Teaching Writing to Beginning ESL Students

Starting off Simple to Ensure Later Success

Writing in a notebook

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Beginner-level writing classes are challenging to teach because of the students' still-limited knowledge of the language. For a beginner-level student, you wouldn't start out with exercises such as, "write a paragraph about your family" or "write three sentences describing your best friend." Before diving into short paragraphs, it is helpful to set up students with concrete tasks.

Start With the Nuts and Bolts

For many students—especially those who are native to languages that represent letters or words in alphabets vastly different from English's 26 letters—knowing that a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a period is not necessarily intuitive. Make sure to start off by teaching your student some basics:

  • Begin each sentence with a capital letter.
  • End each sentence with a period and a question with a question mark.
  • Use capital letters with proper names and the pronoun "I."
  • Each sentence contains a subject, verb and, usually, a complement (such as a prepositional phrase or direct object).
  • Basic sentence structure is: Subject + verb + complement.

Focus on Parts of Speech

To teach writing, students must know the basic parts of speech. Review nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. Ask students to categorize words in these four categories. Taking time to ensure students understand the role of each part of speech in a sentence will pay off.

Suggestions to Help With Simple Sentences

After students have an understanding of the groundwork, use simple sentence structures to help them begin writing. Sentences may be very repetitive in these exercises, but the use of compound and complex sentences are too advanced for students at this stage in the learning process. Only after students gain confidence through a number of simple exercises will they be able to move on to more complicated tasks, such as joining elements with a conjunction to make a compound subject or verb. Then they will graduate to using short compound sentences and adding short introductory phrases.

Simple Exercise Examples

Simple Exercise 1: Describing Yourself

In this exercise, teach standard phrases on the board, such as:

My name is ...

I am from ...

I live in ...

I am married/single.

I go to school/work at ...

I (like to) play ...

I like ...

I speak ...

Use only simple verbs such as "live," "go," "work," "play," "speak," and "like" as well as set phrases with the verb "to be." After students feel comfortable with these simple phrases, introduce writing about another person with "you," "he," "she," or "they." 

Simple Exercise 2: Describing a Person

After students have learned basic factual descriptions, move on to describing people. In this case, help students by writing out descriptive vocabulary in categories. For example:

Physical Appearance

  • tall/short
  • beautiful/good-looking
  • well-dressed
  • old/young

Physical Attributes

  • eyes
  • hair

Personality

  • funny
  • shy
  • outgoing
  • hard-working
  • friendly
  • lazy
  • relaxed

Then, write out verbs on the board. Ask the students to use words from the categories in conjunction with the verbs to teach students how to formulate simple descriptive sentences. Through this, teach students to use "be" with adjectives describing physical appearance and personality traits. Teach them to use "have" with physical attributes (long hair, big eyes, etc.). For example:

I am ... (hardworking/outgoing/shy/etc.)

I have ... (long hair/big eyes)

Additional Exercise

Ask students to write about one person, using the verbs and vocabulary presented in both exercises. As you check the students' work, make sure that they are writing simple sentences and not stringing too many attributes together. At this point, it is better if students do not use multiple adjectives in a sentence in a row because this requires a good understanding of adjective order. In this case, simplicity prevents confusion.

Simple Exercise 3: Describing an Object

Continue working on writing skills by asking students to describe objects. Use the following categories to help students classify words to use in their writing:

Shapes

  • round
  • square
  • oval

Color

  • red
  • blue
  • yellow

Textures

  • smooth
  • soft
  • rough

Materials

  • wood
  • metal
  • plastic

Verbs

  • is made from/of
  • feels
  • is
  • has
  • looks like
  • looks

Variation: Ask students to write a description of an object without naming the object. Other students should then guess what the object is. For example:

This object is round and smooth. It is made of metal. It has many buttons. I use it to listen to music.