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Teaching ESL: Simple Writing Prompts & Ideas

written by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • edited by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • updated: 12/30/2013

When students learn to write English, whether young or old, simple lessons that can reinforce what they know, while allowing them to build on that knowledge are best. These writing activities focus on practical, everyday experiences.

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    Start Simple, Praise Often

    To begin it is important to note, that it is important for teachers to allow the students to get their thoughts onto paper. Reinforce what English Journal they know with praise and gently correct mistakes. This is especially important when teaching ESL, because in many cultures students lose face if they do not excel perfectly. Explaining that you expect mistakes, that mistakes are OK and that what is important is that they try should be a constant mantra in the classroom.

    These simple writing activities can be used to help students learn to write English, regardless of their age. Each lesson can be tailored to the age and/or proficiency of the students.

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    Writing Lessons

    The following lessons can be modified to relate to themes, proficiency levels and/or subject matter.

    • ESL Journal Writing - Students of all ages can keep an ESL journal. The journal can be written using prompts given daily or once a week. It can be used to keep track of new vocabulary, or to ask the teacher questions. Journals should never be graded, nor should the teacher ever use a red pen to write in the journal. Both of these actions discourage students from writing.
    • Flash Writing - Flash writing has become more popular in today's teaching. It allows students to write on a particular subject or prompt for a designated amount of time. The key is to get words on paper, even if they do not make sense. Flash writing can often be turned into poetry or short stories. This is done after the flash writing session is over. Once students finish writing, they turn their work over to the teacher, who corrects grammar and spelling, as well as gives suggestions for a final project. Prompts for flash writing can be sentences or phrases written on the board or pictures hung for the students to view while writing. Allow from 5-15 minutes for each session.
    • Story Re-writes - Story re-writes is a fun activity for everyone. To begin, read aloud a picture book that tells a story. Give each student a copy of one page of the book. Their job is to re-write the page using different words. Allow them to change the ideas already presented. In other words, if the page says, "Jose ran to the store for his mother," but the pictures shows that there is a forest or playground, the student could write, "Jose played on the swings," or "Jose got lost in the forest." Once everyone is finished re-writing their page, put them together and read the new version of the story. This can be altered for older students by giving them a news article to re-write. If their proficiency is high, they can re-write the entire article.
    • Letters Home - Students love to tell about their adventures. Have them write a letter to someone back in their country in English. Begin by talking about the elements of a letter. With older students, you can brainstorm types of letters people write, i.e., business, personal, complaint, etc. Challenge your students to use vocabulary words in their letters, giving points for each correct usage.
    • Pamphlets and Brochures - Creating a pamphlet or brochure enables students to be creative. Pick a type of pamphlet or brochure, perhaps to suggest travel to another country, to advertise an attraction of some sort, or to publicize an upcoming event. This is especially helpful for young or lower level learners. Give them vocabulary to use with the folders ahead of time, answering any questions they may have.

    These simple ESL writing lessons will help students, young and old, to learn to write English, as well as enjoy the challenges of using vocabulary in creative ways.

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