How do ESL students communicate most of the time? In spoken language.
Most ESL students (particularly adults) will recognize the importance of improving speaking skills. But what about writing skills? Umm...not so much.
In my experience, most of the students who want to communicate better in writing are those who need to do so for work. But all ESL students must learn to improve their writing, and here’s why: writing is an important form of communication. Students who can communicate well in writing will have a distinct advantage over those who don’t. Moreover, the thought processes that go into writing are different from those needed to speak. Students learn more about structure and how to organize texts – it’s a great way to build their language skills, whether they have to do a great deal of writing outside the classroom or not.
Before moving on to the top ten writing tasks for the ESL class, let’s look at the four basic types of writing, shall we?
4 Basic Types of Writing
Focuses on the facts. The goal is to provide explanations, information or definitions. There are no opinions, just clear, hard facts. Example: a Wikipedia entry.
Tells a story. It usually follows a sequence of events and is written in the first person. It can be fiction or non-fiction. Example: a What I Did Last Summer writing assignment.
Expresses an opinion. It provides arguments as to why this opinion is correct and tries to convince the reader. It often mentions the opposing view but provides statistics, facts or proof that supports the opinion held. Example: an essay about Why Uniforms Are Good (or Why Uniforms Are Bad).
Provides a vivid picture. The goal is to help the reader picture in their mind’s eye that which is being described. It’s like painting a picture with words. This is why descriptive language is very detailed. Example: describing a photo.
Good! Now let’s see the top ten writing tasks for the ESL class and which categories they fall under. It’s a good idea to give your ESL students a variety of writing tasks, keeping the four types of writing in mind.
Top 10 Writing Tasks for the ESL Class
Whether it is email or personal correspondence, we often ask ESL students to “write a letter”. The great thing about this particular writing task is that it is very versatile. You can assign a letter that is descriptive, persuasive or narrative. Business emails can be expository if they, for example, provide information about the company’s product. They’re also typically shorter, making it easier to focus on the particular type of writing you want to teach.
Reports tend to be expository – imagine a book report, for example. You may ask students to summarize who the main characters are and cover the main plot points. Reports may also be short research papers about an animal, technological gadget or issue. You may also adjust the length and topic of the report to suit your students’ level.
Essays are typically persuasive. You ask students to adopt a certain point of view, to pick a side, so to speak. Think of the type of essays students must write for international examinations like the Cambridge exams. Because they are more difficult, essays are usually assigned and practiced in ESL classes aimed at exam preparation.
Naturally, stories use narrative writing. Don’t think that only advanced or older students are capable of writing stories – encourage young learners to write them, too, even if it’s only a few lines.
Articles are typically expository. Think of newspaper articles. They are not biased and merely present the facts. Students can have a go at this type of writing by creating their own newspaper articles.
Writing assignments don’t necessarily have to be long or written on a single sheet of paper. Let students create PowerPoint slides for either expository or persuasive writing tasks.
A great way to practice descriptive writing is through product descriptions. Give students images of products you’ve cut from magazines or catalogues, and have them write a descriptive paragraph for each.
These are typically how to articles, which is why this is largely expository writing. You can ask students to write a wide variety of how to articles, from how to make a kite to how to cook something (recipe).
You might think that keeping a diary or journal in a second language is hard, and it can be, but I highly recommend this form of writing in most ESL levels. It’s a wonderful opportunity for students to practice narrative or descriptive writing. You may choose to assign a one-time, stand alone entry, or ask them to write in a journal on a weekly basis.
Have students write about their favorite celebrity, writer or inventor. They can practice narrative or expository writing, while they do research about someone they admire or look up to.
When I tell people that I write, they immediately jump to the conclusion that I write fiction, in other words, narratives.
And that’s what students often think of when you mention writing assignments. But that’s just one type of writing. Not everyone is good at narrative writing. Expose them to a variety of writing tasks, and they may come to realize they’re good at one particular type. But they won’t find out unless you show them.
If you have any other writing tasks to add to the list, feel free to mention them below in the comments. Don’t forget to tell us what type of writing you can practice with it!