Like many English/Language Arts teachers, it’s likely you’ve heard about NoRedInk. This online tool, created by an actual English teacher, provides lessons on grammar, usage, mechanics, style, and more for students in grades 5-12. Maybe, like me, you’re already using it in your classroom. I loved how easy NoRedInk made grammar instruction. I gave a pre-test, assigned students the lessons that best met their individualized needs, and checked on their progress. It took me a bit longer, however, to discover just how many fun and engaging activities NoRedInk offers. So check out this roundup of new ways you can incorporate this site into your middle school writing lessons.

And just as an awesome head’s up, NoRedInk is currently making hundreds of their Premium writing activities free for the remainder of the 2021-2022 school year for all users!

1. Use students’ own interests to keep them engaged

Short gif showing the student interest inventory on NoRedInk

Middle schoolers love when a name they recognize pops up in a text. It doesn’t even have to be theirs! Their best friend’s name, their cousin’s name, even their dog’s name is enough to make them smile. NoRedInk takes this to the next level by allowing students to personalize their learning right from the beginning. When they log in, your students will be asked to choose the actors, athletes, musicians, movies, TV shows, and more that interest them. Later, those choices will appear in their lessons. It’s a great way to immediately get some buy-in for your middle school writing lessons.

2. Skip over the stuff your students already know

With topics like grammar, the mechanics of writing, and others, it can be difficult to gauge how much students know each year. Some years, my students would arrive writing beautifully punctuated, grammatically correct sentences. Other years I had to start with a lesson on why emojis were not appropriate in formal writing! NoRedInk has multiple diagnostic tools to help solve this problem. Their Planning Diagnostic lets you start your semester by gathering data about your class’s overall strengths and weaknesses. Their Unit Diagnostics ensure that you start each unit with a baseline you can use to measure growth. This way, you don’t waste your time with a lesson your students have already mastered.

3. Start the day with a fun writing activity

Screenshot of a middle school writing lesson on NoRedInk

I used to try to collect and review my students’ bell-ringer journals at least twice a marking period. It was awful. I knew the students liked knowing I was actually reading what they wrote each day, but carting around 30 journals per class and trying to find a fair, meaningful way to grade them took hours. NoRedInk has kept everything I love about bell-ringer prompts and gotten rid of so many hassles. They have pre-made prompts as well as the option to create your own prompts. You can select how much your students have to write (from 1 to 5 paragraphs), and as they write, students will see a bar fill up, giving them a visual guide for how much more they need to say. You also are given choices on how you want to grade the submitted work—a completion grade based on word count, a 0-100% grade, or a rubric-based score.

4. Offer weekly writing challenges to make students want to keep writing

Weekly challenges are a great way to get your students hyped about whatever middle school writing lesson you’re currently working on. NoRedInk’s Quick Write prompts are perfect for this. Assigning fun independent activities will challenge them and help them level up as writers.

Writing Challenge Ideas:

  • Writing Streak Challenge: Have students write for at least 15 minutes, 5 days in a row, turning in their writing each day.
  • Audience Challenge: Have students share a piece of their writing with a friend or family member, then write down the audience’s response and turn it in.
  • Read Aloud Challenge: Have students record themselves reading their own writing (for example, for a Quick Write assignment) out loud.
  • Practice and Revise Challenge: Have students choose a topic in the Practice section to complete on their own. Then, have them revise a piece of their writing specifically looking out for errors relevant to the topic they completed. Students should jot down one example of an error they corrected and turn it in.

5. Make grammar review funny with a Mad Libs-style activity

NoRedInk makes this activity easy with a pre-made Mad Libs Sentences Quick Write, found under Collaborative Activities. Your students will write one creative sentence, including at least one noun, one adjective, and one past tense verb. (Feel free to switch these out for any other parts of speech that you want your students to practice!) Next, they’ll rewrite their sentences, replacing the noun, adjective, and past tense verb with the names of the parts of speech instead. Then, ask them to write down a random (school appropriate!) noun, adjective, and past tense verb. Put your students in pairs and ask them to swap their sentences with the missing parts of speech with each other. Have them use their random words to fill in their partner’s sentence. Finally, pairs can decide whose final sentence is the funniest and share these with the class.

