If I asked a group of teachers to rank the four skills of language (speaking, listening, reading, and writing) on a scale of most to least important, there would be as many different answers as there were teachers. A typical survival English class will focus on speaking and listening, while a college English course may focus on reading and writing.
Different learner and teacher populations have different motives, goals, and focuses. If your student population doesn’t see writing as an important skill, you may be wondering if, why, and how you should focus on it in class.
Why Should I Focus on Writing?
Writing is necessary for academia, business, and exam prep, making it a useful skill for those students. If your students aren’t in those fields, they may still need to hone their writing skills in order to take notes in class. Yet students who don't find themselves needing to write in English will still find the routine of writing beneficial.
When individuals write, they’re using parts of their brain that aren’t used for speaking, and this is especially true for creative writing.
Looking for Creative Writing Activities?
Not only are different parts of your brain activated when writing, the process of writing allows students to spend more time thinking, reflecting, preparing, editing, and problem-solving than speaking may allow for. To learn more about your brain on writing, check out these articles by the NY Times and the LA Times.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a writing activity is a GREAT opportunity to give you, as the teacher, a little break. It’s a great way to soak up the quiet and to help you regroup before moving on in the lesson. It can also be used as a transition tool in the middle of a class session.
How Should I Focus on Writing?
So, now that I’ve convinced you of why you should incorporate writing into your classroom, how should you do so? One of the best and most productive ways to introduce a skill, concept, or activity to your students is through a routine. A routine allows you to begin to integrate writing into your classroom in a small dose. You can ‘feel out’ your students to find what works and doesn’t work for them.
Another great thing about a routine is that it will slowly become familiar to your students and it will become more manageable. At first you may find your students struggling to write and brainstorm, but over time they will become more comfortable with the routine and their fluency will build.
I’ve chosen 3 different kinds of writing routines that are super easy to incorporate into your classroom experience. They don’t require much teacher prep time and are easy for students to complete. Yet I can almost guarantee that you will see improvement in your students writing abilities and attitudes over the course of your classroom time with them.
The idea is simple: at the beginning of every class put a question on the board and have students respond. This simple routine can begin to introduce the skill and art of writing to your students, and you’ll find that their writing improves over time just from writing for 5-10 minutes per class.
There are a lot of different directions you can go with the question. You can use more simple questions that will get your students writing easily or more complex questions that will require them to carefully choose and formulate words and sentences. You could also make the question more personal and have them write the answer in a journal for your eyes only, ask a question that is opinion-based and can be discussed with peers, or ask your students about current events or issues in the world that they may have heard about. This is a great opportunity to build relationships and get to know your students, as well. Put some thought into the question!
An exit ticket is a great tool for informal assessment. It’s a great way to find out what your students' thoughts are about your class, how they’re learning, and what they’re enjoying or not enjoying.
For this routine you should come up with a question or set of questions to ask at the end of every class. Some examples are ‘what is one thing you enjoyed during class today?’ ‘what questions do you still have about what we learned?’ ‘what would you like to learn in ESL class?’. Have your students choose from your set of questions and answer one of them in 2-3 sentences, or however many you see fit. As they walk out the door they must hand you their ‘exit ticket,' which is their answer to the question.
You’ll have a better understanding of the opinion or thoughts of your students, and the intentional time to reflect can teach your students more about how they learn. It’s also a great method for giving your students a voice in the classroom and letting them take charge of their learning.
If you don’t have time to commit to writing in the classroom, consider assigning it as homework. A language journal can help build learner autonomy, self-awareness, and writing skills. Have your students write one or two journal entries a week about what they’ve learned or improved upon this week, how they’ve struggled with language learning, or an encounter they had while using English.
A language journal is also a great tool to get to know your students intimately. Take this opportunity to respond to your students’ journal entries, give advice, encourage them, and continue to build your relationship.
Let the language journals influence the classroom. You can use them to simply inform your instruction and how you teach your students, or you can use them in the classroom for discussion tasks. If you’re going to have your students share their journals with one another make sure you let them know ahead of time. They may end up writing some things that they aren’t comfortable sharing, so you’ll want to make sure they know that others will be reading them.
Writing can seem like a really complex subject to introduce to students, and I know that when I taught beginner-level students it was really overwhelming to them. Yet I think it’s a great opportunity to work with and mold language in a way that you’re unable to when speaking.
Getting your students to write without obsessively correcting themselves can be difficult, but building it into your classroom routine is a great way to start. Know that it will be a struggle at first, as most new things are, but overtime your students will write fluently and they may even enjoy it! :)
If Your Students Are Having a Hard Time Writing...
Check Out these Tips for Supporting Struggling Writers!
I Want to Hear From You!
What is the attitude that you and your students have towards writing in the classroom? How can you make it more of a pleasant experience?
What types of things do your students enjoy writing about? Have you ever used writing as a time to get to know your students more intimately?