Storytelling 101: 6 Engaging Writing Activities for ESL Students

Once upon a time, I was teaching an ESL class full of teenagers in a quiet, northern Thai town.

They were ready to write, I was sure. They, however, were not so convinced.

No matter how I implored, cajoled, inspired, encouraged—not a word was written in our first free writing session. Needless to say, this was a long way from the “Dead Poets’ Society”-esque afternoon I had planned.

As any of us with writing aspirations know, the tyranny of the blank page is a true terror to behold.

And, of course, this is true even more so for the ESL student. So why even bother?

Well, writing in English (or any language foreign to you) is scary because it really puts your language skills and knowledge to the test.

To process all the English information loaded into their brains during class time, your students will need to overcome their fear of writing and put pen to paper with confidence.

Luckily, we’ve got the perfect strategy for you and your students to reach this level. The ESL activities we’ve provided for you here are focused entirely on not just writing any old thing, but story writing.

There are several key reasons why story writing is an important skill to develop in our students.

Why ESL Writing Activities Are Important

They get students on the road to advanced fluency

If a student is going to progress to the advanced fluency stage, developing their writing skills is essential. We consider comprehensive language fluency to be based on the 4 distinct abilities of reading, writing, speaking and listening.

While listening and reading can be classed as receptive skills, speaking and writing are productive. Writing short stories is an excellent way to develop the student’s productive skills in particular.

They increase students’ vocabulary

The process of writing will place great demands on the student’s active vocabulary. It will soon become apparent to the student which words they overuse. This makes for a great opportunity to increase your student’s active vocabulary.

Encourage them to use a thesaurus to add to their vocabulary. Words that the students seek out themselves and use in their writing are much more likely to stick in their memory.

They go straight to the well of the mother tongue

Your students may well already have been introduced to figurative uses of language such as metaphor, simile and idiom. In their striving for freshness in their writing, their native language can prove to be a great source of inspiration. Cross-pollination with their mother tongue can inspire some truly fresh turns of phrase and original images.

Once Upon a Time in a Classroom Far, Far Away…

“Blank Page, How I Quake Before Thy Pristine Barrenness.”

So there’s still one big issue facing us teachers: Writing can be intimidating for students. That blank page can be terrifying. How to start? Which words to choose? Which grammar patterns fit the tone, style and meaning of the content?

The real problem behind all these worries? Their confidence. The single biggest hurdle before you when getting your shiny new intermediate level students to put quill to vellum is their ability to believe in themselves. So what can we gnarly old wordsmiths do to help? Thankfully, plenty. And much of it involves imparting an understanding of how the structure of the short story works.

The bones of it…

Knowing the heart of the problem is structure, there is much we can do to support our students in their first attempts at writing short stories in English. The tried and tested scaffolds of writing frames can be particularly useful at this stage. But what elements should our writing frames be built around? Well firstly, we’re unlikely to be dealing with a James Joyce or Raymond Carver just yet, but there are some basics to consider when planning for a short story.

Telling Tales in Class: 6 Writing Activities for the ESL Classroom

1. Setting

Your ESL students may not be overly familiar with English language stories yet, but they will be familiar with a wide variety of stories in their native language. Mine this fact! Especially if you’re working abroad and teaching students of a single (or majority) linguistic/cultural background.

Do a little research. Can you give them examples of the titles of different stories from their country in a variety of genres?

This is an excellent way to make explicit the importance of setting in story writing. Have them list some likely settings for a variety of genre, e.g. for the genre of horror they might come up with settings such as a haunted house, a cabin in the forest or an abandoned asylum.

More confident students can subvert this. Perhaps they would like to tell their horror story with a more unlikely backdrop. Have fun with it. When your students have chosen their settings, brainstorm some useful vocabulary as a class and record it in a word bank on the board. It can help launch the story ship from the safe confines of their imaginative harbor.

My favorite exercise for helping students develop their narrative skills in relation to setting involves giving each student a piece of paper with a setting written on it. No one else is to see it. The complexity of the settings can be differentiated according to the students’ abilities. Provide them with simple settings such as on a ship at sea, in a desert or at a hotel, or target more specific vocabulary with settings like ER rooms or subway stations.

