Teaching Writing to ESL/EFL Students: Tips and Activities for Any Level

Teaching writing to non-native speakers of a language presents a plethora of unique challenges and can feel overwhelming for new and seasoned teachers alike. However, teaching writing to ESL students can be dynamic and meaningful when approached with a bit of ingenuity.

If you’re new to teaching, you’ll want to get initial training and qualification with a TEFL certificate . You can explore our online TEFL courses to get started!

Why is it important to teach writing to ESL students?

In order to effectively participate as contributing members of society, individuals need to be able to communicate their thoughts in written form, whether they are using the English language as their vehicle or not.

Writing is an essential component of productive language, and ELs will need to demonstrate their ability to write in English if they hope to be competitive in a globalized world . Building competency in English-language writing supports reading comprehension, vocabulary expansion, and oral fluency , so there’s so much to be gained. And even if your students don’t plan to use the lingua franca on a regular basis, the skills gleaned from learning to write in another language transfer to all facets of life, making students more aware and more effective communicators in their native language(s) .

Teaching ESL writing aids in self-expression , which might be particularly meaningful for individuals who are hesitant to express themselves verbally. You might have the next Henry David Thoreau or Gabriel García Márquez in your class!

Why do ESL students struggle with writing?

Writing in another language is no easy feat, so it’s only natural that your ESL/ EFL students encounter difficulties when asked to do so.

First, it’s essential to recognize that writing conventions differ from one language group to another . Students from various linguistic backgrounds might declare that writing in English (particularly in an academic setting) is “boring,” something they perceive as formulaic. Often, these students come from backgrounds that value writing in a way that might seem “tangential” to native English readers.

In “Cultural thought patterns in inter-cultural education,” Robert B. Kaplan (1966) put forth a model for examining written discourse patterns, which illustrates how different thought patterns influence how speakers of other languages express themselves in written form.

You can observe that English is illustrated as being very straightforward, which aligns with the directness of spoken English. Kaplan poses here that other language groups tend to branch off in different directions in written form, pulling in supporting elements that might not be directly correlated to the main idea and that present as “off-topic” for native English speakers.

Secondly, it’s crucial to keep in mind that writing requires a vocabulary lexicon that can adequately support sharing . Often, even the most proficient English learners struggle to select the language they need to convey their point. When tackling writing instruction, make sure to consider how you’re supporting vocabulary development to support the conventions you’re teaching.

Lastly (and perhaps most importantly), writing is a form of self-expression, and self-expression through writing isn’t valued the same way in all cultures . There is a great deal of value placed on sharing one’s opinions in the U.S., for example, but this is not the reality all over the world. Some of your students might have been taught that they receive and process information, but that they are not in the position to make statements of their own or have the authority to teach others. Therefore, putting their thoughts down on paper might feel formal, high-stakes even, for your students.

What are some tips for teaching ESL writing?

Regardless of the age and proficiency level of your students, or whether you’re teaching writing in an ESL or EFL classroom, there is a myriad of strategies that you have at your disposal.

Don’t underestimate the value of conducting needs assessments

When it comes down to how to teach writing skills, even if you are teaching a group that is considered a certain proficiency level, recognize that there is always going to be a range of experience and ability present. Spend time getting to know what your students have been exposed to and in what ways before deciding on your approach. Teach to the middle to ensure no one is left behind.

Check out the following sample needs assessment to get started:

Think about how you can lower learners’ affective filters

A large portion of all successful teaching comes from relationship-building. In addition to getting a true sense of your learners’ experience and abilities, try to understand their attitudes towards writing as a process and any challenges that might be borne from those attitudes. How can you increase your students’ comfort level? How can you engage the individuals sitting in front of you?

Check out these 5 ways to build rapport with your students when teaching English.

Think about how the writing task can act as a building block for other assignments

Learning how to write in another language can be intimidating, and even more so if your students don’t enjoy writing in the first place. When wondering how to teach writing to ESL/EFL students, think about how you can integrate writing more often and more seamlessly into your lesson plans. Instead of approaching writing in isolation, teach writing skills alongside other “more engaging” activities that students tend to enjoy more. Have your students participate in role-playing and storytelling activities that require writing but don’t make writing the focus of the activity. This is your chance to be sneaky and get your students to build their writing skills without even knowing!

Present opportunities to examine authentic, written language

Providing students with examples of the target language is non-negotiable, but challenge yourself to move beyond the sample texts in your curriculum where possible. Students might feel bored by the selected works in their textbooks – they need to recognize that written language is all around them. Pull from authentic texts that cover an array of topics that you know matter to your students to keep them enticed.

Try incorporating pop culture into your ESL classroom to spice up writing activities!

Lead with function over form in instruction, and then alter your focus

Students can be discouraged to find their paper covered with red ink, highlighting their fallacies. While it is important to provide corrective feedback, consider the purpose of the assignment before marking up the composition. Was the output comprehensible? Did it touch upon everything that you asked for? Focusing on both function (the purpose of the assignment) and the accuracy in form simultaneously can feel overwhelming. Choose your objectives carefully, make them known to the learners, and provide corrective feedback accordingly .

Choose writing activities that pertain to your students’ learning goals. For example, the following clip, from a BridgeUniverse Expert Series webinar , covers how to teach Business English students to write an email in English:

Consider formative assessment and reflective strategies

Whenever possible, assess student work periodically, examining the process with various checkpoints and iterations throughout, instead of just evaluating the final product. Writing is an iterative process, and students benefit greatly when offered opportunities to reflect on their process. Create opportunities for students to participate in self- and peer-revision processes, which in turn will result in more conscientious and focused writers.

What are some ESL writing activities and lesson plans for beginners?

It can feel challenging to come up with writing activities for learners with beginner proficiency, but with proper scaffolding , writing can be inclusive and participatory.

Try group writing processes in class to get students comfortable

Writers with beginner proficiency might default to a deficit mindset, believing that writing is inaccessible for them due to a dearth of vocabulary or experience, so when you start to look at how to teach writing in the ESL/EFL classroom, your first job is to inspire confidence and get students into a growth mindset. To get them comfortable with the writing process, engage them in group writing activities.

By engaging them in the writing process in this way, you are instilling habits that will aid them in writing autonomously when the time comes.

Make the most of brainstorming – both individually and with others

Have you ever had students tell you that they don’t know what to write? Students, particularly those at the beginner level, need ample time to think about the content before diving into the actual writing process . Emphasize the importance of brainstorming as a way to collect their thoughts and aid them in their writing. Engage students in different kinds of brainstorming activities, going beyond “write down what comes to mind.”

