Smash Through Writer’s Block: 6 Steps for Choosing Inspiring ESL Writing Topics
Teaching ESL students to write well poses a unique challenge.
I mean, writing is kind of a one-man job.
We listen to each other, we speak to each other and we even read to each other.
But how often do people ever write together?
Writing is usually a pretty solitary activity. In the real world, your students will have little guidance during the process of writing. Nobody’s going to be over their shoulders correcting them or telling them what to do.
Team writing is sometimes deployed as a teaching method to remove that “solitary” component. By and large, though, students are most often required to perform their writing tasks alone.
Facing a blank page of paper or computer screen, students are confronted with numerous obstacles to starting and completing the project. You can better ensure your students’ success in overcoming those obstacles by taking one important step: Assign a familiar and interesting topic!
Making sure that each student is fully engaged with their topic is the number one factor that makes selecting the right writing topic mission-critical. In addition to many hurdles that are common to all writers—such as other pressing demands and the all-too-familiar writer’s block—there are hurdles unique to ESL students that make the selection of an appropriate topic especially critical.
All writers need to be informed about and engaged with their writing topics. Accordingly, topic selection must take into account students’ knowledge and interests.
Overcoming Obstacles to ESL Writing Success
What are the primary hurdles facing students in their quest to write your essay? Why is topic selection so vital to overcoming these?
Let’s discuss some common student concerns, and how topic selection makes all the difference.
“I’m too busy!”
Imagine that you assigned your students a three-page paper. They’ll likely have numerous other pressing tasks and obligations that need to be tended to within the same time frame as the assigned paper. There’s laundry to do, dishes to wash, groceries to be bought, meals to cook, kids to care for, other homework to be completed, etc.
The concern, “I can’t get this done, I’m busy and need to do other projects” diminishes many students’ ability to begin writing and to write effectively.
However, I’ve often found that a topic that is familiar and interesting to students will motivate them to prioritize the writing task over “busywork.” They’ll get on top of completing the other absolutely necessary tasks efficiently so they can start on your assignment!
“I have writer’s block!”
In addition to the nearly universal demands on students’ time, there may already be some element of writer’s block operating in the background of their minds that further impedes their ability to perform the assignment. One or more of the following concerns may be running through your students’ minds, and it could be contributing to that paralyzing writer’s block:
- What if my readers don’t understand me?
- What if my readers disagree with me?
- What if my readers aren’t interested in what I write?
Concerns related to writer’s block are those that can discourage any writer from performing, even in their own native language. The ESL student faces those challenges and more.
Give students engaging writing topics that they have millions of ideas about, and watch those writer’s blocks come tumbling down!
“I don’t know how to write what I want to express in English!”
Add to the concerns outlined above, a pressing question in the minds of all ESL writers: “Help! I don’t know the words and/or sentence structures required to perform this task!”
This worry starts before the writing commences and continues throughout the writing process. It’s easy to imagine how discouraged the average ESL writer could be when faced with this large, skill-related hurdle!
One of the points of the assignment is to advance the students’ grammar and vocabulary skills. You’ve presumably equipped your students with basic grammar and vocabulary knowledge suited to the assigned task. However, that doesn’t diminish the fact that weak English language skills are daunting hurdles that ESL students must overcome before and during the writing process. They often don’t realize that writing is part of the process of developing those skills, and that it’s okay to proceed without knowing everything. Grammar, vocabulary and writing skills are all reinforced and developed while writing.
Luckily, appropriate and interesting topics will motivate students to overcome these skill-related hurdles so that they’re able to write about the topic.
The lack of English language skills is undoubtedly a big hurdle facing ESL students with writing assignments, but one that you’ve probably already anticipated and mitigated through your lessons. There remains, however, the biggest challenge, discussed below: Ensuring that students are sufficiently motivated and knowledgeable about the topic selected for the writing project.
“I don’t know anything about the topic” and/or “I’m not interested in the topic!”
A major, avoidable hurdle that students may face, and the number one issue that makes topic selection so vital, is lack of knowledge of and interest in the assigned topic.
If the student is thinking, “I know nothing at all about this topic and don’t have time to research it and finish the writing assignment,” he or she has an immediate, show-stopping problem. Selecting a topic with which the student is familiar and in which the student is interested will help get the writing assignment show on the road!
Likewise, if the student thinks, “This topic bores me and I would rather be doing anything else than writing about it,” you’ve got an obstacle that could prevent the student from performing, especially on top of all of the hurdles which we discussed above.
The two fundamental, non-ESL infrastructures required to perform any writing assignment are (1) substantive knowledge about the writing topic and (2) intrinsic interest in or motivation for writing about the topic.
If ESL students have shortcomings in one or both of these areas, alone or added to one or more of the previously-mentioned hurdles, that could break the students’ spirit for writing anything at all!
For all these reasons, the choice of writing topic is essential. The processes of selecting the topics discussed below will facilitate a better understanding of your students’ knowledge and interests, and will thus make the all-important topic selection easier and more effective!
A great way to introduce new and exciting topics for writing is with clips from the FluentU library.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
Who Chooses ESL Writing Topics and Why?
Who chooses a writing topic depends upon the learning goals of the assignment.
Whether the teacher or the student chooses the topic, or whether they choose together, each option has its advantages and disadvantages. That’s why you, the teacher, should make an informed decision about who chooses the topic and why.
Teacher chooses the topic
The advantage of teacher-selected topics is that the learning goals (for example, practicing past tense, future tense or specific vocabulary) are more easily directed and met. Teacher-selected topics also teach students to “write to assignment.” Writing to meet pre-defined criteria is a required skill that students will encounter in nearly all stages of their academic and professional lives.
Non-ESL classes such as history and literature require “writing to assignment” skills—from elementary school through preparatory/high school. Education thereafter is loaded with writing-to-assignment tasks, from standardized college admissions essays to PhD theses. Writing to assignment is a skill in itself that should be taught throughout a student’s career. Teacher-selected topics help teach that skill.
Another advantage of teacher-selected topics is that students can be certain that the topic on which they’re writing is already approved by the teacher. This eliminates stress on the student right at the beginning of the project. For the indecisive and/or extremely insecure student, this can be an enormous advantage.
One disadvantage of teacher-selected topics is that, as mentioned before, students might lack knowledge of or interest in the topic.
Student chooses the topic
Permitting students to choose their own writing topics has distinct advantages and disadvantages as well.
Advantages include students feeling more “ownership” of the project and thus more dedication to performing the assignment correctly and on-time. Additionally, students are much likelier to have the requisite knowledge about and interest in the topic. This eliminates the lack of knowledge and motivational problems, discussed above, that inhibit success.
Finally and most importantly, student selection of the topic is the most effective way to promote authenticity in your students’ writing. They’ll be writing something that they believe in, have opinions about or with which they have some personal experience. This helps to teach the important lesson of authentic and inauthentic writing voice.
Disadvantages of student selection of the topic include the teacher having less control over the precise skills being practiced and the teacher’s potential lack of familiarity with the topic.
A combination of teacher and student selection can be used to reduce one or more of the disadvantages of each method. For example, you could give a broad topic such as “a political issue which is important to you,” or “a story about your family,” and students can be left to choose the specific topic within that area of discussion.
Smash Through Writer’s Block: 6 Steps for Choosing Inspiring ESL Writing Topics
1. Define the goals of the writing assignment
Defining goals is very helpful for topic selection.
For example, if the goal is to teach or practice simple verb tense forms, the choice of topic could involve telling a story, writing a biography about a historical figure, writing a horoscope or creating a predictive news article about some date in the future.
Alternatively, the goal might be to develop and practice vocabulary. In this case, a subject could be chosen that’s important to each student. Is one student in culinary school? Give them a topic such as setting up a kitchen or shopping for a recipe. Is another student in nursing? Choose a topic like describing a typical medical office or emergency room setting.
The selected writing topic should support the skills being taught at that point of the student’s learning journey. It would obviously be inappropriate, for example, to ask a student who hasn’t learned simple past tense to write a story about an event in the past—no matter how relevant the topic otherwise is to the student’s interests.
2. Define the audience
Who will the students be writing for?
It isn’t always useful to assume that you, the teacher, will be the primary audience. You could have the students address the writing to the class. You could have them pretend that they’re at a political rally or in church. You could have them prepare their writing for their family, friends or neighbors. Defining the audience teaches students appropriate tone and vocabulary as well as guides the content.
Brainstorming is a tried and true method of generating ideas for a wide variety of projects. The Purdue OWL – Online Writing Lab recommends brainstorming as a method of devising a writing topic. OWL suggests that students sit and jot down ideas in one or more timed sessions and then re-visit and refine those ideas to determine if a pattern develops regarding the subjects that frequently come up in the students’ minds. Is there one topic that keeps popping up? Is there a common theme connecting the different topics that they came up with?
Brainstorming is advantageous because it can enable the student (and teacher) to determine what topics resonate most strongly with the student. Topics that resonate with students are most likely to motivate them and result in them writing in an authentic voice.
Researching isn’t just for the students, it’s a great thing for you to do when preparing to give a writing assignment.
You can utilize topic lists to focus the subject or learning goal of the writing assignment. Or you provide the student one or more lists from which to choose.
One type of list that can be used is based on categories. Here’s what this might look like:
Within each of these categories can be subcategories. For example, under the “discussion” category you might find topics related to current events, favorite subject in school or favorite vacation destinations.
Under “instructions” could be “Instruct a visitor to your hometown how to get from the bus station to a key tourist site.”
Students will need to be made aware that each category of writing may necessitate a different writing style.
The IELTS academic writing exam focuses on several categories of writing that could also be used as starting points for topic selection:
- Describing visual information (such as a graph, table, chart or diagram)
- Point of view
Do your homework. What are some popular topics of discussion on social media these days? What’s on the local news? What’s most chatted about in your students’ home countries?
5. Create and discover topic lists
Teachers should begin collecting and categorizing their own topic lists.
One idea to get this process started is for teachers to brainstorm on their own or in groups to generate writing topic ideas. Ask questions such as “what other subjects are the students taking in school?” or “do the students have an upcoming event?”
Ask other teachers for essay topic ideas. What key lessons are they learning in other classes? What are they all gossiping or giggling about these days? What popular television shows or movies are the students currently watching? Ask students to write about plots or characters in those.
The ways you can start devising topic lists are endless!
That being said, we all hit a brick wall from time to time. Maybe you’ve exhausted your older idea lists, or maybe you’re looking for something even more inspiring. Well, there are plenty of people hard at work putting idea lists online (aside from me).
The IELTS general writing exam includes the category “responding to a situation by writing a letter.” Any of these IELTS categories can be used to generate topic ideas to stimulate your students’ interests.
ESL Learnhub’s TOEFL Essay Writing Topics is an uncategorized list of more free-form writing topics, such as, “a successful life is a happy life,” and “military service should be compulsory.” This type of topic list is ideal for developing students’ abilities to write about their opinions.
Dave’s ESL Café Ideas Cookbook – Writing has a list of dozens of great writing ideas as well as links to more ideas, such as asking your students to write a television commercial, or pairing students to interview each other as if they were celebrities and writing an interview article for a hypothetical magazine.
Remember, you don’t need to restrict your idea lists to ESL-specific writing sites. Topic selection is a universal, language-neutral writing challenge!
Homework Tips at About.com has a link to 100 Persuasive Essay Topics that aren’t ESL-specific, and contains lots of ideas that would work great for ESL writing topics.
Enchanted Learning also has an extensive matrix of essay topics that aren’t ESL-specific.
The above ideas are just drops in the ocean of possible writing topics available to students at virtually any ESL learning level! To get you started, below are some inspiring writing topics for you to consider, listed by skill level. For each topic, the student should provide an explanation of his or her choice.
- Which of these 25 most popular travel destinations in the world would you most like to visit?
- Who is the greatest athlete in the world? (Give them this list to choose from if inspiration is needed.)
- What is your favorite type of pet? (You could give them this list of popular pets around the world.)
- What famous celebrity would you most like to meet?
- What is your favorite holiday of the year?
- Which of these “101 Things to Do Before You Die” would you most like to do?
- What is the most difficult thing you have ever done?
- What have you always wanted to do but have not done yet?
- What would you do if you had unlimited time, money and resources?
- Which of these popular reality competition shows would you most like to enter?
- Which of these important scientific achievements of 2014 do you think is the most important?
- Which of these Forbes Billionaires do you most admire or despise?
- Which of these most deadly professions scares you the most?
- If you could live in a different era (past or future), when would it be?
- What makes you unique as an individual person?
With a little structure and guidance, students will amaze you with their creativity—not only in terms of their written responses to your assignments, but also with their ability to assist you in devising the topics for the assignments themselves!
6. Finalize the topic selections
If each student is each going to be writing on a different topic, each student should create and evaluate a shortlist of topic ideas. It’s up to you to decide whether the student is permitted to make the final topic selection or whether that will be left to your discretion. Whomever makes the decision, a final writing topic selection must be made.
During this process, the approach taken to the topic should also be decided. For example, will the assignment require the student to simply discuss the topic? Should it be a compare/contrast assignment? Will it be an assignment to develop descriptive writing abilities? Some of these decisions will be dictated by the type of topic, or by the language lesson you wish to enforce.
Once a topic and approach are agreed upon, the student shouldn’t be permitted to change the topic. There’s nothing more frustrating than spinning both the teacher’s and student’s wheels by starting with one topic, then stalling and re-starting the assignment with another topic!
Part of the challenge of being a writer is tackling topics that are somewhat difficult. In turn, another part of that challenge is choosing topics that aren’t so difficult that they’re impossible! An accurate and inspiring topic selection will strike a harmonious compromise between ease and challenge.
As discussed in this post, selecting an engaging and effective ESL topic is critical to advancing an ESL student’s writing skills. There are as many topics to write about as there are grains of sand on the beach—multiplied by the number of stars in the sky!
Advancing students’ ESL learning with writing assignments is critical to their advancement in reading, speaking and listening. Choosing a topic with which the student is familiar and in which the student is interested will optimize this advancement by ensuring the student engaged by the assigned topic.
The steps outlined in this post enable both teacher and student to participate in the important topic selection process to facilitate ESL writing success.
With the list of ideas above to get you started, you’ve got no excuse! It’s time to get started on your class’s next writing assignment.