Have you ever come to the section of the unit that focuses on writing and been surprised at the poor quality of what your students were able to produce? Perhaps they did well with the grammar and all the new vocabulary that came with the unit. Perhaps they were even able to speak about the topic with great fluency. Success with reading, listening and speaking skills is no assurance that your students will be able to write well.
For many learners of English, writing is the most difficult skill to improve. Whether your students need to write academically or even just for work, it is an essential skill to work on in the classroom. Read on to find out some of the reasons for this difficulty and how you can turn your students into better writers.
If you’d like a writing resource to use in your classroom, click on the link below for access. This activity will guide your students through the process of writing a successful and well-organized academic essay. You don’t need to get it now though, it’s not going anywhere. Read the rest of the post and I’ll remind you about it again at the end.
Why is Learning to Write Difficult for Some EFL Students?
One reason that learning to write is difficult is, simply put, that LEARNING TO WRITE WELL IS DIFFICULT. The skill of writing in cohesive, well thought out utterances longer than a Tweet or Facebook post does not come without a certain amount of effort. It is important to recognize, especially when teaching young teens, that you are both teaching them a language and teaching them to write. Don’t assume that they just need an essay topic and are ready to go.
For professionals studying English, who have a specific type of writing in mind, the difficulty is often the tone. It is difficult for students to gauge how formal to be or whether certain grammar or vocabulary is appropriate for an email, advertisement, etc. The struggle here is to adapt to the expectations of a more international or English speaking audience.
The second main difficulty, as touched on above, is that essay writing is not the same in every country. The assumption might be that every school teaches the same thing about thesis statements, supporting ideas, etc. but styles do vary. My advice is not to go into the classroom with assumptions about what literary devices your students are already aware of. If it’s review, it won’t hurt.
The following is a step by step process, a writing workshop, to teach your students how to write an essay effectively.
Breaking Down the Question to Creating a Basic Outline
The first skill to teach is how to break down the writing task. Often, especially with essays, this comes in the form of a question. The students need to be able to break down a question or task into its essential parts. Once they know what information is required, they can begin to brainstorm ideas for their essay.
The brainstorming process can be done a number of ways, but I prefer to create a mind map as it’s easy to show to students how ideas come about and where they lead. If you’ve broken down the question into parts, the first branches of the mind map have already been created. Let’s look at the example below.
What should I include in my essay?
My opinion. Reasons for my opinion. Examples. Counterpoints to my opinion.
My mind map:
Now that students have thought through what they want to write about, they need to clarify their ideas. This is the time to write a thesis statement. The students should look back over their ideas and look again at the question. They need to write one statement that clearly summarizes their ideas. This is what they will be aiming to prove through the rest of the essay.
Though it is important to adapt somewhat to different cultures when visiting another culture; the most important thing is to be genuine and show respect through one’s behavior.
Now that the students know what it is they want to prove, and have already thought about the questions and come up with ideas, writing an outline should be fairly simple. The trick is in organization. How will the ideas flow together the best? Also, this is a good time for the students to double-check that their ideas relate directly to their thesis and the writing task put before them. If not, they need to replace these main ideas with others.
Making Good Paragraphs that Flow Well Together
A basic outline, with only the main ideas of each paragraph is very sparse, like a tree without any leaves or scaffolding without any bricks. This naked structure will not do. This kind of outline is not enough.
The main idea of a body paragraph needs support. Make a list of types of sentences to support a main idea on the board.
Go through these types of sentences to make sure that they understand the idea, and know the grammar necessary, to write one effectively. It is a good idea to do some activities or exercises to familiarize your students with these concepts. One way to do this is to write a main idea on the board and assign different students a type of sentence to follow it. Have the student read their sentence and have the others guess which type of sentence it is. This is a good way to familiarize your students with these concepts or refresh their memories.
Once they understand the types of sentences it is time for them to fill in their outline. They have their main ideas, now they need to come up with how they will support them. Once they are finished with this, the essay is basically written.
The last step, before actually starting to write the essay, is to check how the ideas flow together. Have students think of transitions between paragraphs. Have them check that they’ve ordered their ideas in the most effective way. Help them with transition words that work best in the types of paragraphs they are writing (sequence, comparison contrast, etc.). Now they are ready to start writing.
Writing and Editing
If your students have taken all the steps outlined above, writing the essay is pretty easy. Here are a few things, from the teacher’s perspective, to consider:
- Make sure to give them a time limit. The last thing you want is to have some students finish their essay and others have just begun it.
- Have the students write double spaced. This is essential for editing and commenting later on.
- Have erasers and pencil sharpeners on hand. Practical, but important.
- Make yourself available for students that have questions. You’ll likely also have to encourage some students and make sure to keep others on track.
After the students have finished writing, you’ve got a lot of work to do. Thoroughly correcting and commenting on students’ essays is a big job. If you are going to spend a few hours correcting their essays, make sure to make the most out of them in the classroom. Make sure that the students understand their mistakes so that they can do better next time. In my opinion, giving this kind of feedback is necessary from time to time. But you don’t have to make all the corrections every time…there is another option.
Peer editing is a useful tool as it allows students to become more aware of typical mistakes. I am always surprised by students who have no problem identifying a mistake on someone’s essay having made the same mistake themselves. It also makes the whole process a lot more interactive. The necessary steps to make this a success are to teach your students editing symbols and to make sure that they aren’t cruel when judging each other.
I hope that this post has inspired you to make your students into better writers. If you’d like a writing resource to use in your classroom, click on the link below for access. This activity will guide your students through the process of writing a successful and well-organized academic essay.