Consider Think-Pair-Share as a framework for brainstorming, where students take time to think independently about the topic, share their ideas with their peers, and then share aloud to a larger group. Typically, the sharing is done orally, but you could also consider the independent writing portion of the activity as “sharing” with a larger audience, just in written form.

What are some ESL writing activities and lesson plans for intermediate and advanced students?

Facilitate a two-way journal experience with your students.

Create a way for individual students to exchange their ideas with you in an informal way with a two-way journal . Have the students maintain a writing journal that you periodically collect to write comments and ask questions. The objective of this exchange is not to formally evaluate your students’ writing, but to gather intel about your students’ progress and connect with them as individuals. Within these exchanges, not only are you building and sustaining rapport, but you are also augmenting critical thinking and meta-cognitive skills with strategies like noticing and annotation.

Cultivate peer revision routines

Learning to write in a non-native language is as much a social process as it is a cognitive process. Involving students in peer revision activities can be incredibly beneficial in that students can learn from their peers (potentially those who are stronger writers than themselves) and develop the ability to think more critically about their own writing. While getting students to effectively participate in peer revision activities requires a lot of frontloading and the establishing of routine, it is the gift that keeps on giving. If you’re interested in facilitating peer revision with your students, consider the following as general guidelines:

Timed writing

Once your students feel comfortable with the writing process and the structure at hand, consider different contexts that they’ll be writing in. Perhaps they are planning to take the TOEFL or IELTS exam and hope to study abroad, or maybe they’re about to enter the workforce and work collaboratively with others.

In either case, your students will need to demonstrate their ability to communicate their ideas in written form while adhering to time constraints . Plan timed writing activities for your students on a variety of topics and with different parameters. In a standardized test prep context, have students write under the same conditions as the test that they’re preparing to sit for.

Take a Micro-credential course in Teaching TOEFL Test Prep or Teaching IELTS Exam Prep to help students ace these high-stakes exams.

In a workforce development setting, illustrate a scenario in which an email from management warrants an urgent (and polished) response. In either context, examine the output and discuss strategies that the students used. Student output from timed activities provides fertile ground for examining accuracy in form. Walk students through noticing activities, and challenge them to remember their tendencies in subsequent timed writing tasks.

Teaching writing to ESL/EFL students requires commitment and perhaps a bit of innovation on the part of the teacher, but if done well, it can prove immensely useful in a globalized world, aiding individuals in self-expression and beyond.

In addition to writing, there’s another subject that can sometimes fill teachers with dread: grammar! Here are 7 simple strategies for teaching grammar to English language learners , so you can tackle this topic with confidence .

Post by shelynn riel.

Shélynn Riel is Bridge's Expert Series Moderator and regularly contributes articles and ELT news reports to the BridgeUniverse blog. She has served as an English language instructor for over a decade, a program coordinator in both university and community-based programs, and an English Language Fellow with the U.S. Department of State. Her interests include holistic teacher development, learner identity, and decolonial ethics in the language classroom. She is the co-creator of The Teacher Think-Aloud Podcast, which focuses on reflective practices for teachers around the world.

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8 Tips for Teaching ESL Writing

teaching writing esl

One of the ways that ESL students measure their own success is by how error-free their language is. This can make ESL writing, where mistakes are highlighted in bright red pen, discouraging. Students who thought they were doing well and who were receiving praise for their spoken language may flounder when it comes to written language, causing them to disengage during writing exercises. 

Why does ESL writing feel harder than ESL speaking for some students? 

Mistakes are harder to overlook when they’re written out. When your students speak, they can use gestures and body language to make their meaning clear. When they write, those context clues are missing. Written language tends to be more formal than spoken language as well, with less room for the use of slang or dialectic choices. When ESL students are speaking, they can often make it clear what they’re saying even if they don’t use the perfect part of speech. As a rule, writing is much less forgiving. 

How do you overcome these hurdles? In this article, we’ll give you some tips on how to approach teaching writing to ESL students that will help you bridge the gap between speaking and writing.

1. Develop Your Lesson Plans

When teaching a subject, your first step should be developing a lesson plan. That’s true for ESL topics as well. It’s a good idea to start by quizzing students on what they already know so you can determine where the lesson needs to begin. You’ll need to gauge what they should know by the end of your time with them. You may have already been given a set of learning outcomes by your school, but if not, you’ll have to come up with your own. 

2. Start from the Ground Up

Unless your students have demonstrated they understand a specific writing skill, never assume they know it. Remember that each of your students is coming from a different point in their ESL journey. Start with the most basic concepts and build from there. If some of your students are lagging behind others, consider offering after-hours study sessions to help them catch up. 

3. Motivate Your Students

Sometimes, you’ll come across students who seem disinterested in learning ESL writing. Reaching students who aren’t motivated is one of the biggest challenges that teachers face. When you’re struggling to find a way to motivate your students, one of the best things you can do is try to look at the lesson from their point of view. 

4. Implement Practice

The only way for students to get better at writing is to write. You can lecture your students on techniques until you’re blue in the face, but until they practice those skills, there won’t be a difference. That’s why it’s important to get your students in the habit of practicing their writing daily. Tips for incorporating writing practice into your lessons include: 

5. Encourage Them to Write What They Know

When you’re teaching ESL writing, you’re likely to have better participation if you ask students to write about things that they’re passionate about.  They’ll love feeling like an expert, and it will motivate them to work harder. This also helps students understand how their writing is relevant to them.

6. Let Them Collaborate

An article published in TESOL Quarterly reported that allowing students to work with peers and review each other’s work can increase English language competencies . As students work with one another, they discuss their writing and are encouraged to revise it. This gives them an opportunity to connect their thoughts and their writing at a deeper level and learn to locate and correct their mistakes. 

The key to successful peer reviews is getting students engaged in the editing process. If students don’t care about editing, they’ll just give responses like “It’s good” or “I don’t like it,” which don’t help anyone. Educating your students on the importance of editing sets them up for successful peer reviews and will provide them another will valuable, actionable critiques.

7. Refer to the Three Pillars of Writing

There are three cornerstones of writing that any ESL writing instructor has to focus on: spelling, vocabulary and grammar. Keeping in mind these three pillars of writing can help you find a way to break through when students are having a hard time. Do you need to help them locate the words to communicate their ideas or just help them put the right words down on paper? They’re two different problems that require two different solutions. 

8. Incorporate Games

Games are a great way to keep your students both learning and engaged. Here are a few easy games that can help your students learn the three pillars of writing: 

Games to Learn Spelling

Games to Learn Grammar

If you are a current educator who can see yourself teaching in an ESL classroom, you can prepare for your new career right now through an online master of education in TESOL . This degree prepares students to teach English as a Second Language in K-12 settings, refugee centers and educational institutions around the world.

