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How to help young English language learners love writing

By Roseli Serra

23 August 2014 - 15:48

Roseli Serra, winner of the TeachingEnglish monthly blog award, writes about how to encourage children learning English to love writing in English too.

One of the biggest challenges teachers have faced in the classroom has to do with writing. Usually students do not want to write, because they have never been encouraged to do it or to enjoy it. It’s worth remembering that most people never write anything of any length in their daily lives, or anything using a pen and paper, or without using a spellchecker. But this is often what we ask our students to do in English.

Writing, like all other aspects of language, is communicative. In real life, we may write e-mails, lists, notes, cover letters, reports, curricula, assignments, or essays. Some of us write articles or work on blogs, forums and websites. All of these writing tasks have a communicative purpose and a target audience. In the English language classroom, writing often lacks that communicative purpose. However, there are ways to make the writing we do with learners more communicative and pleasurable.

I have noticed that early on, children in language schools often enjoy the beginning stages of writing, when they are learning the letters or characters. Literate young learners are very willing to work at tracing letters and words, and are eager to learn how to print their names, the names of their brothers, sisters, pets, toys and classroom objects. It’s this interest in writing that we want to maintain as our students continue to develop their English writing skills. Yet writing can be a challenging skill for children to learn. By its nature, writing is often a solo activity, done silently, involving effort and taking a lot of time. Writing well is difficult, even for very young learners. However, writing in any language can be so much fun!

So what can we do to help children retain their early interest in writing, while they develop skills and confidence? First, students need a basic foundation and understanding of the spoken language in order to be able to write in English. For example, they need to know how to identify and talk about objects and people in English in order to write something about them.

Age plays a crucial role in what we teach and how we teach it. A young learner class is different from an adult or teenager class in terms of the learners’ needs, the language competencies emphasised, and the cognitive skills developed. Let’s focus on what we call ‘late young learners’, who are usually ten to 12 years old.

The characteristics of this group of students are:

• They have longer attention spans, but are still children

• They either take learning more seriously, or are very easily bored and distracted

• They possess some world knowledge and are technologically skilled/oriented

• They are more willing to co-operate in groups and pairs

• They have already developed social, motor and intellectual skills

• Although they are still developing their learning strategies, they make use of them in order to learn more effectively.

*(Adapted from Ersöz, A. (2007). Teaching English to young learners. Ankara: EDM Publishing)

Here are seven activities that I have found helped my students to enjoy writing.

1. Creative writing

 This might be used as an ice breaker, or to consolidate vocabulary learnt in a previous lesson. It consists of giving a student a word and ask them to write an acrostic – a poem that spells out the original word with the first letter of each line.

For example: ‘Classroom Objects’ (this poem was written by a 12-year-old student)

Paint

Elephants

Not

Cry

Intelligent

Life

As a follow-up activity, students can read their poem to the class if they want to. The students could vote for the best poem and the winner could get a chocolate.

2. Peer writing

This is an activity children love doing, as they are allowed to work in pairs. They need to already know how to use the past simple and past continuous tenses to tell a story.

First, you give the students a sheet of paper with two columns of sentences about a young couple who met years ago. Depending on the children’s age, the number of sentences should vary between eight and ten in each column. Next, you ask them to match the sentences in the first column with the sentences in the second one. There’s no wrong or right answer.

Here’s an example:

(1) Mark and Sue met / when Susan was 23

(2) They had twins /and got married

(3) They started a new school for children / after the war

(4) They fell in love / in France

After matching the sentences, the students write a story using the verb tense given in the sentences. As a follow-up, pairs of children can compare their stories and see the differences and similarities between them. In the next class, the teacher can show how to correct errors by writing any mistakes (anonymously) on the board and asking students to correct them.

3. Journal diaries and storytelling

Journal diaries have been a great help to my students’ writing. We use a web tool called livetyping and the Edmodo platform, and the students can also use paper and pencil. I respond to every single piece of their writing without correcting them, but I also encourage them to reflect on mistakes. Most of my students have responded very positively, and are now much more comfortable about exposing their ideas. The journal diaries students post on Edmodo should only be visible to the teacher, not other students, because the entries may be more personal.

Students can make up the end of a story I have posted. As they write on the livetyping platform, everyone can see the story and make comments. In the classroom we choose two of their posts and work on correcting errors. See how it works here.

