Many beginner-level ESL classes focus heavily on speaking and listening. They rely on discussion tasks, get-to-know-you activities, and pre-written dialogues to guide students through the intricacies of using the English language for conversation, but many students need to know more than how to speak.
It can be tricky to decide when to introduce skills like writing to your beginner-level learners. While speaking and listening may appear to be the most useful skills for your students to practice, reading and writing are equally important out in the world. Simple things like going grocery shopping, applying for a job, and going to the doctor all require reading and writing in some form or another.
Today we’re going to talk more about introducing writing to your beginner-level learners in a way that won’t overwhelm them! Instead of simply throwing your students into an intensive task, like writing an essay, we’re going to prepare them by teaching language in chunks, modelling writing, observing written texts, and, eventually, building their own pieces of writing.
Teaching Language in Chunks
One of my favorite things to read and learn about when it comes to language acquisition is how children naturally learn language. Maybe it’s because I have years and years of experience working with young kids, or maybe it’s because I’ve always been interested in natural, self-directed learning, but, nevertheless, I find it incredibly fascinating.
One of the most influential things for children when learning language is how their parents or guardians speak to them. When a small child begins learning individual words and identifying objects like, “ball,” “dog,” or “car,” adults tend to respond by expanding upon their speech. A child may say, “ball,” to which an adult would say, “yes, that’s a ball. That’s a red ball.”
In this example, not only does the child receive confirmation that they used the correct word, but they also begin to learn new words to create a language chunk such as, “red ball.” And while we’re not going to dive too deeply into grammar today, they’re also learning about sentence structure, contractions, and other related grammar in this example.
While looking at how children learn language can greatly influence how we teach language to adults, not everything will carry over. However, the idea of language chunks or phrases can be incredibly helpful in the beginner-level classroom. Consider the word, “crowded.” It’s not a word that we would often teach on it’s own, but when paired with things like “crowded street,” “crowded train,” or “a large crowd,” students can begin to learn about both the definition and the various forms of the word.
When language is taught in chunks, the grammar is embedded. Grammar is incredibly important when it comes to writing. Before you even begin to teach your students how to put pen (or pencil) to paper and write a paragraph, you can prepare your students by teaching grammar through language chunks.
Teaching language in chunks gives your students time to build lexico-grammatical scaffolding. That’s a big language chunk! :) In more simple terms, lexico-grammatical scaffolding refers to a student’s knowledge about the relationship between vocabulary and grammar. Many students learn well by observing and taking note of patterns, so even when you’re not specifically teaching about a certain vocabulary term or a certain aspect of grammar, by using language in chunks your students can begin to find the patterns and trends on their own.
Building Writing Skills
One of the trickiest parts of working with beginner-level learners, whether when building writing or speaking skills, is that language activities have to be kept fairly short and well-monitored. More advanced students can be asked to discuss a topic with their partner for 10 minutes, but beginner-level students will need much more structure and much less time. The same is true when it comes to writing tasks.
While activities need to be structured and short, it’s still important to choose activities where students have the opportunity to make their own choices. Choose writing prompts or activities that don’t have a right or wrong. In the beginning stages of learning to write, it’s much more important for students to focus on the skill of writing rather than the content of what they’re writing.
However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Before your students pick up their pen or pencil, they need time to observe what it is you expect of them. Spend some time modelling writing. A simple way to do this is to go around the classroom and ask your students what they did yesterday. As they respond in a single sentence (or two), write their answers on the board. Then, guide your students through an observation of this writing. Take note of the wh-questions, the spelling of a word, and anything else that your students may notice about the text in front of them. Ask questions of your students and give them the opportunity to ask their own questions.
As time goes on, you can begin presenting longer pieces of written text for them to observe. Write out a few sentences or a paragraph as a class or look at short stories or dialogues written specifically for adult language learners. Continue to guide them through observing the text by taking note of the same things as above. Make sure that you leave space and time for them to ask questions of their own, as well!
Once your students are comfortable with reading and observing sentences and paragraphs, it’s time for them to start creating their own. Ask your students to begin writing their own sentences, and build up to writing paragraphs. Give them prompts and guidance to edit what they’ve written, and then have them share their writing with the class or with a peer.
When first teaching your students how to write, the paragraphs and written text shouldn’t be graded. Instead, have your students observe their own writing with a partner. Guide them through questions like, “what word do you like in your peer’s paper?” or “is your family similar or different?” Focus more on content and communication than on spelling, punctuation, or sentence structure.
Once students are comfortable with writing, you can begin to introduce some structure and focus to their writing. Talk about hooks, transitions, organization, etc. Paragraphs should serve as the answer to a question, even if the question hasn’t been asked yet. Before “grading” your students work, continue having them observe their own written text and make changes based on what they’ve learned.
When you’re ready to “grade,” simply give a check mark if the text is satisfactory, with no issues, and a smiley face or other symbol if you’d like to discuss something with your students. Have time in class for these students to come aside, discuss your comment or suggestion with them, and make changes accordingly.
As your students become more comfortable with writing and structuring their writing, you can begin to introduce longer writing tasks. Whether you have your students write essays or simply journal or write something more informal, you can rest assured that your students have plenty of experience with writing at this point!
Students can get easily overwhelmed at the thought of writing. Not only can it be a difficult skill to master, but many students either don’t enjoy writing stories and essays or find the idea of having their potential mistakes down on paper frightening! However, introducing writing from the very beginning is a great way to prepare your students to write confidently.
Even if your students don’t pick up a pen or pencil for months, teaching language in chunks is a great way to prepare them to write. Simple things like modelling writing on the board and creating written sentences as a class can help your beginner-level learners familiarize themselves with the skill of writing in English. Try out some of the activities above and let me know how it goes in the comments below!
I Want to Hear From You!
I mentioned that I’m always interested in reading materials on how children acquire language, what aspects of language acquisition do you love to read and learn about?
Do you introduce writing to your beginner-level students from the start?