Concordia University of Nebraska’s program is designed with working students in mind. Our 36-credit online degree can be completed on a timeline that works for you, so you can advance your career at a pace that fits into your busy life. We offer two options for scheduling, traditional and accelerated. Traditional-progression students will take one course at a time and can complete their degree program in 24 months. Fast Track candidates have the option of doubling up courses at three specific times and can complete this program in as little as 18 months.

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teaching writing esl

How to Teach Writing to ESL Students

The following is an Off2Class guest post by well-known ESL materials writer and teacher Frank Bonkowski. Here he breaks down how to teach writing to ESL students. More info on Frank can be found at the bottom of the post. Meanwhile, take it away, Frank!

Introduction: Let’s Talk Writing

I am both a classroom ESL teacher and a teacher trainer. In the classroom, I teach the four language skills –- listening, reading, speaking and writing – to young-adult upper-level ESL level language learners.  I also show English language teachers how to teach writing to ESL students with my online professional development course.

When I talk about writing to learners, I like to compare it to swimming. What does swimming have to do with writing? I am a swimmer, so I know how hard it is to swim well. I am a writer too and it is just as difficult for me to write well. Fortunately, I am a better writer than I am a swimmer.

How to Teach Writing to ESL Students

According to psychologists, human beings easily learn how to walk and talk; learning to swim and write well is another matter. According to one expert, “Swimming and writing are culturally specific, learned behaviors.” We need to be taught how to swim and write.

Before I talk about how I teach writing, I’d like to give a few reasons why teaching writing – particularly academic writing – is so important for learners.  Then I’ll explore briefly the kind of language used in writing, whether it is expository, narrative or descriptive . I’ll follow that up with an overview of the five features of good writing.  

Finally, I’ll share a simple activity I use in my very first class with ESL learners.

Why Teach Writing

If you are an English language teacher in today’s language classroom, you know from experience the importance of teaching academic language as well as academic writing. It has become an important part of the curriculum. Research shows that academic English is a necessity for English language learners at any level for achieving success both inside and outside the classroom.

However, attaining language proficiency is a long process. It takes three to five years to become orally proficient in English, and four to seven years to become proficient in academic English.

Teach Writing to ESL Students

It is not surprising that good reading and writing skills predict academic success. Having these essential skills motivates learners to stay in the classroom and not drop out. Not all English language learners will go on to higher education. However, equipped with these two skills, learners will be better able to participate more fully in society.

Other great reasons to teach writing to ESL students in the classroom include:

What Kind of English is used to Teach Writing?

One of the first things I do in my classes is remind students about the distinction between conversational English and academic English. Most of my students are able to communicate orally in English at a high level. However, when it comes to writing many are indeed less proficient.

Academic writing requires rich, meaningful content as well as linguistically complex language.  Writing well is such a challenging task involving so many skills. Students have to:

Woman writing

It is no wonder that teachers find it so difficult to teach writing – and learners so difficult to master. Let’s now move on the features of good writing.

Five Elements of Good Writing

Here is a brief overview of the five features that are the foundation of effective writing. First, focus your text. Second, organize your ideas. Third, support your ideas with examples. Then, use appropriate style, and finally, use correct language.

1. Focus your text

A  writer needs to establish a focus.  So a good essay, whether it is expository, narrative or descriptive:

I find students need help in formulating a proper thesis statement or main idea, which in fact is the foundation of any good essay.

2. Organize your ideas

This is the second element of good writing. The essay needs to have an effective beginning, middle, and end.

Just as your kitchen needs to be well organized to make a great meal, a student essay needs to be well structured to communicate ideas effectively.

A good essay needs to:

3. Support the main idea with examples

Craftsmen need quality tools to produce good work. So too students need to support their main idea by:

4. Use an appropriate style

A Halloween costume is great fun at a party. But it is not quite appropriate to wear to English class.  It’s the same for good writing; you need to use appropriate style.

Effective essay writing needs to:

5. Use correct language

Good writing needs to be error-free.  Spelling, grammar, or punctuation mistakes detracts from the quality of any essay.

So in their writing learners need to:

Sample 2 Class Writing Activity

Now we’ll give you an excellent 2 class activity to teach writing to ESL students:

Teach Writing to ESL Students

Writing Activity for Class 1

In the very first class I teach, I engage learners by telling learners my name. I mention something interesting about myself – that I am I a triathlete for example. I then follow that up by asking learners to say their name and something special about themselves to help me remember their names. The activity doesn’t stop there; I continue with a speaking activity and a writing activity. I have students do a paired speaking activity using G.A.I.N.S. – an acronym explained below – and then a writing activity in which they write a short paragraph. Since my first class takes place partly in a language lab,  I have students post the text on their personal English class blog – which they have previously created using Blogger.com.

I explain that G.A.I.N.S. is an ice-breaking activity that you can use to get to know another person better:

G stands for goals, either short-term, mid-term or long-term.

A stands for achievements, whether they be small, like to stop smoking or bigger, like to earn a lifeguard certificate.

I stands for interests or hobbies.

N stands for social network, which students can relate to once I mention Facebook.

S stands for skills such as musical talents or mathematical abilities.

Before learners begin the paired speaking activity, I ask them to choose one of the letters, sit quietly with a pen and paper, and write notes about themselves. Then I ask learners to interview another student about their G.A.I.N.S. letter and take notes about that student. Finally, I ask learners to write about the student they interviewed. I tell learners to take on the role of a reporter for a young adult magazine.

Here are the role-pay instructions that I give them:

As you can see, from the very first class, I introduce learners to the first four elements of effective writing: focus your text, organize your ideas, support your main idea with examples, and use an appropriate style for a magazine.

Writing Activity for Class 2

In a follow-up class, I have students review and revise their text after they have received comments from me. I introduce learners to the Virtual Writing Tutor , a grammar and spelling correction tool. This activity stresses the importance of using correct language, the last element of good writing. Here are the instructions I give students:

Use the Virtual Writing Tutor to:

– correct any grammar, punctuation and spelling errors. Indicate the corrections with color.

– analyze the conversational and academic language you use as well as the power words you use.

I hope my primer on teaching writing has given you ideas to teach writing to ESL students. If you want more information about how I teach writing or how I use a blog, please contact me at [email protected]

Frank Bonkowski

Frank Bonkowski, co-author of nine ESL textbooks, has been a best-selling materials writer for over 30 years. He has been teaching English second language learners all his professional teaching career. Frank has self-published online ESL courses for learners at https://frankbonkowski.com/esl-learners/ . He has also created a university 3-credit online teacher training course for teaching academic writing at https://frankbonkowski.com/esl-teachers/ Frank presently teaches at Cégep de Saint-Laurent, a francophone college in Montréal.

