A Writing and Literacy Lesson for a Substitute Teacher

Not Just a Time-filler

In a study called the National Writing Project, it was found that students who write about different concepts in any given subject will retain that knowledge much better than those who simply wrote, memorize and repeat back for a test. With that idea in mind, this lesson plan can be adapted to any age group and subject for a fun way to learn about just about any topic. This is an activity that will get your classroom working together, keep them on a given task and instead of just being a time filler like a coloring activity or some of the puzzles out there, will enhance real learning by making students take the time to really think about the given topic.

Materials are Easy

One of the beautiful things about this simple lesson plan is that you don’t need a lot of fancy materials or special items. This is a quick activity that you’ll be able to put together with very little work and at the last possible moment. That means, that even if you or the regular teacher is unprepared for class that day (emergencies happen), you’ll still have something to keep the students entertained. However, they’ll also be learning valuable writing and analysis skills. You’ll need:

  • Paper for each student. Any type will do, but lined works best for younger students.
  • Pen or pencil for each student.
  • A question that makes the student really think about how the given subject can apply to his or her life.

Thought Provoking Questions

Let’s look a little more closely at the question you’ll need to formulate and some examples. The question should be one that makes the student think deeply about the world around him. For example, if you are teaching sixth grade science and the students just finished studying about the makeup of a cell, you might ask, “Imagine you are the first scientist to discover a new part in cells. What will you name that part and why? How does this part work with the other parts of a cell?” Of course, the answer is imagination and fiction, but the point of the question is to get the student thinking about the topic they have just studied and to look at it on a new level.

This type of exercise will even work with topics, such as math. You can ask something as simple as, “How would you explain multiplication to someone who has never heard of it?”

Modifying the Lesson

There are many different modifications you can make to this activity to keep it interesting. If you are subbing for the same class more than once and need to use the activity again, you can modify to make it seem fresh. Or, if you are teaching younger or older children, you may need to modify.

  1. Modifying for Age – If you are a substitute teacher in a class of Kindergarten or first grade students, their writing skills may not yet allow them to think through this exercise and participate. In this case, it might be better to pose a simple question and let them raise their hands and answer out loud. Also, keep in mind that younger children need the activity to change every so often or you risk losing their attention. Having the students act out their stories in short skits can keep things interesting. Just be sure to make them take turns or things could get chaotic.
  2. Modifying to Keep Things Fresh – If you are subbing for the same class more than once and want to change the activity, try breaking the kids into groups and letting them come up with an ad campaign for their idea. For example, if you are teaching a science class, you could tell them to come up with a new “invention” and to come up with an advertising campaign. They will then present this ad to the class as a group. They can use artwork, act it out, pretend they are an infomercial. Try to get them to use their imaginations here as much as possible.
  3. Let the Kids Come up with the Question – Another idea is to let the kids brainstorm to come up with the question to answer in their writing. This will also allow you to teach them the skill of brainstorming with a group and coming to a compromise with the final question they choose.

More Tips for the Substitute Teacher

It’s always a good idea to go into any situation with some preparation. If you are losing control of the class, you may need to get them back on track quickly. One way you can do this is to have some prepared things for the kids to write on. You’ll want to know what these are in advance, so you can quickly explain the task and not waste precious time coming up with the question. Here are a few ideas to get you started, but see what fresh angles you can also come up with on your own:

  • What if there were no solids on earth?
  • What if everyone in the world spoke a different language and couldn’t understand each other?
  • What if everyone had to live in a bubble because of super germs?
  • Imagine that you’re making a movie. What is it about?

You get the idea. Be creative, let the kids have fun and remember to walk around the room and make sure students are on task and you should have a successful day subbing.


  • Teaching experience.