Teenagers use the written word in their own language to communicate in both social and academic contexts, and many of them will need to develop good writing skills in English too. The Writing skills section on LearnEnglish Teens helps teenagers to improve their writing skills for their school studies and English exams. There are activities for a range of levels from A1 to C1. Find out more about CEF levels here:
Check out these tips and ideas to encourage your teenage learners to improve their writing skills.
Having something to say
Writing in any language is so much easier if you have something to say. When it comes to getting our teens writing, that means helping them to think of ideas and shape these ideas into a plan before they begin writing. Here are a few activities to help your learners come up with ideas before they write.
Before starting a piece of writing such as an opinion essay or a ‘For and against’ essay, it can be useful for learners to argue different points of view about the topic. Learners work in two groups (a ‘for’ group and an ‘against’ group) and come up with a list of reasons for or against a particular topic in their respective groups. Then, in pairs, they talk to someone from the other group and try and convince them of their opinions. In this case, they may be putting forward opinions they don’t necessarily share, but this will help them think of both sides of the argument and produce a more balanced piece of writing.
Roleplay is also effective before story writing. Learners act out a roleplay between two or more of the characters from the story. This will help them to shape the character, think of details about their situation, opinions and what happens to them in the story
Speedwriting helps learners jot down all the ideas and information they have about a subject. They write continuously about a certain topic for three minutes. The aim is to get ideas down on paper, rather than worrying about the accuracy of their writing. After three minutes, learners stop writing, read what they have written and summarise it in one sentence. This helps them think about how to write topic sentences. A topic sentence is the first sentence in a paragraph that introduces the main idea of that paragraph.
An alternative speedwriting task is the ‘Chatroom’. Learners work in pairs and write to each other as if they were chatting online about a certain topic. They write a line or two of text on a piece of paper and when they’ve finished they say ‘Send!’ and hold it up in the air. The teacher then ‘delivers’ it to their partner who then responds by writing a response on the same piece of paper and then says ‘Send!’ and sends their response to their partner via the teacher. The process is repeated as often as necessary for a few minutes. Then learners stop chatting and read through their dialogue together. They should have generated ideas between them and then they can read through again and focus on their accuracy. In a big class, a more practical way of carrying out the activity is for each learner to write to someone sitting near them and they ‘deliver’ their own dialogue to the person they’re chatting to.
Images can help learners think of ideas for different kinds of writing tasks. If learners are going to write a story, images can help them think about the setting and the characters as well as the storyline. Learners work in pairs to describe pictures using as much variety of language as possible. To encourage them to think of related words and synonyms, one learner says a sentence to describe the picture and their partner has to say the same thing in a different way or has to add extra detail to the sentence. Perhaps the image represents two of the characters in the story. Learners could imagine the conversation between the characters and begin their story with the dialogue or build it into the story.
Images can help learners think of ideas for an opinion or a ‘for and against’ essay. As well as thinking about vocabulary related to the image, learners could think of all the good and bad points about a situation in a certain image or series of images.
A story mountain
Before writing a story it is useful for learners to plan their storyline. A story mountain can help them do this by giving them a basic story structure. Find an example of a story mountain here:
At the beginning of the story they set the scene and introduce the main characters. Then, there’s a problem and tension builds up gradually until the story reaches a key moment. This key moment should be full of suspense and excitement and is followed by a solution to the problem. The solution will take things back to how they were at the beginning of the story and the experience may have taught the main characters important lessons.
One of the best ways for learners to improve their writing and make it more interesting to read is to use a wider range of lexis. Here are a few ways of extending their vocabulary.
Madlibs is a fun activity you can use to extend learners’ vocabulary and also heighten their awareness of parts of speech and syntax. First elicit lists of different types of parts of speech such as nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs. Take some words out of a short text and number and categorise the gaps in the text, for example 1 = noun, 2 = adjective, 3 = verb, etc. or you may need to be more specific and say what kind of noun or adjective is missing, for example 4 = body part (plural), 5 = colour.