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Abiodun Ogunkeye says:

April 25, 2019 at 2:47 pm

Thank you so much Mr Frank.I am a female Nigerian Primary school teacher who has been teaching English and creative writing to children for about 26 years and reading through your writing is more of great help to me as school will resume next week.I will save this and read through again .I will surely revise with the children using your writing techniques.Thank you for sharing.

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Francis Bonkowski says:

April 26, 2019 at 3:37 pm

Hello Abiodun, I am so happy you find the information in the post useful for your teaching. For more helpful tips and strategies, you may want to subscribe to my newsletter at frankbonkowski.com. Best of luck in your teaching. Frank Bonkowski

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C. Yolanda Anderson says:

May 24, 2019 at 11:20 pm

This article is pact with useful information to guide me in teaching English. Thank you so much for sharing, Mr. Bonkowski. I will certainly be referring to the content in the future.

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Chris says:

May 27, 2019 at 11:36 am

So glad that you enjoyed it. I agree, he wrote a great article!

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7 Powerful Writing Skills That Will Give Your ESL Students an Edge

Your ESL students need to keep their English skills sharp at all times.

Otherwise, writing English will be as frustrating as cutting veggies with a dull blade.

It’s time for your students to put pen to paper and explore their creative sides .

Arming your students with writing skills can open up a whole new world for them.

Maybe they aspire to be novelists, bloggers or play around with words in poetry.

Or maybe they would aspire to these things if given the chance.

It’s up to you to give them that chance.

Let them explore all their English potential .

By integrating some key writing skills into your lesson plans , you’ll give them the ability to make writing a part of their lives, and you’ll enhance their understanding of other aspects of the language, too.

Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)

The Importance of Teaching Writing Skills in ESL

Writing is often overlooked in ESL teaching and learning. At a beginning level, it may be seen as a task for the intermediate and advanced stages. Students will also shy away from writing due to its many complicated rules, structures and idiosyncrasies.

However, placing importance on English writing skills is essential and has long-term benefits.

Your students will appreciate you putting English writing skills into your syllabus. Writing skills will be useful to them in a variety of situations and can help them develop a more well-rounded English skill set. Writing is even something they can fall back on in the event of a communication breakdown in an English-speaking country.

It’s important for you to encourage your students to think about writing through well-developed writing lesson plans. With a slight nudge and some guidance, they can take newly discovered vocabulary and grammar and use it to craft structured paragraphs in many different writing styles.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.

How to Build an ESL Lesson Plan Around Writing Skills

When it’s time for writing lessons, your students should have already read and discussed topics in class. Make sure they have a good grasp on the spelling and vocabulary surrounding the writing topic, with a little grammar thrown into the mix for added confidence. You may be surprised how the ABCs slip away from even the most advanced English student.

For optimal results in your ESL writing lessons, think about the structure you plan to use when presenting the material. Structure is one of the essential parts of your success as an ESL teacher. Leave nothing to interpretation when presenting your writing material and tasks.

Make sure that your students are 100% clear on what they need to write about, as well as in what format and for how long. Ask yourself if the material is sufficient to complete the task, if your students are clear on the intended audience and if the material is relevant to them. No one wants to write about something they have no interest in, and that’s a fact.

1. Building on What They Already Know

Instead of having your students jump into the vast seas of writing all at once, teach them to strengthen their writing bit by bit. Teach them the skill of building their writing around what they already know.

Their vocabulary doesn’t need to be anything special. You can start them off small and teach them how to build as they go. Encourage a little writing in every class , whether it be note taking, dictation of a few sentences or a short paragraph about their weekend. Let them try it out. You may be surprised at what they create.

Building confidence in note taking will create ample opportunities for your students to practice writing. They can copy what you’ve written on the board or any important information you’ve presented. Clue your students in to the importance of using writing as a tool and explain how much easier it will be for them later on if they take a few notes from time to time.

2. Forming Sentences

Forming sentences is quite possibly the most important writing skill. It’s the foundation to all that is writing. Without properly formed sentences, there are no topic sentences, no supporting sentences and no paragraphs. Structure isn’t even approachable. The sentence is the glue that keeps all other aspects of writing together.

So what is a sentence? Essentially, it’s a noun and verb with a bunch of other additives. Think of a sentence like an entrée on a menu. The main ingredients are listed, but the rest are in the background, unseen.

These unseen details are important, but showing your students the meat and potatoes first will help them look at sentences with a better trained eye.

With the verb and noun in plain view , you can gradually introduce those unseen, often overlooked spices and herbs that make the sentence a real sentence, the final product. Eventually introducing the importance and usage of capital letters, punctuation, periods, question marks, quotations and other sentence spices will allow them to see how it all works.

Presenting all this new sentence structure information to your students can be a simple and fun process. Using examples in your presentation, along with practice, will allow your students to start seeing and developing sentences.

Here’s one exercise you can do: Start writing a sentence on the board. Let them yell out a verb and noun to help construct the sentence as you’re going. Once constructed and in view, deconstruct it, together. Analyze the reasons behind, for example, the adjective being placed in front of the noun or the verb behind.

Dive deep into the punctuation and let them see the ins and outs before having them practice forming sentences on their own.

Implement communication within sentence lessons so they can get some speaking practice while learning to write. No student, young or old, wants to hear the material and then sit in silence writing. They want to communicate about the new material they’re learning.

After they get the hang of creating sentences, you can mix things up by presenting them with challenging questions or asking for longer sentences with more detail and depth. Keep them enthused about forming sentences and they’ll continue to build confidence and comprehension in this skill area.

3. Building Coherent Paragraphs

Once your students have a solid understanding of how to create proper sentences, you can move them into paragraphs. Showing your students how to construct paragraphs will give them a lifelong skill they’ll use in everyday life as well as professional ventures.

It may be a good idea to separate sentence construction and paragraph building into two or three separate lessons. Make sure they have a very good handle on sentences before moving forward. Otherwise, you’ll spend half the class time backtracking.

In most paragraphs, the topic sentence is at the beginning, summing up what the paragraph will cover. Following that are the supporting sentences, covering the thoughts and ideas that hold the topic sentence in place, giving it validity and weight. Explain the structure of a paragraph to your students and let them see a visual of this structure on the board or in a handout.

You can then give them examples of a topic sentence and a few supporting sentences before letting them give their own paragraph-building a shot. Good visuals and easy-to-understand directions will go a long way in this crucial area of ESL writing lessons.

You can also touch on some key linking words we use to combine two sentences together. Here are some examples your students will be able to easily learn and understand:

These words will help them make their sentences more coherent with a nice readable flow.

4. Communicating and Collaborating in Writing

Incorporating communicative learning into your ESL writing lesson will foster creativity and confidence in your students. They’ll have a solid understanding of what they need to do when communicative learning is implemented prior to writing.

