One of the biggest challenges teachers have faced in the classroom has to do with writing. Usually students do not want to write, because they have never been encouraged to do it or to enjoy it. It’s worth remembering that most people never write anything of any length in their daily lives, or anything using a pen and paper, or without using a spellchecker. But this is often what we ask our students to do in English.
Writing, like all other aspects of language, is communicative. In real life, we may write e-mails, lists, notes, cover letters, reports, curricula, assignments, or essays. Some of us write articles or work on blogs, forums and websites. All of these writing tasks have a communicative purpose and a target audience. In the English language classroom, writing often lacks that communicative purpose. However, there are ways to make the writing we do with learners more communicative and pleasurable.
I have noticed that early on, children in language schools often enjoy the beginning stages of writing, when they are learning the letters or characters. Literate young learners are very willing to work at tracing letters and words, and are eager to learn how to print their names, the names of their brothers, sisters, pets, toys and classroom objects. It’s this interest in writing that we want to maintain as our students continue to develop their English writing skills. Yet writing can be a challenging skill for children to learn. By its nature, writing is often a solo activity, done silently, involving effort and taking a lot of time. Writing well is difficult, even for very young learners. However, writing in any language can be so much fun!
So what can we do to help children retain their early interest in writing, while they develop skills and confidence? First, students need a basic foundation and understanding of the spoken language in order to be able to write in English. For example, they need to know how to identify and talk about objects and people in English in order to write something about them.
Age plays a crucial role in what we teach and how we teach it. A young learner class is different from an adult or teenager class in terms of the learners’ needs, the language competencies emphasised, and the cognitive skills developed. Let’s focus on what we call ‘late young learners’, who are usually ten to 12 years old.
The characteristics of this group of students are:
• They have longer attention spans, but are still children
• They either take learning more seriously, or are very easily bored and distracted
• They possess some world knowledge and are technologically skilled/oriented
• They are more willing to co-operate in groups and pairs
• They have already developed social, motor and intellectual skills
• Although they are still developing their learning strategies, they make use of them in order to learn more effectively.
*(Adapted from Ersöz, A. (2007). Teaching English to young learners. Ankara: EDM Publishing)
Here are seven activities that I have found helped my students to enjoy writing.
1. Creative writing
This might be used as an ice breaker, or to consolidate vocabulary learnt in a previous lesson. It consists of giving a student a word and ask them to write an acrostic – a poem that spells out the original word with the first letter of each line.
For example: ‘Classroom Objects’ (this poem was written by a 12-year-old student)
As a follow-up activity, students can read their poem to the class if they want to. The students could vote for the best poem and the winner could get a chocolate.
2. Peer writing
This is an activity children love doing, as they are allowed to work in pairs. They need to already know how to use the past simple and past continuous tenses to tell a story.
First, you give the students a sheet of paper with two columns of sentences about a young couple who met years ago. Depending on the children’s age, the number of sentences should vary between eight and ten in each column. Next, you ask them to match the sentences in the first column with the sentences in the second one. There’s no wrong or right answer.
Here’s an example:
(1) Mark and Sue met / when Susan was 23
(2) They had twins /and got married
(3) They started a new school for children / after the war
(4) They fell in love / in France
After matching the sentences, the students write a story using the verb tense given in the sentences. As a follow-up, pairs of children can compare their stories and see the differences and similarities between them. In the next class, the teacher can show how to correct errors by writing any mistakes (anonymously) on the board and asking students to correct them.
3. Journal diaries and storytelling
Journal diaries have been a great help to my students’ writing. We use a web tool called livetyping and the Edmodo platform, and the students can also use paper and pencil. I respond to every single piece of their writing without correcting them, but I also encourage them to reflect on mistakes. Most of my students have responded very positively, and are now much more comfortable about exposing their ideas. The journal diaries students post on Edmodo should only be visible to the teacher, not other students, because the entries may be more personal.
Students can make up the end of a story I have posted. As they write on the livetyping platform, everyone can see the story and make comments. In the classroom we choose two of their posts and work on correcting errors. See how it works here.
