Teaching English Language Arts to the Tough Kids

By Nancy Barile on September 6, 2010
  • Grades: 6–8, 9–12

It's back to school time, and we all have dreams of reaching each and every student. However, there are some kids who just hate English class! I know. I can't imagine it, either. When I hear students say "I hate to read " or "I hate writing," I might as well be hearing them say "I hate water" because I am so appalled.

Despite this, I truly believe that there are ways that English teachers can help high school students learn to LOVE literature and writing. These are tried and true tips for engaging high school students in the English classroom. Help students connect to the literature. This is easily done through journal writing. When students connect the literature to a contemporary context, they are better able to understand. For example, a Macbeth journal entry prompt reads:

Journal Entry 1: Ambition can be both positive and negative. Was there ever a time in your life when you let ambition get the best of you? Tell us the story of how your ambition veered out of control.

Another assignment called "Bringing Hamlet Up-to-Date" requires students to give a modern day twist to the play.



  • Students write best when they write for an audience — especially if that audience is someone other than the teacher. For this reason, it is great to have students publish their writing in literary magazines, the local newspaper, or the school newspaper. In fact, if you submit a piece of writing to the local newspaper, chances are they will publish it! If you have a place to display student work outside your classroom, do so. Even reading student work to the class gives students a new audience.
  • Provide models and exemplars for writing. These examples may be culled from student work (again providing students with an audience for their writing), but they also can — and should be — from criticism, essays, and other writing from the masters. A great launchpad for this type of writing can be found in the book Teaching Powerful Writing.
  • Although process writing is important, students also benefit from writing under time constraints, which forces students to be cohesive, succinct, and organized writers.
  • Provide students with opportunities to write creatively. Because state tests usually require only one type of writing, students do not have as many occasions to write creatively.
  • Create a classroom blog or ezine — the book Extraordinary Blogs and Ezines will show you just how to  do it. Students have been known to then create their own blogs and ezines about music, video games, movies, and TV.
  • Increase students' metacognition about their writing. Have them think about their writing and write about their writing.
  • Provide opportunities for students to engage in "real-life" writing — for example, writing a cover letter, resume, letter of complaint, praise, etc. Many times you can link it to the literature. For example, in this lesson, "Character Analysis Through Job Placement," students try to find job placement for Laura from The Glass Menagerie. 
  • Most importantly, praise and encourage reluctant writers during each step of their writing — sometimes that's all they need to get going. Stick with a student who does not want to write. When students realize you absolutely won't take no for an answer, they'll eventually start writing.
  • Look for topics that appeal to students, such as "Is Rap Music Misogynistic?" "Should Undocumented Students Be Able to Attend College?" "Is Celebrity Watching Out of Control?" "What Right Do You Have to Privacy?" Most students will be eager to research and write about these topics.
  • Show students how to research topics through the perspective of another country. For example, in 2006, for the first time ever, the pope visited a predominantly Muslim country, If you do a search for information about that visit in Google or Yahoo!, you come up with an American perspective of that experience. However, if you look at Turkish Web sites for information on the visit, you will see the news coverage is very different. Here is the list of Internet country codes. To do a search, go to AltaVista. Type in the host, a colon, the country code, and the topic. For example, to find out about women's issues in Bosnia, type in "host:ba women's issues in bosnia."
  • I encourage you to be a stickler about grammar, punctuation, and spelling. I believe making grammar, punctuation, and spelling an integral part of the writing process from the beginning will make these concepts second nature to students. You might have to use some lessons from Punctuation Power to refresh students' memories, but it's worth it.

Have fun, and look for more detailed assignments on these very topics in future blogs!


~ Nancy



Hi Nancy,

Love this particular post - especially all the helpful links! Any suggestions for writing projects or journals linked to the study of Beowulf?


Hi Mary! Let me know if you ever use that format with Mark Twain - I think you might get some cool results!

Nancy, I love the Hamlet lesson. I would work great with some of the classics that kids struggle with reading--Mark Twain.

Thanks, Nicky! Mor writing tools are always helpful! ~ Nancy

Nancy This is a great post and you really have some fabulous tips here to get students motivated to write.

I think very often that students have problems organising their thoughts making the task of writing overwhelming for many - indeed I remember as a student my thoughts making sense in my head and never quite living up to my expectation on the page. Take a look at this free powerpoint resource called "Saving Reluctant Writers". I think you will find it incredibly useful in giving kids a structure into which to write. http://www.modellearning.com/ideas/ideas-powerpoints.aspx

Nancy, thanks for all of these wonderful ideas! I feel like I can never get my students motivated to write...I too, feel awful when they tell me they "hate English". I plan to use some of your ideas with the hopes it will help motivate my students! Thanks for sharing!

As early as the fourth grade I had several teachers that encouraged my writing and made writing both a challenge and fun. In high school I only had one teacher that encouraged me to write, gave tough assignments and would grade down a paper with poor grammar. Mrs. Reinhart, I will never forget her and how much I loved her class. She would take current song lyrics, deconstruct them and pull lines out and say here are the first two lines of your story, finish up in 15 minutes. She was also one of the only teachers I had that acknowledged how smart her students were and always talked to us not at us.

Thank you, Ms. McCarthy, and thank you, Allie and Brent. Brent, you would not believe the work the kids put into their scripts and productions. One time kids did Hamlet as a dance off - and, believe it or not, it was BRILLIANT.

Nancy - you are an inspiration! Great ideas here! Thanks!

Nancy - this is a great post. I firmly believe anything we can do to get kids motivated and enjoy reading is what we need to do and I can bet that kids love being in your class. Being a kindergarten teacher I try to motivate reading and writing and get them excited so they will be ready to face the world. I can't wait to ready your future posts. ~Allie

Like the Hamlet idea! I wish that would have been my assignment back in HS.

Post a Comment
(Please sign in to leave a comment. Privacy Policy)
RSS Subscribe ButtonSign up to get these great teaching ideas delivered automatically.Subscribe now >