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Teaching Writing to ESL/EFL Students: Tips and Activities for Any Level

teaching writing to ESL students

Teaching writing to non-native speakers of a language presents a plethora of unique challenges and can feel overwhelming for new and seasoned teachers alike. However, teaching writing to ESL students can be dynamic and meaningful when approached with a bit of ingenuity.

If you’re new to teaching, you’ll want to get initial training and qualification with a TEFL certificate. You can explore our online TEFL courses to get started!

Why is it important to teach writing to ESL students?

In order to effectively participate as contributing members of society, individuals need to be able to communicate their thoughts in written form, whether they are using the English language as their vehicle or not.

Writing is an essential component of productive language, and ELs will need to demonstrate their ability to write in English if they hope to be competitive in a globalized world. Building competency in English-language writing supports reading comprehension, vocabulary expansion, and oral fluency, so there’s so much to be gained. And even if your students don’t plan to use the lingua franca on a regular basis, the skills gleaned from learning to write in another language transfer to all facets of life, making students more aware and more effective communicators in their native language(s).

Teaching ESL writing aids in self-expression, which might be particularly meaningful for individuals who are hesitant to express themselves verbally. You might have the next Henry David Thoreau or Gabriel García Márquez in your class!

Why do ESL students struggle with writing?

Writing in another language is no easy feat, so it’s only natural that your ESL/ EFL students encounter difficulties when asked to do so.

First, it’s essential to recognize that writing conventions differ from one language group to another. Students from various linguistic backgrounds might declare that writing in English (particularly in an academic setting) is “boring,” something they perceive as formulaic. Often, these students come from backgrounds that value writing in a way that might seem “tangential” to native English readers.

In “Cultural thought patterns in inter-cultural education,” Robert B. Kaplan (1966) put forth a model for examining written discourse patterns, which illustrates how different thought patterns influence how speakers of other languages express themselves in written form.

You can observe that English is illustrated as being very straightforward, which aligns with the directness of spoken English. Kaplan poses here that other language groups tend to branch off in different directions in written form, pulling in supporting elements that might not be directly correlated to the main idea and that present as “off-topic” for native English speakers.

Secondly, it’s crucial to keep in mind that writing requires a vocabulary lexicon that can adequately support sharing. Often, even the most proficient English learners struggle to select the language they need to convey their point. When tackling writing instruction, make sure to consider how you’re supporting vocabulary development to support the conventions you’re teaching.

Lastly (and perhaps most importantly), writing is a form of self-expression, and self-expression through writing isn’t valued the same way in all cultures. There is a great deal of value placed on sharing one’s opinions in the U.S., for example, but this is not the reality all over the world. Some of your students might have been taught that they receive and process information, but that they are not in the position to make statements of their own or have the authority to teach others. Therefore, putting their thoughts down on paper might feel formal, high-stakes even, for your students.

What are some tips for teaching ESL writing?

Regardless of the age and proficiency level of your students, or whether you’re teaching writing in an ESL or EFL classroom, there is a myriad of strategies that you have at your disposal.

Don’t underestimate the value of conducting needs assessments

When it comes down to how to teach writing skills, even if you are teaching a group that is considered a certain proficiency level, recognize that there is always going to be a range of experience and ability present. Spend time getting to know what your students have been exposed to and in what ways before deciding on your approach. Teach to the middle to ensure no one is left behind.

Check out the following sample needs assessment to get started:

Think about how you can lower learners’ affective filters

A large portion of all successful teaching comes from relationship-building. In addition to getting a true sense of your learners’ experience and abilities, try to understand their attitudes towards writing as a process and any challenges that might be borne from those attitudes. How can you increase your students’ comfort level? How can you engage the individuals sitting in front of you?

Check out these 5 ways to build rapport with your students when teaching English.

Think about how the writing task can act as a building block for other assignments

Learning how to write in another language can be intimidating, and even more so if your students don’t enjoy writing in the first place. When wondering how to teach writing to ESL/EFL students, think about how you can integrate writing more often and more seamlessly into your lesson plans. Instead of approaching writing in isolation, teach writing skills alongside other “more engaging” activities that students tend to enjoy more. Have your students participate in role-playing and storytelling activities that require writing but don’t make writing the focus of the activity. This is your chance to be sneaky and get your students to build their writing skills without even knowing!

Present opportunities to examine authentic, written language

Providing students with examples of the target language is non-negotiable, but challenge yourself to move beyond the sample texts in your curriculum where possible. Students might feel bored by the selected works in their textbooks – they need to recognize that written language is all around them. Pull from authentic texts that cover an array of topics that you know matter to your students to keep them enticed.

Try incorporating pop culture into your ESL classroom to spice up writing activities!

Lead with function over form in instruction, and then alter your focus

Students can be discouraged to find their paper covered with red ink, highlighting their fallacies. While it is important to provide corrective feedback, consider the purpose of the assignment before marking up the composition. Was the output comprehensible? Did it touch upon everything that you asked for? Focusing on both function (the purpose of the assignment) and the accuracy in form simultaneously can feel overwhelming. Choose your objectives carefully, make them known to the learners, and provide corrective feedback accordingly.

Choose writing activities that pertain to your students’ learning goals. For example, the following clip, from a BridgeUniverse Expert Series webinar, covers how to teach Business English students to write an email in English:

Consider formative assessment and reflective strategies

Whenever possible, assess student work periodically, examining the process with various checkpoints and iterations throughout, instead of just evaluating the final product. Writing is an iterative process, and students benefit greatly when offered opportunities to reflect on their process. Create opportunities for students to participate in self- and peer-revision processes, which in turn will result in more conscientious and focused writers.

What are some ESL writing activities and lesson plans for beginners?

