Use some unusual and unexpected visual aids to motivate your students!

Writing is greeted enthusiastically by younger pupils because for them it is a new challenge. They revel in their ability to construct a whole sentence from the recently learned words, and proudly present their efforts to the class and to the teacher. In primary school three sentences are already a story or an essay. “The soldier walks to the palace. He wants food, drink and the princess. Three magic dogs help him”. Recognize “The Tinderbox”, a fairy tale by the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, originally published on May 8, 1835, under the title “Fyrtoiet”?

The enthusiasm starts flagging in middle school, mostly because pupils have to do a lot of writing in many other subjects. Teenagers tend to greet any mention of a written assignment with moans and groans. For this generation, reading and writing probably constitute texting, messaging etc, not always with words. It is quite possible to conduct a lengthy exchange in emoticons, gifs and abbreviations. IKR (I know, right?). Traditional writing in words which form sensible sentences which grow into a logical narrative is not easy; doing it in a foreign language may present great difficulties.

We need to motivate our students and help them see this not very popular exercise as a useful part of their studies. Once they are able to clearly formulate their own thoughts and ideas, and to write them down in their notebooks or type them on their laptops, tablets, smartphones or school computers, they will hopefully notice that the words, phrases and sentence constructions are now firmly recorded in their memory too.

Poetry often helps. I sometimes begin by telling my listeners that I am somewhat deficient in that I cannot imagine spending an evening reading poetry for pleasure. William Shakespeare in English, the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin constitute my whole range. Of course as a professional I can deliver lectures on any literary trend and era, but as a reader I prefer prose. This statement, not necessarily true, is enough to provoke a lively discussion. While young kids love to learn poems by heart and can recite the same ones ad infinitum, teenagers often compose verses though they may not be eager to share the fact. I have also had a few quite talented young translators in my classes who would blithely attack a sonnet by Shakespeare and manage to produce a creditable version.

'Delight is the chief, if not the only end of poetry', said the British poet John Dryden (1631-1700). This is one of my favorite quotes; I share it with students and adults. It needs to be written down because the word “end” has to be explained and discussed. School textbooks usually have the one meaning, “stop, finish”, so students may find it hard to understand the quotation. It also always helps to demonstrate the polysemantic nature of the English language. If we devote some part of our lesson to poetry, we have to show our students that it is indeed a delight!

Writing an essay, a story, a letter are the familiar staples of our work. I try to find real email correspondents for my students, so that they do not have to do that much disliked exercise, “Write a letter to an imaginary friend”, but address a real person of their own age and level. It is amazing how well the same guiding questions are accepted and how responsibly this kind of writing is done when it becomes a real exchange.

Using something unusual and unexpected as props always helps. For instance we are all familiar with the following task: look at a photo. Describe what you see in so many words. I happened to stay at a place where the shower head changed colors, suddenly turning red, green and blue in turn. It astonished me the first time I turned it on, so I simply snapped pictures and brought them to the class. The first reaction was, But why?! Is it connected to the water temperature? No. The strength of the flow? No. I suggested they write down their own explanations. We compared the results, and then I offered another tidbit. The ceiling light also changed color! Three more sentences with different versions ensued. Then I showed the last detail: the street lights, which were not the standard standing ones but rather like small floodlights positioned on the ground, also changed color. By this time my whole class dissolved into laughter and embarked on the writing task with great gusto.

Naturally we can suggest that students either bring in or find online their own photographs and pictures to describe. It is always useful to stipulate that they have to explain why they chose that particular visual aid.

Another technique which I find useful is the following little exercise. I bring in a message completely written in emoticons and/or abbreviations, and suggest that my listeners write it down in words. In essence they need to decipher the meaning and find the EL equivalents for the familiar symbols.

Once you manage to interest your class in a writing task and encourage them to activate their vocabulary, you may safely transition to the more traditional topics. “Now that you discussed those unusual pictures (messages, clips, news items), use your own writing as a model and describe the following topic in so many words”.

Nina MK, Ph.D.

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