Teaching Middle School Reading

Though the primary teacher is charged with the difficult and essential task of teaching phonetic associations, word recognition, and the requisite abilities actually associated with reading, middle school English or language arts teachers are often referred to as “reading teachers.” So, if these “reading teachers” don’t actually teach students how to read, what do/should they teach?  Well, the answer to this question is open to debate, but I would answer it as such: 6th, 7th, and 8th grade reading teachers provide students with intermediate reading skills that prepare students to better function at the next educational level.  As a 7th and 8th grade reading teacher in a challenging elementary school in the West side of Chicago, my classroom functions quite differently from the ideal,  “Dead Poet’s Society” type classroom, but I like to believe (and at times am fully convinced) that I am preparing my students to function in such a classroom.  This blog post will discuss the reading skills that I believe are essential for high school and college bound 6th, 7th, or 8th grade students to possess.  If you are a middle school reading teacher, or just interested in giving yourself or someone else more practice with reading skills, download reading worksheets, lessons, and activities teaching and reinforcing all of these following skills at ereadingworksheets.com.

Identifying Figurative Language:  middle school reading students should be able to recognize and identify figurative language techniques with consistency.   Commonly used figurative language techniques include simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole, and understatement.  State test makers often lump these skills together with poetic devices such as alliteration, consonance, assonance, onomatopoeia, rhythm, rhyme, and repetition; therefore, it is good practice for students to learn to identify poetic devices.

Recognizing Literary Techniques: alongside the study of figurative language, students should learn to identify literary techniques, such as foreshadowing, flashback, irony, and symbolism.  Not only are these terms tossed around on state reading exams, but the high school student who uses these terms correctly in a literary discussion will earn recognition.  Because I am trying to bring honor and a good name to our school, I want my students to be literary experts among their classes at whatever high school that they attend.

Perceiving Story Structure and Elements of the Story: also known as Freytag’s Pyramid, familiarity with the structure of a narrative will serve a dual purpose.  First, students will better engage in discussions about the structure of the  story; second, by knowing basic story structure students should be able to compose better narrative essays.  The story structure terms with which students should be familiar include: exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, moment of final suspense, and the resolution or denouement. Students should also be familiar with the group of terms known as the elements of a story: plot, conflict, antagonist, protagonist, setting, mood, and tone.

Understanding Text Structure: students also need to be able to determine how information is organized within a passage, known as the structure of the text or the pattern of organization.  Not every passage will follow these cookie cutter passages but many, perhaps most, will.  Middle school reading students should be familiar with the following patterns of organization: cause and effect, compare and contrast, chronological, order of importance, problem and solution, spatial or descriptive writing, and sequence or process writing.

Determining the Narrator’s View Point: students should also be able to determine from which perspective the narrator is telling the story.  This entails distinguishing the dialogue from narration and figuring out whether the story is narrated from first-person, second-person, third-person objective, third-person limited, and third-person omniscient perspective.   The various view points are differentiated by pronoun case and the scope of the narration.

Genre and Subgenre: in their academic careers, students will be exposed to a wide variety of texts.  From nonfiction to drama, students will have everything in the book thrown at them, so to speak.  Students need to recognize and identify the details that distinguish one genre and subgenre from the next.  Students generally require a lot of time working on this skill because their are so many subgenres.  To compound the problem, many of the subgenres are differentiated by mere nuances.  For example, it’s not too difficult to define the terms legend and folk tale– but the determination as to whether a story is a legend or a folk tale is based on opinion and relatively arbitrary.  Nonetheless, students should be familiar with the characteristics that define genre.

Extracting Theme: as students approach high school, they need to become more familiar with the inferential / higher order thinking skill side of Bloom’s taxonomy rather than on the more basic recollection / comprehension.  Having students recognize and explain the themes of stories is another important skill that should be taught to middle school students.

These are seven basic reading skills that should be taught to middle grade students by their reading teachers. Stay tuned for more, and may the best results await you and your students.  Remember, free printable reading worksheets await you at ereadingworksheets.com

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Persuasive Writing Techniques

Being able to write a persuasive essay is an essential survival skill for students. Whether writing an essay for a standardized test or entrance exam, or a letter arguing for admittance into an elite high school or university, students will have to write many persuasive essays in their educational careers. Therefore, it is essential that students master this skill.  Some writers and educators believe that the five-paragraph,  “sandwich” method, which will be explained in this post, is a lower level of composition, but I believe that the structure learned in this approach is the corner stone of higher level academic writing.  To put it another way, the value of strong topic sentences transcends grade level and learning to structure a body of writing according to a simple formula is of greater worth than those fluffy purple prose pushers would have one believe.

