5 Brilliant Techniques to Help ESL Students Thread Through Writing

The writer: an almost mythical creature.

Alone and aloof, at the mercy of some ethereal muse and her whims.

How can we hope to inculcate the skills of the mysterious discipline in our ESL students when it can seem an insurmountable task for even native speakers?

Luckily, much of our image of writers and writing has as much in common with reality as the Flying Spaghetti Monster!

Like much in life, discipline and craft can overcome most disadvantages for the struggling writer.

So get ready to get your students to apply some “wrist-grease” as we take a look at five techniques to take your students’ writing to the next level. But in order to get the most from these strategies, we will first visit two simple actions you can take to help your students write with purpose.

Encourage Your ESL Students to Write with Purpose

Planning is important. There are a thousand apt analogies we could employ, from an architect’s blueprints for a house, to a coach’s pregame talk complete, with diagrams included.

Planning is an essential element for successful completion of many tasks, and none more so than for writing. Especially for our ESL students. Good planning helps a student maintain focus, producing cogent and coherent writing.

ESL students will often need explicit instructions on how to go about their planning, so it can be helpful to use writing frames. Numerous templates are available free online and suited to a wide variety of writing genres.

It is also useful to share success criteria with your students at the prewriting stage. These criteria include all the elements that you expect to see in a successful piece of writing. This can even be turned into a simple checklist that students can use to check their work after completing their first draft.

As with writing frames, success criteria will be dependent on the genre of writing. For example, instruction writing success criteria may include things like title, diagram, captions, imperatives, functional language and time connectives.

The great thing about success criteria is that they can easily be differentiated according to the focus of your lesson or the abilities of your students.

Okay. Enough with the hors d’oeuvres, now to the main course!

5 Simple Techniques That Thread Together Vibrant, Clear ESL Writing

1. Build strong sentences by beginning with subjects and verbs.

We are all aware that writing in a new language is more involved than the simple case of substituting one word for another. Each language has its preferences for certain sentence structures and idiosyncrasies of meaning.

Linguists regard English primarily as a right-branching direction (RBD) language. Sentences begin with subject and verb, with relative clauses that branch to the right, just like in this sentence. Not all languages display this characteristic. Japanese, for example, is considered to be an LBD language.

How to implement it:

So, how can we make use of this theory in class? An excellent way for your students to really embed their understanding of the RBD sentence is to give them copies of newspapers. Have them hunt through articles identifying subjects and verbs and taking note of their position in sentences.

This will help make English’s RBD tendency apparent to them. For further practice, and to engage their own writing skills, have your students identify some sentences that are not RBD and rewrite them as RBD sentences.

The devil is in the details. Let’s take a look at an example:

Attired in a knee-length black cashmere cardigan, and sipping from a mug of Oolong tea, Jean, conscious that all eyes were on her as she stood silhouetted in the doorway, raised her hand in greeting.

Confused? No wonder! There are sixteen words before the subject is even mentioned, and a further fourteen before the important verb! Don’t be afraid to encourage students to break convoluted ideas into several simpler sentences to convey the same idea. Consider this rewrite in light of our understanding of the RBD nature of the English language:

Jean stood silhouetted in the doorway sipping her Oolong tea. Her long black cashmere cardigan hung down to her knees. All eyes were on her, as she raised her hand to greet them.

These exercises will build students’ confidence in writing strong sentences. It is important to point out to more advanced students that not every sentence needs begin with the classic subject-verb construction. Where appropriate, model sentences that play with this sentence structure. For example, suggest opening a sentence with an introductory phrase or simply varying sentence length, to avoid a monotonous style, as is clear in the example above.

2. Order words for the most powerful impact.

In many ways, a sentence is a microcosm of a story. And like any gripping story, a good sentence ideally should have a strong beginning, a meaningful middle and an end that echoes on and on… and on. Once your students have mastered the structure of RBD sentences, they can bring greater depth to their writing through consideration of word order.

What does all this mean for the struggling ESL student? At the word level, students should be encouraged to put their strongest words and images at the beginning and the end. We can think of the beginning of the sentence as the “hook,” just as we would for a short story, and the end should impact the reader.

In his wonderful book “Writing Tools,” Roy Peter Clark writes:

For any sentence, the period acts as a stop sign. That slight pause in reading magnifies the final word, an effect intensified at the end of a paragraph, where final words often adjoin white space.

