Sample Activities
For the Writing Classroom

Pre-Writing        Research            Rhetorical Elements            Style            Revision            Editing

Over my years of teaching, I've used many in-class assignments to help students refine their style and think about the language they use in writing.  These activities have proven helpful to me in gauging students' progress in developing composition skills and in engaging students in the writing process.

Pre-Writing/Idea Generation

Neighborhood Map
As a pre-writing activity, this lesson borrowed from a Writing Project colleague asks students to recall their neighborhoods and then draw a map in order to inspire ideas for writing.  Its nostalgic tone is especially appropriate for personal narratives and poetry writing.

Browsing, Walking, and Talking
This invention activity can be adapted to a simple “walk and talk.”  Based on Patty Dunn’s work, the activity has students moving as they think through possible topics and strategies for development.  Kinesthetic learners will excel with this lesson.

Objective and Subjective Details
This activity is also useful for developing the narrative essay.  I have used this exercise during the class's transition from narrative to persuasive writing.  The lesson is prefaced with discussion about objective and subjective details, during which students have explored their understanding of connotations of words.  In this exercise, I ask them to write two different pieces, one an objective account of a fire such as an insurance agent might write, and the other a subjective account as though the students have a personal connection to the fire.  After writing, we discuss the differences between these types of writing and how the style and details affect the tone of the pieces.

Getting Started:  Discovery and Drafting

Designed for the first days of a class, this talking invention activity introduces students to each other as well as the discovery and drafting process.  With each introduction, students automatically revise what they tell others about themselves, and thus they learn how different “drafts” of the same information may be composed.

You're the Top
This lesson "taps" the song "You're the Top" by Cole Porter.  Students get a lesson in 1934 pop culture as well as discuss current pop culture in creating new and revised lyrics to the song.



Website Reality
Having grown up with internet access, students do not always distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources.  This activity, adapted from a colleague, helps students determine which internet sources are appropriate to use in their writing by focusing students’ attention on details from the website.

MLA Documentation Activity
Students often have a hard time knowing what information to include in citations for works they reference in their papers.  I use this activity to help guide writers to the proper examples in the MLA sections of their texts.  Students get practice incorporating outside sources into their own texts, using parenthetical documentation, and preparing a works-cited page in the MLA style. 


Rhetorical Elements

Audience Invoked/Audience Addressed

I developed this activity for my teaching demonstration in English 400.  I found that the introducing the students to the complexity of the idea of audience was sufficient to help them see that the audience they envision writing to is not necessarily the real audience that reads the essay.  More explanation is provided in the lesson itself.

Finding Common Ground
Carl Rogers’ book On Becoming a Person discusses how people construct more logical arguments when they articulate their opponents’ point of view.  This lesson puts his theory into practice through hypothetical situations and writing.

Forum Analysis
In this activity, students analyze the features of popular and specialty magazines that they have brought to class in order to establish the conventions of that forum.  The lesson is a good introduction to concepts of forum, audience, and publishing requirements.

Musical Audiences
A variation of “musical chairs,” the odd person out must adapt one-minute speeches to a variety of audiences.  Unique topics and unusual audiences keep students thinking on their feet as well as help them understand how discourse is adapted for different audiences.



Decisions on Style
When students come into the writing classroom, many of them think that writing happens magically, that effective writing is a gift that can't be taught.  I use the lesson on style early in the course in order to help students see that good writing is not an accident, that writers make conscious choices about all aspects of writing including the language they use, the formality of style, and even where they make paragraph divisions.  We begin with a short, informal writing activity in order to help them recognize elements of their own writing.  We follow that with a "quiz" which asks them to name popular and classic writers' stylistic features.  Not all students are well-read, however, and some have a hard time with that.  From there, we talk about the conscious decisions writers make, and I ask them to divide a long passage into paragraphs and give reasons why.  Then we discuss punctuation and the formality levels associated with them.  Finally, I ask them to keep these decisions in mind as they are writing the analyses for their papers, for that is the appropriate place to discuss their decisions.

Two Person Story/Style
I use this lesson when students are writing narratives.  It is a complementary lesson to the previous one in that students are asked to recognize elements of style from other writers.  The twist is that they are then asked to demonstrate their recognition by imitating that style.  We start with simple plot elements that students' stories must contain.  One student starts to write a story, and then after about ten minutes, the students switch stories with another writer.  The new writer has 15 minutes to read and continue the story in the same style of the original author.  Again, students amaze me with their ability to imitate the style of others, and they learn that style is not a mysterious composition term.



The first activity is an in-class writing assignment best used when students are writing narratives.  In this lesson, students see three drafts of a passage from John Steinbeck's short story "The Chrysanthemums."  We talk about what the addition of modifiers do for the passage and the ideas posited by John Erskine about the role of modifiers in writing.  Then, I ask students to change the passage by changing the modifiers.  They are to keep the basic plot of the passage, but they are free to change the modifiers, and some of the nouns if they wish, in order to create a "new" story.  The lesson is meant to show them how modifiers change the meaning of the text, how word choice is important in describing objects.  Students have a lot of fun with the results because they can be very creative, and I have a lot of fun in reading their variations of the story.

Selecting Words to Create Meaning/"William and Esther"
This activity is a good companion to the previous one.  In this lesson the students again read two drafts of the same passage from a novel and then answer questions regarding their preference for one passage and what they read out of the passage.  After they have time to write, we discuss their responses and basically "how language means," although we never really use those terms.  Students come up with many interpretations of the relationship between William and Esther and all have reasons for believing as they do.  As a follow up assignment, students revise the passage again in order to make their interpreted vision of the passage clearer without directly stating the relationship between the characters, so this again becomes a lesson in using details to create meaning.

The Interruption Game/Revision
This activity is a fun way to get students to add details to their narrative writing.  Even though it usually produced more details than necessary, it helps students understand that there is an audience out there that wants to know more about their subject.  It's also a mild form of competition that students seem to thrive on.


This language arts lesson can be used in art, sociology, and media classes as well as in composition classes.  The students use art supplies and scrap magazines to
change the audience of a given ad, thereby globally revising it.  The lesson can also be used in association with forum analysis.

Carousel Revision
A variation of a focus group revision activity, this lesson helps students get feedback and suggestions on texts in progress, with each group of students acting as experts in specific areas.  It can be adapted to include as many specialties as the instructor prefers for response or the class needs to successfully revise texts.

Fractured Fairy Tales
Students learn about revision through the retelling of fairy tales and all their variations.  Using “The Three Little Pigs” as a starting point, students see how different generations and genres interpret the story and then go on to globally revise a different fairy tale.  The lesson, borrowed from a colleague, teaches students that revision is more than simply “fixing errors” in a paper and also introduces concepts of audience and forum.



How Loose is Too Loose?
A student suggested that we talk a little more about formality of language and punctuation after the "Decisions on Style" lesson.  She wanted to know how loose is too loose with mechanical usage.  I devised this lesson as a response to her question.  Here, we look at different versions, the original and edited, of two Emily Dickinson's poems.  In groups, students discuss that impact the editors' changes do to the meaning in the poems.  We don't necessarily say which version is "better"; instead, we talk about the effect the poems create.  In this way, students become aware that their own language and mechanics effect the readers' impressions and interpretations of their work.

Boxed Text
This copy editing activity helps students isolate sentences in order to closely read for surface errors.  Students may easily manipulate the sentences to read out of order, as well.  The lesson uses easy computer applications to accomplish the boxed text.