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5 Back To School ELA Essentials

5 Back to School Essentials for Middle School ELA

When you’re on summer break, chances are you like to try and keep back-to-school season at the back of your mind! There’s so much to enjoy about a well-earned few weeks away from the classroom – family time, a chance to travel, or maybe just kick back with a good book! To extend that summertime feeling (and keep those scary September jitters at bay), it’s great to be able to rely on tried-and-true back to school ELA essentials that we can keep returning to year after year. From classroom routines to emergency sub plans, here are five essential back-to-school activities for middle school ELA!

1. Bell-Ringers

I find that the beginning of the year is the time to establish the routines I want to maintain all year long. This was something I really struggled with as a new teacher until I discovered the magic of bell-ringers!

These back to school ELA essentials are a great way to build flexibility into busy mornings. Bell-ringers give you a little bit of “bonus” time in the morning before the first lesson gets underway. While students work, you can use these few extra minutes to take attendance, collect permission forms, meet individually with students, or even steal a few sips of coffee while it’s still hot!

When using bell-ringers on a daily basis, I like to make sure I have a wide variety of activities that focus on several different types of ELA skills. These include:

  • Correcting grammar errors
  • Locating figurative language
  • Having a short discussion or debate with a partner
  • Viewing a short video clip and respond to a prompt
  • Improving word choice
  • Using a picture prompt to spark narrative writing
  • Inferring the meaning of new words in context

Want to learn more about bell-ringers? Check out my post on Using Bell-Ringers in ELA – Answers to your 10 Most Asked Questions!

You can also browse all my bell-ringer volumes, or test the waters with a free bell-ringer!

Bell-ringers have been one of my back to school ELA essentials for years!

2. Grammar Challenges

Growing up, I always found learning about grammar to be a bit of a snooze. When I started teaching, I found that I didn’t really know how to “hook” my students with grammar. I worried that maybe I was creating the same boring experiences for my students that I had to sit through myself!

Luckily, I found a solution to support students – and teachers, too! – in making grammar fun! Grammar challenges are interactive, collaborative, back-to-school ELA activities that can actually be incorporated into an entire year of learning!

I like to dedicate a specific day of the week to grammar. Devoting a day to grammar, such as having a “Grammar Thursday,” can give you the space to engage deeply with a specific grammar topic. For example, you might focus on rules for using commas. Working in pairs or small groups, students can apply their knowledge to solve an engaging puzzle or challenge.

If you want to try out a grammar challenge in your classroom, click here for a free sample! You can also check out a full year of grammar challenges here.

Grammar challenges are among my best back to school ELA essentials for middle school teachers.

3. Email Etiquette

One of my favorite back to school ELA essentials is this lesson and activity related to email etiquette. I’ve seen some pretty “interesting” student emails over the years! Email communication is a practical and worthwhile skill for everyone to have, and the ELA classroom is the perfect place to develop it!

I like to begin an email etiquette lesson with a whole-class brainstorm. I ask students why they might send an email (maybe even an email to their teacher!) This usually leads to a discussion about how an email might have a different tone than a post on social media. 

From here, we explore ideas like when you might write an email (and when a personal conversation might be more appropriate). Next, I like to review the main components of an email – the friendly greeting, introduction, email body, and closing. Once students have the basics, it’s time to introduce four activities to practice.


  • Email Sorting: Using task cards featuring sample sentences from emails, students categorize them into “ready to send” and “not ready to send!”
  • Email Etiquette Edit: Students edit and revise a provided “draft” of an email.
  • Email Analysis: Working in small groups, students review excerpts from a variety of different emails and offer their thoughts on how to improve each message.
  • Email Etiquette Rewrite: After reviewing a sample email to a teacher, students will make edits using their knowledge of proper email etiquette.

Finally, we wrap up the learning with an activity in which students write an email! You might like to have them choose from a list of provided topic prompts. Or, you may have an idea of your own! As part of your back-to-school ELA activities, you might have students send you an email about three things they would like me to know about them at the beginning of the year.

Focusing on email etiquette is a great back to school ELA activity in a middle school classroom.

4. Emergency Sub Plans

Many teachers find that it’s often easier to “power through” an illness than make substitute teacher plans, but this isn’t the way things should be! After all, emergencies and sick days are just a fact of life. You shouldn’t feel like you have to scramble at the last minute to get a substitute teacher set up for the day in your classroom.

One of the most important back-to-school ELA essentials is preparing emergency substitute teacher plans. A bit of easy preparation at the beginning of the school year can make all the difference on a day where you’re not feeling 100%.

My favorite emergency sub plan involves very little preparation, and is ready to print! To get it ready, all you need to do is adjust the lesson plan slightly, customizing it to meet your schedule and classroom needs. The assignment is about the teacher’s inexplicable absence. Under the instruction of “the principal,” students participate in an investigation into the reason why you are not at school!

As part of this learning task, the class has to create an investigative police file, including evidence and witness testimonies. They can also extend their learning by creating a Missing Teacher poster! This is a sure to have you laughing upon your return when you see your students’ ideas about where you were and what you got up to!

5. Book Talks

Fostering student choice and voice in their independent reading is really important, especially in middle school ELA.

As we settle into the routine of the classroom, I like to let students select books from the school library and sign up for a time slot (spread throughout the year or semester, depending on the schedule) to deliver a book talk! By the end of the year, each student will have given at least one book talk to their class.

Before the first book talk, I like to lay out the expectations and some ground rules. To begin, I invite students to think of a book talk as a type of commercial or movie trailer, rather than a place to delve into literary analysis. The purpose is to “hook” the audience and get them to want to read the book as well! 

In my experience, students tend to prefer when we give them a book talk framework. These are the elements I like to include, but feel free to change them to better suit the learners in your space!

  • Introduce the text (title, author).
  • Hook the audience (watch some movie trailers to give an idea of some effective persuasive techniques!).
  • Provide a very brief introduction of the plot (but no spoilers, please!).
  • Share a personal impression of the book.
  • Share a passage or a quote from the novel that resonated with them.
  • Conclude by persuading and enticing the audience (fellow classmates) to read the book!
Book talks are a back to school ELA essential that will foster a love of reading all year long.

There you have it! Looking for more details about book talks in the middle school ELA classroom? Check out this post!

Wondering about the best plans to leave for a substitute teacher? This post has some of my best tips for a low-preparation plan your students will love!

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