Every grade level and subject can benefit from a writing center. Where most elementary classrooms are used to using a “center” approach to learning, fewer secondary teachers are familiar with the concept, but secondary teachers are starting to catch on and use the strategies, as well.
A writing center can mean two things. In the elementary setting, it serves as a place for students to focus on writing skills and integrate other learning while doing so. More than that, though, it is an excellent resource for everyone throughout the day.
We’ll mainly focus on creating a writing center that is a resource space for students who need to access tools that can aid them in writing, whether they are writing a report, compiling geometry proofs, taking notes in a history course, or recording the steps to a science experiment.
This is a great place to wrangle all those pencils and pens students need. Even if you teach secondary and don’t provide any sort of writing tools, it would be a great idea to start a collection of free pens and golf pencils in this area.
If you have a pencil sharpener for students to use, this is also a good place to store it.
When providing writing tools, consider novelty. Elementary school children love to write with anything “different”. You can include golf pencils, crayons of different types, shapes, and specialty (glitter crayons, white crayons for black construction paper, neon crayons, prism-shaped crayons, and crayons melted into molds are all fun for any age), markers of various sizes, colored pencils (a particular favorite among grades 3 through 8), or plain, old no. 2s.
Consider adding a small area (a cup, container, or desktop drawer) for sharpened pencils as well as an area for dull pencils if you aren’t providing a way for students to sharpen them.
Also, a basket of erasers is a great addition to the writing tools.
Teach your students how to highlight important text and make an area for highlighters. They are excellent comprehension enhancers. Highlighters don’t have to be fancy or expensive to help students as they mark their way through activities and texts.
For students who struggle with attention issues or learning differences, highlighting can offer students a way to physically anchor themselves to the spatial location of important information.
Highlighters are also great for categorizing and classifying information into groups, which is another learning strategy many students with challenges in executive functioning skills need assistance in building.
Paper is a great (and necessary) resource for a writing center.
If you have students for whom you must provide class notes according to their I.E.P., this is a good place to keep those. Trays can be placed in the area for each section or subject, and you can place a file folder of notes for those students to access within this area. If you make extra copies, you may find many other students are interested in the handouts, as well.
You can combine these notes with teaching the highlighting skills mentioned above. Leave space for students to draw or personalize the handouts, creating a connection for each new thing you present.
Other tools that can be used with any age group include small blank books and pre-made foldables. Target stores usually sell small blank booklets in seasonal shapes for a few dollars. If you collect one or two packs of these, students really enjoy grabbing them and using them to take notes, write their own stories, or journal about their learning. They usually have about 12 pages each, so they are perfect for one content area, one part of a larger unit, or to practice using new information in math.
Foldables are great for organizing information. You can create tri-folds, “lift-the-flap” pages, or overlapping flip-booklets to write and categorize groups of information divided into subgroups (for example, you may be discussing the Civil War, so you’d have a subgroup for incidents leading up to the Civil War, battles fought, important towns, laws made during that time, and important people).
You can also store manilla or construction paper here so students can create their own foldables.
If you’re using interactive notebooks, these foldables can be attached directly to a page in the notebook.
Sticky notes are a staple that should be in every writing center. Students who are overwhelmed by trying to record larger amounts of information can often start by jotting notes down on sticky notes.
Dictionaries and Other Resource Books
Keeping dictionaries, thesauruses, and other resource books specific to your content area in the writing center is another great organization idea. Knowing the writing center is the one-stop-shopping area will make it more likely that students will access them.
Style Guides for Secondary Students
These are especially important for English classes and classes in which students are writing research reports on the secondary level. Although younger students don’t need formal style guides, guidelines for formatting, editing, revising, and classroom publishing standards can be included so students can practice using them.
Binders with Class-Specific Resources
Preschoolers and kindergarteners need age and subject-specific resources like alphabet charts, words illustrated with pictures, and names of students, family members, and classmates.
Older students benefit from subject-specific vocabulary lists and personalized vocabulary journals. When using personalized vocabulary journals (which is recommended for all ages and subject-levels), if you have room to store them near the writing center, it makes a handy place for students to find and remember to use them.
In the binders and other resources in older classes (meaning beyond about 2nd grade), you may want to include either your teacher copy of the vocabulary journal or a class copy of the master journal (if you worry students will lose or damage yours) so students who need to catch up on entries missed due to absence or other reasons can do so without disturbing you.
“Starters”, Planning Sheets, Graphic Organizers, and Prompts
Sometimes the most difficult part of writing is just getting started. You should include sentence, paragraph, or story starters, stems or frames to assist students who struggle with those first few words. Unless you’re teaching that specific “starting” element of writing, your focus will likely need to be more on the content of what students are writing rather than the actual creation of those starting elements.
If you are teaching something like the scientific method, you can provide outlines, planning sheets, or graphic organizers that students can use to fill in the corresponding information. Using tools such as these is especially helpful for students struggling with language disorders. Again, the less they have to create, the more they can focus on the actual content you need them to learn.
Prompts are often used for fiction or personal essay writing, but they can be helpful for any subject or level. If you are discussing important state leaders in 7th-grade social studies, for example, you could ask them to write biographical information of a particular leader by using such prompts as, “If I traveled to the future in a time machine, I would be most surprised by my state …”.
Prompts, graphic organizers, and other planning helpers are a great tool for students to enhance their learning. They can also be great for assessing learning, too.
One final addition we’d suggest is rubrics. Rubrics are tremendously helpful for specifying exactly how you want things to look and what information is important for your students in learning. It’s helpful for students to see what they have to do to really create something impressive and what poor work would look like. Recording those specifics on an age-appropriate scale makes students see exactly what they need to do to be at their preferred level.
In addition, few students choose to do poor work, especially when provided with the information for what it looks like to give at least 50% to 75% of their best effort. Most students aim for the highest level when it’s spelled out and organized in a rubric. They also have much more of a realistic understanding of what they’ve learned and what they need to learn when using a rubric.
Make plenty of copies available for students.
Most writing centers have posted resources to help students either use the center, the resources, or the writing information more efficiently. Whatever you add in posted resources, consider making it removable/transportable on its own. Students who need writing center resources most may have challenges copying from a page fixed to a wall or posted in some static way.
In fact, the best way for some students to copy information is to have the original and their copy either side-by-side or by actually tracing the original using a lightbox, writing with highlighters over the original words (if you’ve made more than one copy), or using very thin paper.
Other things to include as posted/removable resources include letter formation guides (sometimes, even high schoolers find these useful - let’s be honest, some doctors and principals could still use these!), spelling guides for tricky words, and grammar rules. No matter the grade level or subject matter, please make your students adhere to rules as often as possible.
Periods, commas, and capital letters are important.
The writing center should be a place in the classroom where students can go to find the resources they need to communicate what they are thinking, learning, and thinking about their own thinking and learning. Every classroom needs one because writing is one of the four essentials for learning new information - students need to see it, hear it, say it, and “do” it, meaning they associate movement with the information.
That vital movement element is often easiest to accomplish with writing or drawing.
When you provide a space with ample resources for students to use in writing, you are communicating to them that you want to know what they think. You want to hear and see what they understand (and sometimes what they don’t yet understand). You care about whatever they are telling you.
You may have to tweak your management of the center and decide what sort of rules and guidelines matter to you and your students to get that ultimate level of inspiration out of it, but creating a writing center in your classroom is definitely a worthwhile cause.