Writing Activities That Work for ESL/ELL Students

Writing activities that work for students learning in English as a second or additional language

We learn to write by writing . . . Provide frequent opportunities for writing throughout the day. Students need time to write in reflection of their learning, to record new ideas, generate stories and poems, and to communicate information. (Brownlie, Feniak, McCarthy, p.13)

Learners often find writing to be a challenge. Writing in another language may involve even greater challenges both for beginners learning to write in English, as well as for students honing and advancing their writing skills as they learn to communicate about content in English.

If the focus is on the instructional climate in the classroom and it is one where caring relationships and learning with and from each other take precedence, then ESL students and all students will learn best. Mistakes need to be treated as okay, expected and part of learning.

Why learn to write without constant correction and editing?
Beginners who write with constant editing and correcting may shut down, impeding rather than supporting learning. When beginners are learning to write in English they need to be able to take risks and make mistakes without fear of constant correction which may seriously inhibit taking these risks. We want beginners to experiment with writing as they are learning and to focus on the process not product.

How can we encourage ESL learners to write and increase their writing skills?
To learn to write, ESL students need to be taught to write. They need exposure to many thoughtful writing activities throughout the school day so they have the time it takes to learn to write well. Classroom teachers and resource teachers help ESL students write best by creating a classroom community of writers where:

  • Ample time is given for writing and everyone writes throughout the day

Writing takes time. Note taking, organizing sentences and paragraphs, thinking about what to write and how to express ideas takes time. Give students the time they need to learn to write across projects/content.

  • Peer to peer support in pairs and small groups is highlighted and encouraged

Students learn a great deal from each other. They are also more engaged in the classroom when they participate actively in learning with and from each other. Take every opportunity to involve students in writing activities.

  • Students use the writing process for learning

Descriptions of the writing process involve any/all the following tackled in authentic situations – draft, write, edit through conferencing with a peer or adult, and publish. When we teach students how to do this well, they learn to edit their own work and can organize their own writing.

  • Writing activities are intentionally modelled and scaffolded

Model how to structure writing so the process is clear in an open ended way that provides a framework that over time can change with a growth in skills. Providing a formula which never changes may inhibit growth. For example, talk about a big idea within a content area, have students work in mixed ability groups and take a few minutes to write questions about the idea. Share questions orally, record the questions. Or, the teacher writes the big question and discusses it aloud with the students writing down key ideas. Take notes aloud with the class, organize them together and write for a purpose. Model the entire process all the way to the completed writing example – don’t skip or rush steps.

  • Vocabulary is intentionally highlighted through asking questions, and note taking

Focus on discussing the specific vocabulary students need to know to answer questions so they can learn how to use it in writing activities. Think aloud about vocabulary for example: Which word(s) are most important in this text? How would this word be used in writing?

  • Thinking and writing are connected

Learning is meaningful to students when they are most engaged in reflection, analysis, and synthesis. As examples: when they compare and contrast people, places, events and ideas, or they reflect on their own learning identifying what was personally most important, or they write for a variety of audiences and purposes in different ways to persuade, challenge, summarize main ideas or innovate.

Teachers and other resource staff can work together to support writing, sharing expertise and providing more than one set of hands to help students grapple with the writing process. When students get stuck, one staff person can give short, specific mini-lessons to help a small group.

In Instruction and Assessment of ESL Learners: Promoting Success in Your Classroom, we demonstrate the writing process and give examples of writing activities that work for ESL students.

Guest Contributor
Vicki McCarthy, PhD., Author


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