Charles Vilina, co-author of the forthcoming Young Learners series, Oxford Discover, shares some tips on helping young learners to write well in English. Charles will discuss this topic in more depth in his upcoming webinar, taking place on 21st and 23rd January.
I teach writing to primary students almost every day. Fellow teachers often ask me, “Isn’t it difficult to teach students to write well? I couldn’t do it!”
I understand the sentiment. Of the four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing), writing is often the most challenging to teach… and to learn. Many people find writing to be difficult even in their native language, so the challenge is even greater for our EFL and ESL students.
Why isn’t writing an easy task?
- Writing is a productive skill that requires concentration and effort, even for those who write professionally throughout their lives.
- Writing, like playing a sport or a musical instrument, requires regular practice to do it well. The more often students write, the more likely they are to improve.
- Writing is a process. Revision is always part of good writing (which is why pencils have erasers), and revision takes patience and effort.
- Good writing has a very important companion: good reading. Without daily reading across many literary genres and text types, it is difficult for students to develop strong writing skills.
Now for the good news.
There are strategies teachers can apply to make the task of writing easier, clearer, and even enjoyable for our students! Here are three that work especially well in my classes, for both fiction and non-fiction writing tasks:
1. Introduce students to good writing
A good story has the ability to send us on amazing journeys, create strong emotions, and even change the way we look at life. Children need to read good works of fiction, and then always consider the question, “What makes this story so good?” In every class I teach, I try to introduce good fiction, and the love of reading, to my students.
In the world of non-fiction, clear and organized writing makes all the difference when learning something new. My students and I read examples of excellent explanatory writing about topics they find interesting. In this way, students learn the best ways to inform others through writing.
2. Motivate students to write about the world around them
“Write what you know about” is excellent advice for a fiction writer. I encourage students to choose a setting that they are familiar with. In this way, they can focus on creating strong characters and an interesting plot within that familiar setting. They are also more able to describe the scenes with greater detail. Later, they go on to create stories in other times and places of their choosing.
I first ask my students to write about what they have seen and experienced in their everyday lives, through a personal narrative written in the first person (I). This task teaches them to be observant and aware. They learn to consider all the information that might be useful to the reader (who, what, when, where, why). Students focus on presenting what they know in a clear and organized fashion. Later, they use these skills of clarity and organization to write about subjects outside of their personal experience.
One simple activity is to think of a clear topic sentence on a theme students know well, such as “I really like English class.” Write this on the board. Then, invite students to give reasons why they like English class, such as, “My teacher is always helpful.” Write these reasons on the board as students say them. After many reasons are listed on the board, ask students to write a paragraph that begins with “I really like English class,” followed by three or four of their favorite reasons.
Mind maps can help students brainstorm what they know, while organizing the information at the same time. For example, students can write and circle the words my school in the center of a sheet of paper. From this circle, lines can be drawn out to subheadings such as my friends, my classes, and my activities. Examples can branch off from those subheadings. This activity can give students a physical profile of what they can write about.
3. Emphasize that good writing is a series of steps
As I mentioned before, writing is a process. We can teach our students to achieve their writing goals more efficiently by following a specific series of steps that will lead them to a stronger piece of writing.
Here are the steps I ask my students to follow in both fiction and non-fiction writing tasks:
- Brainstorm your ideas first!
This means to write freely, allowing your ideas to flow without judging or thinking too hard. Fill the page with anything that comes into your mind. This step should be fun and creative.
- Organize your ideas into groups
Each group of ideas should center around one main idea. This step also allows you to arrange your ideas in order of importance, and eliminate those ideas you don’t need.
- Write a paragraph around each group of ideas
A good paragraph will have one clear main idea, usually stated at the beginning. Continue the paragraph with three or four sentences that support the main idea.
- Revise your work
As you read through your paragraphs, ask yourself, “Can I make my topic sentences clearer? Can my supporting sentences be stronger? Are they listed in the best order? Can I find nouns and verbs that are more specific, and adjectives that are more descriptive? Is my grammar and spelling free of errors?”
A final step is often referred to as “publishing” the piece of writing. This step means that students have revised and edited their writing to the best of their abilities, and are now ready to share what they’ve written with the class.
Because each of the above steps is unique, and has specific outcomes, students do not become bored or frustrated with the process. It is best to do the steps over a number of days, so that students can begin each step refreshed and ready to continue.
After “publishing,” one very effective activity is called peer review. Students read each other’s pieces of writing and then write comments about them. By giving students the responsibility of looking critically at another’s writing, they are able to look more objectively at their own writing.
In closing, I would like to add some final thoughts for teachers:
- Don’t expect perfection at any level. Writing is a lifelong pursuit, and even the most gifted writers know that they can always do better.
- Always emphasize the more important writing goals for your students: creativity, clarity, organization, and conciseness.
- When giving feedback, focus on one area that needs improvement per writing task. For example, does each paragraph have one main idea? Circling every error with red ink will only frustrate students.
- Whenever possible, for every weakness you point out in a student’s writing, also point out two strengths. Confidence is a prerequisite for all great writing, and we never want to dishearten our students. Stay patient and focused, and you will see real progress over time.
With my best wishes,
Would you like more practical tips on encouraging your students to write and developing 21st Century skills with your children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.
Sign up for a free webinar with Charles Vilina and Natasha Buccianti on getting young learners to write in English on 21 & 23 January 2014.