I’ve taught English composition classes. We worked on thesis statements, clarity, organization and more. We read, discussed, and wrote about books and academic articles about complex topics and themes. I’ve also taught beginning ESL classes where the students often struggle with correctly creating basic sentences. At first glance, you may think that beginning ESL courses have nothing in common with high-level comp classes. But can they? Should they? Can beginning ESL language learners be asked to write in paragraphs while they’re still learning to form sentences? In my experience, they can.
As students advance to higher levels, they will be asked to write more. Whether they plan to pursue a degree or look for a better job, writing will also be a very useful tool for them. Of course, I can’t have my beginning-level students to read academic articles and write multiple page essays, but there are things I can do at the beginning that will set the stage to help them as they move through levels of ESL and into college courses, certificate programs, or better employment opportunities.
There’s no question that writing can be challenging, but with the right support, it’s also possible; challenge in the right amounts can create interest and facilitate learning. In the rest of this post, I’ll walk you through things that I have done in my beginning classes to facilitate and grow students’ writing skills. The activities are based around the idea of writing about a picture. For beginning students, using a picture as a topic is a great way to get them started with writing and improve their overall language skills. It facilitates the use of grammar and vocabulary learned in beginning classes such as BE and HAVE, the simple present and present progressive, descriptions of people, family, school, jobs, professions, etc.
1. Example Paragraphs
What writing looks like week one of a beginning ESL class is different than even week 10 of the same class. It’s a process that builds and expands. One way I introduce the writing process in beginning classes is by using example paragraphs. Although I use them throughout the whole semester to model things we’re working on, they can be especially useful at the very beginning when students have very limited knowledge of the language.
I use example paragraphs in many different ways. I use them as a model before asking students to write. Sometimes I’ll use an example paragraph as a way to introduce a grammar topic before we go over it. Other times, I’ll use it after a grammar lesson to practice. I often type several different paragraphs and put pictures at the top and display them around the room at the beginning of class for students to walk around and read. Even when I’m not using them as a starting place for writing, it’s still exposing students to the type of writing they will be doing. Below is an example that can be used at the very beginning of the language learning process. Although it’s very simple, it still models more advanced writing conventions such as a title, paragraph formatting, and a topic sentence.
1. BE Verb Paragraph Practice Activity: Imagine that it’s the beginning of the semester. You just covered the BE verb and your unit’s theme is family. You could use this handout to get your students to write and share a paragraph. The handout consists of three pages. The first page is the example paragraph. The second page is a cloze in case students need extra practice with the structure. The last page asks the students to write their own paragraph. The picture topic sentence has been started for them, and their job is to finish it and write a short paragraph. After they finish, I ask them to stand up and find five people to read their paragraph to.
How is this activity similar to high-level comp classes? Students get a prompt (the picture) and are asked to write about it. The idea of a topic sentence is being quietly introduced to students, so in later courses when they’re asked to write a topic sentence, it won’t be completely unfamiliar to them, and as mentioned before, students see a title and are also becoming familiar with the convention of indentation for a paragraph.
2. There is / There are for transitions: Once students learn there is and there are, you can model them being used as transitional phrases in a picture paragraph. They work well to introduce new elements in the photo. You can have them practice using there is/there are for the transition and then the correct pronoun thereafter. For example “There is a man. His name is Billy. He’s…” Click on the link below to see an example paragraph that models this. Although students are not yet writing more advanced paragraphs or essays, the idea of organizing and grouping like things together is being practiced and will indeed come in handy later.
3. Later in the semester: As the semester progresses, the paragraphs also progress. At first, students only have the BE verb to use as a tool, but later, they have HAVE, the present tense, and the present progressive as well as more vocabulary. Every time we learn something new in class, students have more tools to use to expand their writing and I show them how they use these tools to expand their writing. Here’s an example paragraph that I would use later in the semester.
2. Quick Writes – Practice, Practice, Practice
Writing is a process; the more a student practices it, the better they’ll get at it. I often start my class off with a picture displayed on the screen and give them 10-15 minutes to write about it. It becomes a routine in my class, which is great because it keeps students in practice. I collect these and give them feedback. (On a side note, this is also a great way to promote arriving on time. If they come late, they miss this activity. If your class is for credit, they’ll also miss some points.) The next day in class, instead of starting with a quick write, you could start with rewrite time to give students a chance to improve what they had written the day before. The idea here is practice, practice, practice. Students can end the semester writing a long, organized, and detailed paragraph about a picture, but they won’t be able to do it if they only practice it once or twice. It has to be a weekly or daily routine.
At the very beginning of the semester and especially for classes where students are at the literacy level, you could instead prepare a cloze for students to complete about the picture instead of freewriting a paragraph. They’ll still be practicing paragraph structure, but it won’t be so daunting. If your class has varying levels (as most classes do) you could have the cloze available for students who felt like they needed it but encourage stronger students to try writing from scratch.
Give it a try. Challenge your students with more writing, even at the lowest levels. They can do it. They might not do it well at first, but with practice, they will improve.
3. Poster Sessions
Poster sessions can be a great way to get students to practice the writing process. The basic format of a poster session is that you put things around the room and ask students to do something with them. For example, I often use this format for example paragraphs. I put them around the room and ask students to walk around and read them. Below are some ideas and resources for writing activities using the poster session format.
1. 11X17 Picture Activity: This is a paragraph writing activity that uses a poster session for the brainstorming portion of the writing process. I created 11X17 documents that each have a picture at the top and a graphic organizer below with three categories: people, locations, and things. I taped the different pictures around the classroom and then put students into the same number of groups as I had pictures. I then asked each group to go to a picture. I asked them to think of vocabulary words for each of the categories that could be used to describe the picture. They could take a dictionary or use their phones to look words up. I gave each group 3-4 minutes with each picture and then had all of the groups rotate to a new picture.
