Writing Assignments for High School: Getting Started

Writing assignments for high school should engage young writers. High school writing assignments can be diverse and cover a range of topics.

What writing assignments for high school students will you introduce to a new class? High school writing assignments can shape the learning environment you want and provide important data.

The back to school rush will end. Routines, established. New shoes, broken in. Fresh notebooks, scribbled on. Maybe you’ve discussed the power of writing and language.

First writing assignments, assigned. Classes will write a paragraph, a paper, a reflection of some sort. Diving into teaching writing can be a slow process, or with older students, it can begin those first days of class. Here is what I know from teaching over a dozen years: Those first writing assignments with a new class, matter.

Meeting writing standards in an English class.

Students likely won’t produce papers at the start of the year with polished elements, meeting the standards for that particular class. (Of course.) Older classes will have an idea of expectations, of the work a paper requires. Still, it is important to establish expectations so writers understand your goals with them. It is only fair that everyone understand the standards.

Today, I’m talking about those first writing assignments. Dependent upon your community and classes, these ideas will look different for most teachers.

For the sake of this blog post, we’ll imagine a regular class. A class that doesn’t immediately produce near-perfection, and a class that has an overall idea of how to create a paper. Maybe the majority of classes fall into this segment? Some students enjoy writing; some don’t. A percentage want to be better writers; others don’t.

How do you determine which writing element to address first? How do I start writing assignments for high school students?

Setting the tone, building a community of writers, and unpacking standards are big goals, but with young writers, they are all necessary. Below are my thoughts, ideas, and processes for those first writing assignments for high school students.

These free writing activities will help young writers.

Gather data.

Students appreciate knowing that their teachers are on their side and that teachers will help them. As I first learn about my learners as writers, I explain that I want to see look at their writing skills. Older classes appreciate teachers not reteaching, which they rightfully see as boring.

To gather data, the writing prompt doesn’t matter much. Gather data from their first writing project.

The data that I gather is a starting point, looking to:

  • know areas where students are proficient or excelling.
  • identify areas where they need help.
  • understand them as writers.

I’ve gathered data in many ways. Typically, classes write a paragraph. I also use that opportunity to respond to students’ ideas as a great way to build relationships.

After that initial writing exercise, I move to a larger assignment, our first writing assignment. Before assigning that, we work together to create expectations.

Provide students with expectations for their writing assignments.

Outline expectations and grammar rules.

Frontload material so every member of your class has the same domain-specific language. Doing so starts conversations and allows classes to ask questions.

My presentation allows me to modify and add where classes need support. After providing the information, I post the presentation because students appreciate having material to consult as they work at home or in study hall.

And yes, I want students to add their ideas to our collaborative presentation. However, I want to establish common terms and expectations. For instance, I use the terms “topic sentence” and “thesis statement.” I know other teachers who use “claim.” Never do I want students to be confused! We discuss the ideas together, and practice them together; we take notes and discuss ideas together. Instead of making the process boring, I work to build relationships with classes through this process.

Next, we collaborate and add details together as a class to this presentation. Our brainstorming methods, inside jokes, and collaborations sit in this presentation for anyone to access. We consult the presentation throughout our semester together.

Finally, as we continue with this first writing assignment, I am sure to reference the presentation that we were building together.

Explain to students the power of prewriting and brainstorming with this fun writing activity.

Establish prewriting habits.

Students think you’re giving them extra work with prewriting, so stress that you’re not: You’re saving them time. Writing assignments for high school students should allow for brainstorming, thinking, and prewriting. I model the writing process with students with a fun activity that allows everyone to participate.

Overwhelmed writers give up on their papers, or they become increasingly frustrated, less willing to work. Prewriting provides a concrete reference point. It gets all the ideas out in the open. It gives students a direction, and it provides you with an opportunity to restructure a paper and provide feedback before students devote tons of time.

Concerning prewriting, a key aspect I acknowledge is the amount of strong ideas from students, their critical thinking. This is true! Teens have interesting perspectives; getting those ideas on paper in a sensible fashion becomes the obstacle. Lots of modeling on my part builds strong prewriting habits in classes. Plus, in the real world, every prewriting method is different for every person.

Any format (web, outline, list) works, and I allow students to choose which format works best for them. (This is a bonus for teaching older students!) If you’re assigning points for prewriting, clarify that effort is the goal: It needn’t be neat or perfect.

I ask students to list what each body paragraph’s focus will be. Then I read over those ideas with the students. We decide if ideas are too similar, out of focus with the topic, or are illogical. With a new class, conference early. Not only do these conferences allow for the prewriting and organizing of a paper, but they also allow me to focus on difficult areas.

Common grammar errors can hurt high school writing lessons.

Identify errors.

What are the most egregious errors? Right away, I don’t jump into difficult concepts like parallelism, but rather, I focus on grammar errors that are causing breakdowns in papers—confusing parts. In some high school classes, I’ve had to review confusing words along with possessives. That’s rare, but most often I cover sentence problems such as fragments, run-ons, and comma splices at the start of the year. As we work through those first papers, I target where students struggle.

The assignments to help students identify and correct these errors vary. I’ve never used the same exact material in the exact order from year to year. Each class has unique needs and learning styles. Some classes will never need to cover misplaced modifiers; others will need grammar sorts and direct instruction to understand the problem of punctuation, parallelism, and on.

Address those reoccurring problems that multiple students face. This not only will provide direction for grammar and language instruction, but will also show students they are capable of improving in measurable ways.

Writing graphic organizers make a great writing activity for high school students.

Strengthen the core.

The core of papers, the nuts and bolts, the thesis, introduction, conclusion, and such will probably need strengthened. Older students know these terms, but they might not realize the expectations yet. As they mature and their writing develops, as they experiment with types of writing, those elements should mature too. A thesis written in fifth grade should differ from one written in tenth grade.

With the first writing assignment, students might benefit from samples and mentor texts. Writing alongside students helps too.

Introductions and conclusions should relate and wrap a paper together. Write with students, and model the struggles you face. Provide varying ways to develop these elements. If I don’t use graphic organizers, I will create anchor charts. Then, we as a class have developed expectations and can reference that chart.

publish student writing

Put out a newsletter.

Add writing to a newsletter, utilize your school’s social media, or email coworkers with published pieces. Ask everyone to print out a finished piece of writing, add to a colored piece of paper, and fasten it to a bulletin board. An authentic audience for writing activities is a good way to showcase work and encourage reluctant writers.

In real life, polished drafts have an audience. Any time you can get your writers’ work in front of others, you are providing an authentic experience.

Encourage young high school writers.


Writing is difficult. Some people will never care for writing. Encouragement can begin immediately with a new class. I begin building relationships immediately, am intentional in incorporating encouragement into conversations, and encourage classes to own writing.

Another trick is to keep this first paper so that as class progresses, you can return it to students on a particularly rough day. You know: the days when multiple students confide that they can’t do it, that they are terrible writers, that grammar is the devil’s spawn.

Show them that they are good writers, that they have grown, and that their writing assignments have improved. Mark great examples for your writing lesson plans! The process will come together for you and them.

Subscribe to our mailing list to receive updates about new blog posts, freebies, and teaching resources!

* indicates required

We will send you emails, but we will never sell your address.

You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or by contacting us at [email protected]. We will treat your information with respect. For more information about our privacy practices please visit our website. By clicking below, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with these terms.

We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By clicking below to subscribe, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing. Learn more about Mailchimp’s privacy practices here.

complete writing unit for high school students