It can feel challenging to come up with writing activities for learners with beginner proficiency, but with proper scaffolding, writing can be inclusive and participatory.

Try group writing processes in class to get students comfortable

Writers with beginner proficiency might default to a deficit mindset, believing that writing is inaccessible for them due to a dearth of vocabulary or experience, so when you start to look at how to teach writing in the ESL/EFL classroom, your first job is to inspire confidence and get students into a growth mindset. To get them comfortable with the writing process, engage them in group writing activities.

  • Choose a familiar topic (or have your students choose a topic together), and explain that you are going to “group-author” a paragraph.
  • Have the students share what they know about the topic, and you, as the teacher, act as the scribe, jotting down their thoughts in a central location.
  • Continue gathering their ideas until everyone has shared, remembering to emphasize that this is a process and that there is no wrong contribution.
  • Examine the individual contributions and note overlap: How can a few thoughts be grouped together? In the process, ask students to elaborate on what they meant and provide examples.
  • Organize these preliminary thoughts to the best of your ability, involving the students and getting them to notice organizational structures and decipher between the main idea and details.
  • After celebrating what you can refer to as the “first draft,” provide specific and limited ways to improve the piece. Did they include everything they thought was relevant to the topic? Could the paragraph benefit from additional cohesive devices? Do the subjects and verbs agree? Provide ample support in the form of examples, formulas, and sentence frames alongside the piece. Invite students to examine the paragraph and seek out these common mistakes (in partners or individually).
  • Create your “final draft” together, and ensure that it’s displayed prominently in the space.

By engaging them in the writing process in this way, you are instilling habits that will aid them in writing autonomously when the time comes.

ESL students
Even young learners can collaborate on writing assignments

Make the most of brainstorming – both individually and with others

Have you ever had students tell you that they don’t know what to write? Students, particularly those at the beginner level, need ample time to think about the content before diving into the actual writing process. Emphasize the importance of brainstorming as a way to collect their thoughts and aid them in their writing. Engage students in different kinds of brainstorming activities, going beyond “write down what comes to mind.”

Consider Think-Pair-Share as a framework for brainstorming, where students take time to think independently about the topic, share their ideas with their peers, and then share aloud to a larger group. Typically, the sharing is done orally, but you could also consider the independent writing portion of the activity as “sharing” with a larger audience, just in written form.

What are some ESL writing activities and lesson plans for intermediate and advanced students?

Facilitate a two-way journal experience with your students

Create a way for individual students to exchange their ideas with you in an informal way with a two-way journal. Have the students maintain a writing journal that you periodically collect to write comments and ask questions. The objective of this exchange is not to formally evaluate your students’ writing, but to gather intel about your students’ progress and connect with them as individuals. Within these exchanges, not only are you building and sustaining rapport, but you are also augmenting critical thinking and meta-cognitive skills with strategies like noticing and annotation.

Cultivate peer revision routines

Learning to write in a non-native language is as much a social process as it is a cognitive process. Involving students in peer revision activities can be incredibly beneficial in that students can learn from their peers (potentially those who are stronger writers than themselves) and develop the ability to think more critically about their own writing. While getting students to effectively participate in peer revision activities requires a lot of frontloading and the establishing of routine, it is the gift that keeps on giving. If you’re interested in facilitating peer revision with your students, consider the following as general guidelines:

  • Start by determining your focus for the activity. What are you asking the students to do? Make it clear to the students what you’re looking for, and provide supports that they can use in the process (e.g., a checklist or rubric).
  • Demonstrate how students would use the rubric, and go through the revision process as a group.
  • Provide sample pieces to examine, and engage the students in discussion around the samples.
  • Make sure that students are aware of what is considered appropriate and useful feedback through modeling. Have them practice, and give them feedback on their feedback.
  • Monitor the peer review sessions and jump in as needed, ensuring the quality of feedback for all involved parties.
  • Reflect on the peer feedback activity in whole-group format, asking students to share what they got from reading their peers’ work, defining areas that they excelled in and areas for improvement.

Timed writing

Once your students feel comfortable with the writing process and the structure at hand, consider different contexts that they’ll be writing in. Perhaps they are planning to take the TOEFL or the Pearson Test of English (PTE) and hope to study abroad, or maybe they’re about to enter the workforce and work collaboratively with others.

In either case, your students will need to demonstrate their ability to communicate their ideas in written form while adhering to time constraints. Plan timed writing activities for your students on a variety of topics and with different parameters. In a standardized test prep context, have students write under the same conditions as the test that they’re preparing to sit for.

Take a Micro-credential course in Teaching TOEFL Test Prep or Teaching PTE Test Prep to help students ace these high-stakes exams.

In a workforce development setting, illustrate a scenario in which an email from management warrants an urgent (and polished) response. In either context, examine the output and discuss strategies that the students used. Student output from timed activities provides fertile ground for examining accuracy in form. Walk students through noticing activities, and challenge them to remember their tendencies in subsequent timed writing tasks.

Teaching writing to ESL/EFL students requires commitment and perhaps a bit of innovation on the part of the teacher, but if done well, it can prove immensely useful in a globalized world, aiding individuals in self-expression and beyond.

In addition to writing, there’s another subject that can sometimes fill teachers with dread: grammar! Here are 7 simple strategies for teaching grammar to English language learners, so you can tackle this topic with confidence.

Linda D'Argenio is a native of Naples, Italy. She is a world language teacher (English, Italian, and Mandarin Chinese,) translator, and writer. She has studied and worked in Italy, Germany, China, and the U.S. In 2003, Linda earned her doctoral degree in Classical Chinese Literature from Columbia University. She has taught students at both the school and college levels. Linda lives in Brooklyn, NY.