Responding to content

This article explores how you can encourage your students to focus on content in their writing and gives ideas for how to respond to it.

Responding to content - writing article


  • Why we write
  • Who we write for
  • How I respond to my students' writing
  • Talking to students about their writing
  • Conclusion


Why we write
Think about everything you have written today. Each time you wrote something there was an 'audience' in mind and a 'reason' for writing. My audiences today have been; my boss (an email), my brother (a text message) and myself (my shopping list!). From each of my audiences, I wanted some kind of response (including buying my lunch).

Whenever people read a piece of writing, they respond to it . . . and it is the content that they usually respond to. As a new teacher, I didn't appreciate how much of 'themselves' my students put into their writing. It was easy to collect in their writing, correct the language and return it the following week, forgetting to think about what the students were saying to me. As a teacher, I fond that we need to respond to the content of our students' writings.

Who we write for

Before they even begin writing, our students need to think about who they are writing for. It is very difficult and unrealistic to write for an unknown purpose or audience. For example, try writing a shopping list for 'Mr X' . Does he have a family? What does he like? Is he allergic to anything?

When I give my students a writing task, I try to get them thinking about who they are writing for. For example, at the start of term, I often ask students to write about their school. I use humour to show that I don't want to read thirty students' paragraphs about obvious things, like the number of classrooms and the location of the library! I ask them to think about their audience (in this case, me) and what I might want to read about. I want them to know that as their teacher and audience, I am interested in their ideas: I want to know what each student likes or doesn't like, what each person thinks.

This idea of different audiences may seem obvious when we are using our first language, but in a foreign language, concerns about grammar and vocabulary can often get in the way of the natural flow of our writing.

I find it helps my students to give them examples of different audiences. This is how I try to do this.

  • I prepare several postcards from the same person addressed to different friends and family members.
  • The students read the postcards and guess who each one is intended for (the writer's mother or girlfriend?)
  • This really helps in getting the students thinking about the content and style of the writing.


I find that when students learn to write for specific audiences, their writing becomes far more communicative than when they write only to 'display' some grammar or vocabulary they have just learnt in class.

How I respond to my students' writing
I like to vary the way I do this, but I always include a response to the content and how far the students have achieved their purpose for writing.

Using Questions
A very effective strategy is to express your response in the form of written or spoken questions. I have mini-conferences with individual students or groups of students at different stages of writing; at the initial brainstorming or first draft stages as a way of helping the students to focus their ideas, or at the end of the whole writing process to discuss the ideas further. In these conferences, I use questions to help stimulate ideas. These are some general questions I use:

  • Who will read this?
  • What are they like?
  • What do you want the reader to think?
  • This part tells me . . . . . . Is this what you want to say?
  • I like this part. Tell me more about . . . .
  • Why did you include . . .?
  • How can you make this more . . . ?


Other more specific questions obviously depend on what the students are writing about, but I find 'Why' and 'How' particularly useful words for encouraging students to open up their thoughts and really start communicating in English. A few thoughtfully asked questions will make far more difference to the development and expression of ideas in someone's writing than highlighting all the grammar mistakes.

For written questions, I use coloured 'post-its' to write questions on. I stick these on the student's paper. In this way, I don't spoil the look of the student's paper. This can be important to some students, especially if they have put a lot of time and effort into producing it.

Talking to students about their writing
Here are some practical ideas I use when talking to students about their writing.

  • Always say something positive. When writing, students are revealing something of themselves to you. Be sensitive.
  • Ask questions when you don't understand the idea, as you would in conversation with someone.
  • Show interest in the ideas that the students express. Try to really understand them and don't be afraid to challenge them.
  • Respond to the register and tone. Show that you are surprised, or offended if necessary, to help the students see how these things affect the reader's response.
  • Ask questions about the context they are writing about, to help the students see what is 'missing' from the writing.
  • Ask the student questions to find out what they intended to say and explore ways of saying this more clearly. Express sympathy and empathy. Students often write quite personal things.
  • Bring in other texts which relate to the content of the writing, newspaper or magazine articles for example.
  • Respond to the task that the students were set. If you ask them to write an advertisement for a product, for example, respond to the success or not of their advert . . . e.g. "I would never buy that!" or "That's wonderful!. Where can I buy it?"


By getting students to think about why they are writing and who for, and by responding to students' writing at the content level, we are helping our students to develop their writing skills and really start to communicate their ideas through English.

Further Reading
Process Writing by Ron White and Valerie Ardnt
Language Teaching Methodology by David Nunan
Progressive Writing Skills by Will Fowler
Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers by Michael McCarthy

Written by Emma Pathare


Submitted by tahir29 on Fri, 07/08/2011 - 10:40


Very nice and helpful. Some really wonderful ideas to help teachers to improve teaching writing in their classes.


Hi Abdullah Thanks for your comment - there are lots of resources on our website about teaching phonetics in the classroom - here are links to some: - a matching game - using the chart with young learners (although could be adapted for use with adults) - A video about using the phonemic chart in class. You can search for more resources using the search function at the top of the page. I hope you find these resources helpful, Cath

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