The aim of the exercise is to write a paragraph with as much detail as possible describing the setting. The student is not to reveal the location by naming it, but rather by the provision of detail. They share it with the class. Can the student’s peers recognize the scene? Where is this set? This exercise is useful in encouraging students to “show” a setting with descriptive language rather than “tell” what it is directly.

2. Character

The next ingredient to consider is that of the people in the story. Show your students how the genre they are writing about may inform the characters they use. Have your class, in groups, suggest suitable characters for various genres.

Like the exercise on setting above, this too can be subverted. Stronger students may wish to inhabit their world with unlikely characters. This is a great way to freshen up the often clichéd world of genre writing.

At this juncture, genre writing often provides a sense of the familiar that will help the students make their first nervous scribblings in this new world of creative writing in English.

A good exercise to help your student writer develop their knowledge of their character is assign students to pairs. Have them prepare questions for each other before carrying out an interview of each other’s characters. This role-playing activity allows the student to gain a sense of empathy for their protagonist and helps them develop a sense of the character’s backstory and personality. This will assist greatly when it comes to making their character live and breathe in the story they’ll write.

3. Conflict

Just as there’s no song without a melody, there’s no story without a problem. It’s the hook that pulls us into the alternate reality. It’s what involves us in the lives of fictional characters and makes us care about what happens to them. No conflict, no story.

In this age of Hollywood dominance of the movie world, your students will likely be familiar with many English language movies. Straw poll them and find out which movies they are familiar with and which were their favorites. Can they identify the conflicts in those movies? What was the engine that drove the action? Was it a forbidden love that brought ruin? A thirst for revenge that destroyed all? Or a hero who overcomes his disadvantage to save the world? Find a good conflict and you have found a story.

Joe Bunting argues that good conflict involves a clash of values. He suggests the following exercise to help in developing this aspect of the student’s story: have the student, at the planning stage, spend 15-20 minutes writing a short scene that displays on of the character’s values. Find a way to test that value and you have found your conflict.

4. Climax

This is the part of the story where the story will come to a dramatic high point. In “Cinderella” it is when the Prince tentatively places the shoe on the bride-to-be’s waiting foot. Or when we find out Andy has escaped in “The Shawshank Redemption.”

This is where all the conflict will come to a head and the action peaks. In the short story format the climax will often take the form of a twist. If things have been going well for the main character, her fortunes may take a turn for the worse. Likewise, our hero may overcome the many obstacles in front of her in this part of the story.

After your student has finished the conflict exercise in the section above, have them explore possible outcomes of the clash of values. Does the protagonist win through, or will the outcome be a negative one? Sketching out alternative outcomes is a good way for the student to see which direction they would like to take their story in.

5. Resolution

The resolution is the tying up of loose ends. It’s often the calm after the storm, where any unanswered questions may be resolved. It may be useful to use the model of the fairy tale or a folk tale, which transcends language boundaries.

Often these tales are morally instructive parables passed from generation to generation encompassing the morality of a people. Though they do tend to be didactic and formulaic, these characteristics do make them very useful for illustrating the structure of a short story.

If your student is struggling to find an ending to their story, have them go back to the beginning of their story. Often the opening to the story will suggest its final resolution.

6. How to Illustrate the Structure of a Great Story

To illustrate this overall structure visually for your students, I find the following exercise useful:

1. Draw a graph quadrant on the board.

2. Label the x-axis “Time” and the y-axis “Action” or “Excitement.”

3. Underneath the x-axis, from left to right, write the words: introduction, conflict, climax, resolution.

4. Plot a point above introduction, but quite low on the y-axis. This represents the exposition of setting and character. Not too much is happening yet. The reader is getting oriented to this fictional landscape.

5. Plot a point halfway up the y-axis above the word conflict. This represents the introduction of the conflict. We are now at the point in our story where the real point of the story is developing.

6. Plot a point high up on the y-axis above the word climax. In heart rate terms we should be operating at high BPM. This is the CrossFit session in our story.

7. For the resolution, the action dips and so does your point that you’ll plot on the y-axis.

Join the points. Now your students can see the shape of a short story. Often this visual can serve as a great aid to refer to in the writing process.

Traditionally, a positive ending would be considered a comedy and a sad ending a tragedy. These formulas can be a useful crutch for the intermediate student. And with that, let’s end this comedy of ours here with the traditional resolution of European fairy tales.

And they all wrote happily ever after.

The End.

Or something like that…

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