Writing and Young Learners
Writing can be an engaging, interesting and inspiring activity for young learners. Children are active learners and thinkers (Piaget 1965), learn through social interaction (Vygotsky 1978) and learn effectively through scaffolding by more able others (Maybin et al 1992), who can be adults or peers. Collaborative and well-planned writing tasks encourage the context for all of these characteristics to be fully exploited in the young learner classroom.
The nature of writing
Writing is a complex skill to develop and master, focusing on both the end product and the steps to arrive there. Writing skills only develop when young learners are taught how to write and are given opportunities to practice these skills and strategies.
Why we need to develop writing skills with young learners
Writing tends to be somewhat neglected in the classroom, but it is an essential part of language development. Good writing skills are based on good reading skills, you need to recognise words in order to write and use them comprehensibly (Linse 2005).
- Many young learners will not have fully developed their own L1 writing skills, and these strategies may not necessarily transfer to writing in English.
- Writing allows young learners to practise new vocabulary and structures.
- It allows for a high degree of personalisation and creativity.
- It provides young learners to take risks and try out new language, with more “thinking time.”
- Writing skills equip young learners with a solid base for future development and learning.
- A focus on writing tasks in the classroom creates variety and caters for different learning styles
- Teachers can diagnose learners’ strengths and areas to develop in terms of vocabulary, structure, spelling etc.
- Focusing on this area can instil the joy of writing from an early age.
Theories to consider
Much of the theory behind L2 writing is based on research into the development of L1 writing skills. Two main approaches have emerged out of this research: writing as a process and as a product.
Writing as a process involves:
- Thought-showering or ‘brainstorming’ notes, ideas, words and phrases about a topic
- Categorising and ordering the ideas according to the task requirements
- Writing a first draft
- Revising the first draft by improving content and accuracy
- Implementing the improvements in the re-written text
Writing as a product
The end goal is an authentic task e.g. writing to inform, to thank etc. Success is gauged by the accuracy of the content and accuracy of the text.
Accuracy focuses on:
- Grammar and vocabulary
- Spelling and punctuation
- Legibility and appropriate genre conventions
Content focuses on:
- Conveying information successfully to the reader
- Providing enough detailed information
- Logically ordering ideas
- Using appropriate register
- Originality of ideas
Considerations for classroom writing
Here are some ‘top tips’ for encouraging more engaging writing tasks for young learners. Think about how you can employ these with your own young learner groups and try them out!
- Encourage collaboration between young learners and provide opportunities during thought-showering, making notes, planning, revising etc
- Provide visuals, or ask the learners to draw their own pictures to provide the content for the tasks
- Topics should be engaging for your young learners e.g relatable and intrinsically motivating. Write about what they know e.g. games, friends, favourite activities etc.
- Look at writing tasks from a different perspective e.g. rather than writing about their daily routine, they could write about their pet’s daily routine, their pet’s favourite activities, food etc
- Let young learners choose their own characters to write about
- Set challenging but achievable tasks
- Have extension activities available for fast finishers
- Encourage pride in the presentation of their writing e.g. young learners can draw, annotate etc.
- Respond to written ideas, not just language
- Mark positively and give feedback on areas of content as well as language. Encourage learners to value writing.
- Give clear and simple criteria and encourage self/peer correction of written tasks. Using a range of smileys can encourage young learners to record how they feel about different writing tasks.
- After pair/group work, make time to share writing as a class e.g. read out good examples of writing (but don’t name names!).
- Include presentation of learners’ work. This depends on the task type, but work could be compiled into a short books, displayed in the classroom, school message boards etc. Young learners get a motivational ‘boost’ by seeing their written work ‘on view.’
It is the teacher’s responsibility to develop writing tasks for young learners that are enjoyable, full of practice, meaningful, purposeful, social and supported (Reid 1998). Challenging your learners and exploiting collaborative opportunities all combine to provide a learning environment where writing is both valued and enjoyed. Instil the joy of writing with your young learners and you could inspire a future Namwali Serpell, Noo Saro or Jessie Burton!
Linse, C.T (2005) Young Learners. USA:McGraw Hill
Maybin, J, Mercer N and Stierer, B (1992) “Scaffolding” Learning in the Classroom’ in K. Norman (end) Thinking voices. The Work of the National Oracy Project. London: Hodder & Stoughton
Piaget, J (1965) The Language and the Thought of the Child. New York: World Publishing Co
Reid, C. (1998, April). The challenge of teaching children. English Teaching Professional, 7: 8-10. Retrieved September 14th 2015, from
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978) Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Great Britain: Harvard University Press
Rosie Anderson and Wendy Arnold are both consultants with ELT Consultants. They have developed their skills after many years in the field of teaching and training professionals in English Language Teaching, as well as developing materials, assessment and advising Ministries of Education.