Another option is to ask the students retell a true story using the target language and vocabulary we have studied in a specific lesson. Here’s an example about the death of John Lennon.

4. Co-operative writing

Padlet is a collaborative web tool that students love! Videos, images and songs can be uploaded on a virtual multimedia wall. I’ve used it recently to get children involved in writing classroom contracts as well as writing about their likes and dislikes. It’s a very rich tool as the writing can be done co-operatively in class, and the students can also edit their work at home.

5. Using word clouds and songs

This is an activity children are very fond of, but it is most effective for students aged 12 and up.

First, create a word cloud using words from a song, other words with similar sounds, and some verbs. Print the word cloud and hand out copies to the class. A good word cloud generator is ABCya.

Next, play the song – either a YouTube video or just the song itself – and ask the children to circle the words they hear. One song I used recently was ‘When I was your man’ by Bruno Mars, as it is a song that both boys and girls like very much. Then hand out the lyrics for the students to check in pairs, and ask them to write an email together, based on the song and using the verbs given.

6. Cartoons

Another technique I’ve tried with my ten- to 12-year-old students is to create a cartoon using a web tool called Pixton. First, I showed the children a cartoon on the screen of the interactive white board with speech bubbles and no words. Then I printed out the cartoon, gave copies to the children, and asked them to create speeches for the cartoon characters using new vocabulary. As a follow-up activity, the students wrote stories about the characters and shared them online with the group. Here’s an example.

7. Book projects

Bookr is an interesting web tool, especially for presenting projects – for example, for an oral presentation in the classroom on World Environment Day. It allows students to create and share their own photobook by collating photos from Flickr and writing text to go with them. It is a task to be done at home as it might be time-consuming, depending on the number of pages the students want in their books. Here’s an example I created in class to show my students how make their own books.

Here’s another exciting book project, in which students become authors.

In a lesson about ‘best friends’, ten- and 11-year-olds write a book called ‘Best friends come in all shapes and sizes’. Before starting, the children learn ways to describe people, such as ‘She’s got blue eyes and dark hair’. They also learn vocabulary on favourite toys, likes and dislikes, and pets. For example: ‘She likes… she doesn’t like…’, ‘Her favourite toy is a/ an…’, ‘She’s got a pet…’, ‘Her pet’s name is…’, ‘It’s a dog/cat…’.

After several lessons working on the above structures, the children bring their best friends to school and we take a picture of each child with his or her best friend. If that’s not possible, the child brings a photo of himself or herself with a best friend.

Guided by the teacher, each child writes a little bit about their best friend such as, ‘My best friend is Ana. She’s 11 years old. She’s tall. She’s got dark straight hair and brown eyes. She’s got a pet, a dog called Simba. Her favourite toy is a video game. She’s got a bike but she hasn’t got an iPad. She likes dancing ballet but she doesn’t like swimming. I love my best friend’. The teacher collects the student’s writing and corrects all the mistakes. Next, all the texts are typed and sent to a professional printing office to make a real book. If this is not possible, it can still be done beautifully by hand. On a set day, parents, families and friends come to the book launch, where the young writers autograph their book and take pictures.

Some final tips to encourage young learners to write:

• Make writing meaningful. Young writers can express themselves about topics that are important to them.

• Invite young writers to write freely, without worrying about correctness. Children who are just learning to write can build language structures and expression, even if they use imaginary spellings and strange punctuation.

• Ask young learners to write about their own lives and experiences. Whether it’s a holiday, or their experience with their grandparents, or any other experience outside the classroom, young writers write best when they write about something they know well.

• Engage young writers in short bursts of writing. For children under the ages of eight or nine, it’s very tiring to hold a pencil or piece of chalk, shape the letters, and remain focused on the message to be communicated. Writing often, for brief periods, is much more effective than trying to write for a long period of time.

• Encourage writers to keep journals or diaries. Writing is one way of structuring thought. Journal writing is important because it’s not public. It can represent, for the writer, a chance to write in the most free way.

• Give writers the chance to revise. It’s vitally important to encourage students to write freely, in their own words, and to try to cover all their thoughts on a topic. (Revision is more important for students over the ages of eight or nine, who have begun to write more naturally to express themselves.)

• Always let your students know you are proud of their writing! If children notice you are reading what they write, they will certainly feel much more motivated. Last but not least, don’t forget to write them a note of encouragement.

Discuss: Is Jane Austen out of date for the classroom?

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