Making Writing Lessons Meaningful for ESL/EFL Students
Dorit Sasson, USA
Dorit Sasson is a teachers’ diversity coach, speaker, writer and ESL instructor at Duquesne University and at the English Language Institute at the University of Pittsburgh. She has written several resource books for primary English language learners. She is currently writing Greater Collaboration for K-6 English Language Learners for Pearson’s teacher development. She provides ongoing support for teachers at www.DoritSasson.com
Background - Why meaningful activities?
Small meaningful writing tasks in action: Sentence frames
Writing tasks connect the cultural, social and emotional experience
Authentic writing tasks are purposeful
Examples – writing and speaking
Pre-planning writing tasks
Instructional strategies for teaching writing
Writing is often viewed as an important skill by ESL/EFL teachers that has to be catered for and developed in EFL/ESL teaching. Engaging students in written communications in a variety of forms connects learners to the international world of information in every field via electronic communication such as Internet and personal correspondence across the border.
Many English language learners do not like to write nor do they enjoy the writing process. As ESL/EFL teachers, the question ultimately becomes, how teachers can provide more engaging writing opportunities for English language learning students so they can ultimately feel confident in their writing abilities? Teachers are sensitive to the diverse backgrounds that define their students, but because students often do not feel comfortable expressing themselves in writing and especially in a second language, this often complicates the teaching process. To solve this problem, teachers can provide meaningful activities to activate help connect them to the classroom experience.
English language learners especially need to adjust to the cultural, linguistic, social and emotional newness of a classroom environment. Writing can give students that sense of belonging they need to feel connected with their classroom, teachers and school. Additionally, meaningful writing tasks not only help solve the problem of cultural, social and emotional isolation but are connected to real world tasks – a concept known as authenticity. As students complete these tasks they can immediately see how what they are learning applies to their real lives - both inside and outside the classroom.
Meaningful writing is best done on topics about which students have information and in which they have interest. Since the strongest memories are tied to emotions, students remember better when using ‘I’ or ‘me’ sentences because they involve them. Sentence frames help ELLs feel more comfortable and lead them toward the responses that will be on track with the lesson. Teachers can then expand the task to include writing a paragraph.
Examples of sentence starters:
“I think ______ is a hero, because _________.”
“This new theme of __________ reminds me of a time in my life when ___________.”
Teachers can also ask students to make comparisons to concrete objects in linguistic ways as illustrated in the following sentence starter:
“I am like this___________, because I am __________.”
I am like this Snickers bar because I am nutty.
I am like this Matchbox Ferrari because I am small and fast.
I am like this red pencil because my face is red when I have to talk.
Alternatively, teachers can model these sentence starters as a way to encourage student interaction. In fact, by encouraging ELLs to talk more in complete sentences, they become more proficient in writing more complete sentences.
Many English language learners lack the cultural, linguistic, social and emotional connection of a classroom environment. To solve this problem, teachers can offer a much needed safe uninhabited space for developing their “voices” that may otherwise go ignored. This also helps to develop a personal bond with students and ceases teachers from seeing their students as the other. (Zeichner, Melnick, Gomez, 1996) As students respond to these prompts, they can immediately see how what they are currently experiencing is connected to their own writing experience.
By using visuals, teachers can jump-start ideas as illustrated in the prompt below:
Write a paragraph about a situation where you’ve felt like an outsider – or about a situation where you feel the most comfortable. Try freewriting about these feelings – of belonging, or of feeling out of place – to brainstorm ideas.
For many adult English language learners, using English for job related skills and career development is an essential part of their acculturation. The following writing task combines both speaking and writing for a job related writing task.
Learners have already spent time reading a guide on finding a career and a job. They now move on to productive skills by writing an essay on their dream job, based on the following example:
Students can make a list of jobs that appeal to them and what seem to be the best careers. They then speak to someone who works at one of these jobs. Students contact someone in the position they have chosen and explain that they would like to interview him or her briefly for a school assignment.
At the interview, students take notes and then use them to write an essay on the recommended background for the job in question. In three supporting paragraphs, students cover recommended education, useful experience, and desirable abilities. As students develop the body paragraphs, they use details and examples for their interview to back up each of their three topic sentences.
In getting to know a new class, teachers can prepare guided questions in a “getting to know you” activity where students “interview” their classmates and then complete sentence stems. The following questions can be adapted for any class level.
Getting to Know Each Other
- My partner speaks _________________and ______________
- My partner plays ________________________________________
- My partner reads ________________________________________
- My partner's favorite subject is _____________________________
- My partner's favorite food is _______________________________
Let’s Make an I.D. Card
This guided writing activity for the elementary grades also promotes word recognition. Filling out an identification card is one type of authentic material teachers can use to personalize student information.
Encourage students to write whatever information they can. This strategy teaches them to rely on vocabulary they know which gives confidence and achievement.
Note: Students may need help filling in their address and height. If time allows, the teacher can measure students as a class activity. Also, students may or may not know where they are born – ELLs may have a better idea than native speakers. They can complete this information for homework. Teachers should also discuss areas of personal safety and how important it is for students to not give their personal information to just anyone.
Students Complete an I.D. Card
Age …….years old
Color of eyes
Color of hair
Place of birth
Students can also complete the ID card for a friend. When they’ve finished, they write a few things they learned about their partner(s). As a follow-up activity, the teacher can read a few ID cards to the class and the class can guess who the student is. Students can also do this in groups.
Spolsky (1989), in his theory of second language learning, imposes a set of conditions that shape acquisition. Among them is the recognition that individual language learners vary in their productive and receptive skills, with receptive language (listening and reading) generally developing prior to and to a higher level than productive language (speaking and writing). Thus, English language learners may not be at a uniform level of English language proficiency across the four domains.
This pattern may also be reflected in their native language proficiency. Unless English language learners have received formal instruction in their native language their oral language or literacy may not be fully developed for their age level. The differential language acquisition of these students in the four language domains must be taken into consideration in instructional planning and assessment.
Since writing instruction is a sequential process, which is not based on the student’s age or grade level, but rather on his/her proficiency in English, determining written proficiency level is essential for planning any writing activities. Teachers can conduct an informal pre-assessment using either a writing prompt or a series of questions to determine their students’ writing abilities.
Meaningful writing activities tie both motivation and ability and encourage a variety of expressions that do not limit a student’s language ability. The student’s ability to write about topics that are close to a student’s culture, experiences, and other topics of interest increase when one also feels more connected with learning the target language.
- Create a vocabulary book/glossary
- Model story retelling
- Model story strips
- Encourage journal entries (i.e., free writing and/or pre/post reading log)
- Model one sentence summaries
- Use cloze techniques
- Model framed paragraphs
- Practice using transitional devices
- Use graphic organizers for essay planning
- Model/teach writing to expository/persuasive prompts
- Develop writing process
- Encourage self-evaluation and peer-editing
Spolsky, Bernard. (1989). Conditions for second language learning: Introduction to a general theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 231 pp.
Zeichner, K. (1996a). Teachers as reflective practitioners and the democratization of school reform. In K. Zeichner, S. Melnick, & M.L. Gomez (Eds.), Currents of Reform in Preservice Teacher Education (pp.199-214). New York: Teachers College Press.
Please check the Methodology and Language for Secondary Teachers course at Pilgrims website.
Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.