How to Create Fun and Meaningful Writing Lessons for Your ESL Students

Is writing a mystery to your students?

Writing well in a second language is arguably one of the hardest skills for anyone to develop.

It requires not only a broad vocabulary and a good grasp on grammar, but also an ability to wrestle the text on the page into a coherent structure.

You already know that writing itself is no easy task, even in your native language.

It’s one of the most sophisticated acts of communication we can undertake, and in the classroom, it poses major challenges for students and teachers alike.

From getting initial ideas, to hammering them into shape, to the nitty-gritty of grammar…it’s easy to get lost.

When planning out what to have your students write, you might even find you’re lacking inspiration yourself!

Don’t worry, we’ll get through this together.

Let’s take a look at some ideas to help students get the most from their writing lessons and to help you guide them, from breaking through writer’s block to polishing that final piece!

In the Beginning…

Often, the hardest part of any writing task is simply getting started. Your students are bound to find the blank page intimidating, and you may feel some of the same intimidation when trying to come up with effective ideas for writing assignments. Here are some tried-and-true suggestions to get that ink flowing.

Unblocking that writer’s block

The tyranny of the blank page is even more tyrannical for your ESL students. Undertaking a writing task can be a daunting experience for them, so you need to make sure they’re comfortable.

At the beginning, it’s important to engender confidence. Make writing a fun activity.

One way to do this is to undertake some shared writing activities as a class. Give the students a simple topic or storyline and have each student contribute a sentence, which you can then write on the board. Tell them it doesn’t matter how ludicrous their suggestions are. The key here is to get them writing, writing anything. The tyranny has ended and mob rule begun. Now, can we marshal the unruly mob into a successful piece of writing?

Where are we going with this? Share success criteria from the outset

The details of your success criteria will be dependent on the type and level of writing you’re teaching, but they should always be shared with your students right at the start.

For example, if your students are writing a set of instructions, share with them the crucial elements of a successful set of instructions. You may wish to write them on the board before they begin their writing, or give each student a photocopy of a checklist containing the criteria.

Success criteria for a set of instructions may include things like:

  • written in functional English
  • contains a title
  • resources list
  • numbered points or bullet points
  • diagrams
  • sentences begin with imperatives

Adapt the detail to suit the age/abilities of your students. These criteria will help the students with the difficult task of structuring their own writing.

Ideas and where they come from

Often you’ll hear a student complaining, “But I don’t know what to write about!” Especially when it comes to more creative writing genres such as short stories.

Well, the good news is, ideas are everywhere. Whether you’re coming up with ideas for writing assignments, helping students find their own ideas or forming ideas together as a class, there are lots of easy ways to get started.

Random objects can provide inspiration. Who owned this hairpin? Why did he keep it? What will he do with it? Encourage your students to let their imaginations run wild. It doesn’t need to make sense right away—just opening up the floodgates of unconsciousness can be beneficial.

Often, starting with a character is helpful. Have a student role-play a main character as you ask questions to reveal that character’s identity and story.

Check the newspapers for interesting titbits. I once wrote a story based on a newspaper clipping on a 6-year-old Norwegian boy who was attacked by a badger. When asked what he would do if he saw the badger again, he said, “I will kill it with my sword.” There is certainly a story in that!

Brainstorming is an excellent and time-tested method of expanding on ideas. All that’s needed is a piece of paper, a pencil and an open mind! All the great ideas generated here can inform the student’s planning. Some students may also benefit from storyboarding their work, if it is genre-appropriate.

Handy kick-starts to get going

Sometimes the hardest part can be the first few words. Think of a stone at the top of a hill.

The first few pushes at that stone can take the form of sentence starters. These are unfinished sentences that get things rolling.

For example, if having your students write a scary story, you might offer:

“Dusk in December is no time to…”

Having your sentence taper off with a preposition or a conjunction leaves momentum for the students’ imagination.

Word banks are a useful tool, too. They can be gathered from suggestions made by your students and written on the board. A word bank for our horror story here might include vocabulary such as:

  • gloomy
  • frightened
  • terrified
  • ghost

Again, factor in the abilities of your students accordingly.

Writing prompts can be beneficial as well. You can make up prompts for your students or take advantage of online resources, such as this list from Writer’s Digest. Good prompts offer scenarios that can form the genesis of a good story, e.g., you wake up on a bus in a foreign country while on holiday. You find your wallet and passport are gone. What happens next?

Getting over Those Humps in the Middle

If the piece of writing were a work week, welcome to Wednesday. Regardless of genre, the midpoint in any writing lesson can pose its own challenges. Have your students run out of their initial enthusiasm? Have they been able to corral their ideas successfully or have they written themselves into a muddle?

Not all problems are structural. For the ESL student, the language itself is often the highest hill to climb. Let’s take a look.

Helping your students retrieve the thread 

Often, students get lost in the middle of their piece of writing. Remind them to refer to their work at the planning stage. Have them take a look at their storyboards and brainstorming notes. Discuss with them which threads they need to follow through on. If it’s a work of fiction, role-playing may be useful again at this point.

Non-fiction genres, such as report writing, may benefit from a discussion or a Q&A session with the teacher to break the impasse.

Avoiding the perils of translation

Due to the idiomatic nature of language, translation is an art. It’s not the mere substitution of one word for another, and anyone who has ever used Google Translate can attest to that!

Encourage your students to use the English they have. Letting go of the tight grip on the mother tongue is a difficult but necessary step in gaining fluency. You may wish to model some useful sentence structures for individual students. They can imitate the model and adapt it to their own writing. The cloze technqiue can be helpful for those students who are really struggling with their writing.

An ESL writer’s best friend: The thesaurus

One of the biggest barriers holding back ESL students from producing interesting and engaging writing is their limited vocabulary. Show your students how to use a thesaurus to improve their writing. Whether in book form or online, the thesaurus is a rich resource for every writer. The better ones even include related idioms and example usage along with synonyms.

The End…

Almost there now. A few final things are still worth considering. As the carpenters’ saying goes, “measure twice, cut once.” Wise words that with a little adaptation can serve the ESL writer well. Here are some ideas on getting that second measurement before those writing assignments are finally handed in.

Processing those words

In these tech-savvy times, much of your students’ work will be word-processed. Perhaps they’ve handwritten their work in school and can type it up at home, or the other way around. This will offer the opportunity to redraft their work.

Instill the importance of drafting and redrafting when writing. Not only will they have a chance to check through their work again, but word processing software contains spell and grammar checks to help polish up their work.

Encourage your students to take note of the computer-made corrections and pay attention to the reasons for the correction. Used in a lazy manner, spell checks and grammar checks can slow the learning process.

Check, check and check again

Encourage students to refer again to success criteria checklists (as discussed above) when they feel they have completed their writing. They should have been referring to these lists as they worked, but a final check is needed after the redrafting, too.

The student becomes the teacher: Peer assessment

It’s useful practice for students to swap work before finally handing it in to the teacher. It allows each student to use their own critical faculties to spot mistakes in the work of their peers and vice versa. If they spot a mistake, the act of explaining this mistake to their peer allows them to reconstruct their own learning. Meanwhile, the student who made the mistake gets another chance at picking up a concept and cementing the knowledge in their mind. This type of peer assessment can be very beneficial for all students.

Give feedback to students

Finally, teacher feedback is an essential element of the teaching cycle.

The success criteria will provide much of the focus here. Encouragement is essential to help your students gain confidence in the target language.

The stars-and-a-wish technique can be helpful for younger students: Point out two things the student has done well and one area in which you would like to see an improvement.

Feedback needs to be timely. There’s little point in giving feedback on work completed a month ago. The student has probably forgotten the piece of work and advice on it will have lost much of its relevance.

While writing is certainly a difficult aspect of language learning, it can also be a hugely enjoyable one.

Though your students probably won’t be scribing calligraphy in vellum-bound manuscripts, in this modern age of texting, emails, apps and online social networking, the art of writing well is as important to English learners as ever.

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