9 Critical Lessons to Teach to your ELA Summer School Students

So you’ve signed up to teach summer school to middle school students. You are a brave soul and a dedicated educator! If you are like me, you are also a tired school teacher ready for the much deserved and desperately coveted summer break.

You may be looking at your summer school teaching experiences from the standpoint of a fairly exhausted (okay, completely exhausted) teacher who has given their all for ten months already. Whatever your role, whatever your grade level, whatever your subject area—you are tired, and justifiably so.

By this point in the school year, I am tired of planning, tired of prepping, tired of  the early morning alarms, and very tired of the seemingly endless assessments. Essentially, I am tired of hearing my name- Mrs. Taylor- said 10,000 times a day. I dream of waking up (casually and without alarm) to hear my first name or my most favorite name, mom.

Yet, I feel myself pulled towards teaching summer school for two important reasons.

The first, admittedly, is for financial reasons. I just can’t turn away from a secondary income for these few weeks. We all have various reasons for coveting the money we earn from summer school teaching. Some of us pay off student loans, pay down debt, make ends meet, or for extras we cannot generally afford on our teacher salaries. Let’s face it- the money is a central driving force for many of us.

The second, far nobler reason, is to help struggling learners. These summer school classes are reaching students at a critical juncture in their lives. For whatever reason, you will have students who (despite their wall of angst) desperately need you. They need your guidance, your expertise, your immense support, and your deepest compassion. It is challenging work, yes. It can be tough at times, but my most rewarding teaching breakthroughs have come within these classes. These are the students whose lives you will deeply impact forever. This sense of responsibility can be overwhelming; however, especially when we, teachers, are running on fumes at this time of the year.

So what critical lessons should we teach during our summer school session? I have found the following lessons most important for struggling readers and writers. My goal is to improve their basic skills so they will feel success within the summer school session, but also feel great success in the upcoming school year. I also want to encourage these often fragile learners.

  1. Close Reading Strategies (Text Annotation to Support Reading Comprehension)
  2. Summarizing Fiction Lesson
  3. Summarizing Nonfiction Lesson
  4. In-Text Citation Lesson – MLA 8th Edition
  5. Plot/Literary Elements GAME!
  6. Compound Sentences with FANBOYS Lesson
  7. Semicolons and Conjunctive Adverbs Lesson
  8. Tone and Mood in Literature + Connotation and Denotation
  9. “Cemetery Path” Short Story
 1. Close reading strategies

This is so much more than highlighting the text. I frame this to my students by explaining that good readers have a conversation with the text. They will write their thoughts, understandings, take-aways, questions, concerns, connections all over the page. This “talking to the text” method will encourage your students to completely rethink how they view themselves as a readers.


These are the steps I take to introduce this “talking to the text”:

-Students will begin by completing and discussing their own personal reading histories. When students reflect on and share their personal reading histories, they have an opportunity to view themselves and their classmates (and you) more generously, as “readers in progress,” with reader identities they can understand and CHANGE!

-Then students will work on understanding and listening to their inner voice as you model the think aloud process. Then students will practice this process as they begin to capture their own process of reading.

-Students will begin to capture their own reading process as they navigate through a challenging text.  As students identify the strategies they use as a reader, they will be able to think, pair, share these to create a brilliant classroom discussion. As students share their strategies, they begin to see how readers approach a text, that it is not simply a scan and understand process. This is a complex, rigorous process that can improve with strategies and effort! I love to create a classroom display of all the strategies they brainstorm for future reference.

-Students will then learn to annotate and close read a text as you model a stanza from the poem provided. I choose a poem from the curriculum of the previous year, and model how good readers process through a challenging text. I then allow students the opportunity to practice this safely by allowing them to practice with the second stanza (or paragraph). Students are given many opportunities to share with their peers, collaborating and discussing the best approaches to understanding a difficult text.

2. Summarizing Fiction Lesson

I use the SWBST method to teach students how to summarize fiction.

