6 Modern ESL Writing Projects That Students Can Actually Relate To
Writing projects that ESL students actually enjoy are more elusive than Bigfoot.
You might have stopped believing that they actually exist.
Call me a conspiracy theorist, but I know they’re out there.
In fact, I have the evidence that writing projects can be entertaining for ESL students. And I know the real reasons why other allegedly “fun” writing projects fall flat with ESL students of all ages. It’s because they’re either too antiquated or too been-there-done-that.
To the first point, when was the last time your students wrote letters by hand? How about postcards? Maybe they enjoy these things, but I’m willing to bet they use technology to write a whole lot more. In the age of text messages, social media posts and online messenger services, the ways we used to write in the past don’t always fit into our lives today.
So why do we continue using antiquated writing projects with our modern ESL students? We can kick things up a notch by making writing projects feel more modern, having them involve futuristic elements, text messages and social media.
On the other hand, sometimes it’s just matter of thinking outside the box (or the piece of paper) when it comes to devising writing lessons that really make an impact. Tap into your students’ wildest imaginations and let them go nuts, write wacky things and laugh out loud—you’ll see a marked difference in their attitudes towards writing classes right away.
Here are six cool writing projects you can use with today’s ESL students to bring fun and excitement into your ESL classroom.
6 Modern ESL Writing Projects That Students Can Relate To
1. Friending Harry Potter
Social media surrounds us from morning until night (if we let it). Whether your students prefer Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp or some other platform, you can bet that they’re putting themselves out there for the rest of the world to see.
You can take this love for social media and channel it towards a fun research and writing project for your ESL students.
Start with a discussion about social media. What do your students use? What kinds of information do they put out there? What do they like to see their friends post?
Then explain the writing project. Students will choose a favorite literary character (you could also use musicians or celebrities if it’s a better fit for your students) and create a fictional Facebook page for that character. They might choose characters such as Harry Potter, Bella Swan (from “Twilight”) or Katniss Everdeen (from “The Hunger Games”).
To give students something to work with, you can showcase some short clips from their favorite show or series. Check out the FluentU library to find the perfect video to form the basis for a fun and modern writing lesson.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
Have your students do some research on the character they choose. Then they’ll use that information to create a Facebook profile and some posts for that character. Encourage students to cut pictures out of magazines to use in their posts on their paper profile, and be sure the page includes some general information such as current city, hometown, likes and interests. Their walls should have posts with other characters tagged in them.
When students have finished, post the pages in your classroom for everyone to read and enjoy.
If you have advanced students, this is a great way to tie literature into an approachable writing project without diving into the classic five-paragraph essay. Have them make Facebook pages for characters from classic literature!
2. Comic Strip Showdown
Who doesn’t love a good writing game? Comic Strip Showdown is fast paced and creative to engage today’s students whose attention spans might not be as long as we’d like them to be.
Students will work together to create the best comic strips in class, and every comic strip will be created jointly by a number of students—but each student will only have five minutes to contribute to each comic strip. Like I said, the pace is fast! But this can lead to some fantastic ideas.
Before doing the activity, bring in some examples of comic strips or have students bring in a favorite English-language comic strip as part of their homework. You can find some great ones at GoComics. Try For Better or For Worse or Peanuts for familiar characters that are easy to relate to.
As a class, discuss the different elements of the comic strips and what kinds of things the artists drew and wrote in each comic, as well as the arrangement of differently-shaped panels on the page. What makes a comic strip funny? Then explain the project to your students.
Start the project by sitting your students in a circle and giving each person a blank piece of paper. It’s up to you whether you want students to create a four-panel comic or a six-panel comic. Have students divide their papers accordingly.
Set the timer for five minutes and have each person start a comic strip on their page. They should only use the first panel. It must have a title, one or more characters and a speech bubble.
After five minutes, have everyone pass their paper to the left. They should read what’s already drawn and written on the new comic they receive, ask any necessary clarifying questions and get ready to complete the next panel in the comic.
Set the timer for five minutes again and let students work. After five minutes, switch again. Continue until every panel is filled out.
Once the comics are finished, display them on the wall or post them on your whiteboard with some magnets. Have everyone vote on their favorite. Award those who contributed to the winning comic with small prizes.
Not only is this game fun and fast-paced, but it’s also a good fit for beginning students who may not feel confident writing longer paragraphs or creating their own comic strip alone.
3. Your Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun
Have students practice writing in the style of Shakespeare with this funny take on a poetry classic.
Before doing any writing, make plenty of magazines and scissors available to students. Ask them to create a picture of a face using only inanimate objects. They might use coffee cups as eyes, a watch as a smile, etc.
Once the portraits are done, read Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 130” as a class. (You can read the classic text here, along with a modern English paraphrase.) In this sonnet, Shakespeare plays with the classic blason, a poem that describes someone with a series of comparisons.
With this poem in mind, have students write their own poems describing the person in their collage with the appropriate comparisons. This silly and creative activity is also a good opportunity to talk about similes and metaphors with your ESL students.
4. “Pride and Prejudice” and… Zombies?
One trend in literature these days are mash-ups between classic texts and some exciting fantastical elements. Such mash-ups include “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” and “Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters.”
Though these reimagined books may not end up on any official high school reading list, they’re fun and readers love the freshness that comes from mixing up something classic with something fresh.
If your students are a particularly creative bunch, you can share this concept with them and let them take off on inventing their very own mash-up writing project—they can choose their own classic story and their own weird, fantastical element to add to it. If they need more guidance, as many do, you can assign them each element of the project. To do so, come to class prepared.
Bring two bowls or two hats, each one filled with little pieces of folded-up paper. In one hat, the papers will have the names of classic short stories (like Aesop’s Fables) or, for more advanced students, titles of classic novels they’ve read in school. You can even opt for familiar movies or popular songs instead of stories and novels—anything that students can recreate with a touch of weirdness will work here. In the other hat, each paper should have something kooky on it that must be added to the story, like “werewolves,” “talking goldfish,” “the Loch Ness Monster” or “Bigfoot.”
Have the students read their combinations out loud for an extra laugh! Then give them a period of time to work on their stories in class, or give them a few days to work on this at home and in class so they can create something really special.
5. You Got Whose Autograph?
Did you know that some people will pay hundreds of dollars to get the autograph of a celebrity they admire? For whatever reason, we love to make connections with people in the limelight, and sometimes all it takes is a simple piece of fan mail to get that oh-so-coveted connection with a celebrity.
But not all fan mail is created equal. In fact, a well-written fan letter can make someone’s day—and it might even get you a picture, autograph or a personal response from the celebrity. On the other hand, a poorly-written piece of fan mail could end up in the garbage.
They key to getting a celebrity’s response is doing your fan mail right, and that’s what your students will be doing when they compose their own. First, go around and ask your students who their favorite famous person is.
Next, start with a discussion about what fan mail is. Ask students if any of them have written fan mail and if anyone has ever gotten a response.
Then move on to talking about what would be good to include in a fan letter. Ask students for their opinions first, and then note some key ideas, such as:
- why you like that celebrity
- specific things they create (songs, books, research, laws, etc.) that have made an impact on you
- some general information about yourself and where you’re from
- well wishes for the celebrity’s future endeavors
Also talk about why a S.A.S.E. (self-addressed stamped envelope) might make your chances of hearing back from a celebrity even better.
Now that your students know what to include in a good fan letter, let them have at it. If you like, have students include a self-addressed stamped envelope and send the letters off. Make sure students have a chance to share with the class if they get a response.
6. Time Travel Texting
In today’s world, we text. A lot. But what if you could receive text messages from yourself? Your future self?
In this activity, students will think about their futures and then write some text messages that their future selves might send to them today.
Start by putting students in groups of two or three to talk about people they admire. As students talk about these people, have them express the specific qualities that make them important.
After the discussion, have students think about how the important qualities in the people they admire might play out in their futures. For example, if I admire my aunt because she takes chances, what chances might I take in the future? Or if my best friend is generous to everyone, what are some ways I could be generous in the future?
Give students some time to think and then ask them to write a paragraph or two about how those qualities might play out in their futures.
Once students have thought through that aspect of their futures, ask them to write five to ten text messages as their future self to their current self.
The messages might be encouragement, warning, information or anything they think their future self might want to tell their current self.
Writing activities don’t have to be boring, and these six are anything but.
These out-of-the-box activities are sure to make your students smile and still give them important and valuable practice with writing in English.