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How to choose engaging texts for middle school and high school ELA

Tips for choosing "heart texts" that help students to master the standards

The most important decision when planning ELA curriculum is hands down what texts to teach. When planning middle school and high school ELA curriculum, start with the standards. Then, choose texts that engage and bring learning to life for your students. Texts work as the heartbeat of your curriculum.

When mapping out your school year, I recommend starting with the writing standards then choosing your heart texts–the texts that will engage students by their very nature, inspiring students not only as readers, but also as writers.

The progression from informative to argument to research and finally to narrative writing is the most logical and is the format I’ve followed in my 7th grade ELA classroom for over 20 years. This yearlong structure helps students to build a strong writing foundation in the fall that they build on all year long. Ending with narratives allows students to use their foundational writing skills while tapping into their creativity and spreading their writing wings!

Once your writing timeline is established, choose heart texts that either work to inspire writing or that provide students with content for their writing. Here’s how:

1. Use texts as mentors for student writing.

Start the school year by immersing students in high interest informative texts that connect to their reading. They get to practice/establish their close reading skills, a necessary foundation for the year, and the articles work as mentor texts for informative writing.

For example, my 7th grade students start the school year studying the refugee experience through the novel A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park. Before we crack open the novel, students read articles about South Sudan, South Sudanese culture, and the Second Sudanese Civil War. Students become hooked on the story of the amazing survival of the Lost Boys. The articles work as mentor texts for the culminating activity after reading the novel, an informative article about the methods that led to the main character, Salva’s, survival.

Not only do the articles work to provide background before we dive into the novel, but they also work as models when students are ready to begin their writing about the novel. Students examine the structure, language, details, and development of the articles, rereading them as writers. Students are making so many connections among the content and their writing that learning grows so much deeper. They are reading as readers and reading as writers all while mastering multiple standards.

2. Have students write about the texts they read.

Heart texts–engaging, rich novels, short stories, poems, and even independent reading texts–provide students with content for their writing.

In my classes, students read novels about the Industrial Revolution in literature circles. After reading the novels, students write an argument piece about whether children of the Industrial Revolution should have been allowed to work in factories OR whether the strikes for better working conditions were justified. Students cite text based evidence from their novels to support their arguments in what we call, The Argument Games. They quickly learn that the strongest text based evidence wins!

After literature circles, students learn to read texts online as they research the working conditions in garment factories today. Through online texts, students learn to differentiate between fact and opinion and misinformation. They share their findings in a brochure, podcast, speech, editorial, or infographic. The texts fuel the writing.

Later in the year, students design passion projects choosing a reading standard and a text and designing a project that reflects their passions. Students get to choose texts they love and they get to design their response.

When writing narratives, students’ independent reading works as mentor texts as students examine each author’s use of dialogue, description, characterization, and plot development. Authors work as mentors.

To study grammar throughout the entire year, we dive into texts of all genres. Research shows that grammar is best learned in context. Authors are the best teachers of the rules of grammar AND the breaking of the rules of grammar for effect. Through texts, students have the opportunity to explore grammar in action.

Through our texts, students master the writing standards.

3. Choose texts (or allow students to choose texts) that are authentic, rich, and engaging.

The key to choosing heart texts is making sure they are authentic, high interest, rich, and engaging. Avoid underestimating students: in the right context and with proper scaffolding, even the most challenging texts are attainable. Poetry March Madness is the perfect example: when students are given challenging classic poetry in this competitive, high-interest context, they rise to the challenge!

Below you will find ideas for texts that will help your students to master all of the reading informational and reading literary texts standards. Keep in mind, sometimes the most engaging texts are the texts students choose themselves. For that reason, I’ve also included tips for mastering the standards through independent reading.

Our favorite texts for mastering the reading information standards:

Our favorite texts for mastering the reading literature standards:

Ideas for using independent reading to master the standards (these work for the reading literature or reading informational texts standards):

A good text will engage your students simply by its content. There are so many amazing texts available to our students. As I always tell my 7th graders, read as well and as much as you can!

Related Curriculum:

This unit begins with students using close reading skills to unpack informational texts about the Second Sudanese Civil War. Students then read and analyze the novel, learning how to cite text based evidence to support their analysis. The student culminates with students writing their own informative article about the methods that led to main character Salva's survival.

Engage your students in this meaningful THREE UNIT thematic bundle. This bundle includes TEN WEEKS of meaningful reading, literature circle study, argument writing, speech listening, annotating, analysis, research, and project creation all connected to the WORKING CONDITIONS theme. Students begin reading literature circle novels that take place in Industrial Revolution factories. They move to the field with Cesar Chavez, and they end researching modern garment factories. Students leave this three unit study feeling empowered to make a difference.

Quite literally EVERYTHING you need to teach 7th grade ELA for the full school year. Includes a pacing guide, standards based lesson plans, and bonus materials for holidays, test prep, and those days between units that need to be filled! Save YEARS of planning and have planning done for the year.

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