Category Archives: ESL Writing

These postings include writing activities, teaching techniques and strategies for evaluating writing skills.

Common Teacher Myth: Students Don’t Like to See Red Marks on Their Papers.

I conducted a survey of 26 students to find out how they felt about getting red marks, which indicated grammar mistakes, on their writing assignments.  I was motivated to do this after some colleagues had told me students get upset or dejected when they see these, so they only marked a few mistakes, and one even changed to a different color, thinking that, like her, students associated red marks with something negative.

Three types of marks on students papers

When I give students feedback on their writing assignments, I want them to notice three things:

  1. Good writing points.  These are ideas, details, examples, expressions, sentence styles, grammar that they did well.  I underline these in GREEN to indicate good.  (See Students’ Positive Responses to this Teacher Technique  for more details.)
  2. Weak grammar points.  These are grammar mistakes or wordings that they should revise to improve their papers.  I try to indicate these in a way that seem like a puzzle that can be stimulating for students to discover. I use RED to indicate these.  (See Most Effective Technique for Marking Grammar on Essays to Develop Self-Editing Skills  for more details.)
  3. Places to improve content.  These are places where students could improve their papers by adding details and/or including examples. I use BLUE to indicate these.    (See “Wow” is not Necessarily the Goal in Students’ Essays and The Huge Advantage International Student Writers Have Over Their American Classmates for more details.)

The survey question to students: If you could only have one type of mark on your papers, which one would you choose?

Color code survey

If those colleagues who thought students were upset by red marks (grammar mistakes) were right, then it would seem that the students would not choose that option, and in fact, probably prefer the Green (good parts) option.   Spoiler Alert: that didn’t happen.

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Most Important Motivator of Students: How You Can Use It

autonomy

This posting includes sample lessons that give students a lot of autonomy.

The most important ingredient for motivating students is autonomy. 1 The sense of being autonomous can produce a very positive effect on students’ attitude, focus and their performance.  Best of all, it’s very effective and quite easy to include this in ESL classes.

Having autonomy doesn’t mean that students decide what is taught in a lesson.  Instead, students can experience autonomy if the lesson is set up so that they can individually choose which exercise to do first, second etc., how fast to work, when to ask the teacher a question or for help and even when to take a break.

A lesson plan template that gives students autonomy (Writing Workshop)

Teachers can organize their lesson in a Writing Workshop using many different types of materials, but it works best when using inductive exercises.  That is because inductive exercises require little or no time taken up with teacher lectures.

These are General Steps for a Writing Workshop and Sample Specific Lesson with handouts

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The Huge Advantage International Student Writers Have Over Their American Classmates

Corn flakes

Include information from your country or culture.

An American student writes in his essay, “Every morning, I eat corn flakes for breakfast.”

His English Comp instructor thinks, “Boring.  Many Americans eat corn flakes.”

An ESL student from China writes on her essay, “Every morning, I eat corn flakes for breakfast.”

Her English Comp instructor thinks, “Wow! That’s interesting!   They eat corn flakes for breakfast in China too. as we do!”

(This posting includes this handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)  Giving information about your country.

It can be liberating to ESL students to realize that almost anything that they can include in their essays/papers about their culture and country will probably be interesting to their American instructors.  This is a great advantage that they have over their American classmates.

However, just encouraging them to include this kind of information in their essays often results in paragraphs like this one from an essay about raising children:

     Sometimes even the most obedient child will misbehave and will need to be disciplined. Some people will spank their children in order to get their attention and redirect them.  However, in my country, parents very rarely do this.

The writer of the above paragraph did include information from his country, but he missed an opportunity to dig deeper in this cultural custom and describe something more specific.  After being challenged to include an example or some details, the writer continued the paragraph:

However, in my country, parents very rarely do this.  Instead, if a child refuses to listen to his mother or throws a tantrum, his mother will tell him to stand outside the house. The worse thing that can happen to someone in my culture is to be excluded from the group, so this type of punishment can be very effective.

An Inductive Approach to Teaching this Technique

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Most Stimulating and Engaging but Often Over-Looked Essay Mode

Definition Essay Korean

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

A frequent type comment by teachers, “I always look forward to reading these essays.  They often give me new insights into my students and their cultures.”

A frequent type comment by students, “When I heard that we would write a complete essay about one word, I thought it would be impossible.  But after I chose a good word, I really enjoyed writing this.”

Another frequent type comment by students, “This was the most challenging essay for me, but in the end, it was the most rewarding.”

Many ESL Writing books and instructors overlook this essay mode because they don’t realize its secret potential.  It’s the Definition Essay.  The potential lies in the type of words that the students write about.

Traditional Definition essays can be very unstimulating for the students to write and for the teachers to read.  There are two major reasons for this:

(1) The category of topics from which to choose provides little opportunity for ESL students to feel truly invested in it.
(2) The students are given few specific or poorly designed techniques which they can use.

The Dynamic Definition Essay: Category of Topics and Specific Techniques

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Students’ Positive Responses to this Teacher Technique

success

          “I feel proud of myself when I see these.”

         “They are helpful because I feel that you are encouraging me and understand                 what I’m writing.”

These are two of the comments students wrote in response to my survey question: “On your essays, I underline in GREEN words, expressions, sentences, ideas, details and examples that were good.  Are these GREEN underlines helpful to you?”

Most Writing instructors like to give students positive feedback on their essays in addition to indications of where they have grammar mistakes or where they have content problems.  These positive comments often are in the form of a message at the end of the essay.  However, there are a few problems with giving feedback in this end-of-the-essay manner.

First, it takes time and extra mental energy to write these in a style that will be meaningful to students.

Second, they are usually too general to be of much use for students to apply to future writing assignments.

And third, it requires the teacher to write with clear handwriting, something that many of us don’t have a talent for.

In one program, on their essay rubrics, they now “include a section where students can earn points for successful language use rather than being strictly penalized for only misuses.”  This is admirable, but it (1) involves extra work and calculations for the teacher and (2) doesn’t specify exactly what the student did successfully in the essay.

The technique of using green underlines is very user-friendly time-wise and energy-wise for the teacher to use. 

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Innovative Approach to Writing: Introduce a new Unit with a Listening Activity

Best Friend Surprised Image

(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)

It can seem like our students have about a 20-second attention span.  So we try to squeeze in introductions to new Writing units during that period of time before they start thinking about text messages, their lunch, tonight’s date, last night’s date …

There is an effective and stimulating method for getting students to immediately interact with a new Writing unit through a listening activity.  We want them to feel engaged as they focus on the format and techniques that they will use when they eventually write an essay in this mode.  This approach does it in a user-friendly, enjoyable way.  Also, a side benefit is that students internalize some new sentence styles and new vocabulary.

First example of this approach

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Writing Class Person Description Activity: Fun, Lively and Productive

 

 

Describe classmate image

This is a paragraph that a student secretly wrote to describe one of her classmates.  All the students are circulating around the periphery of the room, reading description hanging on the wall with no names on and trying to determine who is being described in the paragraphs.  Each student seems very focused on reading the descriptions, searching for the classmate who is the object of the description but also looking out of the corner of their eyes to see what kind of reaction others are having to the description that they secretly wrote just an hour earlier.  There is energy in the room, a lot of interacting and a lot of laughing.

Describe your classmate activity

In brief, the steps for this activity are:

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