Engaging Students in Learning English and Language Arts

College and career readiness calls for major shifts in the areas of English and Language Arts (ELA). Learners need regular practice with complex texts and the academic language presented in these texts; need experience reading, writing and speaking grounded in evidence from both literary and informational texts; and need to build background knowledge through content-rich nonfiction.

However, without high levels of student engagement, these shifts in instruction fall short of preparing students for college and career. Teachers can keep three simple ideas in mind as they develop lessons that engage students at higher levels of performance in ELA.

  • First, lessons should have a real-world application.
  • Second, students need multiple opportunities to become fluent writers in all content areas.
  • Last, students should accept the importance of the revising and editing process.

Use real-life applications to hone ELA skills

Getting students involved with current issues drives them to desire more information grounded in content-rich texts to argue their case and provide accurate information for the audience. Real-life applications can get students excited about the content while they develop ELA skills. Examples include letters to the editor, creating school/classroom newspapers or blogs; writing to companies or government officials; influencing parents, school officials, or heads of state; creating presentations for other students or the public; and getting involved in community projects.

As students develop passion about their topic — whether about turtles, animal rights or human trafficking — they spend hours of time invested in finding out more information. Give students a venue to promote learning about their area of expertise, and then add the needed ELA skills to support stronger communication with their audience.

Write, write, write!

Just like the development of oral language, communication with written language takes practice. Mistakes are made and expected during the practice stage. Many times, students are graded on every piece of writing they produce. Writers need to develop fluency for writing before they worry about the mechanics. Giving students feedback on their writing without constantly grading every piece of writing encourages students to continue to develop ideas. Teachers can reserve grading for pieces that come after students have had a chance to complete shorter writing assignments on a topic.

When students write constantly, they become fluent writers.  Without fluency in writing, students struggle to get their thoughts into printed words. Constant writing develops fluency. Low-stakes writing includes quick pieces about a topic, timed responses to a question, or student-developed questions about a topic of study. Instead of jumping directly into an oral discussion, require students to respond through writing. This provides not only writing practice but also encourages students to gather their thoughts based upon the the content and leads to a richer discussion.

John C. Bean, a professor of English at Seattle University, wrote an excellent text filled with ideas for using writing in content area courses. Although “Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, 2nd Edition” was developed for higher education, it can easily be used for middle grades and high school content classes.

Editing and revision is a life skill

Bring back the red correction pen! However, instead of keeping the red pen in the hands of the teacher, give that pen to students. Self-editing and peer-editing teaches students to look for and find their own errors. This promotes active learning and encourages students to remember the reasoning behind their errors.

In this age of technology, it is not difficult to convince learners that the printed word is powerful. Encourage students not to fear their mistakes. After students develop great ideas, their writing errors can be corrected. Have students correct each other’s errors. Focus on the need to revise and revise again until each paragraph is clear and each sentence clearly states the intended purpose.

Effective writing is an art and craft. It requires dedication to the details. Help students to see the details, realizing that grasping the details of writing and revision will come at different levels for individual students. Teachers should reward students for extensively revising their own or another student’s paper. We get hurt when someone criticizes our writing, but applying those concerns makes the final product better. We need to develop self-confidence based upon our skills and ability, and not upon empty accolades. To get students over this hurdle, encourage students to value feedback.

When teachers do all of the revising and editing, students rarely learn from the edits. Push students to revise and edit for themselves. Make it a game and reward them for effective revisions and edits. If we are writing for an audience, we want to be sure the audience understands our message.

Lucy Calkins, founding director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, has a wide variety of resources on the writing process to help teachers support student writing.

Effective ELA instruction calls for student engagement

As teachers, we often become overwhelmed by the expectations put upon us. However, if we simplify our expectations, we’ll find our students becoming independent and engaged learners and ready for college and career. Applying learning to real-world situations, encouraging students to write with fluency, and helping students accept the revision and editing process will engage students and send them on become effective communicators.

With over 35 years in administration and teaching in K-12 and higher education both in the U.S. and internationally, Dr. Nancy Cardenuto strives to cultivate creative and innovative learning paths. She is an adjunct professor in the master’s program at Concordia University – Portland, where she teaches courses in support of the Common Core State Standards. 

Learn More: Click to view related resources.
  • John C. Bean, "Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom, 2nd Edition"
  • Lucy Calkins , "Reading and Writing Project," Teachers College Reading and Writing Project