

1.  We will read the play “Sorry, Wrong Number”.  This super suspenseful play is in our Literature book, but it can also be found online. Last year was my first time teaching this story, and let me just say that it was hands down the highlight of my year.  I think my students felt the same!   Before reading, I will show my students a PowerPoint that explains the history of the telephone.  Some of my kids have never heard a busy signal, and some do not even realize there was a time when there was no caller ID.  I feel 100 years old when I tell them about growing up with a rotary phone where you put your finger in a hole and turned the little plate to dial a number!  The PowerPoint gives needed information about operators too, and it is complete with lots of pictures.  After reading, we will practice answering open-ended response questions and then watch the movie.  I ordered it last year on Amazon, and it was well worth the money.  I created a movie watching guide and students took notes of the differences and clues as they watched.  This year, I plan to do that again.   The movie is very different from the play, so it is a wonderful activity.  Once the movie ends, I will give them a test that compares the movie and the story.  Check out our resource for Sorry, Wrong Number and you will have everything needed for meaningful lessons that will engage and challenge your students.  Plus, it’s the perfect way to kick off your fall and Halloween activities for middle school ELA!

2.  We will also read the teleplay “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street“.   This year, we will complete interactive activities after reading this story.  These activities will help us analyze the setting and plot and practice supporting answers to questions with textual evidence.  This is one of the Twilight Zone episodes, so after reading the play, we will watch it.  It’s on Netflix!  This story and episode should fit perfectly in your fall and Halloween activities for middle school ELA!

3.  We will have our Dead Word Funeral in Mid October.  This is the perfect way to teach students about word choice.  Each student chooses an overused word to “lay to rest”.  They write obituaries and eulogies for the word, and then illustrate the word on a note card.  I call the local mortuary, borrow a small casket, and we go outside during the class period and hold our funeral.  It’s a very sad affair, as I give my students points for acting the part by crying and carrying on.  Students take turns reading their eulogies and placing their word cards in the casket.  We sing a couple of songs, and then sadly return to class.  After the funeral, we eat cake squares.  Later, we display the cards on a bulletin board, and I inform students they can no longer use these words in their writing. 

4.  Close to Halloween, we will write “body part” lunes using gummy candy.  I find the big bags of gummy eyeballs, feet, hands, and ears.  Lunes are short and fun to write.  We will also write candy corn haiku, of course while eating the delicious little triangles!  Check out this resource if you want to have printable handouts and examples for these types of poems.

5.  On Halloween day, I always read the short story “Duffy’s Jacket“.  It’s just the right length for one class period, and full of spooky suspense.  My students are always on the edge of their seats listening to this story.  Of course, at just the right spot in the story, I always slam my hands down and scare ’em a little! 🙂  I hope you enjoyed these fall and Halloween activities for middle school ELA!

Happy Fall!

Grammar Gremlins: Grammar Mini-Lessons for Middle School

They jump out at us in countless middle school essays. They lure our red pens to make endless circles and bold question marks. Occasionally, they even taunt us to create angry holes in a student’s notebook paper! At the worst, they can sometimes cause us to lose sleep and wonder, “Will my students ever transfer my instruction to their writing?” What are “they”? We have chosen to call them gremlins – grammar gremlins. This species consists of errors that are repetitive and widespread among the student population.

Read on to print free handouts and to once and for all find out how take care of those pesky writing mistakes like it’s vs. its, to vs. too, principal vs. principle and more!

Each Monday, we introduce the “Gremlin of the Week” by passing out one of the mini-lessons included in this book. These lessons are student friendly and include tricks to help students learn! After we teach the lesson and make sure all students understand, it is time for them to respond. Students complete a foldable, flapbook, or cut-out (also included in this packet) as an interactive activity. A practice page is then given either as classwork or homework for a quick assessment of that week’s gremlin. Then, on Friday, we give the quiz.

Practice pages and quizzes are included! In addition, there are review tests, complete with study guides, after every five lessons. The following twenty-four “gremlins” are tackled with this book.

  • Lessons included:
  • It’s vs. Its
  • Your vs. You’re
  • To vs. Too
  • Accept vs. Except
  • A lot (It’s two words!)
  • Review Study Guide and Review Test One
  • Their, There, They’re
  • I or Me?
  • Who’s vs. Whose
  • Affect or Effect
  • Punctuating Dialogue
  • Review Study Guide and Review Test 2
  • Dessert vs. Desert
  • Principal vs. Principle
  • Himself and Themselves
  • Singular vs. Plural Pronouns
  • Loose vs. Lose
  • Review Study Guide and Review Test 3
  • Apostrophes
  • Commas with Independent Clauses
  • Semicolons
  • The Colon
  • Capitalization of Geographical Words and School Subjects
  • Capitalization of Calendar Items, Brands, and Family Names
  • Run-on Sentences
  • Fragments
  • Who vs. Whom
  • Review Study Guide and Review Test 4
  • Rubrics; Answer Keys

While every grammar and usage mishap is not included in this book, we have chosen those that have been monumental and overexposed in our own teaching experience. We also provide mnemonics and tricks to help students remember the rules!

What’s the deal with the gremlin?

Our little gremlin appears in each lesson. Facts about his gremlin world are included in all of the mini-lessons. This helps keep things interesting and will give your students something to giggle about! We have a gremlin word wall in our classrooms, where all of our “gremlins” go after we learn them each week. Also, after a grammar gremlin is taught, students must be careful to edit their writing to make sure it is used correctly. For example, if we have already covered the semicolon as a gremlin, students are to make sure they use it correctly in their writing. If they do not, “GREMLIN ALERT!” is written right on their paper. This is great for writing instruction because the teacher can ignore the mistakes that have not been covered yet and only focus on the ones that have been taught. Students build their “editing toolbox” as the lessons progress each week.

Make it fun!

Monsters are very popular these days. We buy monster stickers and reward students with them when they make a 100 on a gremlin quiz. We make a Gremlin Wall and hang cute little cut out monsters with each lesson that we learn.

Just the other day at the Dollar Tree, I found the cutest little squishy monsters.  I bought a few and plan to toss them around on Mondays when we learn our gremlin for the week.  Whoever catches it will either answer a question about the gremlin or use it correctly in a sentence.

Also, once a gremlin has been taught and placed on our Gremlin Wall, we are serious about it in writing assignments.  For example, if we have already covered the semicolon as a gremlin, students are to make sure they use it correctly in their writing.  If they do not, I am quick to write “GREMLIN ALERT!” right on their paper.  This is great for writing instruction because I can ignore the mistakes that I have not covered yet and only focus on the ones that we have covered.  Students build their “editing toolbox” as we progress each week.

*Note: Everything you need to have a weekly grammar gremlin and create an interactive notebook is included in this packet. Twenty-four mini lessons, foldables, flapbooks, or cutouts, practice pages, quizzes, review tests and answer keys are included. Even if you are not sure about using interactive notebooks, this resource will work for you. Activities can be done in a binder, and pictures and descriptions are provided to make everything easy to teach!

You are going to LOVE Grammar Gremlins! By far, this is one of the best and greatest resources that we use in our own classrooms!  Click the link below for a free sample from Grammar Gremlins.

FREE mini-lessons, practice sheets, and quizzes from Grammar Gremlins~Avoiding the Little Monsters in Writing

Extreme Makeover Writing Edition ~ Teach Students How to Revise!

For years, I struggled with how to specifically teach revision.  Then the six traits came along, and life as a writing teacher became much easier.    One night on the couch while watching Extreme Makeover Home Edition, a bright idea popped into my head.  Why not let my students treat a rough draft as something that needed to be completely “made over”?  I could still use the six traits by teaching mini lessons on word choice, sentence fluency, and voice.  Then, I could put students in “design teams” and let them “tear down” a rough draft and “rebuild” it with the tools of revision.

This idea came to me seven years ago, but it is still something that I use in my classroom each year!  Students become excited as soon as I mention working in “teams” and they become even more excited when I tell them that we are having a competition to see which team can create the best extreme makeover on a piece of writing.  I start by giving them all the same story.  It’s bland, boring, and in need of a lot of work.  Most of the time, I let students work with a partner, but sometimes I allow them to gather in groups of four, and revise the piece of writing by improving the grabber, word choice, ending, details, voice, and sentence fluency.  Of course, at this point, we have already covered all of these writing traits in mini lessons and with various activities.

Take a look at this free sample packet that I have put together for Extreme Makeover Writing Edition.   You can print one of the mini lessons and see a little of how I accomplish this in my classroom.   If you like these free samples, you may consider ordering the entire teaching unit.  Like me, you can use it year after year!

