60+ ESL Writing Assignments, and 5 Ways to Open with a Bang

From a student’s point of view, writing assignments are something to dread.

But from an ESL teacher’s point of view, they should be a challenge worth accepting.

The challenge for you is getting your students motivated enough to actually be excited about writing.

Sound impossible? It’s actually quite simple.

The key to motivating your students is a strong pre-writing activity that provides them with confidence-boosting experience and useful vocabulary.

So, how do you get your students’ writing off to a great start?

In this post, we’ll look at some different ways to prepare for writing exercises, as well as lots of assignment options for each.

60+ ESL Writing Assignments, and 5 Ways to Open with a Bang

1. Start with a Story

Stories to Incite Writing

story for a pre-writing activity could be in the form of…

  • movie, whether a biography, a sci-fi film, a thriller, an action-packed adventure, a fairy tale or even a cartoon.
  • A story read from a book or magazine by your students themselves: Let them read a story silently or with a partner and take as long as they like to examine illustrations and think about the meaning.
  • A FluentU video, like “Cinderella: A Short Story.” There’s nothing like a story in video format to catch your students’ interest.

    FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

Whether you choose a fairy tale, kids’ story, personal anecdote, allegory, news story or any kind of story at all, it’s a great lead-in to the writing exercise of your choice. People of all ages love a well-told story, and using stories to teach ESL is a sure winner.

After the first storytelling, you might want to move through other activities such as speaking, illustrating, re-telling, acting out or even doing research on the background of the story to become more familiar with it.

Then it’s time to ride the wave of enthusiasm and excitement into a writing assignment. What could students write about? Let’s look at a few ideas and examples. Remember that a story can lead to any genre of writing, not just narrative.

Writing Assignments to Follow a Story

Narrative writing assignments:

  • Change the point of view. Re-tell the story from the point of view of the antagonist, or a minor character, and tell it in the first person (“I did it… “).
  • After watching “Finding Nemo”: Tell the story from the point of view of the whale, the dentist’s daughter or Bruce, the shark.
  • Also after watching “Finding Nemo”: Make up a story about a farm animal/zoo animal/jungle animal. What if a baby ___ was lost? What if a child was lost in the city? What if you found a lost child?
  • After watching a “Lord of the Rings” movie: What would you do if you had the one ring? Write about a magical quest you and several friends would go on if you could.
  • After the story of “Goldilocks”: Tell the story from the baby bear’s point of view.
  • What if the baby bear and Goldilocks became best buds? Then what would happen?
  • After “The Gingerbread Man”: Tell the story from the fox’s point of view, or from the gingerbread man’s point of view.

Keep in mind: While your ESL students may be very capable of thinking about hypothetical situations, writing about them in English can be extra-challenging because the language constructions are a little bit more complicated and can be confusing.

However, as you can see above, there are many ways you can start them off with a “What would you do if… ” situation to motivate them.

Description writing assignments:

  • After watching “Titanic”: Write about what you discover when you dive onto the wreck. Imagine you were on the ship and tell how you escaped.
  • After watching a “Star Wars” movie: Imagine you’re a space explorer and write about what happens when you meet some characters from “Star Wars.”
  • After watching a “Terminator” movie: Imagine your teacher is a robot that has come back from the future. Or imagine you have come back from the future—what was it like?

Instruction writing assignments:

  • After watching a “Harry Potter” movie: Make up some magic spells and explain how you would use them.
  • After watching “Finding Nemo”: Explain to Marlin how he should look after Nemo better.

Opinion writing assignments:

  • After “Titanic”: Whose fault was it that so many people drowned? What should they have done?

All of these types of writing, and more, can be sparked from a story delivered in any way.

2. Get Moved by Music

Everybody loves music! You can watch your students’ attitudes transform as soon as they realize that they’re about to be treated to some songs rather than chalk-and-talk! Music stirs the emotions, and may well get your students excited about writing.

Music to Incite Writing

  • “Fantasia 2000”: Particularly “Rhapsody in Blue.” This wonderful little wordless animated story can be the beginning of so many good things!
  • Movie music: The music that goes with a movie tells watchers how they should be feeling, and could be a good jumping-off point for some writing.
  • Popular songs and music.
  • Kids’ songs: There’s something about singing a catchy little ditty that makes the words stick in your mind more than just saying them. This can lead to some interesting writing, too.

Writing Assignments to Follow Music

Listening to music can be the precursor to any type of writing, and the music can be played again (and again) as the students are in the process of writing.

Narrative writing assignments:

  • Listen to a piece of classical/instrumental music and tell the story that it might be a background to— imagine that it’s the background music for a movie.
  • If you were the main character in “Rhapsody in Blue,” what would you do?
  • What if you were a famous pop star or musician? What would it be like? What would you do?

Description writing assignments:

Instruction writing assignments:

  • Give instructions on how to find your favorite song on the Internet, both music and lyrics.
  • If you play an instrument, or have a relative who plays one, write about some of the basics of how to play. (This could be shared as a speaking and listening activity, and then the whole class could write about it.)

Opinion writing assignments:

  • What is your favorite music, and why?
  • Do you think young children should be allowed to freely watch music videos?