When learners have completed their lists, they read the short text and complete the gaps with their selection of words. The results are often very comical. You can also focus on the word order, for example the position of the adjective in the sentence etc. Learners can compare their completed texts with their peers’ and decide which one works best or is the funniest.
Encourage your learners to keep a synonyms/antonyms page in their notebooks and to add to it regularly. For example, adjectives of personality could be recorded as opposites to help learners remember the meaning:
generous - mean
sociable - shy
talkative - quiet
hardworking - lazy
Word cards are a great way of building up and recycling vocabulary in class. All you need is some small index cards and a bag. On one side of the card learners write the new word and part of speech, e.g. waiter (n), and on the other side they write a definition or draw a picture, e.g. It’s a person who works in a restaurant and brings the food to your table. Word cards can be used to play lots of games in class to recycle vocabulary such as pictionary, charades or taboo. Find our more here:
Dictogloss can also be used in class to help teens improve the quality of their writing as it encourages them to focus on communicating key ideas clearly and accurately. The teacher dictates a text and the learners write down key words and information as they listen (not every word!). Then, in groups, they reconstruct the text so that the meaning is the same as the original text. Find our more here:
As the reconstructed text doesn’t have to be the same as the original text, but should express the same key ideas, dictogloss helps learners to develop their paraphrasing skills and extend their vocabulary. Use short texts with familiar language on a topic the learners are later going to write about. So, for example, before they write an opinion essay about advertising, you could do a dictogloss activity based on a short text about advertising.
Having an audience – reader response
Learners will be more motivated to write interesting content and think about accuracy if they know their writing is going to be read by someone other than their English teacher. In my experience they enjoy reading their peers’ writing and I encourage them to write comments as if they were leaving comments on a blog or other social networking site. They rarely leave accuracy-related comments, but give a reader response to the content.
It’s motivating for the teacher to give learners feedback as a reader too, not just focus on accuracy.
This is by no means a new idea, but I find it very effective with teens, particularly as they often have to write in exams and need to be able to evaluate their own writing and correct their own mistakes. Learners become more conscious of the mistakes they make if they correct their own. There are various ways of using correction codes, but I find the following to be the most effective.
Learners make a glossary of the correction codes you use in their notebooks (sp = spelling, wo = word order, vf = verb form, p = punctuation, etc.). They also assign a section of their notebook to track the mistakes they make in each piece of writing. This way, they can see which mistakes they regularly make and consciously look out for these particular mistakes when reviewing their work.
I indicate the part of the text where the mistake has been made and use the code to categorise the type of mistake. I give the learners time in class to correct their mistakes, either individually or in pairs, and I monitor and check their corrections. If their corrections are still wrong I usually correct it for them, or give them a lot more guidance to correct the problem. I also correct any mistakes made which I think they won’t be able to correct themselves.
However, with higher level learners you may decide to simply indicate the sentence which contains the mistake and see if the learner is capable of identifying and categorising the mistake themselves.
Oh, and it’s always motivating to give positive feedback on language the learners have used well. If they know the language they’ve used is good, they’re more likely to use it again.
Many of us with English as our first language will remember doing spelling tests at school, going home with a list of words to memorise. I find this an effective technique, especially for commonly misspelt words with my teenage learners. You can also select misspelt words from their assignments, and memorising a few words each week on a regular basis can really help improve their spelling. Instead of traditional spelling tests you can play games such as spelling tennis or a class spelling bee. Learners work in pairs to play spelling tennis. The teacher says a word and they take turns to say one letter each until they spell the whole word correctly. A spelling bee is a class spelling competition where learners take turns to spell complete words correctly and win points. Also, learners could make wordsearches or write anagrams for each other.
These are just a few ideas to help your teenage learners develop their writing skills and little by little they should see their writing improve. Learners can also work on their writing skills at home with activities like these on the LearnEnglish Teens website: