Writing might be my favorite ESL subject to teach.
I haven’t always been confident, though, when it came to teaching writing. I learned from my peers, from my teachers and from my colleagues. It’s from the knowledge and experience of all these people that I became the teacher that I am today. These are some of the questions with which I struggled most (plus some others) when I first started teaching writing.
Check out the Answers to Important Questions about Writing
How much should my students be able to write?
It is difficult to put a word count on an ESL writing assignment. Because different students study English for different purposes, what they really need to know depends on how they intend to use English after completing their language studies. For students pursuing higher education in English, they should at least be able to write a five paragraph essay without struggle. Students who can write a five page research paper will be even more prepared for their writing needs in college. Students who will use English for business purposes after their language program will have different writing needs. They should be able to compose simple business correspondence – memos and emails – and maybe more complex items such as grant applications depending on their jobs. As long as students who complete your program can do what they need to do, you can feel good about what you have taught them. Until they make it to the end of their programs, you can use these guidelines. Beginning students should be able to write a paragraph, intermediate students should be able to write three to five paragraphs, and advanced students should be able to write five paragraphs or more.
Should I correct every grammar mistake in my students’ writing?
It’s tempting to mark every error in a student’s written work. Many times, students have asked us teachers to do just that. They want to know every error that they have made. On top of that, we have learned so much about the English language that grammatical errors naturally jump out at us from the page. It feels good to mark them knowing that they will be corrected. The problem with noting every error on the page, however, is that students get discouraged in their writing. Even students who ask for extensive editing get discouraged when their pages are continually filled with red pen. When this happens, students are less likely to challenge themselves or use more complex writing in their compositions. They simplify what they write to avoid mistakes. The best strategy is to choose certain types of errors to correct on a page, and correct those errors consistently. For beginning students you might want to focus on pluralization and conjugation errors. For advanced students you might want to focus on comma errors. Match the skills you are expecting to the level of your students. Save more complex corrections for more advanced students, raising your expectations as they advance through your program. Eventually, your students will learn to write with minimal errors, but never expect perfection from anyone.
How do I grade written work?
Grading essays isn’t like checking a multiple choice essay. There are no clearly right or wrong answers and no way to calculate a percentage for a written piece. My personal strategy for grading written pieces is to use a rubric. A rubric is a chart specifying your expectations for an A paper, a B paper and so on. A rubric usually has three to five categories which it examines. Noting where a student falls on each of those points and then averaging them will lead you to an overall grade for the written piece. For more information on grading with a rubric, see 3 Easy Steps to Grading Student Essays.
Should I include timed writings in class?
Whether or not to include timed writings in class can be a difficult question for writing teachers. Timed writings sometimes seem like a pointless waste of valuable class time. However, doing timed writings in your class will actually help prepare your students for writing challenges in their future. Most ESL students will go on to take the TOEFL test or other similar measures of language competency. As part of this test they will have to do a timed writing. Giving your students timed writings in class also teaches them test taking strategies for essay exams at the collegiate level. Your benefit to including timed writings in class is getting a pure measure of a student’s writing skills without influence from friends, native speakers or classmates. With all these potential benefits, I admit I do schedule some class time for timed writings. I do try to keep them to a minimum – one or two per semester. We have far too much material to cover in my classes to spend much time on in class writing. When I need to, I have students do timed writings during open lab time or during office hours. That way we don’t lose class time but my students still get to practice writing in a timed setting.
Should I let students use dictionaries in class or for assignments?
Using dictionaries in writing class can be a double edged sword. When ESL students, or any language students for that matter, do not have an English word to express their ideas, they can get “stuck” in their writing. They may struggle to find the exact word they are looking for and not be able to get past that thought in their writing. Allowing students to use bilingual dictionaries helps them avoid this hurdle. On the other hand, not allowing students bilingual dictionaries in class forces them to be creative with the language that they do know to get their ideas across, one of the primary goals of language. Because of all these things, I decide the dictionary question on a per student basis. Some students will not overuse a bilingual dictionary, but having that resource makes writing must less stressful. Others will become overly dependent on a dictionary if I allow it in class. Determining what each student needs, then, is the key to answering the dictionary question.
What about canned essays? How to I recognize plagiarism?
A canned essay is one that a student has memorized and can write from memory. Sometimes students memorize canned essays for standardized testing. The most famous perhaps begins with a description of the student’s home country in the spring. I discourage canned essays in my students by providing unusual and specific writing prompts. Checking for plagiarism is another way to avoid canned essays. Recognizing plagiarism on a cold read can sometimes be nearly impossible. Many websites offer free services for plagiarism checks. Copy Scape and Grammarly are two of the most common. To check for plagiarism, have your students submit an electronic copy of their essay and then copy and paste what they have written to one of these free plagiarism checking sites.