Category Archives: ESL Writing

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

A True Story to Motivate Students to Read More

 

Reading while eating

Reading every chance you get.

An international student, Emily, was really struggling with the grammar in her writing assignments.  Even though she worked with a tutor, she was continuously making basic mistakes.  Last fall, we reluctantly promoted her to my higher-level Writing course.  She started out as the third lowest in grammar-in-writing skills out of 17 students.  Ten weeks later, she was the second best.  I was totally amazed!

At the end of the Fall term, she passed my class and then took English Comp (English 101) during the Winter term.  She got an A.

I had a chance to talk to her about her remarkable turn-around.  What she did is not beyond what other students can do.  After that opportunity that I had to talk to her, every term, I share with all my students her story.  Here is the PowerPoint that I use to do this in case you’d like to tell your students about how a peer of theirs was able to improve the grammar in her writing in a relatively short time.  True story about improving grammar in writing thru reading

I’ll summarize what she had done below.

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Give the Writer not the Editor Control during Peer Editing in Writing Class

Writer peer editor

Writer has control during peer editing

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

After a peer-editing session, a student said, “My peer editor was kind of rude.  He was too critical and told me to change my grammar in places that were not wrong.  He also told me to change my thesis statement.  But I think I already had a good one.”

Another students said, “My peer editor read my essay and filled out the checklist.  She said she found nothing that needed to be improved.  I was surprised because I think some parts were weak.”

There is a peer-editing process which can alleviate the problem of the over-critical editor and under-involved one.  In this process, the peer-editor is NOT expected to find places to improve; instead the writer solicits specific advice.  In other words, the writer has control.

The peer editing activity below involves critical thinking on the part of the writer.  Unlike the common peer-editing format of the instructor providing questions /checklists for the peer to complete while reading their partner’s essay, in the approach described below, the writers themselves decide what advice/help they would like from their peers.

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Pleasures of “Marking” a Stack of Essays (Flow)

Joy

Feeling euphoria from flow

Early in my career, I had a whisper conversation with two of my novice colleagues.  We had often heard several of our other colleague lament the fact that they had just picked up a set of essays and would have to spend several hours marking them.  To them, it seemed drudgery, and they assumed all of us felt the same.  In private, the two novice colleagues and I were a bit surprised and relieved to find that we actually enjoyed the process of marking our students essays and giving them feedback.  We weren’t weird for feeling this way.   Over 35 years later, I still find this a rewarding experience.  One of the reasons is that it allows me an opportunity to experience flow.

A well-known research psychologist, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (he has humorously explained that his name is pronounced “chicks send me high”) has described this state as having several characteristics.  Amazingly, in our job as ESL instructors, we often get to experience this.

Look at what happens when we are checking a set of essays and how that activity can lead to the euphoric experience of flow:

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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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