Letting your students openly discuss the writing topic with you and their classmates is a great warm-up activity. It’s exciting, and it allows them to generate fun, interesting ideas while learning the value of collaboration.

A great communicative technique is to break up the class into groups or pairs, depending on size, and let them work out some of the writing topic details together. Brainstorming is one of the most important aspects within writing and your students can build on their writing through discussion.

You can also allow some class time for presentations on what each pair or group has come up with. This can lead to a collective brainstorming as students share their thoughts and ideas with everyone. Communicative tasks are always great in any ESL lesson, so don’t forget to use it in your ESL writing lesson plans!

5. Choosing Writing Topics

You’ll always need to present writing topics  in a way that’s effective, concise and fun for your students. An exciting presentation of writing topics will lead to a cascade of enthusiasm with eager students ready to write at the drop of a hat. Furthermore, making them part of the process will teach them to choose topics for themselves and open up future ideas and possibilities for writing.

Utilizing short personal stories to present a topic is great. Visuals such as pictures or short videos can also be effective, but make sure that the videos will be relevant and at the right level for your students.

Another great strategy you can implement into your lesson is to present a broad topic and give your students the opportunity to shout out related words as you write them on the board. This gets them directly involved in the presentation and they can begin to build creative ideas about what words they’ll use to construct their sentences.

6. Understanding Writing Structures

As a teacher, you know the importance of structure when developing your lesson plans, so let your students in on the secret! They’ll appreciate as much information regarding structure as you can give them.

Show them how to develop an outline that will make their writing easier when it comes time to create an introduction, body and conclusion. Emphasize that a good outline can save them time thinking of what to write next, giving them a flow that will keep them confident and prevent midstream writer’s block.

It’s essential that you think about the material you’ll need in order to convey the multiple possible writing structures involved in writing. You can develop a structure together, with you writing on the board and your students taking notes. Or you can utilize a workable student handout. Either way is great, but the handout could be more effective for the first few writing tasks. The student handout will provide a set structure for your students to follow.

Including a section for topic sentences and supporting sentences will keep their writing minds organized and focused.

In English writing, there are many forms and styles to suit different writing scenarios and needs. Teaching students a basic structure (introduction, body, conclusion) before you put a label on any one structure is best, but the time will come when they’ll be hungry for more.

Each lesson can incorporate a new topic and writing style for them to learn. For example:

Build on structure basics piece by piece, giving your students more challenging tasks as they progress into exceptional English writing.

7. Understanding Formal vs. Informal Writing

As your students progress into well-crafted writing, you’ll want to move them toward understanding the difference between formal vs. informal writing. Depending on the students’ ages, levels and interests, understanding formal and informal writing styles could be incredibly useful.

Granted, the young learner may not need this information for some time, so know your students and gauge what’s most important for them.

Here are some key points to present when teaching a formal writing style to your students:

Here are some key points for informal writing:

With a little planning and brainstorming, you can create exceptional, exciting and encouraging writing lessons to teach your students essential writing skills.

It’s important to remember that the structure in your lesson plans is just as important as the structure you teach in your ESL writing lessons, and your students will learn by example.

Be creative, be engaging, and your students will follow your lead into excellent English writing.

Stephen Seifert  is a writer, editor, professor of English and adventurer. With over 7 years of teaching experience to students worldwide, he enjoys the many aspects of culture and traditions different from his own. Stephen continues his search for writing inspiration, boldly enjoying life to the fullest.

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teaching writing esl

Simply Ieva

How to Teach the Basics of Writing to ESL Students

In my previous post I talked about the ESL newcomer curriculum and even earlier – t opics to cover when you have and absolute beginner ESL student. But I just realized that none of those tips covered writing in greater detail!

So let’s not waste any more time – here are some ideas on how to teach writing to ESL beginners.

Here is what you will learn in this blog post:

Sentence structure

Parts of speech

Punctuation and capitalization.

Writing practice activities

teaching writing esl

Start with the basics

Imagine yourself in a situation when you are just starting out to learn a new language. You literally know nothing – words make no sense, reading is all jumbled, writing is strange. With this knowledge in mind, you can begin planning your writing instruction for ESL beginners.

In order for someone to be able to produce writing, they need to know the alphabet and how those letters and sounds form words, which later turn into sentences.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when teaching the alphabet:

In English, the vowel has the power. It is important to teach ESL beginners (yes, even older ones. Actually, especially older ones!) the alphabet and the variations in the sounds that the letters make. Some languages do not place as huge a significance on vowels or the words are pronounced pretty much as they are written.  

Others have an entirely different alphabet (Asian languages such as Chinese, Japanese; Middle Eastern – Arabic, Hebrew; Cyrillic – Russian, Greek). Therefore, in order to begin writing your ESL beginners will need to pay extra special attention to the alphabet.

If the students are very young or have never gone to school (and are older), knowing what sounds are represented by letters, which are then combined into words and later sentences is crucial.

Writing direction matters. Keep in mind that even when students advance in their English learning journey, expect that they may revert to what comes naturally to them.

Teach sentence structure for good writing

The basic sentence structure of the English language is a subject + a verb.

For example:

They speak.

The next step is the subject + verb + object format. For example, I read a book. This sentence type has many varieties but beginning with simple sentences  allows the students to internalize the rhythm of the language.

When teaching ESL beginners, keep in mind that other languages may follow a different pattern than translates into English, at least in the beginning.

Here is a great sentence structure activity that can be practiced with students of all ages and grade levels.

Since English follows a strict word order, it is important for us to teach the students parts of speech and where to place them in a sentence when writing.  

When teaching beginners – whether it be writing or speaking – we always start with the words that carry the most important information. These are nouns (who?) and verbs (what are they doing/do/did/have done/will do?)

We then move into the descriptions about how things look, taste, smell or feel. These are the adjectives, which add the flavor to both speaking and writing. Adverbs, words that describe a quality of a verb, come later.

That said, practicing parts of speech does not have to be complicated. Every time your students learn new words, you can have a running table that looks like this:

The students can place the words in each of the categories and then use those words in writing their own sentences.

Those students whose language backgrounds are similar to English usually grasp the concept of punctuation and capitalization fairly quickly.

For others, starting writing with a capital letter and placing a period, question mark or an exclamation point at the end might be a novel idea. They may have never learned it, never internalized it or their language has different rules (such as symbols instead of letters).

In any case, explaining the basic rule that a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a punctuation mark such as a period, etc. will go a long way.

You can then keep the students accountable for that and also build on it. For example, capitalizing proper nouns, doing reported speech using quotation marks and commas. But the basics will already be there.

