Three Tips for Teaching Writing to Beginning-Level Students

In my beginning classes, I have always had a combination of students with different abilities; however, most students at this level lack writing experience. They have written sentences, but many have not written paragraphs or a page-length composition. I always tell the students that writing is like speaking – In order to improve speaking, you need to speak as much as possible; in order to improve writing, you need to write as much as possible.

The following tips are three ways that I have found successful in teaching writing to beginning-level students:

  1. Using a model
  2. Writing as a class
  3. Getting the most out of your students’ writing

1. Using a Model

In a beginning-level class, the first step is to show students how a paragraph should look. Many students, especially those with different alphabets or those with limited education, have trouble with many aspects of writing: writing within margins, writing on the lines, putting the title on the page, and so on. This is when a model comes in handy.

In English in Action, Book 1, there is an example of the composition, “My Family”. When I use a model, I always point out the title and its location on the page. Then, I read the model aloud, and we talk about the information in the paragraph. For example, I will ask, “What do we know about Rosa?” The students will talk about the information in the paragraph. In this example, the student describes the hair, hair color, age, and a little more information about her family. Then, the students will rewrite a text and/or practice writing about a different picture and using capital letters and periods. This can be done as a class. Finally, I’ll introduce the students’ assignment. I always make sure to write a list of what should be in the paragraph: name, country, and so on. For fun, I often ask the students to show us a photo of the family members when they turn in their paragraph.

A page From English in Action Third Edition Book 1

2. Writing as a Class

Writing as a class is another way to model writing. I usually use a picture or a few pictures from the news or use a picture from our textbook, English in Action Third Edition. Using a picture with a few active people in the picture works well with beginners. If I have a picture with a few different scenes, I can break the picture up so that we can focus on one scene in the picture. We can first describe the scene, and then, we can write about what the people are doing. I will write on the board or use the classroom computer. After we finish, all of the students will copy the paragraph, and they will take turns reading it aloud.

If there has been a recent storm or popular event, I’ll bring in pictures from the news, and we’ll write a story about the event. I’ll write what the students tell me and make corrections along the way. This is also a good way to give the students new vocabulary.

A different way to do group writing is to send the students to another place in the building such as a library, a learning center, or a cafeteria. Of course, this is easier to do in a college or university setting. I give the students a sheet of lined paper and instruct them to tell me what is happening in that place. With one class, my students had studied prepositions and the present continuous tense. They wrote sentences like, “The tutor is helping a student,” and “A student is studying and eating french fries.” One important note: Always give a time limit when you do this activity!

3. Getting the most out of your students’ writing

            A good way to show your student’s good models is to take some of your students’ assignments, type them, and use them in other ways.

  1. Type the paragraphs and use them as reading activities. Write a few true/false activity, multiple choice activity, or completion items for the students to answer about their classmates’ compositions.
  2. Use them as editing activities: Use student writing to have students practice putting the periods in the correct place, adding or deleting commas, or checking for correct capitalization.
  3. Use them for grammar cloze activities. Use student writing to practice different
    grammar such as subject-verb-agreement, present, and past tenses, and word order.
  4. Add pictures and “publish” them for the class. Students enjoy seeing their compositions “in print”.

Bonus: A favorite activity

The assignment was to write an interview between the student and a famous person of their choosing. They were encouraged to use their imaginations for their conversations and to use the questions we had practiced in class – How are you?, What country are you from?, Where do you live?,  and other basic “get to know you” types of questions. Students chose soccer players, musicians, politicians, and others. They wrote very funny and interesting conversations. I “published” them so that everyone could enjoy their work.

Author: Elizabeth Neblett

Elizabeth Neblett teaches ESL full-time at Union County College in Elizabeth, New Jersey. In addition to teaching, Liz serves on the executive committee of her faculty union. She has presented workshops on teaching at many TESOL conventions and has done workshops on how to use English in Action throughout Mexico. She has co-authored English in Action, Grammar in Action, Books 2-3, Basic Grammar in Action, and has authored a series of novellas for ESL students.

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