Many students shy away from writing in English as they feel it is either difficult or boring. At the same time, it can be tempting for the teacher to tackle the skill by setting simple compositions with little structure or purpose. However, writing is not only a necessary language skill, especially for students hoping to use English in their work or studies, but also a great way to improve their level overall, and it need not be boring. We look at 7 tips for teaching writing in the EFL classroom.
Tips for teaching writing in the EFL classroom:
1. Know the aim of text and the target reader
Perhaps the two most important things to bear in mind when teaching writing (and when writing oneself) are the aim of the text and the target reader, as these will dictate the type of language used and the organisation of the text itself. Writing an informal email to a friend to let them know your news requires a very different approach to writing a report for your boss about the progress of a project you’re running. Equally, it would be just as odd to give titles to the sections of a letter of complaint – My Shock on Discovering the Item Didn’t Work, How This Has Inconvenienced Me, Here’s What I Want You to Do About It! – as it would to open a love letter with ‘To whom it may concern…’
Always make your students aware of what they are trying to do with the text – entertain? inform? persuade? complain? make a request? apply for a job? argue an opinion? – and who they are writing to – a friend? their boss? you, the teacher? the readership of a specialist magazine? Ask them to think about the kind of style, register and organisation they would use in their own language. The exact conventions might not be the same as those in English, but it will help to raise awareness of the importance of differentiating their language.
2. Use model texts as examples
Next, study models. If your students are going to be writing a formal letter, give them some examples to work with. If they are going to be writing a short story, have them read a few short stories first (graded readers are excellent for this, and are available for even the lowest levels). You can make things more fun by preparing some examples of your own that use the wrong registers and organisation (for example, the titled complaint letter or the overly formal love letter in my examples above). Students can then work together in pairs to rewrite your examples more appropriately before starting on their own.
3. Brainstorm and plan
Next, always make sure students brainstorm and plan before starting to write. The brainstorming can simply be a list of words or phrases they want to include in the text. It might also include grammatical structures they think will be useful; essays might include comparatives and superlatives, for example, letters of complaint might include 1st conditionals (‘If you do not reimburse me, I will…’), while stories will usually have a range of narrative tenses.
The plan need not be very detailed, but even a basic outline of the structure of the text can help students to write better, and in exams – crucially – save time (two minutes at the beginning spent thinking about what you are going to write can easily save twenty minutes wasted on something you decide to cross out later before starting over).
4. Do pair work, do peer work
When practising writing, the brainstorming and planning can be done in pairs. This not only pools the students’ resources but helps to build confidence (it also turns this part of the process into a communicative speaking activity). Similarly, students can peer-read and review each other’s first drafts. This might require some encouragement and structuring on your part. You might, for example, ask students to pick out three things they liked about their partner’s text, be it items of vocabulary, descriptions, variety of tenses, along with three things they feel could be improved.
The most important thing, however, is to have them react to the text as if they were the target reader. If they read a story, did they find it entertaining? If they read a job application, would they give the person the job? If they read an essay, do they agree with the opinions? This should also be the first thing you comment on when you mark any piece of student writing. Mark for content as well as language accuracy, and don’t simply red-pen it!
5. Have students write a draft (or two) and a final version
There’s absolutely no point in correcting a piece of writing if students don’t then incorporate your corrections and suggestions (and their partner’s suggestions) into a final version. Always have students write a draft and a final version.
6. Keep a blog or a wiki
A great way to get your students writing for real is to have them keep a blog or a wiki (with young learners, always make sure you get consent from the school and from parents). You’ll find some ideas here.
7. Read, read, read
Finally, remember – and make it clear to your students – that the best writers always read a lot, so get them reading as much as you can.
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