In some ways, writing can be one of the most difficult aspects of language learning. Not only do learners have to worry about using the correct words, sentence structure, and grammar, but the words they write can be looked back on multiple times. Speech, on the other hand, is spoken, heard, and forgotten in a moment’s notice.
I’m sure you’ve had students (or perhaps have experienced this in your own second language acquisition) who have been resistant to writing. There are a few different ways this could play out.
Maybe your students refuse to write, have negative feelings towards every writing assignment you’ve thrown at them, are convinced that they will never be good at writing, or have left you convinced that writing could NEVER be enjoyable for your class.
Or maybe you’ve had students who are eager to write and try their best to complete the assignment, but have plateaued in their writing competence - they aren’t improving!
The third and final category of struggling writers I’ve seen are those who complete an assignment solely for the sake of completing an assignment. This often results in them missing details or not meeting requirements. They simply won’t take the time to practice writing well.
The longevity of the written word can be really intimidating for ELLs (English Language Learners). So, how do you encourage and support your students when they’re struggling with writing in their second language? Below you’ll find 5 quick steps to boost your struggling writers’ writing competence.
1. Teach Structuring and Organizing Techniques
Your students may need some help with structuring and organizing their writing. If you’ve ever written in your life (I’m hoping that you have), you know that not only is the structure of your finished product important, but organizing your thoughts can have a drastic impact on your process of writing.
If your students are struggling with either the structure of the finished product or the organization of their thoughts, index cards can be a great help. Have your students write down their main ideas on index cards, then they can physically move and manipulate them until they have a logical sequence of ideas.
It’s always a good idea to model this process for your students. As a class, come up with a few general ideas for an essay or writing assignment. Then, try a few different arrangements together and discuss which would work best for the intended audience. Next, have your students work in groups or pairs to arrange a series of prewritten ideas. After the groups or pairs have come to a conclusion, compare and contrast with the other groups.
Students can also work in groups to come up with their own general ideas and sequencing together. After practicing as a whole class, sequencing in groups, and practicing the whole process in groups your students should be ready to tackle their own personal writing projects (mostly) independently!
2. Provide Sample Texts
Sample texts can be extremely helpful for second language learners when they're writing in a new genre. Some students are visual learners, and seeing an example of what they should be producing can aid them in crafting their best piece. It can be hard to learn how to write in a second language, in a new genre, and with new cultural norms and expectations.
There are two options when it comes to providing sample texts. Some teachers like to provide a writing sample at the beginning of the writing process. This ensures that all of the students are on the same page. They all know what is expected and they're all familiar with the type of writing to some extent. However, one of the downfalls of this approach is that students are more likely to simply use the text as a template, plugging their information in to a set pattern. There isn't as much room for creativity!
The second option is to provide the sample text at some checkpoint along the process of writing. An editing checkpoint can be a great chance for your students to reevaluate what they've done, but you'll want to stress that it's okay if their writing is a little bit different. You could also provide the sample text at the end of the process, right before the final revision. If you do this, students are more likely to use the text for extra support or ideas. Encourage your students to use the text to improve their writing, not necessarily change it.
Depending upon what your students need to focus on and practice while writing, it can be helpful to specifically look at the layout; main message; organization; specific words, phrases, or sentences used; grammar; style or tone; or effect that the written word has on the reading
3. Set up a Cycle of Feedback
If you’ve ever taken a writing class or had to write for a class, your teachers probably utilized peer-editing and feedback a lot. Teaching writing in a second language should be no different! Feedback can be really useful either from the teacher or from peers for every levels of English language learners.
The easiest way to incorporate it into a writing assignment is to set up checkpoints throughout the process. Don’t only give feedback at the end of the writing process because students are more likely to disregard your comment and never go back to edit their piece of writing. Instead, give feedback during the evolution of the writing, when the finished piece is still being formed.
After your students brainstorm, implement a routine for feedback. After your students outline, implement a routine for feedback. Halfway through the draft, implement a routine for feedback. You get the point. Build a cycle of feedback into your writing classes. Students should be familiar with the routine of writing, feedback, revising, feedback, writing, etc.
If your students are still struggling with writing, they may need more support through feedback. Do a quick evaluation on the type of feedback they’re receiving from both you and their peers. Are the comments constructive? Are they specific? If not, you may want to use some type of structure.
There are all different methods for doing this. Some teachers have students work in pairs or groups and pass papers around in order to get feedback from a variety of sources. You could come up with a feedback form for students to use when looking at someone else’s paper. On the form you can include the specific things you’re targeting in class (a specific type of punctuation, spelling, structure, etc).