How to implement it:

How do we implement this in the context of teaching ESL? A useful practice is to have students go back through their first draft with a pencil. Ask them to underline the most interesting words in each sentence. If the most powerful words are buried in the middle of sentences, can the sentence be restructured to bring these words to the beginning or the end?

Not only does this bring variety to your students’ writing, but it will increase the dramatic impact of what they have to say.

3. Paint pictures with words.

The fact that as humans we can draw seemingly arbitrary squiggles onto a page and convey our deepest thoughts to another human being is surely one of the human race’s greatest accomplishments. We can convey everything from the fleeting essence of an emotion such as love, to the details of an immense building, at first seen only in the architect’s mind. And all this from scratching marks onto paper.

Much of the meaning communicated through the written word takes the form of mental images. The task of the writer can be likened to that of painter, except the canvas is the reader’s mind. Encourage your students to appeal to the senses in their creative writing. Good writing is evocative, and sensual writing is the most evocative of all.

How to implement it:

In practical terms, a good method for encouraging your students here is to spend some time on literary devices, such as simile, metaphor, personification and so forth. There is a good chance students will be familiar with the concepts, if not the vocabulary, from studying their own language at school.

Model a few examples of, say, a simple simile, on the board, (i.e. as hard as a rock). Students can then brainstorm possible substitutes for the adjective “hard,” and are welcome to reference a thesaurus. Examples might be solid, strong, tough, etc.

This activity is also useful for students to get a feel for the language, and the different shades of meaning associated with various synonyms. This can then be repeated for the noun in the simile.

Once your students have a good grasp of the particular figure of speech they have been working on, they can graduate to producing their own original examples. Ultimately, students should be able to use them seamlessly in their independent writing.

4. Keep sentences fresh by varying their length.

Nothing is more frustrating for a reader than boredom, and a sure-fire way to ensure boredom is for your student to write all their sentences the same length. It is the literary equivalent of speaking in a monotone.

This is a common problem for ESL students. Often lacking confidence in their grammar knowledge of their target language, students stick to the one or two structures they are most comfortable with. For example, the classic English sentence structure outlined in #1 above.

When we teach students to vary the lengths of their sentences, be sure to point out that this does not need to be done arbitrarily. Sentence length can be varied according to the purpose of the sentence. A good rule of thumb here is to encourage your students to keep sentences short when they are explaining or describing something complex. This allows them to break down what they want to say in manageable chunks of language.

The reverse is true for expressing simpler concepts. Here the long sentence can be employed, affording the student a more expansive canvas to express themselves, unintimidated by the complexity of what it is they have to say.

How to implement it:

An example of how to implement this could be during the teaching of instruction writing. Have your students write a set of instructions for something they know how to do and encourage them to employ the short sentences for complex concepts, and longer sentences for simpler ideas rule.

You could also have them rewrite examples you provide where this rule has not been applied.

5. Punctuate for rhythm.

Now I am not suggesting we ask our students to write exclusively in iambic pentameter. But, judicious use of punctuation in English is an excellent means to convey meaning and to control the rhythm of a piece of writing. It is the literary equivalent of using note values, rests and bar lines in music notation.

Punctuating for rhythm is not just a pleasing sonic folly that provides variety in your students’ writing. It is crucial to conveying meaning accurately. The language’s reliance on this has been the source of countless hilarious memes, and has even been the source of some bestselling book titles, such as “Eats, Shoots & Leaves.”

How to implement it:

Nitty gritty time. What does this look like in the classroom? As is often the case, teaching the new skill in isolation is the first step. Show your students how to use a particular piece of punctuation, give examples from printed material, whether the Internet, or the of the old-fashioned print variety.

Then, have students generate their own sentences based on this modeling. After they have successfully looked at several different punctuation marks and applied them successfully, write a sentence on the board and see how many different ways they can punctuate the sentence and still have it make sense.

This can be great fun for students, especially in a group. The longer the sentence, the more variability in answers available. Often the results are very funny!

Here is classic example of how punctuation can entirely change the meaning of a sentence:

A woman, without her man, is nothing.

A woman: without her, man is nothing.

Lots of fun can be had with these ambiguities. Check out this site for more fun examples.


Writing is the long game; a lifetime cannot exhaust the possibilities. However, if you draw your students’ attention to grammar and structure, regular practice and honing their skills, any ESL student should be able to reach a level where they can communicate effectively through the medium of the written word.

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