There’s no wright way to right.
A blank page. Just a question and a word count at the top. You stumble your way through an answer, sheepishly hand it in (with a funny feeling it’s not what your teacher wanted) and have it handed back to you later full of little red lines. Did you really make so many mistakes?
It’s no wonder that some students dislike writing. It’s boring or scary, and sometimes both – like a homemade horror film. But it doesn’t have to be! I actually promise this. There are so many ways to help students think creatively and love writing.
What activities are there to help you and your students get the most out of writing, I hear you cry silently at the computer screen. Weeeelllll … don’t you know it, I have some ideas.
Hang on in there and check out number 11 – it’s a method that will completely transform your students’ writing skills.
1. Get away from pen and paper
Writing on something that’s not paper, and writing with something that’s not a pen or pencil, can help students be really creative. Ask young students to make the shapes of letters with their hands or their bodies. Depending on the number of students you have, they could use stamps, stones, chalk, mini whiteboards or paint. Print out little letters for students to rearrange and use to practise the spelling of new words. It’s a great way to get them feeling confident with letters before they write. Check it out below.
2. Play ‘continue the story’
Give students the start of a story, newspaper report or other text. See if they can continue it. You can give them as many clues as you like, and compare it to the original after they’ve finished. You can use any genre of text you like – even a text message conversation. (Who am I kidding? No one texts anymore.
3. Try story swaps
Give students a writing prompt and ask them to start writing. Then, after a few minutes, tell them to pass their paper to the student on their left. The next student has to continue their story. This works really well with intermediate level students and above, but do make sure that they continue the idea of the student before. You don’t want a story that starts ‘Once upon a time there was a very lonely dinosaur’ and then continues ‘who died and then there was a unicorn instead’.
4. Give them a story challenge
This is a great way to force students to think out of the box. You’ll need a dice and some ideas (or download these ones). Whichever setting, characters and prompts are landed on must be included in the story. Make sure students know that this doesn’t have to be right at the beginning (‘Once there was a castle and in the castle lived Super Girl and an evil green monster with a bone’), but to bring them in naturally. This can also make a great collaborative speaking game if you have time at the end of a lesson.
5. Try image-based writing
An image makes a great writing prompt. It does lead you to Google some very weird things though, such as ‘cat in space’ or ‘llama being arrested’. If my computer is being monitored by the CIA, they’ve probably got a lot of questions for me. You can find copyright-free photos on websites like Unsplash. Challenge students to write a newspaper article or a diary entry based on the picture.
6. Use comic book writing
When we think about a text, we often think of sentences and paragraphs – but there are many more kinds of texts that learners can produce. One that really helps young learners feel confident and enjoy writing is comics. Encourage them to invent their own characters and super powers before writing a short story. Include speech bubbles in your template so that learners are encouraged to write as well as draw.
7. Start speed writing
There’s such a thing as paralysing perfection. Sometimes, we need to get students in the mindset of fluency and speed over perfect grammar and punctuation. Give students a time limit for an activity (I like to use the length of a song). I’ve even heard of teachers asking students to write while blindfolded in order to get them out of the perfection mindset.
8. Get laughing with Mad Libs
If you’ve never tried this before, you absolutely should give it a try. It’s popular with chat show presenters, so you can check out how to play it on Youtube. You’ll need a worksheet for this one – but there are lots of options available for this (here’s a suggestion below). Once students know how to play, see if they can make their own versions. It’s great for building awareness of parts of speech and being super creative.
9. Try collaborative writing
We often think of writing as a lonely task, done by candlelight with only an owl for company (at least, that’s how I normally write). But writing can be done together. Try making a chain of conditional sentences (works with 1st, 2nd or 3rd conditional clauses). The first student uses a prompt in order to finish an ‘if’ sentence. For example, ‘If I were a superhero, I would be able to fly’. They then pass the paper on to the next person, who continues the situation using the end of the first sentence to start a new one: ‘If I were able to fly, I’d fly to the moon’, and so the game continues. Here’s a template for this game.
10. Write with a purpose
When we write, we’re normally thinking about who our reader is, and what information we need to give or receive. It’s fantastic to replicate this whenever you can in the classroom. Two examples of this are: writing and answering letters to agony aunts, and writing job application cover letters and then holding job interviews. Texts can be pinned or tacked up on the wall so that learners are moving around the room.
11. Go for a running dictation
Dictations weren’t fashionable for a while, but they’re back and looking cool again, like a kid who left class for a year and came back wearing a leather jacket and sunglasses. A running dictation involves you first of all pinning up a text on the wall. Students run over, memorise as much as they can, and run back to tell their partner what their partner read so they can write it down. Other dictation activities may be less well known but work just as well. Try repeating a short text (maybe two or three sentences). Ask students to write down the nouns the first time, the verbs the second time, and adjectives the third time. Then see if they can reconstruct the text in its entirety. This improves listening and writing skills, seasoned with just a pinch of syntax awareness.
12. Is it writing? Yes, it is!
Putting writing in the context of an adventure can make all the difference to younger learners. If you have a student who doesn’t enjoy writing, don’t tell them that this is a writing activity – frame it as a chance to make their own adventure story…
13. The perfect writing formula: analyse, mind-map, plan, write, and edit
From my experience – though it’s tough to generalise in this fast ELT world – even though we’re teaching English as a second language, this is the first time students have learnt about the style and structure of a writing assignment. So there’s a LOT to teach. So the writing process is a key part of teaching. Bit of a warning here – this takes time. There are five parts to this, a bit like a Shakespeare play. But if you get it right it will really pay off. I’ll explain every part here, and then give you a free booklet to try it out with your own students.
Part one: analyse. Give your students a standard to aim for and make sure they’re aiming high. If you have time, analyse an example text. Analyse the loveliness out of that text – style and structure. What makes it great? If your students already have a good idea about the type of text they’re being asked to produce, still take the time to analyse the question. For example, if it’s an essay question ‘Are cats better than dogs?’, how many possible answers are there to this question? What structure might you have to use? What would not constitute a good answer to the question? If there’s a marking rubric, make sure students know what’s in it.
Part two: mind map. This is where all ideas come in. All of them. And that one. Yup, that too. Ask students to be as creative as possible. So if your question is ‘Are cats better than dogs?’, ask students to think of as many ways as possible in which cats are better, and in which dogs are better. No idea is too silly. Get it all down on paper.
Part three: plan. Your students will have lots of ideas – now ask them to be ruthless and cut them down. Select only the four best ones (if this is an essay). Then put those ideas into a rough plan. And – this is the trick – plan language too. What tenses would they like to include? What linking words? What adjectives or adverbs? Again, it’s all about helping students aim high and be conscious of their language use.
Part four – write. I’ll let you figure this one out.
Part five – edit. Ask students to be super analytical of their own – or each other’s – work. Ask them to take a look back at their question analysis and plan. Did they meet the criteria? Did they structure their writing as per their plan and include the language they wanted to? Depending on your objectives, students might edit their original draft or re-write completely.
Sound like a lot? This Analyse-Mind Map-Plan-Write-Edit structure works really well – even with younger learners.
Here’s a whole booklet for story writing using this method.
Wow, that’s a big bunch of ideas! I hope that you found something interesting and useful for your class.
A huge thanks to Miranda for taking the time to create such an inspiring post. I hope you are motivated enough to get your students writing either in class or remotely. Also, don’t forget to share your favourite ideas for getting your ESL students writing.