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Five W's and H System: Improve ESL Student Writing Skills

written by: Audrey Alleyne • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 8/2/2012

As a start in second language acquisition and students writing performance, use the “Five W’s and H” system used in news stories.

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    Begin With the Five W's and H

    Students can begin their skills in second language acquisition and students writing performance simply by writing on separate lines on a sheet of paper the words who, what, where, why and how. From here have each student write an appropriate or relevant detail of his or her life next to each word. For example, students can write their own name next to whom, or the name of a relative or political figure or celebrity. They then add additional details to each word, eventually creating a complete story. In the beginning, have students write their story in parts, mark the beginning; then after you have corrected this they move on to the middle, and once again this is corrected before they write the end.

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    Another Approach

    Another approach to writing skills for second language learners is to have students draw pictures before they write. The teacher can then integrate the use of the Present Progressive Tense by asking the students questions about their drawings. In this way, the teacher produces a model to help the student to write. For example, the teacher can ask “What building is this?” “I see a bench with two people sitting. I also see some cars. What is happening here?" The student can then explain before starting to write that he and his classmate went outside of the building during break, and sat on a bench near the car park. He can add further details; that they ate some cookies and drank some coffee there. These are very simple sentences with very appropriate and relevant details. The teacher then asks the student to put this in writing, and corrects the student’s grammar and spelling mistakes, if any. The teacher also helps with vocabulary as necessary.

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    Index Cards

    Index cards are handy tools for teaching. Use index cards for writing projects. Have students make invitations, greeting cards or announcements on them. Encourage them to engage in writing for real life situations. This will motivate them and pique their interest, in addition to increasing their vocabulary.

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    Reading and Writing

    Impress on your students how closely reading and writing are connected. Have them read as much as possible in class, and ask them to observe the different styles of writing. Next, have them discuss the styles they like. Then tell them try to emulate those styles in their writing. Like speaking, the imitation of good models is the key to good writing in a language. While speaking should be kept as the primary focus in the student’s acquisition of the new language, teachers should encourage their students to write frequently. They should also make students aware that writing needs to be edited. The student will already know this from writing in their own language, so it should not make them think the editing is mainly because of their language mistakes. In any case, the student should accept that mistakes are expected, and mistakes help me the learning process.

    As students get deeper in the writing process, have them write about subjects that are of interest and meaningful to them. Also have them practice writing letters, book reviews, and anything else that may be useful to them if they need to get a job using the language. Their writing skills will be very beneficial to them in the future.