Category Archives: ESL Writing

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

Discouraging Smartphones from Disrupting Students’ Focus in Class

smartphone

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

Research has found that students who multi-tasked with emails, text messages, and social media during class had lower scores on tests than students who did not multi-task.

I wanted to share that research with my Writing students, but, instead of just giving a lecture, I incorporated it in a fluency writing activity.  (I’ve described the step in a fluency writing activity in a previous posting Fluency writing: reading, speaking in triads, and listening culminating in a writing task. )  It involves reading, speaking, listening and writing.  In brief, students in groups of three, each having a different part of an article, read their part to their partners, and then, individually paraphrase the entire article.

I’m attaching the complete fluency activity about smartphones here in case you’d like to try it with your students.  Fluency Smartphones

A Smartphone Policy that Seems to Work for Students

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“Wow” is not Necessarily the Goal in Students’ Essays

Surprised

“Wow!” can be expected from professional writing not students’ writing.

An English Comp instructor told me that after reading a student’s essay, she wants to think, “Wow!  These are amazing ideas.”  I’ve also met ESL writing instructors who also looked at her students’ writing in a similar way.  She wanted them to write about “something significant.”  She wanted to be entertained.  She wanted to learn something new.

Actually, those are not what we are trying to accomplish in our ESL writing courses. And even if they were the goals, how could they ever be honestly evaluated?  I’ve witnessed a conversation between two instructors in which one of them was in total amazement about one of her student’s essays.  In it, the student, who was African, described how happy the people in her village were and how people there did not experience depression even though they were some of the poorest people on earth.  The other instructor yawned and said, “I already knew all that.”

After I read an essay, I might say, “Wow!” but it’s not because of the student’s profound ideas.  It’s because s/he used a technique in a way that really help explain his/her idea.

What were a looking for in essays is how well they are using writing techniques.  These are tools that we can teach students, that they can apply to other writing tasks, and that we can evaluate.

Needless to say, we don’t just list the techniques and expect students to apply them.  The art of teaching ESL is leading students to learning the techniques so they can have them available in their “tool box.”

Here a just a few of the writing techniques that we can teach our students:

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Is the Hokey Pokey Really What It’s All About?  No, Subordination Is. (Part 1)

College

Dependent and Independent Clause

My students are always quite surprised when I tell them this true story about subordination*.  Several years ago, I taught Academic ESL at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP).  I had discussions with the chair of the English Dept. about how they determine which students (American and International) are qualified to take English 101 Composition.  Not surprisingly, he said all new students write a placement essay.  But this is the surprising part: the readers/evaluators do NOT consider the idea-development, nor the paragraph organization, nor the grammar.   Instead they looked for only one aspect: whether or not the writer could use subordination (dependent and independent clauses) correctly.   Their research found that that one aspect was the most reliable predictor about which students would be successful in English Comp.

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Playing Computer Games until 2 a.m. or Lack of Awareness (Subordination Part 2)

Computer games

My students at 2 a. m.?

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

“I like summer because it’s hot.”  Pretty simplistic, right?   The assignment was to write six sentences using subordinators as part of a review of them in my advanced class.  That sentence was the type that I got from some of my students.

My first impulse was to attribute this to a lack of motivation, or to staying up until 2 a.m. playing video games, or to immaturity.  I found out that I was wrong (or at least partial wrong).

A few of my “better” students would write more sophisticated sentences like, Because of the recent refugee crisis in Europe, some Europeans are starting to question their immigration policies.”   When I shared some of these advanced sentences with the “simple-style” students, they seemed quite surprised that they should have been trying to write like that.  They thought that just using a subordinator in sentence was enough to fulfill the assignment.  I realized that I hadn’t presented the challenge clearly enough.  Here is my remedy which completely turned these students around.

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Yes! Fun Learning Subordintion Inductively (Subordination Part 3)

fun

It’s actually fun.

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

“Now, I finally think I get it,” an adult ESL student told me.  After years of trying to understand the terms of dependent clauses, independent clause and conjunctions and how they work (and don’t work) in a sentence, she seemed greatly relieved.

Instead of using a traditional approach of having students look at the rule and then trying to apply it, an inductive approach to grammar seems much more effective (and even fun) for students.  (This approach is especially affective with ear-learners.  See a previous posting Approaching Grammar with Generation 1.5 Students and Other Ear-Learners  )

To avoid overwhelming them, I have found that starting with just two subordinators “because” and “since” is easily manageable for even the most insecure student.  Once they understand how these work in sentences, it’s amazing how quickly they can apply the concept to other subordinators.

I’m attaching here a handout worksheet that I’ve used with lower-level students, and you are welcome to use too.  Intro to Subordinators Pt 3 Ex

Please see Subordination Part 1 (Part 1) and Part 2 (Part 2)for more about this most important concept.

I’d enjoy continuing this conversation with you about grammar, subordination and inductive lessons and hearing your perspectives and experiences.  Feel free to click on “Reply” at the top of this posting, and we can continue this discussion.

David Kehe

Writing Outstanding First Sentences on Essays (Applying Critical Think Techniques)

critical thinking

Critical Thinking

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

“I change my nickname each time I start a new term.”

“They live in the second poorest country in the world and have one of the shortest life-expectancy, but they rarely suffer from depression.”

“One night, while reading a book on his couch in the living room, James felt a sudden chill running through his bones.”

Needless to say, a unique first sentence in an essay like those above (which were written by my students) will not only make readers feel intrigued and interested in continuing to read, but it also can affect the impression that the readers will have about the writer’s skills.

Writing interesting first sentences is a technique that most writing teachers present to their students.  However, there are effective and ineffect approaches to doing this.

First, here is a common, ineffective approach.  In some writing books, students are shown several examples of remarkable first sentences.  Often these are at a level that is beyond most ESL students; sometimes they even come from professional writers.  Then they are told to try to write an interesting first sentence on their next essay.  Or, the more “enlightened” books include an exercise in which students are given some topics and directed to write interesting first sentences for practice.

There are some reasons why those are ineffective, especially with lower-level students.  First, students seem unable to apply the examples to their own writing.  And second, when they write a rather dry or uninteresting first sentence on an essay, they don’t realize it.

There is a proven, effective approach to helping students learn the technique of writing exceptional first sentences.  (Included is a handout that you can try out with your students, even lower-level ones.)

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Argumentation Essay: Tapping into Creativity

creativity in argumentation

Opportunity for creativity

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

A student of mine once wrote an essay about requiring parenting courses for future parents.  In her essay, she mentioned her husband and 2-year-old child, which made for powerful support.  I was quite surprised because, up until then, I had no idea that she was married, much less a mother.  While conferencing with her, I told her about my surprise; she smiled and said that it was not true; she had just made it up.

Wow!  What a clever idea!

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