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When ESL Students Won't Write

January 31, 2006

Colleagues,

Reluctance to write has many possible causes. Writing may seem the most artificial of the language skills unless the writing tasks reflect the reality of the students’ worlds.

Free writing also requires greater effort than any other language skill: after all, if you speak, you don’t have to think about correct spelling! Also for students whose own language does not use the same alphabet, writing can be slow and laborious . . .

. . . I suggest that first the teacher should find out how students’ feel about writing. Help them to articulate their reasons for not liking this activity. Find out what writing tasks they need to undertake in English. If each student can compile a list of the writing tasks they need it will help them set personal goals.

Introduce writing gradually and in simple ways. We live in an age of form-filling so helping them complete forms is a good place to start. Fortunately the Internet has plenty of application forms of one kind or another that you can download for form-filling practice.

Approach their list of tasks by taking the simpler types of writing first. Email is likely to feature so you can set up real email exchanges between students, but keep the tasks simple to begin with: give them emails with gaps to fill so that they have models they can use later for freer practice. If they have to write essays as part of an academic program, take them through a guided course on how to structure a piece. Make sure they understand the different types of essay and how to sequence and connect ideas. Don’t throw them in at the deep end.

If you want them to practice a discursive essay, try it as a whole-group activity first. Have them brainstorm ideas in small groups; collect the ideas and put them on the board. Have each group collaborate on how they would write an introduction and shape a final version together on the board. Building up an essay in this way will help them help each other gradually build confidence in their ability to write.

To encourage a general interest in writing, suggest activities that could be enjoyable: writing a diary, setting up a class newspaper, devising and conducting surveys in class.

Finally I would urge teachers to be careful how they correct written work. If the student’s work comes back covered in red ink, it might discourage further efforts.
Having a correction plan and a key is more supportive approach. Simply put a number by the errors you wish to correct and give the explanations on a separate sheet of paper. Always say something positive about the work first.

Please share your tips for getting students to write willingly!

Patricia

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