esl-writing-skills

7 Powerful Writing Skills That Will Give Your ESL Students an Edge

Your ESL students need to keep their English skills sharp at all times.

Otherwise, writing English will be as frustrating as cutting veggies with a dull blade.

It’s time for your students to put pen to paper and explore their creative sides.

Arming your students with writing skills can open up a whole new world for them.

Maybe they aspire to be novelists, bloggers or play around with words in poetry.

Or maybe they would aspire to these things if given the chance.

It’s up to you to give them that chance.

Let them explore all their English potential.

By integrating some key writing skills into your lesson plans, you’ll give them the ability to make writing a part of their lives, and you’ll enhance their understanding of other aspects of the language, too.

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The Importance of Teaching Writing Skills in ESL

Writing is often overlooked in ESL teaching and learning. At a beginning level, it may be seen as a task for the intermediate and advanced stages. Students will also shy away from writing due to its many complicated rules, structures and idiosyncrasies.

However, placing importance on English writing skills is essential and has long-term benefits.

Your students will appreciate you putting English writing skills into your syllabus. Writing skills will be useful to them in a variety of situations and can help them develop a more well-rounded English skill set. Writing is even something they can fall back on in the event of a communication breakdown in an English-speaking country.

It’s important for you to encourage your students to think about writing through well-developed writing lesson plans. With a slight nudge and some guidance, they can take newly discovered vocabulary and grammar and use it to craft structured paragraphs in many different writing styles.

How to Build an ESL Lesson Plan Around Writing Skills

When it’s time for writing lessons, your students should have already read and discussed topics in class. Make sure they have a good grasp on the spelling and vocabulary surrounding the writing topic, with a little grammar thrown into the mix for added confidence. You may be surprised how the ABCs slip away from even the most advanced English student.

For optimal results in your ESL writing lessons, think about the structure you plan to use when presenting the material. Structure is one of the essential parts of your success as an ESL teacher. Leave nothing to interpretation when presenting your writing material and tasks.

Make sure that your students are 100% clear on what they need to write about, as well as in what format and for how long. Ask yourself if the material is sufficient to complete the task, if your students are clear on the intended audience and if the material is relevant to them. No one wants to write about something they have no interest in, and that’s a fact.

7 Powerful Writing Skills That Will Give Your ESL Students an Edge

1. Building on What They Already Know

Instead of having your students jump into the vast seas of writing all at once, teach them to strengthen their writing bit by bit. Teach them the skill of building their writing around what they already know.

Their vocabulary doesn’t need to be anything special. You can start them off small and teach them how to build as they go. Encourage a little writing in every class, whether it be note taking, dictation of a few sentences or a short paragraph about their weekend. Let them try it out. You may be surprised at what they create.

Building confidence in note taking will create ample opportunities for your students to practice writing. They can copy what you’ve written on the board or any important information you’ve presented. Clue your students in to the importance of using writing as a tool and explain how much easier it will be for them later on if they take a few notes from time to time.

2. Forming Sentences

Forming sentences is quite possibly the most important writing skill. It’s the foundation to all that is writing. Without properly formed sentences, there are no topic sentences, no supporting sentences and no paragraphs. Structure isn’t even approachable. The sentence is the glue that keeps all other aspects of writing together.

So what is a sentence? Essentially, it’s a noun and verb with a bunch of other additives. Think of a sentence like an entrée on a menu. The main ingredients are listed, but the rest are in the background, unseen.

These unseen details are important, but showing your students the meat and potatoes first will help them look at sentences with a better trained eye.

With the verb and noun in plain view, you can gradually introduce those unseen, often overlooked spices and herbs that make the sentence a real sentence, the final product. Eventually introducing the importance and usage of capital letters, punctuation, periods, question marks, quotations and other sentence spices will allow them to see how it all works.

Presenting all this new sentence structure information to your students can be a simple and fun process. Using examples in your presentation, along with practice, will allow your students to start seeing and developing sentences.

Here’s one exercise you can do: Start writing a sentence on the board. Let them yell out a verb and noun to help construct the sentence as you’re going. Once constructed and in view, deconstruct it, together. Analyze the reasons behind, for example, the adjective being placed in front of the noun or the verb behind.

Dive deep into the punctuation and let them see the ins and outs before having them practice forming sentences on their own.

Implement communication within sentence lessons so they can get some speaking practice while learning to write. No student, young or old, wants to hear the material and then sit in silence writing. They want to communicate about the new material they’re learning.

After they get the hang of creating sentences, you can mix things up by presenting them with challenging questions or asking for longer sentences with more detail and depth. Keep them enthused about forming sentences and they’ll continue to build confidence and comprehension in this skill area.

3. Building Coherent Paragraphs

Once your students have a solid understanding of how to create proper sentences, you can move them into paragraphs. Showing your students how to construct paragraphs will give them a lifelong skill they’ll use in everyday life as well as professional ventures.

It may be a good idea to separate sentence construction and paragraph building into two or three separate lessons. Make sure they have a very good handle on sentences before moving forward. Otherwise, you’ll spend half the class time backtracking.

In most paragraphs, the topic sentence is at the beginning, summing up what the paragraph will cover. Following that are the supporting sentences, covering the thoughts and ideas that hold the topic sentence in place, giving it validity and weight. Explain the structure of a paragraph to your students and let them see a visual of this structure on the board or in a handout.