If a form doesn’t suit your fancy, structure the feedback sessions. Have students work in pairs, read one another’s papers, and write down any comments they have right off the bat. Then, have a 10-20 minute discussion time where students can share their thoughts and ask one another questions. There are so many ways to structure feedback, find a way that works for you and your students!
4. Utilize Word Processors
This tip is a little more tricky than the others. There are a variety of factors that play into this. Do you have the resources necessary? Will learning the technology distract your students from improving their writing? How much do your students know about computers and word processors at this point? The questions could go on and on. However, for the off chance that the stars have aligned and your class is the perfect candidate for using a computer to improve writing, this point is for you!
Since I’ve grown up in the United States with access to a computer for all of my academic life, I often forget how useful a computer can be when learning how to write. First of all, not only can you improve writing on a computer, but using a computer is a life skill. By allowing your students to use a word processor to support and improve their writing, you’re also allowing them to build a life skill that they can use in their future academic or career endeavors.
There are also a few practical benefits to using a computer in a writing class. The text is readable. If your learning objective isn’t to improve handwriting, using a computer can eliminate the roadblock that handwriting can sometimes pose. You can print a bunch of copies of the same piece of writing in almost no extra time. This means that your students’ writing samples can be distributed to the whole class for feedback or whatnot. Also, feedback can happen on a hard copy and your students can edit on a computer. There’s no need to rewrite the entire assignment to fix a small spelling error that you wrote in pen.
Computers are tricky, though. There are classroom rules and boundaries that need to be set up. You need to be sure that all of your students can use a word processor well, or that you have the time to teach them. You also need to make sure it’s a good fit for your class.
5. Identify What Your Students Need
Perhaps the most valuable way to boost your students’ writing competence is to take a moment to evaluate what they need. In other words, what is hindering them from writing? The four most common things that struggling writers need are listed below. However, you may find that you students need something that isn’t on this list. In order to find what your students need you could compare and contrast their writing to identify what is missing, or you could simply ask them!
Task or Topical Information
Some writers struggle to start if they feel that they don’t have all of the information about the task or the topic. Make sure that your students understand what you expect from them. What do they need to accomplish in order to get an ‘A’?
Additionally, make sure students understand the topic that they’re writing about, or make sure they have the tools necessary to learn. If your students know nothing about pop culture, don’t have them write about their favorite pop star (unless, of course, you’re trying to encourage them to research).
Language or Language Skills
There are times that a curriculum or school requires your students to write something that they simply don’t have the language or language skills for. If your students don’t know how to speak or write in a formal, business manner, don’t have them write a cover letter.
If it is absolutely necessary for your students to complete this assignment, take whatever time is available and necessary to teach them the language that they will need. Simply identifying their need for language support can give you great insight into how to properly support them.
One of the biggest hurdles in writing (even for native writers) is coming up with a good idea. How do you come up with an idea that you’re intrigued by, that has enough material for the assignment, and which fits the requirements for the task? There are many ways to help support writers as they come up with ideas.
You could assign writing topics to each student, teach them strategies for idea sorting and choice, or give a general topic under which they have to choose. Nevertheless, whichever option is right for your class, make sure that your students are able to grab a hold of an idea and turn it into their own work. The topic they choose has to be interesting to them, otherwise writing can be miserable!
If your students are really struggling with the structure of their writing, they may benefit from a pattern or template to follow. If you’re focusing on a specific type of writing (persuasive essay, haiku poems, resumes, etc.), providing a format for students to follow when structuring their work can be extremely helpful!
I don’t recommend providing a template constantly. You want your students to be able to write independently, but for the first or second time writing in that genre, it could be just what they need.
The best way to meet your students' needs is to listen to what they're telling you through their words, actions, and attitudes. If your students are struggling with writing, I hope that the 5 tips above will help you to support them!
Writing can be an intimidating subject for both students and teachers. There's something much more concrete in written text than in spoken language! Nevertheless, writing doesn't have to be overwhelming when you take a few steps to support the writing process.
If you are just beginning to introduce writing into your ESL class, or are looking for a few more resources to add to your tool belt, check out my pinterest board below. I've put together a board of articles, printables, and activities in order to improve, inspire, and engage your students and your classrooms!
I Want to Hear From You
Do your students struggle with writing?
What are some steps you've taken that have been effective for your students?