Practice writing

Beginner ESL students are learning new words all day, every day. Even when they are not presented by you in a list. Utilize their newly gained knowledge by practicing writing!

It is easy for us to get carried away with writing a persuasive paragraph or a 5 paragraph essay.

Writing is a productive skill and takes time. Build students’ confidence little by little, but consistently.

If you are at a loss of where to start with the ESL beginner, check out WIDA CAN DO descriptors for levels 1 and 2. You will see that ESL beginners/newcomers in most grades are able to label, list, communicate through drawings and reproduce content area words.

Writing activities for ESL beginners

Writing about self

This type of writing is the most relatable topic they can write about almost immediately.

Provide sentence frames so they can only plug in single words and phrases (which is where they are at right now)

Provide word banks with nouns and simple verbs (remember the table I mentioned earlier? That should come in really handy now!)

Think about what they like and places they have been to or would like to visit

Here are a few writing topics to consider:

Sports (soccer, tennis, basketball,etc.)

Food/drink (coffee/tea, cookies, water, etc.)

Places (school, home, office, home country, etc.) Check out this activity that can be used for both speaking and writing !

Writing about another person

This activity allows your students to practice writing using pronouns and adjectives as well as the simple verb “to be”.

Students can do the following:

Draw a person and label

Fill-in-the blank utilizing a word bank

Students have the basic sentence starters and use the word banks.

Describe an object

This activity builds on adjective use and expand the vocabulary into shapes, colors and textures.

Like with nouns and verbs, you can have a similar table displayed that they can refer to while writing.

teaching writing esl

Other writing activities for ESL beginners

The next couple of activities utilize writing a paragraph because the students have already acquired the basics of writing.

Before you embark on writing a paragraph, make sure your students know the paragraph writing format. Here is a full teacher presentation and practice for students to get you going.

A simple paragraph can be about anything, really.

First of all, we need to teach the basic paragraph structure (which is a whole other topic for another blog post).

Topics can vary from favorite time of year to any other theme that the students can connect with.

Note: your students’ age will dictate the topic choices (from favorite teddy bear to my dream car)

Have you ever received a postcard from a friend? I love them! My sister always sends me one whenever she travels and I have them displayed where I can see.

Whenever I travel, I get requests from friends and family for a card from that place.

This is a wonderful opportunity for all age groups to bring their culture and life into the lesson.

You can try a penpal system to allow students to experience real-life writing. It is wonderful to receive a postcard from a place that they think is so distant and unreachable.

Writing an email

Email has taken over many other forms of writing. However, you will be surprised how many people still do not know how to write it properly.

It is important to teach your students that there is a structure to an email, just like to any other form of writing. It does not have to be fancy, but it must convey what the writer wants the reader to know.

I encourage my older students to email me and other teachers with any questions or ideas. It is a fantasti real-life practice.

Thank you note

In America, a thank-you note is something that is expected. In other cultures, not so much. For example, it may be that the students’ culture places higher importance on thanking someone in person right there and then.

However, it is nice to receive a thank you note and as I mentioned earlier, in certain situations in America, it is expected that you will write one.

This is another great real-life writing practice as well as very practical.

I am including a video with even more tips on how you can teach writing to beginners.

Still have more questions than answers? Check out  The ESL Teaching Roadmap  – from curriculum guides and ready-made lessons to engaged community and personalized coaching =>  The ESL Teaching Roadmap

How do you teach writing to your ESL students? Share in the comments below!

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Improving writing skills: ells and the joy of writing, on this page, how to differentiate writing activities:.

"The meaning of even a single word is rather more complex than one might imagine."

- Editors of the American Heritage Dictionary, 1980, p. viii

"Teacher, do we need our pencils today?" my Puerto Rican elementary students would urgently ask when I came to their classroom to escort them to my English as a Second Language classroom. I was a student teacher in a Massachusetts elementary school, and it took me awhile to figure out the correlation between the pencil and hallway behavior. If I replied, "Yes, you should bring a pencil," the walk to my classroom took 15 minutes and involved a lot of disruptions, student squabbles, drifting students and other various misbehaviors. As a student teacher, I was very focused on keeping order and creating a challenging learning environment. If I replied, "No, you don't need a pencil today," the walk to my classroom took about five minutes, even with a stop at the drinking fountain.

So, what was the correlation? Writing. The students knew that if they had to bring a pencil they would have to do writing in the class, and they dreaded it. If they didn't need a pencil, we would be working on projects or doing more verbal work, and they liked that. What they weren't expecting was that half-way through my student teaching, I bought 10 boxes of pencils and kept them in my classroom, so they never had to bring a pencil to class — I had plenty to go around. This improved the hallway behavior, but still left me with the question of how to improve ESL student writing when they were frustrated by the practice and went to great lengths to avoid it.

I have been teaching ESL for many years and there is no perfect solution to this problem; however, I do believe I have added quite a few writing activities to my bag of tricks and improved my ability to differentiate writing tasks based on student ability. As I improved my ability to ensure that each student would be successful in the writing activity, their confidence increased, and they were less likely to engage in disruptive behavior. You know what I'm talking about — the long, dramatic search for a pencil… and then paper… or the meandering walk about the room to get yesterday's writing draft, or the ever popular, "15 minute pencil sharpening" session. I hope some of the writing activities I share with you will help you to reduce anxiety in your ESL students and increase their language and writing skills.

There is a very important correlation between writing and language development. As students develop language skills, they often develop listening skills first (lots of input they can understand), then speaking (they begin to formulate their ideas in the second language), then reading (they can understand the sound/symbol correspondence of the new language and make sense of the words) and finally writing (they have enough language to express their own ideas in writing). This is not true for 100% of language learners, but it is true for the majority of them. Why is writing often the last skill to emerge? It almost seems that reading would be more difficult because the student needs to sound out words and understand the author's message. It would seem writing might be easier because students are sharing their own ideas already in their heads and simply putting them on paper. However, writing requires a lot more processing of language in order to produce a message.

First the student must have an idea, then think of the appropriate way to say it, then start to write it and spell it correctly, and then create another sentence to continue to communicate the idea. If we add the students' worry that they are making huge, embarrassing errors or that their ideas aren't very good in the first place, then we begin to understand the complexity involved in writing in a second language. In fact, the way we communicate, or the way students put their ideas on paper, is largely influenced by their culture. In some of my classes, my Asian students were very confused when I told them to revise their writing because this was a "first draft." In their experience they had always written an item once and submitted it as "the final," and then the teacher would correct it. The idea that they had to write it over again didn't make sense to them. Students from other cultures may have developed a storytelling style that involves laying out a lot of background information and detail and takes quite a while to get to the point. In most western writing, we expect a topic sentence or a lead paragraph that will tell us what the point is, and then everything written after that leads to a direct conclusion. Many of my students had great difficulty connecting their ideas this way.