6. Show them how they can make their writing better

Screenshot of NoRedInk's Add Focal Point feature

My students might not claim this one as “fun,” but I do, and they can’t deny how helpful it is. One of NoRedInk’s coolest features is the ability to add immediate feedback into the middle school writing lessons that students see while they work, instead of afterward. So, for example, as a student is completing the daily bell-ringer, I can choose to include a “Focus Point.” This will pop up on their screen while they’re writing to remind them to include it in their work. If they’re unsure how to do that, I have the option of writing a note of explanation that students will see as well.

7. Make narrative writing fun with a character swap

Create a Character Swap Quick Write challenge for students to practice descriptive and narrative writing! First, have each student invent a character. Then, have them swap characters with a classmate and write a story using a character created by a classmate. You can find this activity in NoRedInk’s Collaborative Activities. Assign “Describe a Character” to help students come up with their own characters. Then, tweak and assign “Describe a Scene” for each student to include one of the character descriptions submitted by a classmate in step 1. The prompt asks students to write a scene from a story involving a classmate’s character and includes some suggestions to help them get started. Finally, have the students share their narrative writing with each other. This makes for a great classroom conversation as students get to see what their peers did with their characters. Want even more ways to tweak this activity?

  • Share all of the character descriptions with the class, and have the class vote on their three favorites. Then, have each student write a scene from a story including all three characters.
  • Instead of writing just about a classmate’s character, ask students to write about an interaction between their own character and a classmate’s character. This is perfect for lessons on dialogue or characterization!
  • Have each student turn in the “Describe a Character Quick Write.” Then, give each student three or four character descriptions at random and ask them to write a scene from a story involving all of these characters.
  • Assign a Narrative Guided Draft for students to write a complete story rather than just a short scene.

8. Build student confidence with a collaborative story writing activity

Picture of four teens laughing and looking at one laptop as one of the teens types something

While many of my students loved the middle school writing lessons on narrative writing and jumped at the chance to write a story of their own, others found the thought of having to write an entire story on their own intimidating. Ease their fears with this activity in which each student adds just one paragraph. To make things interesting, when it’s their turn to write, students will only be able to read the paragraph that was written immediately before their own. Each day, copy the paragraph the last student submitted, paste it in the Collaborative Story Quick Write prompt from NoRedInk’s Collaborative Activities, and assign it to the next student. (This prompt includes a first line you can give to get the first student going.) As students submit their paragraphs, compile them together in a Google Doc. Once all students have had a turn, share the resulting silly story with the whole class!

9. Try a grammar and writing “in the wild” hunting game

Student uses his phone to take a picture for a middle school writing lesson

“When am I ever going to need this in real life?” Answer this question by sending your students out to find examples of grammar rules or writing skills being used in the real world. After students complete a practice topic on NoRedInk, identify a rule or skill for them to look for “in the wild.” Give them a minimum goal of examples to find (for instance, three examples). They can look online, in newspapers or books, on signs in their local area—any real-world example works. Have students write down their examples or, for added excitement, ask them to take pictures of them to bring in and share with the class. Finally, add a review element to this game by placing your students in small groups and having them share their examples, explaining how they meet the grammar or writing rule/skill.

10. Hook even the most reluctant writers with weekly caption contests

Sometimes we have to start small. If you have a student who “doesn’t know what to write about,” or “has nothing to say,” this activity is perfect. Pick a fun image or photograph, and assign students a Caption Contest Quick Write prompt from NoRedInk’s Collaborative Activities with a link to your image for students to write a caption. Share all of the submissions with the class so that students can vote on the cleverest (or funniest, or most original) caption. This can even become a bulletin board where winning entries can be printed and displayed for all to enjoy.