Once the groups had rotated several times and each picture had plenty of vocabulary, I asked the groups to take the picture they were next to back to their tables and work together to write a paragraph about it. Now, they had something to start with. They had vocabulary words and also some organization since the organizer put things into categories. It might not be overt, but it’s guiding students to write organized paragraphs.
You could end this activity with another poster session where groups walk around and read the other groups’ paragraphs or by having each group read their paragraph to the class.
2. Jigsaw Writing Activity: This activity breaks up the process of writing a paragraph and turns it into a collaborative effort with a focus on revision. I started this activity with example paragraphs around the room for students to read. Once they had read the example paragraphs and debriefed I moved to the writing part.
Similar to the last activity, I had created 11X17 documents with a picture on top. This time, I put writing lines below the picture. I taped them around the room and then put students into pairs. I gave each student a role. One student was a scribe (the person who held the pen and wrote) and the other was the dictionary manager (the person with the dictionary who looked up words and checked spelling). I purposefully paired weak students with strong students. The weak students were the scribes and the strong students were the dictionary managers. This prevented stronger students from taking over the process.
Once students were paired and understood their roles, I asked each pair to stand by a picture. I asked them to start writing a paragraph. I gave them about 3-4 minutes to write. Then I rotated all of the pairs to a new picture and asked them to check the previous pair’s writing and make corrections if needed and then keep writing the paragraph. Once we had rotated a number of times and the paragraphs were mostly developed, I asked each pair to take a paragraph back to their table and work on rewriting it to make it more organized and more developed. At the end, students read their paragraphs to the class.
This activity sequence promotes collaboration. I noticed that because the stronger students were not allowed to write, they were helping guide the weaker students in the writing process. It also promoted revision because they had to check the previous pair’s writing and decide if there were any errors. It was also a fun activity that got students moving and working together.
4. Topic Sentences and Organization
Some of you may look at these next two categories and say, “Not my students. Not at my level. They’re not ready.” I get it. The idea of a beginning language learner working on writing topic sentences and doing peer review may seem somewhat daunting, but I can speak from experience and say that it’s possible. If students have been practicing something from the very beginning, they’ll be prepared for the demands at the higher levels.
1. Organizing: Near the beginning of the semester, my beginning level students were writing at random. I’d ask them to describe a picture and they would, but often with no order. They’d say something about one person, comment on the wall, talk about something else, come back to the person they’d originally talked about, etc. So, in order to talk about the idea of organization, I created this slideshow to talk about how to organize a paragraph about a picture. Look in the speaker notes section at the bottom of each slide for my notes about each part of the lesson. The slides use pictures and color coding to help beginning students start thinking about organizing their writing. It also models the idea of a topic sentence. I give my students the sentence frame “This is a picture of….” and ask them to use it or an equivalent sentence at the beginning of all of their paragraphs. This gets them use to the idea of introducing the topic of their writing.
2. Graphic Organizers: Graphic organizers are a great way to guide students in the writing process. Below are some great ones for beginning-level writers. The first one is a brainstorming tool to help students organize their paragraphs. At the top of each column, they write an important thing in the picture, for example, the dad. Below that, they write all of the vocabulary words they know that would be used to describe that person. The second organizer helps practice using simple present and present progressive.
5. Peer Review
Although peer review at level one is very different than at higher levels, it’s still a useful activity. It helps students think about writing as a process that needs to be improved, and it gives students a chance to see what other people in class are doing. Below are some resources and ideas about how to tackle peer review in your beginning ESL class.
1. Paragraph Rubric: I use a rubric in my beginning class for their paragraphs. I start using it later in the semester once we’ve covered enough material for students to be able to start writing more extensive descriptions. It makes my expectations clear and helps students see what they’re doing well, and what they might need to improve on. It also helps with peer review since they’re familiar with the things they need to look for. My rubric is a whole page because I’ve added a section to explain and give examples for each of the five categories.
2. Peer Review Checklist: Sometimes I do a more traditional peer review where pairs read each other’s paragraphs and then complete a very simple checklist that asks about the things from their usual rubric.
3. Poster Session Peer Review: I’ve used this activity several times before we had an in-class writing test. For practice, students wrote a paragraph as homework and brought it to class. I asked them not to put their names on their papers. In class, I collected and then randomly taped the paragraphs around the room. Alongside each paragraph, I taped the group norming rubric. It has the same categories as our regular rubric with space for students to write tally marks. I ask students to walk around the room and read their classmates’ paragraphs and place a tally mark for each category. After students receive the feedback, I give them time in class to review their paragraph, ask questions, and rewrite if needed.
In my opinion, this activity does a couple of things. First, it provides writers with feedback on their writing and helps give them a glimpse of the reader’s perspective. For the readers, it gives them a chance to see what everyone else in the class is doing. They get to see great examples and also get to experience what it feels like as a reader if a paragraph isn’t clear or developed. It also asks them to think critically about what makes a good paragraph. It’s also a fun activity. Every time I’ve done it, the students were engaged and had a lot of fun seeing what others thought of their paragraphs.
These activities use the principle of backwards design. If students will later be asked to do X, Y, and Z, then they should be practicing such things at the earliest levels. There is no need to wait until higher levels to introduce students to the writing process. With practice, examples, and support, they can learn to write detailed and organized picture paragraphs, and they’ll only be stronger writers in the higher levels for it. Please leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts on these activities. What do you do to help beginning students become familiar with the writing process?