Teaching Writing to English Language Learners

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies, the study of American history/society/culture. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer.

When you think of teaching writing to English language learners, do you draw a blank on how to support the process? This lesson gives you practical tips and ideas for activities to use in the classroom.

A New Way of Communicating

Imagine that throughout your life, you were taught to write as though you were telling a story. Even in cases where you are making an important point, you have learned to pace yourself and come to that point over time. Now you are in a new culture, and the teacher explains that you must be more direct and get to your main points more quickly.

Students from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds may have developed completely different habits for making an argument or explaining their thoughts. Be sure to acknowledge this, and then consider how to encourage the student to shift their approach for writing in English. This lesson will explore how to promote excellent writing skills, while recognizing the unique challenges each student faces.

It is common for these students to make mistakes in spelling, grammar, or usage of the English language, as they take risks to get better at their writing. While correcting mistakes is a part of the process, avoid focusing on errors.

As the teacher, you should strike a balance between pointing out where the mechanics of writing needs improvement, and encouraging them to reach a bit beyond what they think they are capable of doing. Draw the student's attention to only the most critical errors, and identify patterns of common mistakes, instead of nitpicking over every one.

When a student makes the effort to try new ways of writing, you may see an increase in mechanical mistakes. Continue supporting the student to correct these problems, without deflating that willingness to forge ahead.

Techniques for Teaching Writing in English

Teachers of students learning to write in English have a number of tools they can use to support this process. It's critical to choose the tools to match the student's level. For instance, a teacher can begin with asking students to simply copy a statement written in English, starting with simpler statements and moving to the more complex. This can help develop a familiarity with the language, while building confidence in writing itself.

At the next level, ask students to fill in the blanks of a sentence written in English. For instance, present a sentence that is missing one or two keywords, and provide options for what words best fit the sentence. Once again, aim to begin with sentences and words that will be more reasonable for a student, and then move to more difficult ones as students are successful.

Another popular activity is to use poetry to support student's writing. You may be thinking to yourself, 'Poetry? But that can be difficult!' Actually, certain types of poetry are particularly helpful to students learning English. Consider the form known as the cinquain (pronounced 'sin-kane'), a type of descriptive poem that includes five lines with very specific instructions, which teachers can modify as they choose.

A cinquain typically starts with a line of one word, then two, then three, then four, and then back to one word at the end. Cinquains can also make use of specific parts of speech, such as starting with one noun, then two adjectives, then three words ending with -ing, then a 4-word phrase or sentence, and finally one final word related to the poem.

For example, in describing an apple, a student might write:


Red, round

Crunching, falling, rolling

A treat when hungry


Journals are useful too. Journals give students a chance to create a short composition of their own thoughts. Provide topics for journal entries, such as 'If you could have any superpower, what would you choose and why?'. This kind of storytelling can provide a great avenue for students to develop oral language skills. Consider making the journal project one that involves you, as the teacher, writing a response to these entries.

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