Keep Calm and Teach Writing

It never fails. I return to school after summer break and spend the few days before the students return anxiously gathering all of my resources on how to teach writing. I am determined to find a new formula, a fresh approach, and a brilliant curriculum that will inspire the most reluctant students and transform my seventh graders into writers that will knock my socks off. I open eight or nine books plus an Internet site or two and pour over mini lessons, graphic organizers, and ideas on writing workshop until I study my eager- self silly. “Ooooh, this idea from Barry Lane is awesome!” “Nancy Atwell’s writing workshop can be added in every other day!” “Wow, what a perfect way to teach introductions!” The gears in my brain turn and whirl out a writing agenda for the entire year, and for a few fleeting moments right before the students return in August, I think I have it figured out. It only takes a little while for me to realize that I do not. When I take a look at my students’ first writing samples, I am reminded of the work that is cut out for me. There are those students who write a three page paragraph, those who are evidently allergic to correct capitalization and punctuation, those who cannot write a coherent sentence much less a paragraph or entire essay, and those who have a cookie- cutter style of writing with their “Do you have a favorite animal? I do.” beginnings. Mix that in with those who enthuse you with their refreshing style, those who have mastered their choice of words, those who you think, “Wow, this kid will be a novelist one day”, and you have a seventh grade language arts class. After a short lived, “How will I teach writing to students who are all over the spectrum?” panic attack, I take a deep breath and remind myself of one important truth: I have these students for one year. It is not my job to teach them everything under the sun about writing. They will not become perfect authors or poets in this one year, but they will improve. They will all be better writers when they leave the seventh grade. Once I settle in to this reality, I am ready to take on the challenge. I may not use all of the ideas I have read about, but there are, however, a few practices buckled tightly into my teaching repertoire that I do every year. The following are four of my top “MUSTS” for teaching writing:

Write with the students.

If I want my students to become writers, I myself must be one too. I continuously show my own writing process in front of them, mistakes and all. I let them see me free-write, scratch out and replace words, and correct words that I misspell. They watch me brainstorm, doodle when I am thinking, and sometimes just start all over. When we aren’t writing stories, essays, or poems, we complete guided journal entries. I guide students through writing exercises on using voice, description, suspense, etc. and model my own as we go. Of course, I stop and walk around to help them, but I always have something of my own for them to see.

Before Christmas write, write, write. After Christmas, revise, revise, revise!

If you are an ELA teacher, you are full aware that we must teach a whole lot more than just writing! It is hard fitting it all in. One thing that I have found helpful is to write rough drafts before Christmas and not revise them until after Christmas break. Once a draft is written, we move on to another piece of writing. Along the way, students learn from guided journaling, mini lessons, and from each other. I constantly walk around the room and say things like, “Oooh, everyone stop writing for a minute, and listen to Carla’s introduction!” Students really inspire one another when they share their writing. As for grading, I give my students a 100 as long as they complete the rough draft in the way that I have asked. Sometimes, I will grade papers for something that I have taught in a mini-lesson, but I will not take off for organization, word choice, voice, and conventions until the final draft is written later in the year. In the winter and spring, we return to our previous written assignments and revise. This way, the students have not grown tired of the piece, and they are able to make a fresh revision. My mini lessons after Christmas are focused on how to revise so that each day, the students know what to do. Once the piece is complete, I grade it using our state writing rubric.

Make it real, and make it fun!

Students do not like writing when it is only done for the teacher to read or to prepare for a test. A few years ago, I stumbled upon a genius idea. I decided that I would use writing contests to inspire and challenge my seventh graders. Scholastic holds an awesome publishing contest called Kids Are Authors. With this contest, students work in teams of three to write, illustrate, and publish a children’s book. I cannot tell you how excited my seventh graders are to work on this project. As a class, we first study children’s books, and then the kids work on their own. Their finished products are always phenomenal! Of course, we as teachers can also create our own competitions. One year our school held an American Writer Contest– like the television show, American Idol. Another idea that a fellow teacher and I developed is Extreme Makeover Writing Edition. This involves a class contest to see which group can most successfully “tear down” a weak essay and “rebuild it” with the tools of revision. In addition to contests, we must provide real audiences for our young writers. Simply allowing students to share their work with their classmates will give purpose to their pens hitting the paper.

Stress the trait of voice.

Of all of the traits of writing, I think voice is the most important. Without it, writing is as bland as grits without butter and salt. I tell each student that when I go home to read a stack of essays, his/her paper should be the one that makes me sit straight up and shout to my husband and children, “Come here! You have to hear this!” While voice cannot be taught, it can be modeled and identified. It is that elusive trait that shows a writer’s personality, passion, and creativity. As much as possible, I stop and discuss voice when we are reading essays, novels, or short stories. I also pull out or highlight lines from student writing and staple them to a bulletin board titled – Now That’s Voice! One thing that I always tell my students is, “What you write should cause a response in your reader.” It could be a tear, a smile, a chuckle, a “that is so true,” an “I can’t wait so see what’s going to happen”, or just a nod of the head. Without voice, however, a piece of writing sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher “Whaaa waaa waaaa waaaa”, and the reader is most likely in Snoozeville.

So, until next year when I once again delve into all of my writing books to try and reinvent the wheel, it is nice to be settled in, to know my role, and to do what I know works. This year, I will keep calm and teach writing!

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About the Author

Shannon teaches 7th grade ELA and is one half of the creative team at ELA Core Plans. She loves her husband and kids, and while she loves her work, she pretty much lives for the summer.