3. Picture Perfect Writing

Pictures to Incite Writing

  • Pictures from social media: If you use social media at all, then you’re doubtless inundated daily with amazing photos and videos, all of which make excellent writing prompts.
  • Pictures from Google Images: A quick Google search will turn up plenty.
  • Cartoons: If you prefer a less photographic style, there’s an endless supply of cartoons out there, too.
  • Pictures selected by your students: If you’re not sure what to choose, you can even have your students find and/or select pictures to write about.

Writing Assignments Based on Pictures

Narrative writing assignments:

  • Tell the story—real or imagined—of what is happening in the picture.
  • Tell what happens next from the pictured moment.
  • Tell what was happening just before the pictured incident.
  • What if that was you in the picture? What if you were the person who took the picture?
  • What if you knew the people in the picture? What would you say to them?

Description writing assignments:

  • Simply describe all of the elements in the picture. This is great for vocabulary practice.
  • Describe how someone in the picture might be feeling.

Instruction writing assignment:

  • Explain how to get into a pictured predicament (for example, in the picture here, how did he get into the boat without the crocodile eating him?) as well as how to get out of it.

Opinion writing assignment:

  • Express an opinion about the rights and wrongs of the pictured situation. For example, for the same picture above: Should crocodiles be hunted and killed? What should happen if a crocodile kills someone?

4. Let Their Taste Buds Do the Talking

For many of your students, food is their favorite subject. They’ll always be motivated to think about, talk about, write about and participate in activities having to do with food.

How you can integrate food into your writing assignments will depend on your classroom arrangements and the amount of time you’re willing to put into preparation.

Ideas for Inciting Writing with Food

  • Start with the preparation and sharing of food before writing about it.
  • Look at pictures of food and talk about them before moving on to writing.
  • Have students research food-related topics on the Internet.
  • Start with a story about food.

Writing Assignments Based on Food

Narrative writing assignments:

  • After the story of “The Gingerbread Man” (see the first section, above): Think about food that develops a life of its own, and what would happen with it. (This can also open up a discussion about cultural foods.) For example, make up a similar story about another piece of food (e.g., spaghetti or rice that comes alive). What if you felt something moving in your mouth after you bit your burger… ?
  • Write a story (real or imagined) about being very hungry and/or finding/buying/stealing food to meet a desperate need.
  • Write a story about trying a new, unfamiliar kind of food—maybe in a (relevant) cross-cultural setting.
  • Write a story about finding and eating a food that has magical or miraculous power. (Maybe read, or watch, some or all of “Alice in Wonderland” first.)

Description writing assignments:

  • Describe interesting/disgusting/unusual/delicious/colorful foods, especially after a class tasting lesson. (Prepare students first with suitable taste vocabulary.)
  • Describe a food that is unfamiliar to other students in the class. (Especially if the class includes students from several different cultural groups.)
  • Describe an imaginary magical food.

Instruction writing assignments:

  • Give instructions for preparing a particular recipe (maybe one that is particularly relevant culturally).
  • After a class activity or demonstration involving food: Write down what you have learned.
  • Give instructions for producing food (growing vegetables, keeping animals, etc.).
  • Give instructions for buying the best food (what to look for, looking at labels, checking prices).

Opinion writing assignments:

  • Write about your opinion on food and health in first-world and third-world countries.
  • Write about your opinion on the cost of food.
  • Write about your opinion on GMO foods.

5. Follow the Trail of a Mystery

There’s nothing quite like a good “whodunnit,” and students will always enjoy a good puzzle. There are various pre-writing activities you can use to get warmed up for writing about mystery-related subjects.

Mystery Activities to Incite Writing

  • Conundrum is an example of a game that can be played as a speaking and listening activity, and can lead into some good writing. The game starts with a simple statement, or description of a situation such as the ones described as situation puzzles. Students ask questions, and receive yes/no answers until they work out the explanation for the situation.
  • A guessing game that uses all five senses is often especially appreciated by younger students (though not only younger students). This can involve:
    • Putting their hands inside a cloth bag (or just feeling on the outside) to guess what an object is.
    • Smelling substances in opaque jars with perforated lids, and trying to guess what they are.
    • Tasting mystery foods on plastic spoons (with blindfolds).
    • Looking at pictures of mysterious objects from obscure angles.
    • Listening to and guessing the origins of sound effects. (You can record your own, or use some from the Internet.)

Writing Assignments to Follow Mystery Activities

Narrative writing assignments:

  • After Conundrum: Write a story about the sequence of events involved in a situation brought up in the game.
  • After a guessing game: Write about a possible mystery object and a magical quality it could possess.

Description writing assignments:

  • After Conundrum: Devise and describe your own situation puzzle.
  • After a guessing game: Describe what you thought you saw, heard, felt, tasted or smelled.

Instruction writing assignments:

  • Give instructions for playing one of the games.
  • Give instructions for the perfect crime.

Opinion writing assignment:

  • Give your opinion about a recent crime and the punishment.


No matter what writing assignments you choose, make sure to keep the excitement level high so that your students are enthusiastic for your next writing session.

Whether they write by hand or type on a computer, enjoy what your students have written, and encourage them by noticing the good points rather than just running all over their mistakes with a red pen.

And always find ways for them to share their efforts (online, on the classroom wall, bound together in a book to be passed around, etc.).

Read aloud to each other, share with their parents and siblings and even share with other classes!

For more ESL assignment ideas, check out this post: 

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