Another option is to ask the students retell a true story using the target language and vocabulary we have studied in a specific lesson. Here’s an example about the death of John Lennon.
4. Co-operative writing
Padlet is a collaborative web tool that students love! Videos, images and songs can be uploaded on a virtual multimedia wall. I’ve used it recently to get children involved in writing classroom contracts as well as writing about their likes and dislikes. It’s a very rich tool as the writing can be done co-operatively in class, and the students can also edit their work at home.
5. Using word clouds and songs
This is an activity children are very fond of, but it is most effective for students aged 12 and up.
First, create a word cloud using words from a song, other words with similar sounds, and some verbs. Print the word cloud and hand out copies to the class. A good word cloud generator is ABCya.
Next, play the song – either a YouTube video or just the song itself – and ask the children to circle the words they hear. One song I used recently was ‘When I was your man’ by Bruno Mars, as it is a song that both boys and girls like very much. Then hand out the lyrics for the students to check in pairs, and ask them to write an email together, based on the song and using the verbs given.
Another technique I’ve tried with my ten- to 12-year-old students is to create a cartoon using a web tool called Pixton. First, I showed the children a cartoon on the screen of the interactive white board with speech bubbles and no words. Then I printed out the cartoon, gave copies to the children, and asked them to create speeches for the cartoon characters using new vocabulary. As a follow-up activity, the students wrote stories about the characters and shared them online with the group. Here’s an example.
7. Book projects
Bookr is an interesting web tool, especially for presenting projects – for example, for an oral presentation in the classroom on World Environment Day. It allows students to create and share their own photobook by collating photos from Flickr and writing text to go with them. It is a task to be done at home as it might be time-consuming, depending on the number of pages the students want in their books. Here’s an example I created in class to show my students how make their own books.
Here’s another exciting book project, in which students become authors.
In a lesson about ‘best friends’, ten- and 11-year-olds write a book called ‘Best friends come in all shapes and sizes’. Before starting, the children learn ways to describe people, such as ‘She’s got blue eyes and dark hair’. They also learn vocabulary on favourite toys, likes and dislikes, and pets. For example: ‘She likes… she doesn’t like…’, ‘Her favourite toy is a/ an…’, ‘She’s got a pet…’, ‘Her pet’s name is…’, ‘It’s a dog/cat…’.
After several lessons working on the above structures, the children bring their best friends to school and we take a picture of each child with his or her best friend. If that’s not possible, the child brings a photo of himself or herself with a best friend.
Guided by the teacher, each child writes a little bit about their best friend such as, ‘My best friend is Ana. She’s 11 years old. She’s tall. She’s got dark straight hair and brown eyes. She’s got a pet, a dog called Simba. Her favourite toy is a video game. She’s got a bike but she hasn’t got an iPad. She likes dancing ballet but she doesn’t like swimming. I love my best friend’. The teacher collects the student’s writing and corrects all the mistakes. Next, all the texts are typed and sent to a professional printing office to make a real book. If this is not possible, it can still be done beautifully by hand. On a set day, parents, families and friends come to the book launch, where the young writers autograph their book and take pictures.
Some final tips to encourage young learners to write:
• Make writing meaningful. Young writers can express themselves about topics that are important to them.
• Invite young writers to write freely, without worrying about correctness. Children who are just learning to write can build language structures and expression, even if they use imaginary spellings and strange punctuation.
• Ask young learners to write about their own lives and experiences. Whether it’s a holiday, or their experience with their grandparents, or any other experience outside the classroom, young writers write best when they write about something they know well.
• Engage young writers in short bursts of writing. For children under the ages of eight or nine, it’s very tiring to hold a pencil or piece of chalk, shape the letters, and remain focused on the message to be communicated. Writing often, for brief periods, is much more effective than trying to write for a long period of time.
• Encourage writers to keep journals or diaries. Writing is one way of structuring thought. Journal writing is important because it’s not public. It can represent, for the writer, a chance to write in the most free way.