With that said, teachers have a big task in improving ESL student writing skills, but the payoff for instructional dedication can be great. A researcher on adolescent literacy at the University of Minnesota, David O'Brien, did a study on improving the reading skills of adolescent students. All of the students were involved in a six week study and during that time they were responsible for creating brochures and other types of communication on computers. They had criteria to input a certain amount of text and graphics to create a final project. This required lots of thought and revisions to achieve the final result. At the end of the six weeks the students took a reading test and the majority of them had improved their reading skills significantly. This was a very interesting result, considering that the teachers had not focused on teaching reading skills. The conclusion was that students used meta-cognition to process language and work with it in a more meaningful way, so that consequently their reading skills improved even though they were mostly working on writing.

Additional positive academic results have been seen in the "90 90 90 Schools." These are schools that researchers have identified as 90% poverty, 90% students of color and 90% achieving standards. This is a most remarkable combination in the educational world. The researchers examined these schools and found one common denominator among them — they all focused on developing writing skills. Each school had an agreed upon writing curriculum and methodology that was used at all grade levels, and student writing was prominently displayed throughout the building and in classrooms. Students used writing in all content areas to demonstrate academic concepts learned. In the end, 90% of the students in these schools were able to pass state grade-level tests based on the academic standards.

Now that I have hopefully convinced you that all your hard work will pay off, I would like to introduce some effective writing activities. I would like to acknowledge that there are many types of effective writing instruction used in classrooms today, including process writing, graphic organizers as writing planning tools, vocabulary stretchers, etc… and all of those are beneficial to ELL students. For the purpose of this article, I will focus on a few writing activities that I think are particularly useful when working with students with a wide-range of English language skills.

With some pre-planning, a teacher can create a writing assignment that will allow every student to be successful. For example, the teacher may give a writing assignment that has A, B and C levels (or they can be number or color-coded).

Language Experience Approach

The Language Experience Approach draws on instructional techniques used with younger children who have not yet developed literacy skills. In this approach, the teacher presents information to the students, or they have an "experience" of some sort — for example, a field trip, or acting out a scene in a book. Then the students tell the teacher what to write on the board to explain the experience. This may be useful as an activity for a volunteer or teacher's aide to use with a small group of ESL students during literacy time. Here are the steps.

After this activity, usually even beginning-level ELL students are able to read the story to others because it was their experience, it is in their own words, and they have worked with the text in a meaningful way.

Sentence Auction

This activity helps students analyze common writing errors through a personalized activity since they are trying to buy their own sentences. Once a week or once a month, a teacher can hold a "Sentence Auction." The teacher takes sentence examples from student writing — some of which have errors and some that don't, and writes them on a handout or overhead projector. The identity of the student who wrote each sentence is not revealed. To begin the sentence auction, each student is given an "account" of perhaps $300. The students are told to "bid" on the good sentences. The winner is the student with the highest number of "good" sentences.

Error correction

I have never "corrected" my students' writing mistakes, at least not in the traditional way. I have always told my students, "If I correct your English, I improve my English; if you correct your English, you improve yours." I handled corrections in one of two ways: either I identified what errors I would be looking for in the writing submission or I told them I would only circle five errors in the whole paper. If I pre-set the errors I would look for, for example correct use of past tense, I would only correct past tense errors, even if I saw other glaring errors in the paper. Sometimes this was hard to do, but I wanted to maintain the students' focus on the writing improvement we were working on. If I set a number of errors I would circle, for example, five, then I carefully chose those five and ignored the rest. When I returned the papers, the students were responsible for correcting their own mistakes. If they weren't sure how to do it, they could check with a classmate, and if no one knew, then I would assist. Invariably the students would ask, "Are these the only errors in the paper?" and I would tell them no. They might be disappointed, but they came to understand the value of correcting their own errors when they submitted a piece of writing.

Quick Write

One of the challenges for ELL students when they approach writing is their anxiety about writing their ideas correctly and writing a lot of information in English. This may feel overwhelming when a student is assigned an essay. In order to get students comfortable with the idea of just putting ideas on paper and not worrying about mistakes, we do regular "quick writes." For "quick writes" I give the students a topic and then tell them to write as much as they can for five minutes. They need to keep their pencils on the paper and even if they can't think of anything to write or they are worried about how to spell things, they are supposed to keep writing. At the end of five minutes, the students count how many words they were able to write and they keep track in a log. The objective is that they will see progress in the amount of writing they are able to do in five minutes' time and hopefully apply this fluency to their essay writing.

Cinquain poems

Cinquain poems offer great flexibility in working with ELL students of a variety of language levels. The basic Cinquain formula is as follows, but teachers can modify it as needed according to the student language level.

One noun Two adjectives Three gerunds (words + ing) A short sentence. A one-word summary

An example of a Cinquain a student might write:

Home Warm, happy Loving, welcoming, helping People you love. Family

There really is no wrong way to do a Cinquain, students can put key vocabulary words together any way they like to create the message they desire. Teachers may want to use Cinquains to reinforce new content vocabulary and concepts as well.

With these writing activities to try in your classroom, the only thing left is to buy a few boxes of pencils, hand them out to your ELL students and help them discover the possibility of joy in writing. Teachers who use a variety of activities and strategies to help ELL students become comfortable with expressing their ideas in a new language and finding success with small writing tasks, will give their students' confidence for a lifetime of self-expression. I offer this Cinquain poem to sum it up.

Writing Fun, creative Thinking, sharing, revising Lots of ideas. Proud

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This site lets you create your own handouts of words that students can practice writing. The paper is lined and the word is outlined in small dot print. Good for ELL students developing initial literacy skills.

ReadWriteThink: Comic Creator

ReadWriteThink offers a variety of fun, interactive writing activities, including the Comic Creator. Students can fill in comics with their own words and storylines.

PIZZAZ: Cinquain poems

A poetry site designed to assist instruction of ESL students in poetry and other creative writing forms. The site has links and detailed information on poetry such as Cinquain, Diamante, Haiku and Limericks. It also has further information on other types of creative writing and tips for instruction.

TeacherVision: Language Arts Graphic Organizers

These graphic organizers can be used to prepare for a five-paragraph essay, organize sentences in a paragraph, map concepts and events, compare topics with a Venn Diagram, organize notes for a presentation, create a double-entry journal, and much more.

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How To Write replied on Thu, 2010-12-09 11:19 Permalink

Thanks for sharing useful ideas out of your personal experience. I really enjoyed reading the sentence auction activity and would share it with a friend who is teaching English at some local school; I am sure her students will benefit a great deal with this writing technique.