11. Use friendly competition to make grammar instruction fun

Grammar can be a tough sell for students of any age. While a good grammar joke will get students giggling (or groaning), you’ll need more to really get them interested. Adding some good-natured competition to normal grammar lessons can really increase student buy-in. Give students a chance to compete against their classmates, and their interest will be piqued. Here are some fun Grammar Challenge examples:

    • Practice Streak Challenge: Have students complete at least one topic every day for 5 days in a row. Each day, students should submit a screenshot of the “Mastery achieved” screen. This will show the day and time they completed the topic on their device. Prizes can be given out weekly, but it might be fun to see who can get the longest streak.
    • Quiz Master Challenge: Have students write three of their own questions for a topic of their choice, including an answer key. Make sure you let them know that they might see these questions on upcoming assessments!
    • Explain Your Thinking Challenge: Have students create a video of themselves talking through their thinking as they answer a question and explain why their answer is correct. This is an excellent option for particularly tricky middle school writing lessons. By explaining their answer, students get another opportunity to review and deepen their understanding.
    • Lesson Designer Challenge: Have students create their own lesson for a topic of their choice. They can choose to write the lesson, draw it, or create a video. Prizes can be awarded to anyone who makes a video or to the video that the most students deem helpful.

12. Create NoRedInk time so you can help more students

NoRedInk is perfect for independent station work. While you’re working with their peers, students can be working on NoRedInk lessons. You can differentiate the assignments you give each student based on the data you get from diagnostic assessments. This way, you know each student is working on something helpful to them. Finally, NoRedInk’s teacher dashboard makes it easy to check in on how students are progressing through their assignments. You’ll be able to quickly assess who needs to be part of your next small group instruction and who can move on to the next topic.

13. Build better classroom conversations by having students write before they talk

Middle school students sitting on their desks in a semi-circle having a discussion

NoRedInk has a huge collection of pre-made Quick Write prompts and Guided Draft prompts. Many of them are made for use with some of the most commonly used texts in middle school. You can find prompts for each chapter of novels like The Giver, The Outsiders, and many others that are ready to use in your daily lessons. There’s also an option for making your own prompt, and this is where I think there’s a lot of opportunity.

If I want my students to discuss how a character has changed from who they were at the start of the novel until now, I can ask that question. But chances are high that only a few students are going to volunteer an answer, and they might all reference the same one or two examples. By giving students a chance to write first, you give them crucial processing time. Students can refer to their texts for multiple examples or just to refresh their minds. Students who forgot to do the reading? This gives them time to skim the text and jot down a few thoughts. This activity can drastically increase the quality of the conversation. But perhaps more importantly, it can also increase the number of students who feel comfortable participating. Additionally, by reading the responses afterward, you’ll be able to see what your quieter students were thinking as well. Finally, when it comes time to assign a literary analysis assignment or other writing prompt, students can refer back to their Quick Writes for ideas and examples.

14. Make peer reviews worthwhile for everyone involved

Peer review days were always a challenge in my middle school classroom. Students would always try to get their friends’ papers to review. I knew they’d only say nice things and not offer any significant feedback. It was frustrating. NoRedInk’s Self and Peer Review options have solved a lot of those issues. I love how they walk students through looking at one aspect of their classmate’s essay at a time, providing feedback as they go.

15. Keep them writing right up to the end of class

I will admit to ending my share of classes by yelling at my students, “Ok, guys, remember to read the next chapter for tomorrow and come to class prepared to….” as they headed out the door. Trying to get a lesson wrapped up neatly by the end of one period can often be a challenge. NoRedInk’s Exit Tickets are a perfect tool, however, for making those last 5-10 minutes useful for your students and for you. Giving students a chance to process what they did in class and write about it helps that information move from their short-term to long-term memory. It helps them remember if you’ve assigned homework. And, it gives you a chance to see inside their heads after you’ve taught a lesson.

Some of NoRedInk’s prompts, like “Imagine another student will work on a similar task tomorrow. What is one piece of advice you would give that student based on your experience today?” are great for metacognition. Others like, “Write down one comment or question you contributed to the discussion today, or a comment or question you wanted to add but didn’t get a chance to” give our more introverted students an opportunity to clear up any confusion they might have had or share a thought they didn’t want to say out loud.

Teaching grammar, mechanics, usage, style, and everything else that goes into helping student writers grow and develop is no easy feat. Thankfully, NoRedInk has a variety of ways to help teachers provide excellent, engaging instruction to our students. With NoRedInk and its innovative ways to get students excited about writing, I can’t wait to see what my students can create.

NoRedInk is making hundreds of Premium writing activities free for the rest of the 2021-2022 school year! No activation code needed; just head over to NoRedInk and check out the Premium content until July 30th.

15 Fun and Free Ways To Use NoRedInk in Your Middle School Writing Lessons