8 Tips for Teaching ESL Writing

Published by Concordia University, Nebraska 4 years ago on Tue, Aug 27, 2019 10:09 AM
Writing for ESL students is often processed differently than speaking.

One of the ways that ESL students measure their own success is by how error-free their language is. This can make ESL writing, where mistakes are highlighted in bright red pen, discouraging. Students who thought they were doing well and who were receiving praise for their spoken language may flounder when it comes to written language, causing them to disengage during writing exercises. 

Why does ESL writing feel harder than ESL speaking for some students? 

Mistakes are harder to overlook when they’re written out. When your students speak, they can use gestures and body language to make their meaning clear. When they write, those context clues are missing. Written language tends to be more formal than spoken language as well, with less room for the use of slang or dialectic choices. When ESL students are speaking, they can often make it clear what they’re saying even if they don’t use the perfect part of speech. As a rule, writing is much less forgiving. 

How do you overcome these hurdles? In this article, we’ll give you some tips on how to approach teaching writing to ESL students that will help you bridge the gap between speaking and writing.

1. Develop Your Lesson Plans

When teaching a subject, your first step should be developing a lesson plan. That’s true for ESL topics as well. It’s a good idea to start by quizzing students on what they already know so you can determine where the lesson needs to begin. You’ll need to gauge what they should know by the end of your time with them. You may have already been given a set of learning outcomes by your school, but if not, you’ll have to come up with your own. 

2. Start from the Ground Up

Unless your students have demonstrated they understand a specific writing skill, never assume they know it. Remember that each of your students is coming from a different point in their ESL journey. Start with the most basic concepts and build from there. If some of your students are lagging behind others, consider offering after-hours study sessions to help them catch up. 

3. Motivate Your Students

Sometimes, you’ll come across students who seem disinterested in learning ESL writing. Reaching students who aren’t motivated is one of the biggest challenges that teachers face. When you’re struggling to find a way to motivate your students, one of the best things you can do is try to look at the lesson from their point of view. 

  • Are the lessons too challenging? Consider offering modified homework so that students who struggle can spend the same amount of time on their homework as students who are further ahead. 
  • Are the lessons not enough of a challenge? Consider asking more out of these students so they stay engaged. 
  • Do they have a background in failing? Students who are used to failing may choose not to try rather than to fail again. With these students, it’s a good idea to celebrate small successes rather than emphasize failures. 

4. Implement Practice

The only way for students to get better at writing is to write. You can lecture your students on techniques until you’re blue in the face, but until they practice those skills, there won’t be a difference. That’s why it’s important to get your students in the habit of practicing their writing daily. Tips for incorporating writing practice into your lessons include: 

  • Start each lesson by asking students to write a short paragraph to answer a question. The question can be about anything from why they love their favorite movie to what they’re looking forward to doing this weekend. 
  • Require students to keep a daily journal in English. Grade this journal on completion, rather than on content. This is a great way for students to write about things that interest them without the pressure of perfect spelling and grammar.
  • Give students individual spelling lists based on words they misspelled on their latest papers. Pair students off and have their peers read their spelling list to them so they can practice spelling the words. 

5. Encourage Them to Write What They Know

When you’re teaching ESL writing, you’re likely to have better participation if you ask students to write about things that they’re passionate about.  They’ll love feeling like an expert, and it will motivate them to work harder. This also helps students understand how their writing is relevant to them.

6. Let Them Collaborate

An article published in TESOL Quarterly reported that allowing students to work with peers and review each other’s work can increase English language competencies. As students work with one another, they discuss their writing and are encouraged to revise it. This gives them an opportunity to connect their thoughts and their writing at a deeper level and learn to locate and correct their mistakes. 

The key to successful peer reviews is getting students engaged in the editing process. If students don’t care about editing, they’ll just give responses like “It’s good” or “I don’t like it,” which don’t help anyone. Educating your students on the importance of editing sets them up for successful peer reviews and will provide them another will valuable, actionable critiques.

7. Refer to the Three Pillars of Writing

There are three cornerstones of writing that any ESL writing instructor has to focus on: spelling, vocabulary and grammar. Keeping in mind these three pillars of writing can help you find a way to break through when students are having a hard time. Do you need to help them locate the words to communicate their ideas or just help them put the right words down on paper? They’re two different problems that require two different solutions. 

8. Incorporate Games

Games are a great way to keep your students both learning and engaged. Here are a few easy games that can help your students learn the three pillars of writing: 

Games to Learn Spelling

  • Hangman
  • Scrabble
  • Boggle
  • Taboo
  • Pictionary
  • Crossword Puzzles
  • Mad Libs
  • Jeopardy
  • 20 Questions

Games to Learn Grammar

If you are a current educator who can see yourself teaching in an ESL classroom, you can prepare for your new career right now through an online master of education in TESOL. This degree prepares students to teach English as a Second Language in K-12 settings, refugee centers and educational institutions around the world.

Concordia University of Nebraska’s program is designed with working students in mind. Our 36-credit online degree can be completed on a timeline that works for you, so you can advance your career at a pace that fits into your busy life. We offer two options for scheduling, traditional and accelerated. Traditional-progression students will take one course at a time and can complete their degree program in 24 months. Fast Track candidates have the option of doubling up courses at three specific times and can complete this program in as little as 18 months.