• Give writers the chance to revise. It’s vitally important to encourage students to write freely, in their own words, and to try to cover all their thoughts on a topic. (Revision is more important for students over the ages of eight or nine, who have begun to write more naturally to express themselves.)
• Always let your students know you are proud of their writing! If children notice you are reading what they write, they will certainly feel much more motivated. Last but not least, don’t forget to write them a note of encouragement.
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Why should I use writing assignments in my teaching? That's an important question. Even though this is a Writing Across the Curriculum website, designed to encourage faculty to incorporate writing into their teaching, let's be honest—there are many reasons why we might not want to assign writing in our courses. And many of those reasons have to do with limits on our time. Designing writing assignments and responding to student writing take valuable time—lots of time if we do them carefully. The larger the enrollment is in our classes, the more time responding to student papers takes. We have lots of important course content to cover, so we have limited time for building in a sequence of writing assignments and some instruction around those assignments. . . .
We also need to remember that writing assignments take substantial time for our students to do well. And not all of our students are well prepared to succeed with the writing we assign. This list could go on; the challenges are indeed formidable.
Yet countless faculty—in every discipline across the university—make writing an integral part of their teaching and reap benefits from doing so. Why? Here are some of the many reasons writing is an especially effective means for students to learn.
- Writing deepens thinking and increases students' engagement with course material.
- Well-designed writing assignments prompt students to think more deeply about what they're learning. Writing a book review, for example, forces students to read more thoroughly and critically. As an old saying goes, "How do I know what I think until I hear what I say or see what I've written?"
- In fact, research done by Richard Light at Harvard confirms that "students relate writing to intensity of courses. The relationship between the amount of writing for a course and students' level of engagement—whether engagement is measured by time spent on the course, or the intellectual challenge it presents, or students' self-reported level of interest in it—is stronger than any relationship we found between student engagement and any other course characteristic" (The Harvard Assessment Seminars, Second Report, 1992, 25). And research done by the Association of American Colleges and Universities demonstrates that writing-intensive courses are a high-impact practice in undergraduate education.
- Research done by Michele Eodice, Anne Ellen Geller, and Neal Lerner (The Meaningful Writing Project, 2017) demonstrates that certain writing projects can be especially meaningful parts of undergraduate education.
- Writing can improve our relationship with our students. When students write papers, we get to know them and their thinking better; they're more likely to talk with us after class, or come to our office hours to share a draft or seek advice.
- Writing gives us a window into our students' thinking and learning. Through our students' writing, we can take pleasure in discovering that students see things in course readings or discussion we didn't see; students make connections we ourselves hadn't made. And through our students' writing, we also discover what confuses our students. Admittedly, we're not always eager to discover the gaps in our students' knowledge or understanding, but it's our job to expand that knowledge and improve students' thinking.
- Writing assignments can improve our classroom discussions. By helping students keep up with readings, regular writing assignments can prepare students to participate in discussion.
- Writing assignments provide us with an opportunity to teach students to organize ideas, develop points logically, make explicit connections, elaborate ideas, argue points, and situate an argument in the context of previous research-all skills valued in higher education.
- Students remember what they write about-because writing slows thinking down and requires careful, sustained analysis of a subject. No matter how many years it's been, most of us can remember some paper we wrote as undergraduates, the writing of which deepened our knowledge of a particular subject.
- Our students and we remember what we've written, in part, because writing individualizes learning. When a student becomes really engaged with a writing assignment, she has to make countless choices particular to her paper: how to focus the topic, what to read, what to make the central argument, how to organize ideas, how to marshal evidence, which general points to make, how to develop and support general ideas with particulars, how to introduce the topic, what to include and what to omit, which style and tone to adopt. . . .
- Finally, though it's much more than this, writing is a skill—a skill that atrophies when it isn't practiced regularly. Because learning to write well is difficult and because it requires sustained and repeated practice, we need to ensure our undergraduates write regularly, throughout the curriculum, in all majors. It's the responsibility of all of us to ensure that students learn to think and write clearly and deeply.