Creating an effective and popular Writing Skills Class for ESL students can be a challenge at best. Students are often frustrated by the amount of time they need to devote to the process and teachers are dissuaded by the correction load that a large writing class can produce. There's also the creative aspect: how to make a writing lesson interesting for students with a wide range of interests and skills. I set out to do just this and, over the course of a few months, created a writing class where students attended regularly, made good progress and most important, developed into enthusiastic writers.
I strongly believe that the success of this class came from the strength of its methodology with an emphasis on grammatical structure and error correction, and the use of interesting and relevant content e.g. I relied heavily on news articles to get students engaged and invested in the writing topic. I developed this writing course not only to have a mass appeal among students, but I also structured it to help students improve their writing as much as possible in a relatively short period of time. I used resources that are widely available over the Internet and injected a healthy mix of teacher and student creativity.
Why is Writing Important?
The first step in teaching a writing class is to realize why writing is an important skill. There are many different reasons why students take a writing class such as test preparation, higher education, personal enjoyment, job requirements, or simply that their parents forced them to do it. Regardless of the reason, I feel that the most important aspect is that through writing students are actually able to see both their errors and examples of really good writing. Students must be completely accountable for their written words, and if they're wrong, the evidence is right there on the paper and they are then able to acquire accuracy through analysis and correction. Also, students have the opportunity to work with concrete visual examples on paper, and with the help of teachers and other students, can interact with and talk about the material. This is key, because talking about language is an important part of L2 learning, especially as students become more proficient.
My writing class met twice a week for 1.5 hours, a total of 3 hours per week. The classes were always similarly and predictably structured, allowing students to develop set expectations about the class and their own effort. Each week, the lesson was focused around a current, relevant, sometimes slightly provocative topic, such as “Facebook use may cause depression,” “Speed dating,” and “Superman comic saves family from foreclosure.” The topics varied greatly in order to keep things interesting for my diverse group of students from different cultural backgrounds with different interests and writing abilities. I would throw in articles from every section of the newspaper and also some from special interest magazines, gossip columns, and popular science publications. Because the class was geared towards high-intermediate and advanced level students, I had a lot of freedom as well as responsibility in terms of choosing topics.
Session 1
The first class session began with a general discussion based on some questions I had created or pictures I had brought in. The students would discuss 2 to 3 open-ended questions about the general topic with their partner and offered their opinion and experience. I then handed out the article and spent some time going over the vocabulary that was necessary for them to comprehend the article, usually 6 to 8 words. Then the students read the article and answered a few comprehension questions which they discussed with their partner. After going over the comprehension questions, I introduced 2 or 3 choices of writing questions and reviewed some ideas and essay structures for how they could respond to each question. I did my best to vary the writing questions every week so that the students could get practice writing in different styles, for example compare and contrast essay, casual vs. formal letter writing, opinion essay, analysis essay, etc. The questions were often challenging but I found that setting the bar slightly higher than students thought they were capable of was a good thing as it encouraged them to strive higher and they were often able to convey meanings and express themselves in ways that they were previously unable to do.
Class time was allocated as follows:
  • Discussion (15 min)
  • Teacher goes over vocabulary from the article (20 min)
  • Students read the article and answer a few comprehension questions in pairs (15 min)
  • Teacher introduces the writing questions and talks about structure of the essays (10 min)
  • Students pick one of the topics and write, while the teacher monitors students' progress (30 min)
After collecting their essays, the correction method was very specific and important. I did not actually ‘correct' their essays. Instead, I looked over their essays circling errors that I thought they would be capable of fixing upon closer review (usually spelling, subject-verb agreement, or part of speech errors), writing carets where they needed to insert a word (usually a preposition or article), and, as a last resort, underlining sentences or passages that I couldn't understand. This was my basic, streamlined notation style, and in addition to taking much less time than full correction, it appeared to be more useful for the students as it made them responsible for correcting their own errors, albeit with guidance from the teacher. This notation style is in line with my opinion of what a teacher's role should be: a choreographer or a consultant, as opposed to an entertainer or a CEO. Students need to be doing as much work as possible, with the teacher standing by to guide and ensure that they are staying on track.
Teacher's Homework
As I marked up their essays, I took note of common errors. When I had finished going over all of their essays, I would write down 4 or 5 of the common errors I noticed (grammar usage, vocabulary usage, etc.), and plan a 20-minute presentation to be done at the beginning of the next class session that highlighted these errors and gave tips on how to fix them. Then I created an error correction worksheet with 7or 8 sentences based on sentences from students' essays (I don't recommend quoting student sentences as there are often errors that are difficult for other students to correct; I revise and simplify the sentences to have errors that are easily correctable based on what was covered in the presentation). For this worksheet, students had to find the errors and correct the sentences. I also added a section to the worksheet that required students to come up with sentences (2 questions and 2 other sentences) using the vocabulary from the previous session's article. Students found this worksheet very helpful because it was personalized to their specific errors, and it allowed them to practice writing sentences with the new vocabulary.
Session 2
The second session class time was allocated as follows:
  • Teacher asks some oral review questions to the class to refresh their memories about the week's topic and essay questions (1-2 min)
  • Teacher goes over common errors from the students' essays (20 min)
  • Students do the worksheet, then compare answers in pairs (25 min)
  • Students ask their questions to each other using new vocabulary (10 min)
  • Teacher goes over the answers to the worksheet (20 min)
  • Students receive their “corrected” essays and make the proper corrections themselves, based on the teacher's notes (10 min)
The structure described here is a general outline of how I taught my writing class. This method proved to be very effective for a group of 15 to 20 students which is a nice, mid-sized class. The time spent doing the worksheet during the second session allowed me to walk around and work individually with students while the rest of the class worked independently or in pairs. I find this one-on-one assistance to be very valuable for writing students, as each student has their own specific errors and questions that they can address with the teacher during this time. And although there is a good amount of time spent doing lesson planning, I managed to whittle it down to around one hour per week as I became more comfortable with the set weekly structure. In addition, the class stayed interesting both for me and the students as we worked together on topics and articles that were thought-provoking and relevant.
Articles from New York Times, NPR, CNN, and The Telegraph, as well as local newspapers like SF Gate. and can also be a useful article source; however, these sites can be very special-interest oriented.
For discussion and writing question ideas, I like this site, which has a large resource of questions grouped by topic.