I remember observing a teacher once, who before the lesson told me that I’d chosen poorly. “There isn’t going to be much to see, I mean, it’s just a writing lesson.” He was right, there wasn’t much to see. In a skillful way, he did go through the task that he wanted the students to do. He even asked concept checking questions and made sure that everyone understood. The problem is, that the whole lesson (minus instruction), consisted of students silently writing an essay in class.
On the other extreme, I’ve heard plenty of teachers, including myself at one point, say that writing activities are a waste of valuable class time. My thought was that writing should be done at home, or used sparsely in the classroom itself. I no longer feel this way. Writing activities can be engaging, fun and useful in any classroom. Read on to learn about one particular activity that left my class laughing till they’d nearly wet themselves.
Also, if you’re just interested in a writing template with specifics for peer feedback, you can download the one I use by clicking on the button below.
What Activities Work With Low-Level Students
One thing no matter what the level, that writing practice is good for is increasing accuracy and confidence. Have you ever noticed a particular mistake that your students continually make? A writing activity might be just the thing to clear that up. While we’re at it, why don’t we dispell the rumor that writing activities in class:
- Aren’t interactive
- Aren’t fun
- Take too long
Let’s start with that first myth. If an in-class writing activity isn’t interactive, it is either due to a lack of creativity or lazy planning. Let’s say that my goal is to get the students to write the sentence “The refrigerator is in the kitchen.” I could just show them a flashcard or dictate what I want them to write, but then they’d only be focusing on one skill and the students would likely become bored quickly. By changing the dynamic slightly, this activity could focus on multiple skills and be a lot more fun. Here’s how I’d change it to make it interactive.
Draw a picture of a house on the board and have a few household items next to it. They could be attached to the board using magnets or blue tack. The students should be arranged back to back so that only one of them, per pair, can see the board. The teacher moves the household item to one of the rooms. The students who can see the board report to their partner, “The sink is in the bathroom.” The student who can’t see the board writes. After a few rounds, switch so that the other student is writing. While this is going on, the teacher can monitor what the students are actually writing and help them.
In my class, I had a few students who would always answer verbally, “The stove is the kitchen.” This exercise gave me a chance to show them on their paper what the problem was. Afterwards, in speaking exercises they self-corrected themselves. This activity was most definitely not a waste of time.
There are many ways to vary these simple writing games to suit the ages and interests of a classroom. Similar types of activities can be very effective for adults as well. Or, if you want to make it more like a game for a group of young learners, have the fastest writer complete some sort of challenge. After they finish writing, they could run to the teacher, with their paper, through a series of obstacles.
Combatting the third myth, that writing activities take too long, can be fixed by making them a routine. Personally, I like using mini-whiteboards and markers. As you can imagine, the first time I used them with my five-year-olds was a little messy. It took them forever to get their boards and get settled. It took them a long time to stop drawing on the boards and focus on the task I was setting them. However, by creating rules for the usage of them and being consistent, this class of fifteen young learners can be ready to start in one minute flat.
What Activities Work With Higher Level Students
If you’re teaching a class of solid Pre-intermediate students or beyond, simple writing dictation games isn’t the type of writing that I choose to focus on. With higher level students, writing activities can still be a great way for students to work on their accuracy, but it’s also good for fluency practice. After all, writing skills are very different than speaking skills. When you write, you have more time to consider what you want to say, which would appear awkward when speaking.
So how can a teacher make longer and more complicated writing activities engaging and interactive? In most student books that a TEFL teacher will encounter, when there is a writing section, there will be an example and then a task, usually fairly sterile, like “write your friend an informal letter about your last holiday”.
If you’ve got a full classroom of teens, the “friends” are all right there. As I talked about at length in my post about teaching teens TEFL, the most valuable teaching resource in the classroom are the students themselves. Use this with writing activities. Give them a humorous topic and turn it into a game.
Last week I had a very simple writing activity. The students were given seven minutes to write a letter asking another student for advice. I then assigned, in a random fashion, who they would be asking for advice. The students were instructed not to sign their real names.
After the seven minutes were up, I collected the letters and then delivered them to the intended receiver. They read the letters in front of the class, gave advice and tried to guess who wrote it. Everyone, including myself, was laughing at both the letters themselves and the advice given. The teacher’s role in this is to:
- Make sure the students do the intended task
- Help them with words they don’t know
- Make sure the letters are appropriate and inoffensive
- Keep track of errors that you can have the students correct as a whole after the activity
There are lots of interactive writing activities to explore like “Chain Stories” where everyone writes the start of a story, then passes it on for the next student to continue. In my experience, the simpler the activity, the better. Again, if the classroom dynamic is healthy, they don’t need anything too fancy to entertain themselves.
Occasionally, depending on the mandate of your class (e.g. an Academic English class) you might need to include some writing practice in your lesson. This or even writing that is assigned as homework can be made interactive by involving peer editing. To make this effective, you’ll need to teach your students some editing symbols and methods. I find it useful to include the proper editing symbols on the writing template that I give the students. You can download the one I use for free by clicking on the download button below (you’re welcome).
Yes, it’s like the one featured in the picture above.
Don’t be afraid to do interactive writing activities and don’t be afraid to get creative with it. After all, the classroom is a laboratory, isn’t it? Experiment.