Four ways to build middle school English enthusiasts

Middle school is the most important time in a child’s life for emotional and academic development—a pivotal few years when children gain a sense of identity and independence, develop their voices in the community of the classroom, and become ethical citizens who think deeply about diverse subjects.

As chair of Waynflete’s English Department and a longtime middle school teacher, I have witnessed the growth of students during this critical time in their lives. Walk with me through the halls of Waynflete and learn how to recognize the signs of essential learning that should take place in a middle school English classroom:

  1. Foster critical reading skills

Desks are arranged in a circle to foster sharing and to encourage the voicing of student opinions—not just the teacher’s. Books are marked up with student responses to last night’s assignment. Hands are raised as students begin to dissect the reading. Page numbers are noted on the board with critical vocabulary and highlighters come out during moments of discovery.

Critical reading should be the foundation of a middle school English class. By carefully annotating texts, students stretch their comprehension by reading beyond the plot. Whether in small groups or full-class discussions, students deepen their ability to decode language and explore the significance of ideas. In this setting, reading becomes a deeply personal experience that widens students’ view of the world.

  1. Find their voice

A student stands before their classmates holding a richly decorated diorama that illustrates their understanding of a chosen book. Classroom walls and bulletin boards are decorated with the visual artifacts of independent reading. Standing tall, reading aloud, and sharing reviews, students learn the art of public speaking.

The joy and power of participation is essential in a middle school classroom. Student-led discussions offer an opportunity for middle schoolers to find their voices, express opinions, and test theories. Risk-taking is encouraged. Opportunities abound for middle schoolers to gain the confidence to read aloud, recite and perform poetry, and act out scenes from Shakespeare’s plays.

  1. Learn the rules of grammar and usage

There is a small rubber duck on each student’s desk. On the board, the teacher draws a large airplane. As students settle down, the teacher announces that a duck can do many things to interact with an airplane. She sits her duck on the wing, declaring, “The duck sits on the wing.” Soon the students approach the drawing and demonstrate “around, through, beside, with, in…” This is an initial lesson in prepositional phrases.

Grammar is the foundation of good writing. Students learn to compose complete sentences through repeated instruction and practical application to their writing. Composing a sentence becomes an innate skill as students identify parts of speech through movement: underlining nouns and verbs, circling prepositions, and using rectangles and triangles to identify adjectives and adverbs. Complex-compound sentences are the foundation of stories filled with descriptive imagery—all written in proper grammatical form.

  1. Write to communicate with the world

Composition books and dictionaries are open on desks as students bend their heads in deep concentration. Pencils scratch against the paper as words fill the page. Students glance at a poster that encourages “smell, taste, touch, hear, see, feel.” The quiet of the room is palpable as energy is focused on the written word. Now is the time to “see what you say.”

The culmination of all English study is experienced through the writing process. Middle school is an essential time for students to learn how to write and express their ideas. Writing develops with instruction on a variety of forms: opinion, narrative, personal essay, and analysis. Students explore different kinds of expression through book reviews, critical essays, tales of wonder, and letters to the editor. Students learn to review, edit, critique, and refine their writing with emphasis on clarity and creativity. All components of learning come together with proper grammar, usage, and fluid expression of thought. Middle school develops the written voice that carries students into the world as communicators.