Best Advice for Writing Teachers? Use Mini-Lessons

teach writing using mini lessons

Let’s imagine that you’re stranded at sea in a tiny rowboat. The weight of all the writing instruction strategies you’ve got up your sleeve are weighing the boat down, so you’ve got to throw them all overboard except for ONE.

Which one will you keep?

I’m saving mini-lessons. And I’ll never look back.

Why? Mini-lessons, aka focus lessons, are the most effective way of delivering explicit writing instruction for many reasons.

Keep reading to find out the following:

  • What are the characteristics of a good mini-lesson?
  • What are the advantages of using a mini-lesson format?
  • How can they be used in a middle school ELA classes? (I use them despite the fact that our class periods are only 42 minutes long!)

I’m even including a link to one of my most helpful FREE mini-lessons!

What are the characteristics of an effective mini-lesson?

Mini-lessons, aka focus lessons, are the most effective way of delivering explicit writing instruction for many reasons. #writersworshop #middleschoolwriting #writingteacher #minilesson #writingteacher #middleschoolela

  • It is short. Mini-lessons are intentionally kept brief, usually 10-20 minutes, so that students can spend a majority of the period writing and implementing the skill from the lesson.
  • It is focused. The mini-lesson pinpoints one skill that is directly related to the writing genre students are currently working on.
  • It is practical. Students can immediately improve their writing by incorporating their newfound knowledge.

What are the advantages of using a mini-lesson format?

  • Differentiation: It is easy to pull small groups aside for individualized mini-lessons depending upon need.
  • Application: Kids see immediate improvement in their own writing because the lessons are targeted to skills they can directly apply to craft their writing. For example, they’re not busy completing worksheets about punctuation rules that they may or may not need to know someday.
  • Authenticity: Because students use the skills right away, they see the practical value of the task. Revision lessons relate to the genre and grammar isn’t taught in isolation.
  • Fosters Independence: Students learn to take responsibility for their own learning instead of waiting for the teacher to take that red pen to their paper. They self-evaluate and figure out the most effective way to approach and improve their own writing. (I also LOVE when kids CHOOSE to join in on a small group mini-lesson because they feel they need to learn the skill! SCORE!)
  • Teachers Like It: Short lessons make planning easier, leading to higher quality, targeted lessons. Additionally, we get to spend more time working directly with kids!
  • KIDS LOVE IT! They have more time to write and share their work. They also like the sense of control and immediate gratification that comes with the format.

How can we use mini-lessons in middle school ELA classes?

Before starting each new writer’s workshop unit, which I wrote about here, I outline the main skills I’d like to focus on AFTER our prewriting/idea gathering lessons, during our drafting and revision phase. I use mini-lessons during the prewriting process also, but those are mostly geared toward generating ideas and understanding the necessary components of the writing genre.
In a perfect world, each mini-lesson should take 5-15 minutes, but we all know we don’t live in a perfect world. If I have a group that struggles with a concept, I have no problem giving them more time, because our goal is to learn, not to just finish.
Here are some of the skills I might cover for fictional narrative writing:
  • writing a magnetic starter
  • point of view
  • creating characters
  • paragraphing
  • writing dialogue
  • voice
  • concrete language
  • sensory details
Depending on the class inventory and what I notice as I circulate, I modify the list from there. Whatever I don’t get to this time around, I will put aside for our personal narrative writing unit.

>>>My Favorite Tip for Teaching Writing<<<

Read this blogpost to find out why it's a great idea to list mini-lessons on the board during writer's workshop. #writersworshop #middleschoolwriting #writingteacher #minilesson #writingteacher #middleschoolela
Here’s a good tidbit it took me WAY too much time to figure out. Sometimes I wonder if I have a few more “Duh” moments than others. 😉 During writer’s workshop, write any upcoming mini-lesson topics right there on the board for the kids to see. Make them fluorescent or polka dotted so the kids CANNOT miss the list. (We all know that kids practically need something to bite them on the nose before they notice it.)
It seems like such a small thing, but it has been a huge timesaver. Kids are much less likely to ask me questions about those aspects of their writing when they can see that a mini-lesson will be taking place. It also frees them to focus on the mini-lesson at hand without worrying about other aspects of their work.

Small-Group or Whole-Class Mini-Lessons

At the beginning of the year, I use an inventory sheet to keep track of each student’s weaknesses. As I read the first couple of writing assignments, I make notes on the inventory, and I use those notes to inform my mini-lessons. You don’t have to just use graded assignments to make your inventory. My kids write much more than I grade, so I use a variety of early assignments to assess.
When I see that there are many students with the same deficits, I run whole-class mini-lessons. If I only notice a few kids needing a skill, I will pull them over for an individual mini. I do notice that kids will join me for the mini when they think they need extra support in a topic, and I love to see that because it means they are taking control of their own learning.
Writer's Workshop Tips! Find out how to use a class writing inventory to inform mini-lesson instruction. #writersworshop #middleschoolwriting #writingteacher #minilesson #writingteacher #middleschoolela
Remember when I mentioned that our periods are only 42 minutes long short? (Can you tell- since I can’t stop complaining– that this is a real bone of contention for me? Sorry for my vent!) Because of the limited time I have, I do sometimes have to run two mini-lessons during one period. It’s not totally unusual to see me teach a whole class mini on sensory language, for example, and then a small group mini on using apostrophes.
Sigh. We do what we have to do in the time we have to do it. And it really works, as long as the two lessons are relatively short.
Now for the real strength of the mini-lesson. Students should immediately practice the skill in their own writing. Run a mini-lesson on using concrete nouns and then have students highlight and replace “weak” nouns in their own writing. Teach students how to recognize sentence fragments and they can immediately fix fragments in their own writing. The lesson is immediately useful and personal.
This paragraphing lesson is one of my favorites! You can download it for free HERE.
Writer's Workshop Tips! With a FREE mini-lesson on teaching paragraphing! #writersworshop #middleschoolwriting #writingteacher #minilesson #writingteacher #middleschoolela

Sticky Lessons

Two of my students came to me recently and told me that everything I’m teaching them about writing this year “sticks.” It’s not me. It’s the sticky minis. 😉
This mini-lesson resource has 18 mini-lessons that can enhance any writing unit.