There are many different reasons for teaching writing in an ESL class. If you’re teaching an academic class, you’ll probably focus on research and essay-writing. If you’re teaching a business English class, you’ll probably focus on writing reports, emails, and resumes. And if you’re teaching a survival English class, you’ll want to focus on filling out forms, writing comments or emails, and maybe even writing a grocery list.
However, I think it’s safe to say, every teacher wants their writing activities to be applicable and practical. Sometimes a practical writing task will be a research project, but it could also be a simple storytelling exercise. A practical writing task will look different for every classroom.
There are three things that are necessary for creating a practical writing task. The first is a clear real-life purpose for the entirety of the lesson. Knowing your goal will help you to choose a related writing task. Next you'll need a clear purpose for writing and a clear audience. These two things are what will guide your students as they’re writing. Finally, you need to know what will happen after your students are done writing. Are they simply writing to please the teacher, or is there another purpose? And how does that other purpose relate to what they’ll do with their finished product?
What is Your Reason for Teaching Writing?
The first thing that I always like to do when lesson planning or choosing activities and tasks is to determine what I would like my students to be able to more confidently do by the end. This is the reason for teaching writing, in this scenario. After all, we teach English so that our students can use English, right? Determine how you want your students to be able to use English when you're finished teaching.
With that reason for teaching writing in mind, I can now figure out what writing tasks will give my students more confidence to succeed in that specific scenario. There are two main ways that you can begin to determine your reason for teaching writing for this lesson or writing task.
First, find out what your students' needs are through a needs analysis. What circumstances do they find themselves in where they need English? What are their weaknesses? You can frame these questions as a written quiz, a classroom discussion, or even a game!
To Learn More About Needs Analysis,
The second way that you can begin to determine your reason for teaching writing is simply through observation and reflection. If you don’t have time to administer a needs analysis, simply think about who your students are, where they live, where they work, what interactions they have with their community, etc. These are great ways to begin to dig deeper and make your class more applicable to their life. After all, if that majority of your students are looking to use English for business, you may not want to focus on parent-teacher conferences or writing recipes.
Set a Purpose and Audience for Your Students
After you, as a teacher, have set your reason for teaching writing, you need to find or create a task that clearly relates to that purpose and has a defined audience. If your students are simply writing for a grade or in order to please you, then the task is near pointless and not at all realistic.
We, as native or fluent speakers, hardly ever write just to write. There is always a purpose. So, if your goal is to create a practical and realistic writing task, you need to set a purpose for writing, which will include an intended audience. Without these key “ingredients” your students’ motivation and quality of work will be low.
If you’re unsure of how to set a purpose and audience for your writing task, figure out why your students need to know how to write. This is another area that your needs analysis can help you out. It can help you determine why you need to teach writing to your students, and what specific scenarios or tasks they need writing for.
If you can think of no reason for them to write, you either need to think harder or put writing on the back-burner for now. Once you can identify that your students need to write so that they can send emails to their coworkers or fill out forms at the DMV, you’ll be better able to create a task around their specific needs.
Create Realistic Expectations
Writing is the only language skill that has a delayed response in real life. When we speak to others, we get a response. When we listen, we get a reaction. And when we read, we comprehend immediately (hopefully).
However, when we write a letter to our child’s teacher or send an email to our boss, we don’t get to immediately judge whether it was successful or not, whether it achieved it's purpose or not. This is where re-reading and editing comes in!
When I write these articles or write a social media post, I re-read and edit them so that I can ensure (as much as possible) that they're achieving my set goal. The same is true of the ESL classroom.
These are the same types of editing routines you'll want to incorporate into your classroom. It's not always realistic to do peer-editing or to go through a piece of writing with a fine tooth comb. However, as a native speaker, I almost always re-read and do a quick edit of everything I write.
What Happens After Writing?
We, as teachers, hardly ever talk about the post-planning period, which is really just an extension of planning. Nevertheless, this is where some of the most important and influential decisions are made!
Before you set your task in stone, think about what you’re planning to do with the finished piece. A writing activity can become so much more important to your students if the final piece isn’t just going to end up on the teacher’s desk. If you’re having students write stories, “publish” them in your classroom library. If your students are writing an email response to an article, have them actually email it to the author!
Not only will the activity become a writing journey, which is much more memorable, but it will also give your students a clear idea of how to make writing decisions and construct the text. There will be more weight to the assignment.
Another thing that is really important after the activity is finished, is the feedback you give. When your students have completed their writing task and you’re looking over it or grading it, try not to only give feedback on the mechanics of writing. Grammar, spelling, and punctuation are all very important for communication, but they’re not the only things that should be considered.
Ask yourself if your students are using appropriate language for the audience, communicating their ideas well, and writing in a cohesive manner. This type of feedback will go much further than simply marking a missing comma.
Any writing task can be turned into a practical and purposeful writing task, by simply figuring out your reason for teaching writing, your purpose for the activity, and setting up realistic routines around the writing assignment. Nobody wants to have to write just to write, or just to receive a grade. Find a way to make your students' writing assignments come alive! It'll go a long way.
If you're looking for some more resources on creating writing tasks, check out the following Everyday ESL articles:
I Want to Hear From You!
What is your favorite writing task to do with your students?
How do you make sure you're meeting your students' needs and creating realistic assignments?