Rachael Roberts - Motivating students to write

Why is it that so often when we announce a writing activity a groan goes up from the class?

Speaking activities are rarely greeted this way, and yet both are forms of communication, aren’t they? Or are they? Perhaps one of the biggest problems with writing activities is that so often they aren’t about communication: they’re about answering a question the student isn’t particularly interested in or writing a letter to an imaginary person. If it’s hard to see why a student is doing a particular writing activity, other than to practice a particular grammar point or set of lexis, is it surprising that students aren’t particularly enthused?
We need to start measuring writing activities by the same criteria as we apply to speaking activities. For example:

  • Is the activity intrinsically engaging?
  • Does the activity have a clear outcome?
  • Is the activity related in some way to real-life language use?
  • Does the activity encourage students to interact with each other?

In a speaking activity it is usually pretty clear who we are speaking to and why. Writing activities, however, are often rather vague about the intended audience. Yet, with the growth of the internet, people are writing to communicate with each other more than ever; something which can be exploited to give our writing activities a more authentic sense of purpose and outcome.

For example, how about getting your students to write a 140 character story for Twitter? Look at the examples here http://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2012/oct/15/twitter-fiction-your-stories

Or encourage them to use one of the many websites where you can publish short stories, such as www.booksie.com?
Or, a personal favourite, http://www.futureme.org/. On this site, people write emails to themselves to be delivered on a specific date in the future. These can be made public or not, just as the individual chooses- and you can read other people’s emails as well.

Or what about writing a review of a product, film or book on a website. From being a rather unnatural task, writing a review is now something that many people do in their daily lives.

Students often prefer to do writing at home than in class, reasoning that it is a waste of precious class and teacher time. If students are all working individually, heads down, for long periods, they are probably right. However, it is perfectly possible to make writing tasks much more interactive.

A classic activity is circle writing, where students sit in a circle and pass pieces of paper round, writing a sentence each time. This can be used for stories, but they will need some follow up work to make them more coherent (though that’s a good task in itself) . Another possibility is to get each student to write a topic that they know something about at the top of their piece of paper. Then when the papers are passed around, the other students write a question they’d like answered about the topic. When the paper returns to the original students, they write a short article about their topic, answering the questions they have been given. This provides a very clear audience and reason to write. It also provides a reason for students to read each other’s work, as they look to see if their question has been answered.

Jigsaw writing is another way of structuring collaborative writing, so that the process is clearly defined. This works well with picture stories or cartoon strips. Put students into small groups and give each group one or two pictures from the sequence. They have to write a paragraph describing what is happening or happened in their picture(s), and should have a copy each. [Incidentally, make sure everyone is using the same tense.] Then regroup the students into larger groups so that there is someone in each group who has written about each of the pictures, and ask them to decide on the correct order of the pictures and make any changes necessary to turn their paragraphs into a coherent whole. Students can then read and compare the different versions.

It seems self-evident that a writing activity should be engaging (though many are not), but as well as not wanting to face a room full of bored-looking students, the more engaging a writing activity is, the more language students are likely to produce and, just as with speaking, this will then give them the best opportunity to develop their fluency.

Thinking about using the different senses can provide some good ideas for stimulating creativity. For example, play a few short snatches of the soundtrack from a film (real or imaginary). As they listen, students write down where they think the film is taking place, what’s happening and who is involved. These can then form the basis for a more extended narrative. Or use pictures. Photos of people can be used in any number of ways. For example, choose a person each and write a brief description of the person. Who are they, where do they live, what do they do etc. Then put students in pairs and ask them to imagine their two characters meet on a train (or anywhere else you like). They have a further 5-10 minutes to write a conversation between the two. Then take in the pairs of pictures and the dialogues and put them up on the wall, so that the pairs of people are together but the dialogues are separate. Number the dialogues and then ask the students to read them and guess which pair of pictures each dialogue refers to.

Or show students a photo of a friend of yours or a member of your family and ask them to write about who they think the person is, what they think their personality is like, how you met them etc. Then tell them the truth.

Realia can also help to catch students’ attention. Bring in a bag with a selection of unconnected objects. Ask students to pick one out each and either describe it in as much detail as possible (this is a great mindfulness activity), or put the students into 2s or 3s and ask them to each write a short story which involves all the objects in their group, before comparing their stories for similarities and differences.

All these activities can help students to realise that writing can be just as communicative and just as much fun as speaking and, maybe, just maybe, they’ll start to greet the announcement of a writing activity with cheers instead of groans.

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Average: 5 (3 votes)

Submitted by Jose on Thu, 11/27/2014 - 18:31

Hi I'm studant from Brazil. I would like you some information about the questions bellow: 1) Can you suggest or give opinion (any theory) about listening? 2) Can you suggest an activity? Thank you.

Submitted by Cath McLellan on Fri, 11/28/2014 - 11:45

In reply to by Jose

Hi Jose, Thanks for your comment. You can find a series of articles (some with activities) about listening here: http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/articles/listening If you are a student studying English, you might like to look at our website for learners of English, which is here: http://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/en/ - you will be able to find lots of listening activities there. Thanks Cath

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