You can then give them examples of a topic sentence and a few supporting sentences before letting them give their own paragraph-building a shot. Good visuals and easy-to-understand directions will go a long way in this crucial area of ESL writing lessons.

You can also touch on some key linking words we use to combine two sentences together. Here are some examples your students will be able to easily learn and understand:

  • but
  • because
  • yet
  • however
  • and
  • so

These words will help them make their sentences more coherent with a nice readable flow.

4. Communicating and Collaborating in Writing

Incorporating communicative learning into your ESL writing lesson will foster creativity and confidence in your students. They’ll have a solid understanding of what they need to do when communicative learning is implemented prior to writing.

Letting your students openly discuss the writing topic with you and their classmates is a great warm-up activity. It’s exciting, and it allows them to generate fun, interesting ideas while learning the value of collaboration.

A great communicative technique is to break up the class into groups or pairs, depending on size, and let them work out some of the writing topic details together. Brainstorming is one of the most important aspects within writing and your students can build on their writing through discussion.

You can also allow some class time for presentations on what each pair or group has come up with. This can lead to a collective brainstorming as students share their thoughts and ideas with everyone. Communicative tasks are always great in any ESL lesson, so don’t forget to use it in your ESL writing lesson plans!

5. Choosing Writing Topics

You’ll always need to present writing topics in a way that’s effective, concise and fun for your students. An exciting presentation of writing topics will lead to a cascade of enthusiasm with eager students ready to write at the drop of a hat. Furthermore, making them part of the process will teach them to choose topics for themselves and open up future ideas and possibilities for writing.

Utilizing short personal stories to present a topic is great. Visuals such as pictures or short videos can also be effective, but make sure that the videos will be relevant and at the right level for your students.

Another great strategy you can implement into your lesson is to present a broad topic and give your students the opportunity to shout out related words as you write them on the board. This gets them directly involved in the presentation and they can begin to build creative ideas about what words they’ll use to construct their sentences.

6. Understanding Writing Structures

As a teacher, you know the importance of structure when developing your lesson plans, so let your students in on the secret! They’ll appreciate as much information regarding structure as you can give them.

Show them how to develop an outline that will make their writing easier when it comes time to create an introduction, body and conclusion. Emphasize that a good outline can save them time thinking of what to write next, giving them a flow that will keep them confident and prevent midstream writer’s block.

It’s essential that you think about the material you’ll need in order to convey the multiple possible writing structures involved in writing. You can develop a structure together, with you writing on the board and your students taking notes. Or you can utilize a workable student handout. Either way is great, but the handout could be more effective for the first few writing tasks. The student handout will provide a set structure for your students to follow.

Including a section for topic sentences and supporting sentences will keep their writing minds organized and focused.

In English writing, there are many forms and styles to suit different writing scenarios and needs. Teaching students a basic structure (introduction, body, conclusion) before you put a label on any one structure is best, but the time will come when they’ll be hungry for more.

Each lesson can incorporate a new topic and writing style for them to learn. For example:

  • letters
  • essays
  • stories
  • reports
  • reviews
  • emails

Build on structure basics piece by piece, giving your students more challenging tasks as they progress into exceptional English writing.

7. Understanding Formal vs. Informal Writing

As your students progress into well-crafted writing, you’ll want to move them toward understanding the difference between formal vs. informal writing. Depending on the students’ ages, levels and interests, understanding formal and informal writing styles could be incredibly useful.

Granted, the young learner may not need this information for some time, so know your students and gauge what’s most important for them.

Here are some key points to present when teaching a formal writing style to your students:

  1. Stay away from contractions. Always writing the whole word is the best policy.
  2. Never use slang in your formal writing.
  3. Learn, recognize and expand on your formal phrases. For example, using phrases such as “approximately,” “due to,” “sufficient” and “Sir/Madam” will come in handy for formal writing.

Here are some key points for informal writing:

  1. Contractions are fine. Just don’t use too many, since this may be confusing to your reader.
  2. Phrasal verbs or idioms are always welcome in informal writing.
  3. Including informal words like “hey,” “thanks,” “best wishes” and “about” are more than acceptable in informal writing and help create the right tone.

With a little planning and brainstorming, you can create exceptional, exciting and encouraging writing lessons to teach your students essential writing skills.

It’s important to remember that the structure in your lesson plans is just as important as the structure you teach in your ESL writing lessons, and your students will learn by example.

Be creative, be engaging, and your students will follow your lead into excellent English writing.


Stephen Seifert is a writer, editor, professor of English and adventurer. With over 7 years of teaching experience to students worldwide, he enjoys the many aspects of culture and traditions different from his own. Stephen continues his search for writing inspiration, boldly enjoying life to the fullest.

Oh, and One More Thing…

If you liked these tips, you’ll love using FluentU in your classroom. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, cartoons, documentaries and more—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons for you and your students.

It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. There are tons of great choices there when you’re looking for videos for in-class activities.

You’ll find movie trailers, musical numbers from cinema and theater, news interviews, commercial jingles and much, much more.

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On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students. Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.

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For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:

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Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”

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It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about English!

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.

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