Patricia replied on Fri, 2011-10-21 09:56 Permalink

I enjoyed your personal experience and it is very helpful. Way to be creative and go the extra mile for ESL students. I knew about the LEA but never even considered using it to help with paper formatting for ESL. I also love the poem. Great idea and allows for the students to comfortably use their creative side.

Sarath replied on Sat, 2013-03-16 04:59 Permalink

Sharing your experience in helping learners improve writing skills seems informative and useful. Thank you.

herlina purnama... replied on Fri, 2013-07-05 04:04 Permalink

七み么れ长 丫口び for this blog,, it's very help me, it's make me easy to my thesis, I didn't confius again..

Frankie Han replied on Sun, 2014-09-14 12:16 Permalink

I do enjoy your personal experience in teaching or training experience. These ideas have raised my teaching up after trying out for a long time with boring traditional ways and sometimes I lost my patience when facing students' works. Many thanks. Many thanks!

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teaching writing esl

Children's Writing in ESL

teaching writing esl

Children whose native language is not English are present in ever increasing numbers in elementary schools in the United States. Educators, therefore, must provide opportunities for these learners to develop English- as-a-second-language (ESL) skills and to learn school content-area material.

In elementary schools, particular emphasis has recently been placed on helping ESL learners become more proficient writers of English to ensure their academic success in English language classrooms (Allen, 1986; Rigg and Enright, 1986; Urzua, 1987).

What do we know about how ESL children develop as writers?

Studies of the writing development of native speakers influenced other researchers to investigate the writing development of second language learners. The following conclusions may be made about ESL children's writing development (Edelsky, 1986; Hudelson, 1986, 1987; Samway, 1987; Urzua, 1987):

What should schools do to promote ESL children's writing?

Children develop as writers when they use writing to carry out activities that are meaningful to them. Teachers need to provide time for writing on a regular basis; they need to encourage ESL children to write; they need to promote writing by responding to the content of the text rather than to the form; and they need to provide multiple opportunities for writers to engage in writing for reasons that are real and important to the individual writer.

Suggestions for specific classroom activities include the following:

Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Allen, V. (1986). Developing contexts to support second language acquisition. "Language Arts," 63, 61-66.

Bissex, G. (1980). "GNYS AT WRK: A child learns to write and read." Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Calkins, L. (1986). "The art of teaching writing." Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Edelsky, C. (1986). "Writing in a bilingual program: Habia una vez." Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Company.

Flores, B., et al. (1985). "Bilingual holistic instructional strategies." Chandler, AZ: Exito.

Genishi, C., and Dyson, A. (1984). "Language assessment in the early years." Language and learning for human service professions monograph series. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Company.

Graves, D. (1983). "Writing: Teachers and children at work." Exeter, NH: Heinemann.

Harste, J., Woodward, V., and Burke, C. (1984). "Language stories and literacy lessons." Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Hudelson, S. (1986). Children's writing in ESL: What we've learned, what we're learning. In P. Rigg and D.S. Enright (Eds.), "Children and ESL: Integrating perspectives." Washington, DC: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

Hudelson, S. (1987). The role of native language literacy in the education of language minority children. "Language Arts," 64, 827-841.

Kreeft, J., et al. (Eds.) (1984). "Dialogue journal writing: Analysis of student-teacher interactive writing in the learning of English as a second language." National Institute of Education (NIE-G-83-0030). Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Myers, M. (1980). "A procedure for writing assessment." Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 193 676).

Rigg, P., and Enright, D.S. (Eds.) (1986) "Children and ESL: Integrating perspectives." Washington, DC: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages.

Samway, K. (1987). "The writing processes of non-native English-speaking children in the elementary grades." Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Rochester, NY.

Urzua, C. (1987). "You stopped too soon": Second language children composing and revising. "TESOL Quarterly," 21, 279-304.

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Teaching Writing to Beginning ESL Students

Starting off Simple to Ensure Later Success

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Beginner-level writing classes are challenging to teach because of the students' still-limited knowledge of the language. For a beginner-level student, you wouldn't start out with exercises such as, " write a paragraph about your family" or "write three sentences describing your best friend." Before diving into short paragraphs, it is helpful to set up students with concrete tasks.

Start With the Nuts and Bolts

For many students—especially those who are native to languages that represent letters or words in alphabets vastly different from English's 26 letters—knowing that a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a period is not necessarily intuitive. Make sure to start off by teaching your student some basics:

Focus on Parts of Speech

To teach writing, students must know the basic parts of speech . Review nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Ask students to categorize words in these four categories. Taking time to ensure students understand the role of each part of speech in a sentence will pay off.

Suggestions to Help With Simple Sentences

After students have an understanding of the groundwork, use simple sentence structures to help them begin writing. Sentences may be very repetitive in these exercises, but the use of compound and complex sentences are too advanced for students at this stage in the learning process. Only after students gain confidence through a number of simple exercises will they be able to move on to more complicated tasks, such as joining elements with a conjunction to make a compound subject or verb. Then they will graduate to using short compound sentences and adding short introductory phrases.

Simple Exercise Examples

Simple exercise 1: describing yourself.

In this exercise, teach standard phrases on the board, such as:

My name is ...

I am from ...

I live in ...

I am married/single.

I go to school/work at ...

I (like to) play ...

I speak ...

Use only simple verbs such as "live," "go," "work," "play," "speak," and "like" as well as set phrases with the verb "to be." After students feel comfortable with these simple phrases, introduce writing about another person with "you," "he," "she," or "they." 

Simple Exercise 2: Describing a Person

After students have learned basic factual descriptions, move on to describing people. In this case, help students by writing out descriptive vocabulary in categories. For example:

Physical Appearance

Physical Attributes


Then, write out verbs on the board. Ask the students to use words from the categories in conjunction with the verbs to teach students how to formulate simple descriptive sentences . Through this, teach students to use "be" with adjectives describing physical appearance and personality traits. Teach them to use "have" with physical attributes (long hair, big eyes, etc.). For example:

I am ... (hardworking/outgoing/shy/etc.)

I have ... (long hair/big eyes)

Additional Exercise

Ask students to write about one person, using the verbs and vocabulary presented in both exercises. As you check the students' work, make sure that they are writing simple sentences and not stringing too many attributes together. At this point, it is better if students do not use multiple adjectives in a sentence in a row because this requires a good understanding of  adjective order . In this case, simplicity prevents confusion.

Simple Exercise 3: Describing an Object

Continue working on writing skills by asking students to describe objects. Use the following categories to help students classify words to use in their writing:

Variation : Ask students to write a description of an object without naming the object. Other students should then guess what the object is. For example:

This object is round and smooth. It is made of metal. It has many buttons. I use it to listen to music.

teaching writing esl

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