Writing is one of those skills that deeply requires students to be motivated.
If they're not involved in the writing task, in other words, if they don't have a reason to write, the task you set forth won’t be an effective learning experience.
What possible reasons could they have?
- Adult ESL students most likely need to write letters, email, or faxes in English and in a business context.
- Teens may also be interested in contacting peers in English-speaking countries on the Internet.
- But what about children? They probably won’t have a general, long-term reason to learn to write, but they can relate to a particular task, especially if it’s fun, or if they’ll be rewarded with a writing sticker.
Moreover, as a teacher, you also have a reason to teach English writing; there is a set of skills you wish your students to develop, and in case you haven’t yet, your first step, above all else, is to define these skills. Then, you decide which teaching strategies, exercises, or activities will help them develop these skills.
Finally, you choose a specific topic to ensure that students will participate with enthusiasm.
Choosing the skills you’ll focus on
Ask yourself these questions:
- What level are my students?
- What is their average age?
- Why are they taking this course?
- Do they need writing skills for specific reasons? (business correspondence, college application letters, etc…)
- What do you expect them to produce? (a short email for beginners; an essay for an international exam)
Once you’re clear on the skills your students need to develop, move on to the next step.
Choosing your activities or writing exercises
There is a wide variety of writing tasks you may assign your students to help them hone their writing skills, but careful consideration of the questions you answered above should help you narrow down your options. Here are some examples:
- Business email writing:
This is a skill that more and more ESL students require these days as they apply for jobs in international or multinational companies, or move to English-speaking countries. There are several sub-skills that go into effective email communication, and you should cover as many as possible in your ESL classes.
These include: requesting information, replying to emails, responding to conflicts/problems/issues, formal vs. informal email, and even email writing etiquette or netiquette.
You may cover as many points as you wish or have time to cover, but make sure you cover a wide range so your students are better prepared.
To introduce the task, provide them with a sample email to read. Then, for practice, set up a situation or context: “Write a brief email to all team members to remind them of tomorrow’s meeting.” Correct any mistakes in grammar, as well as tone and style.
- Essays/letters/stories for international examinations
Some students may be preparing to sit for international exams, like the First Certificate in English (Cambridge ESOL) or the TOEFL, which require students to write essays that meet specific requirements. Let’s take the FCE writing test as an example:
- Provide students with plenty of samples of the different types of written tasks they may be required to complete. For Part 1 of the test there is a compulsory task; they are required to write an informal or formal letter of 160 words for a specific audience and purpose. For Part 2 students are required to choose one of out six tasks: essay, report, article, review, letter or story of up to 180 words.
- Students must practice for each of these possibilities; the more they practice the better. In-class writing is ok, but you may also ask them to do some writing for homework.
A very simple writing task is to supply something that students may describe. This is adaptable to any level and age group. From a written description of a photo or a recent summer vacation spot, you may requests students to make them as detailed as you wish, from 50 to 200 words.
- Writing prompts
Writing prompts are tremendously useful, great triggers for a writing task. Here are some examples of some great writing prompts:
- Who is your favorite actor/actress and why?
- What are the three items you’d take to a deserted island and why?
- Write about one of your favorite movies and why you liked it so much.
- What is the best gift you’ve ever gotten?
- Journal writing
Ask students to bring a blank notebook that will from then on be referred to as their “Journal”. Assign topics on a weekly basis, or every two weeks, whichever you prefer and depending on their level. You may use the writing prompts from above, or suggest any other topic: their thoughts on a recent current event, what they did over the winter holidays, what items are on their Christmas wish list, etc… Journal writing is a great way to get students to write on a regular basis, plus keep track of their progress as far as writing skills are concerned.
Choosing your topics
Even if you choose an engaging writing activity, it should be accompanied by a topic, or context, that will motivate your students to write. In some cases your choices should be obvious; in a business English course, students will handle all types of business situations. Teens relate to pop stars, sports, fashion, TV, and movies. Though limited in the length of their writing, little ones may write about the things that are a part of their daily lives, like their families, friends, and school.
You can have them write about anything that interests them, just make sure they write, and make sure it’s a regular activity.
Some of us make the mistake of focusing only on the writing of answers in activities or exercises, and once in a blue moon have them write something longer. Whether it is creative writing, business writing, or guided writing, teach them by example first, and then let them have free reign in the way they express themselves in writing.