The Introductory Paragraph

The introductory paragraph has a few purposes.  First, and perhaps most importantly, the introductory paragraph should capture the attention of the reader. It’s been said that the first and last ideas that a speaker expresses have the greatest chance of influencing his audience.  Therefore, a good persuasive essay writer will immediately attempt to influence the reader from the first sentence of the essay by using an attention catching technique.  After catching the reader’s attention, the writer should state his or her thesis, a statement clearly stating his or her position on the topic, and then the writer should preview his or her three arguments.   The three arguments should each be strong enough to create a paragraph while being different enough from each other that the writer does not repeat himself.   A thoughtful statement or question after this might help transition the reader into the body of the essay, but this is not required.


The Body

Many students mistakenly begin arguing their points in the introductory paragraph, and while the tone and position of the writer should be clearly revealed in the introductory paragraph, the actual arguing or each point should take place in the body of the essay. The body is actually three paragraphs: each paragraph is about one argument. A common mistake by inexperienced writers is to begin the paragraph by arguing one idea (i.e. girls should be allowed to play sports with boys because it would be good exercise) but ending the paragraph on a completely different point (i.e. some girls can be good at sports too).

Points should be developed or argued in the order that they were previewed. For example, if the writer says in the introductory paragraph that girls should be allowed to play sports with boys because circle, square, and triangle, the first body paragraph should be about circle, the second body paragraph should be about square, and the third body paragraph should be about triangle.

Each point should be elaborated and supported until its logical conclusion; however, my students always request a sentence count that will make a paragraph complete.  I tell them that I am looking for about six sentences in a body paragraph, but that I am more interested in the quality of the sentences than the quantity and I remind them that they should continue arguing a point until it is thoroughly explained and has reached a logical conclusion.

The Conclusion

Though some summary is expected and appropriate in a concluding paragraph, a concluding paragraph should not be all summary. The writer must make an attempt to add something to the argument in their conclusion, some sort of clinching statement. As I stated at the beginning of this post, many people feel that a speakers greatest chance of influencing their audience is with the first and last ideas expressed; therefore, it is important that writers attempt to finish with a bang. So while it might make sense to start your essay with, “In conclusion, I am (restate position). I have argued that (restate arguments)”– after all of that summary something fresh must be added to the end. I suggest an emotional plea. It’s almost like one more argument. After restating his or her points, the writer should describe how the world would be a better place if their position is adopted or a worse place if it is not. I call this dynamic the “better world” or “frightening scenario” technique. I find this to be an effective way to add something to the concluding paragraph, the more descriptive the scenario the better.

Though the “sandwich” technique to essay writing has received a bad reputation in some circles as of late, there are compelling reasons why it was and will continue to be an academic staple for many years. Though students will eventually have to shed the more cumbersome conventions of the formula and expand on the basics if they are college bound, the five-paragraph essay provides a solid foundation on which one can build their writing skills.


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Generating Persuasive Essay Topics

One thing that can make a difference in your students’ writing is the prompts or topics to which they must respond.  Ultimately, I find that the goal is to have students create arguments for any topic that they encounter, but when they first begin writing, I prefer to give students high interest topics or offer them a choice of topics.  Remember, this is just for scaffolding.  Students will eventually need to respond to any topic which they are given to simulate the realities of a testing situation.  Here is a  list of 101 persuasive essay topics to get you started.   If you find that these topics are still not working for your particular situation, perhaps it is best is you have students generate their own topics.  Here are three methods with which students can generate their own persuasive essay topics.

1.  Brainstorming: Give students 5 or 10 minutes of class time to create as many persuasive essay topics as they can.  Encourage them to write down everything that comes into their heads.  Perhaps offer recognition to the student who create the most topics to motivate your students.

2.  Interviews: Have students work in pairs to discuss things that are interesting to them.  First students create a list of interview questions to ask their partners, then they conduct interviews, and then they select topics for their partners based on their answers to the questions that were asked.

3.  Daily News: Have students bring in a newspaper or magazine.  Give them ten or fifteen minutes to browse through the publications that they brought.  While they are browsing, they should write down an interesting issues or topics that are covered in the publications, and then they should create persuasive essay topics based on the articles.

I hope that these methods will help your students generate interesting persuasive essay topics.  Remember, students should be able to respond to any topic which is posed to them; however, it can be helpful to give students topics that are of higher interest while they are still learning the writing process.  Best results!

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