Anyone - whether they are an ESL teacher or student – will tell you the four main skills you need to develop when learning a second language are speaking, listening, reading and…writing. Naturally, learning to speak the second language is often the priority. Listening is essential for speaking, and students easily practice listening skills through movies and songs. Reading is also a skill they may develop easily with the vast amount of material available on the Internet. But writing is usually the skill that is most poorly developed, nowadays only practiced in short emails or abbreviated chat messages.
It is very easy to work on the first three skills in the ESL classroom, but improving writing takes a real conscious effort both on your part and your students’. Need to beat their reluctance to write? Here are some sure-fire ways to do it:
How to Help Your ESL Students Improve Their Writing: 6 Effective Ways
Give them a good reason
Say the words “writing assignment”, and you’ll most likely hear students groan. Writing is a chore. It’s hard work. And you shouldn’t deceive them by saying it’ll be fun. Writing is a skill that must be honed through practice. But why would they put in the hard work? What’s their motivation?
It’s easy to find it in Business English students. Most need to write business emails and texts. But what about teens and young learners? In these cases, you’ll need to convey the importance of good writing skills. It is essential for them to know how to communicate, not only in speaking, but in writing. And you must make it clear that sending a text message in English does not constitute good writing. Writing is a skill that will prove to be tremendously helpful in the future and they must understand that.
Schedule regular writing assignments
Teachers often also prioritize the other skills above writing. It is harder to teach and more time-consuming to correct. Make sure you schedule regular writing assignments every month - you may choose to make it once a week, once a month, or at the end of a unit. Business English students may have more frequent, but shorter assignments. But make sure they are assigned in regular intervals. Students will soon learn to expect them and will be less reluctant to complete them.
Needless to say, in most ESL classrooms, simply saying, “Write a story of 200 words” won’t suffice. The extent of your guidance should be proportional to your students’ level. The lower the level, the greater the guidance. As they advance in their English studies they will need less and less guidance, till one day they become more independent writers.
For beginners, it’s a good idea to start with short writing prompts or sentences they have to complete. Then, you make the prompt more of a general idea about what they should write, rather than just a sentence: “What would you do if you won the lottery”. Here you’d expect them to write several sentences using the second conditional. Finally, they will be ready for more creative, free writing.
At first, you’ll need to provide opening and closing expressions for letters. You’ll need to instruct them on structuring their texts into paragraphs: introduction, supporting paragraphs and closing. You may even include some phrases they have to use somewhere in their text.
Hand out templates, bibliography, writing style guides and anything they can use to help them in their writing. Soon enough, they won’t need the templates anymore.
Use peer correction
In some levels – and particularly in Business English students – you may choose to have students correct each other’s writing assignments. This way, you won’t have piles of papers to correct, but they will also learn from each other’s mistakes. Go around the classroom, supervise and answer questions.
Give them the option to revise their work
Did someone misinterpret the task? Did a student make too many mistakes? Ask them to revise their work and give them the chance to submit it again. Make sure they understand this is not punishment for turning in poor quality work, but rather a chance to learn from mistakes and make improvements on their writing.
Make it a positive experience
Try to offer two pieces of praise for every negative point: “Maria, you used great vocabulary and your punctuation is excellent. Now you need to work on using the right verb tenses.” By mentioning the things they did right, no matter how small they may seem, you’ll be letting them know they’re on the right path. Pure criticism and a paper full of red marks will not encourage them to continue practicing!
Show them how useful learning to write in English can be. For speaking they have to think quickly, but in writing they have more time to gather their thoughts and organize ideas. Practicing writing can also do wonders for their speaking!
Don’t forget that at BusyTeacher.org we have all of the resources you need to help your students improve their writing skills.
Fresh out of ideas for writing prompts? Try our very own Creative Writing Prompts online or worksheets you can print for your class, or purchase the whole set of 300 creative writing prompts plus 100 graphic prompts (it’s only $9.99!). How about note taking strategies? We’ve got those, too, plus ways to organize writing content. With over 300 writing worksheets and activities all ready for you to download, you have no excuses to not teach writing!