Karen Feagin has been volunteering at LETC for the past three terms and holds a master’s degree in applied linguistics from Georgetown University. She’s interested in applying current research to the classroom and exploring questions from the classroom through research.
By Karen Feagin
As a volunteer at LETC, I’m sure I’m not alone in having that moment of looking at the syllabus for class and thinking, “Oh no, how do I teach that?” And that can be different for all of us, but one thing many teachers ask about is how to teach writing. I believe that writing is something attainable for students and approachable for teachers within the LETC context. This post is the culmination of a semester studying and reading research about writing in a second language under Dr. Lourdes Ortega at Georgetown University. I hope it’s helpful to you, and please add your own thoughts, experiences, or questions in the comments below!
Make time for writing
It may seem like there are a lot of obstacles to overcome in teaching writing, but I’ve found that the biggest one is finding enough time to do it. This requires coordination with your co-teacher and your teaching team. The ideal is to reserve the full two hours of a class period for the writing lesson. When that’s not possible, you can still sometimes fit a short writing activity into an hour. Below is a sample lesson plan for a two-hour class devoted to writing. I’ll discuss the parts of it below.
- Plan the writing lesson (before class)
- Welcome, warm-up (5–10 min.)
- Introduce, explain, and model the assignment (30 min.)
- Plan for writing (15 min.)
- Break (10 min.)
- Write (40 min.)
- Share and debrief (15 min.)
Plan the writing lesson
Writing can be used for many purposes. Think about your goals for the class: what do you want students to be able to do, and what are their learning goals? Design the assignment based on these ideas. You can adapt an assignment in the textbook or create your own writing lesson.
These are just a few things writing can be used for: writing to become a better writer; writing for self-expression and creativity; writing to practice vocabulary or grammar learned in class; writing to promote reading comprehension; writing to make an argument; writing to address a particular audience (such as a letter); writing to meet a need (give directions, provide a recipe, apply for a job); writing for academic purposes, and so on.
Introduce, explain, and model the assignment
Explain clearly to students the purpose of the assignment and show them how to approach it. For example, after completing a unit on “living green,” you may want students to practice the vocabulary and grammar they learned and apply the concepts to their own lives. So you create the prompt: Write a paragraph about how you use green living techniques in your own homes and daily lives, and what you can do in the future to live green. Try to use new vocabulary we learned in this unit and the future tense (will/going to) where appropriate. (This is appropriate for levels 3, 4, and Advanced.)
Start by asking the students: “What does this assignment ask you to do?” Have them restate the assignment in their own words to make sure they understand it. Then go to the board and demonstrate for the class how to plan for writing.
Plan for writing (“prewriting”)
Different assignments can use different kinds of brainstorming techniques and organizational structures. Make sure you demonstrate at least one or two options that are appropriate for the assignment. The Purdue University Online Writing Lab (OWL) suggests an idea map and idea list as two possibilities. More complex approaches include clustering (similar to idea map), cubing, and the 5 W’s.
In some cases a brainstorming technique can also produce an organizational structure or outline for the writing. Teachers and researchers disagree about the benefits of giving students an organizing structure upon which to build their writing. Some think it’s helpful for students to have a structure provided to them so that they can focus on creating and linking sentences, while others think it constrains students’ self-expression by putting limits on what they’re permitted to do in their writing. It’s up to you to assess your students’ needs and abilities and determine what process you think is most beneficial to them.
Say you decide to use an idea map for the assignment about living green. Ask the students to think about words and phrases they know that relate to this topic. Examples might include recycle, energy efficient, carpool, global warming. Students can do this individually, writing their words on a piece of paper, or together as a class, writing words on the chalkboard. They might produce something that looks like this:
1. What is living green?
2. Things I already do to live green.
3. Things I want to start to do to live green.
After a break, have the students start writing, based on the planning they did. You and your co-teacher can circulate around the room, making sure students understand the assignment and helping as needed. This is a good time for you to observe your students and gauge different aspects of their writing. Who consults a dictionary every few minutes? Who writes quickly and confidently, filling the page in the time given? Who writes slowly and seems to consider every word? Who erases frequently? Noticing things like this can clue you in to your students’ abilities and comfort with writing. You can also take the time to do some writing yourself, modeling the expected behavior.
Share and debrief
What was the goal of this activity? Restate it and why it’s important, and have students share their paragraphs. If you have a very small class and the writing assignment is short, no more than a paragraph, there may be time for all the students to read their papers aloud to the class. Otherwise, students can swap papers with a partner, read each other’s work, and then talk together about what they’ve written. A couple of students can go to the board and write their paragraphs to share with the entire class.
This step is optional, because we all know the difficulties with following up on student assignments when most of us only teach once a week. However, I want to mention it anyway, because it’s best to follow up on writing activities so that students have the opportunity to practice the entire writing process, including revising. Following up on activities isn’t just restricted to finding errors for students to correct in subsequent drafts, but also includes connecting activities and building skills across lessons.
Students (not to mention teachers) may be intimidated by writing, and there are ways to overcome that, too!
- Include low-stakes writing throughout the semester—short, casual writing exercises that are fun to do. For example, you might have them begin every class by writing for 10 minutes on a given prompt or on a topic they choose. This will help them get accustomed to writing and lower their anxiety about it.
- Try using freewriting as a warm-up activity for other kinds of lessons. Tell them to try to use English as much as they can, but to feel free to put something in another language if they feel like it.
- Encourage them to keep a journal of their daily lives. This can be done on their own time at home or can be part of the classroom routine.
- Help students keep track of their writing. Completed writing assignments can be kept in a portfolio, to show what they’ve accomplished over the course of a semester.
Resources for teachers
You can learn about teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) at the website of TESOL International Organization, tesol.org, where you can read their blog for free or look into subscriptions to TESOL Quarterly or TESOL Journal. ELL-U (National Adult English Language Learning Professional Development Network) offers ways to learn about teaching English and interact with others in the field. And although it’s not specifically geared toward teaching ESL, the National Council of Teachers of English also offers resources for teachers.
You can get acquainted with some of the common terms used in the field of teaching ESL by checking out the glossary of terms, which I will continue to update. (And please post in the comments if you don’t see a term that you would like defined!)
Many organizations for teachers have Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn accounts that offer tips and insights for teaching, notifications about upcoming conferences and training sessions, discussion boards or forums for posting questions, and ways to connect with other teachers and organizations. Be sure to check out these resources, too!