S-Somebody (the protagonist)

W-Wanted (the character motivation)

B- But (the conflict)

S- So (the three rising action events. The attempts made by the protagonist to solve the problem)

T- Then (the resolution)

I provide a fun lesson with a short story for practice, then students are provided a graphic organizer to support them in drafting their three sentence summary of any fiction text! Bonus- students are practicing with plot elements!

3. Summarizing Nonfiction

This skill can be tricky for students, but I have created a full proof method for effectively summarizing any nonfiction text. Students begin by annotating each paragraph; they will summarize each paragraph with seven words or less. This will force students to identify the most important information in each paragraph. After reading the text, and annotating each paragraph, students can begin their summary. They will begin each summary with a statement about the author, the title, and the main idea of the article. Then they will simply add up their marginal notes (annotations), turning each into full sentences to convey their summary!

4. A Lesson in Citing Textual Evidence

In this lesson I will teach:

-How to create an in-text citation with and without an author’s name.
-How to lead into or out of a quote with the student’s own words.
-How to pepper a quote.
-How to delete parts of the quote to seamlessly incorporate the evidence into the student’s paragraph.
-How to incorporate the title and/or author in signal phrases prior to a quotation.
-Block style quotations.
-How to cite dialogue
I use examples from quality literature for each type of citation so students can see parenthetical citation in action!

5. Plot/Literary Elements Game

To review the all-important plot/literary elements, I have students play a game/shared writing experience that I have created. This really helps struggling learners to connect and engage with a plot and understand how each of the elements work together. I have students create a shared story with each person adding the next plot element (graphic organizers support this drafting process). Then as students read through the story- they can see how critical it is for each plot element to effectively build upon the next- because their story is now likely full of flaws! They can see how the character motivation does not match the conflict or climax, or how the resolution does not relate to the original conflict. You will hear them ask: “if my character is motivated by friends and family, why would they get into a fight with an alien teacher?” (A real example from my classroom!) This leads to excellent conversations about plot development and literary elements.

6 & 7. Writing – Grammar and Sentence Structure Lessons

My struggling writers often need support with crafting compound sentences with the proper punctuation. I have found the most helpful lesson is the introduction of FANBOYS. These conjunction words (superhero conjunctions) combine two complete thoughts together, but they need their sidekick- the comma!  For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So. I have created stations and FANBOYS games to get kids up, moving, practicing, and playing with compound sentences. These lessons saved a lot of ink in my red pen!

I also like to review/teach the semicolon in summer school classes. This takes the compound sentence to the next level. The semicolon can simply replace the use of FANBOYS and the comma, but students feel really empowered in their writing when they can use the semicolon with a conjunctive adverb. When they can use words like however, consequently, therefore, and meanwhile correctly in a sentence, their writing takes on a new level of sophistication. Students begin to see themselves as writers perhaps for the very first time!

8. Tone and Mood

One of my favorite units to teach is my tone and mood unit. I teach students how to see the author’s attitude about of piece of writing they have created. We do this through connotation/denotation lessons (great for word choice too). Then we compare tone and mood through music and art. I have students compare four love songs – each with a significantly differing tone. One despairing, one sappy, one despising, and one desperate- all around the same topic of love. Then I have students complete the tone and mood picture project. I have them read a text (any one page story or poem will suffice) and put a box around all of the words that showcase the author’s tone. Then I have students draw a picture of the mood the piece created without covering the boxes. This creates a beautiful graphic of their understanding of tone and mood. This is my favorite project of the entire school year, so I love using this with my summer school kiddos.

9. “Cemetery Path”

I like to close out summer school with an interesting, engaging, and thrilling short story- “Cemetery Path”. Students can apply their understanding of tone and mood to this short story! I review context clues with this story as well, as this is a great support to struggling readers. I also have students partner to answer the comprehension questions on the text. This way they can collaborate and develop their understandings together! Students have really enjoyed this story in the past for its eerie mood and its surprise ending!


This set of lessons have worked together to really grow stronger readers and writers in my classroom. They help to build confidence, skills, and interest in these areas. If you are interested in a no prep, no planning summer school experience, click on the image below for more information on my Summer School Curriculum Bundle.