25th April 2017

4 problems everyone has with writing lessons and how to avoid them

By James Pengelley

Last year we described some of our best ideas for teaching writing, and making writing lessons fun.  We couldn’t have been happier with the response…nearly 5,500 readers have visited, shared and commented on this post, making it one of our most popular contributions on the blog.

But, as with any blog post, it’s impossible to cover everything we want to, and in order to expand on some of the ideas we’ve already covered, this week we’ll be taking a look at the key ingredients to a writing lesson, and giving some of our best ideas for developing the parts of writing lessons that are often overlooked and forgotten.
So let’s take a close look at the key features you need to hold your writing lesson together.

First, as always, start with some creative ways to set the context of your lesson.  With any text, these often focus on establishing what students already know about the topic, before moving on to making some kind of predictions that will be checked, clarified, shared or reworded.

Next, many writing lessons move on to examining a model text.  This stage of the lesson is focused on providing input, and an example of what students need to produce.  Here, we typically ask students to read a model text so we can check their understanding of the content (i.e. comprehension) before asking students to analyse key components, features and language used to create the text.

After this, we need to give students some practice with the language they have just seen.  If focusing on features of organisation, layout or style, we might ask students to draft sections of their own texts and then reformulate and rework them to approximate the model they have just seen.

After this comes the production stage, where students (either individually or in groups) try putting together a text themselves.  Following on from this, we might have students engage in feedback, error correction or editing processes to improve their writing.

Easy, right?

Well how many times have you taught a writing lesson that didn’t go to plan?

There may be many reasons for this, but it’s certainly worth looking at some of the most common bottlenecks that might limit the potential of a cracking writing lesson and, of course, some key tips and ideas to address these.

1) Learners don’t like writing in their first language

Something that applies to all language teacher training courses is that the methodologies we adopt in our classroom typically assume that our learners are competent in the same skill in their first language.  Not only is familiarity and interest in writing a personal preference, but it may also be related to educational history and culture too.
So how do we cater to these learners and support them in a way that fosters enjoyment in writing in English?

  • First, identify which of your students write frequently in their own language, which students write frequently in English AND what types of texts they write in L1 and L2.  This might require you to ask them, design a questionnaire or simply lead a discussion activity by writing some of these questions up on the board and having students discuss how this affects their enjoyment of writing and writing lessons.
  • Second, it can be worth having students spend some time after a writing lesson, reflecting on which bits were most interesting/difficult/boring/similar to their own language.  This might help give them better insight into the reasons why they particularly enjoyed/didn’t enjoy parts of your lesson but also give you better insight into how effective the lesson was for each of the students in your class.

2) Learners don’t have any ideas of their own

While working in Asia, one of the most common complaints I hear from my students (teenagers and adults) was teacher, I don’t have any ideas! For me, this was a strange thing to hear….were they trying to express that they didn’t have any idea about what to do, or were they trying to communicate that they didn’t know what to write or how/if the ideas in their head were good enough or correct enough to warrant being written down. The result of this thought-jam was often 15 or 20 minutes of inaction, extremely concise and unelaborated pieces of writing or even in the extreme cases, total opting out of the lesson and writing tasks altogether.

  • It’s important to understand that for some learners, it’s hard to understand why there is much point in trying to do something if there is no guarantee that it will be 100% correct/right/void of any problems.  This is a stark contrast to the philosophy of many contemporary language teaching methods that are accepting of errors and see these are sources of learning opportunities. So in this sense, having cultural sensitivity is really important. At first it can help to give these students more opportunities to copy sections from the model text as this gives them greater sense of support.  But gradually reducing the amount of support they receive by, for example, only providing sentence stems/frames such as I am writing to…./ I would like to know if…. / I look forward…. can help to build their independence.

3) There’s not enough time in my lesson

Why spend time writing when students could be doing this for homework?  Why do my writing lessons always feel so rushed?  What is the most important, class time-worthy part of a writing lesson anyway, and which parts should I prioritise for my lessons?

I get it.  Not only do lessons not go to plan, but it can also feel as if there’s never enough time to get through everything you need to….wherever that expectation comes from.  So what are some ways around this?

  • First, you could try splitting your writing lessons over two days.  This works really well if you’re doing a writing task that is an extension of a reading, speaking or listening task, a bit like the explanation in this article on integrating skills.  This might allow you to do the preparation, brainstorming and content planning stages on Thursday, and the production, editing and feedback stages on Friday.
  • Second, you can differentiate your lessons by providing carefully planned worksheets that provide a specific amount of space for your learners to use. So rather than have them write on a blank page, you could create a simple template that has a box with lines for them to write on.  This clearly indicates to students roughly how much you want them to write….and for weaker students you can space the lines out a bit more to indicate you don’t expect them to to write as much.

4) Students don’t write enough

If I got paid $1 for every time a colleague complained to me that their students aren’t able to produce enough when they write.  As frustrating as it is, one simple answer to this may relate to the fact that many of our students don’t enjoy writing in their own language.

When we talk about the process of writing, it means we are aiming to give our students the chance to go through the motions of experienced writers. 

So if I asked you to stop everything you’re doing right now, and write, in 20 minutes, an email of about 250 words outlining your position on the extent to which governments or local schools should be responsible for setting school curriculum, how easy do you think that would be?

I would imagine that the best responses would be those from people who lied, and took 5 or 10 minutes to think about their ideas, organise them and then put them down on paper.  So why shouldn’t we afford our students the same?

Giving out students thinking time applies to so much of what we do as language teachers, especially with our learners who have limited abilities in English.  In fact you could test this out with your students next time (especially if you have two classes of the same level).  Why not give both classes the same writing task, but with one group, give them an explicit 10 minute chance to plan, organise and share their ideas with a partner before writing…..and see what happens?

Good luck.

James contributes to the TESOL team as a CertTESOL/DipTESOL trainer as well as one of EFA's digital content managers.  He holds a Cambridge DELTA, Trinity TYLEC and is currently completing a postgraduate diploma in teaching (secondary).  He contributes to English language teaching publications, including the English Australia Journal, The British Council and the International House Journal of Education and Development.