It’s time for your students to write something.
They sit at their desks, a blank page in front of them, the pencil twirling between their fingers, they eyes searching the room for some kind of inspiration. They have writer’s block. What is an ESL teacher to do? Maybe you don’t have any ideas either, but the writing has to get done. There is a simple answer to the writer’s block dilemma – a writer’s notebook. With a few bound pages, your students can have unlimited inspiration when it is time to fill the page. In fact, a writer’s notebook is a tool even professional writers use, but it works for ESL students, too. Here is everything you need to know about a writer’s notebook and how to give your students the tool that never comes up empty.
What is a Writer’s Notebook?
A writer’s notebook is a simple tool that helps students (and writers) when they need an idea to write about. Students can jot down any ideas that come to them in a fleeting moment to come back to later. You can also direct certain exercises that help students dig up ideas they didn’t even know they had. All of these go into the notebook. Later, when it’s time to write, students can browse through their notebook looking for an idea that seems right for the moment. Think of it as a garden for ideas. In a sense, students plant the seeds and come back later to see which have the most potential. When they have a writer’s notebook as one of their writing tools, your students will never lack for ideas or inspiration. It’s just a matter of putting the notebook to good use and showing your students how to use it. As a bonus, some of the best writer’s notebook exercises also have a language learning component. How can an ESL teacher say no to that?
Learn Here How You Can Fill a Writer’s Notebook
The following are some exercises that you can direct your students through to fill their notebooks. I often do one activity with my students each day, or at least each week. Since these exercises are all about idea generating, I don’t read or evaluate them. Students use creative grammar, original spelling, and even pictures at times. However, I let them know that when they come back to these ideas for writing assignments, I will expect grammatical compositions, and they deliver.
What are your students interested in? What catches their attention? Is it sports? Cars? A particular entertainer? No matter what your students fancy, that subject can be the topic for one of their writer’s notebook pages. It’s really quite simple to do this ongoing idea generating activity. Students simply title a page in their notebooks with their great interest. For me, I have a page titled “Facts about Hippos”. I saw part of a documentary about the animals, and I became fascinated. I wrote down the things I learned in the documentary and other things I have learned about the unique animals since. The page slowly filled, and I expect it to come in handy one day for my own piece of writing. I’ll know when I need it. Your students can do this, too. Have them title their page after their interest and just collect information about it. This is a page that won’t be filled all at once.
Don’t stop there, though, for ESL students. Most often, my teaching units center around a theme, occupations, animals, sports, food, etc. If yours do too, have your students choose one item that falls into the theme you are covering in class and title a page after that. For example, in a sports unit one student might become fascinated with American Football. As you do different exercises, read informational material, and learn about sports, your student can add bits of information to their page about American Football. At the end of the unit when it’s time to write a formal informational piece, he will have all the facts and information he needs about American Football at his fingertips. (Not to mention, you can see just how much he understood throughout the unit by seeing just what information his page contains.)
Some of our most poignant memories are the most emotional, aren’t they? Use this fact of human nature to help your students remember experiences they might want to use as inspiration for a narrative later on. Have students title a page in their writer’s notebook with a simple emotion centered statement: I was scared; I was excited; I felt guilty…Then have them use that phrase as inspiration to write for five to ten minutes, uninterrupted, about anything that statement brings to mind. Most often, they will remember a story from their past that brought about that particular emotion, but not necessarily.
If you want to make a grammar point before engaging in this lesson, it’s a good opportunity to talk to your students about dependent clauses. I was angry when…I felt guilty because…I was excited that…By starting with a more complex sentence, your students will be able to practice this grammar point without even realizing it.
My Favorite Words
ESL students have one never-ending challenge no matter how long they have been studying the language – learning new vocabulary. It’s inevitable that your students will come across words that are unfamiliar to them, and that’s just how it should be. Tap into this never-ending process by encouraging your students to make a list of their favorite English words. The words don’t have to be related. Your students may like them because of the way they sound, how they are spelled, or what they mean. It doesn’t matter. Have them title one page in their notebooks “Words I Like” and start listing. This is another page that won’t be finished all at once but will be added to over time. When it is time for your students to write, they may use this page as an idea generator or even as a word bank or vocabulary resource. It really doesn’t matter, as long as they use and remember the words they have written on the page.
Think about that phrase for a moment. What comes to mind? An important personal moment? Some historical event? A person who meant something to you? Starting a page in a writer’s notebook with this simple phrase can bring about all kinds of ideas for your students. In fact, you could do this exercise with them every day and never have them write about the same event twice. Generating ideas doesn’t have to be complicated. Let your students reminisce on the page, and see if they don’t come up with something that they can write about later. Not to mention, this activity is great for practicing past tenses. If you want to target a specific tense, set the scene for your students. Start with, “What were you doing when…?” Just remember these exercises aren’t about perfecting grammar use, so don’t get upset if your students use creative grammar even when you have set the scene for a particular verb tense review.
Do you do free writing with your students? If you have never heard of it, free writing is a prewriting exercise that is used for, you guessed it, generating ideas. I have often used it with my students before a particular writing assignment, but it’s also a great item to include in a writer’s notebook. The point of the exercise is to NOT STOP WRITING. That’s it. It’s simple, in theory anyway. Give your students a specific amount of time. The first time you try this you should keep it short – three minutes or so. When you say go, students start writing. And they cannot stop until you say time is up. The pencil should never stop moving. The result is a stream of consciousness on the page. It’s possible that your students write one coherent paragraph, but more likely they will have a whole bunch of random and scattered thoughts sprinkled over their page. Either way, this type of writing is great for encouraging writing fluency. Remind your students before they start that you won’t be looking at grammar, spelling, or any other language learning points, and you don’t expect them to write a coherent paragraph though it’s okay if they do. As long as they do not stop writing, they will have successfully completed the exercise.
These are just a few simple exercises that you can do with your students to fill out their writer’s notebooks, but they are just the beginning. If you want more ideas on what can go into a writer’s notebook, check out Ralf Fletcher’s A Writer’s Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You.
What are your favorite idea generating activities for your ESL students?
Please share in the comments below.
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