Teaching Writing

Rebekah Martindale March 2003

[General Stuff] [Fun Stuff] [Other Comments]

General Stuff


I explain subjects and verbs and give lots of examples.  I like to do activities to decide whether something is a sentence or not. I also teach capital letters and punctuation (basic rules).


I teach the concept of a topic sentence as the first sentence, followed by supporting points and a concluding sentence (or sentences). I also teach them to notice and take out sentences that are off topic.

Read How to Organize an Excellent Paragraph.

Three Paragraph Essays:

I teach that this kind of essay starts with a short introduction, which is tacked onto the first paragraph. Then add two more paragraphs and tack a conclusion onto the end.  I also teach simple transitions (first, second, finally) between paragraphs.

Five Paragraph Essays:

I generally teach this about midterm in level 3 at the ELC.  (Intermediate) This is the type of structure they need to know for the TOEFL writing test.  The first entire paragraph is an introductory paragraph, with the last sentence being a thesis statement (a statement that introduces the topics and/or the main points).  There are three body paragraphs (one for each main point) and a concluding paragraph at the end.  This is the most basic five paragraph essay format.  I also teach compound and complex sentences and transitions between paragraphs.  Students seem to be able to handle more complex connectors such as whereas, therefore, nor, etc. if I teach them.

Even at level three, I find that punctuation, comma rules, capitalization, etc. still need to be explained, worked on, and practiced.  I teach students to do formal outlines for their five paragraph essays. I also teach them beginning rules for adding quotations in their essays--to prepare them for longer essays and research.

Click here for a sample essay. (requires PDF viewer / reader such as Adobe Reader)

Longer essays and research:

Be sure to teach organizational structure (paragraphs, introductions, etc).  Different languages use different structures, so they need to know what does and doesn't work in English. Plagiarism is a very common problem. Practice summarizing and copying "no more than three" words.  Students will do research on the internet and cut and paste entire paragraphs. They don't know that this is unacceptable unless you tell them (it seems to be acceptable in some countries to do this).

To Correct or Not to Correct?

Personally, I correct essays (myself, peer review, SASC tutors, computer spell-check and grammar check, etc.).  I don't correct dialogue journals. I just respond to the content, answer questions, and write questions for them to answer.

Fun Stuff

Bad Writing Day

Sometime during the first few weeks of the semester, I write on the board in big letters, "Today is bad writing day!" The purpose is to explain my grading rubric (which I will have already used with them a few times) and to help them focus on what is good and bad in writing in English.  I Give each group of two or three a specific area in which their writing needs to be really bad (For example: ideas, organization, word choice, voice, sentence fluency, conventions, length, progress). After they write something really bad, I collect the papers, read them aloud, and have the class guess which area they were trying to be bad in.  (It's hard to be bad in just one, so many qualify as bad in more than one area).

See Writing Scoring Guide. (requires PDF viewer / reader such as Adobe Reader)
See the Grading Sheet -- Bad Examples. (requires PDF viewer / reader such as Adobe Reader)

Writing in English is a Hamburger

Students have trouble getting the concept of a paragraph with a topic sentence and a conclusion. They automatically assume that whatever sentence is first is a topic sentence.  Similarly, a five paragraph essay needs an introduction before it gets into the "meat" of the topic, and needs a concluding paragraph.   I like to reinforce this concept by drawing a huge hamburger on the board, with the top bun being the introductory paragraph (or topic sentence of a paragraph) and the bottom bun being the concluding paragraph (or concluding sentence of a paragraph.  Students catch on.  Is this a topic sentence? No! It's cheese (or meat, or tomato, etc).  I reinforce the hamburger concept by bringing in gummi hamburgers on a different day. 

Raid the Food Storage and Teach How to Write an Outline

Some students struggle with the relationships between items in an outline.  I give examples of outlines and then essays written from those outlines.  Later, I ask them to write outlines.  At first, they want to write their entire essay the same as usual, except sticking in Roman numerals and capital letters randomly.  To teach the concept of outlines, I like to bring in a carry-on full of boxes, bags, and cans of food.  I pile all the food onto the middle of the floor. (This gets students' attention!) Then I ask them to divide the food into three groups.  Each pile also divides into groups (such as cans, with kinds of canned fruit, kinds of canned vegetables, and kinds of canned soup).   I write an "essay" outline on the board and they copy it. I check to see that they are lining up the numbers and letters. 

Writing Real Business Letters

I give students some examples of business letters to tourist bureaus and then give them a list of address of state tourism offices. I get the addresses from a website (search for "free maps" or "tourist information."  Students write to request a free map (if advertised as available) and/or tourist information about one of the states.  They like to get mail back and bring it to class.

Chain stories

I have each student add four sentences to a class story on the internet (blackboard, discussion board).  At the end, we have a story  written by  the entire class.

Other Comments

Writing Genres

Descriptive--the more specific the details, the more advanced the writing.  I like to encourage students to use as many senses as possible in their descriptions. One activity that has worked well is to have them write a description of something and then have a classmate read their paper and draw what was described. It helps them see what needs clarification in the writing.  I also review prepositions and give lots of examples of adjectives.

Writing Process

We go over and practice the writing process in class.  Then I require students to pre-write, write first drafts, write second drafts, and then write final drafts.  Pre-writing can be brainstorming but I like to teach them to write outlines and have them show me their plan before they write.  On the first drafts, I look ONLY at ideas, organization, and format.  I make comments (or have peer comments) to help students add ideas and tighten their organization.  They can't just recopy their first draft and call it a second draft.  On the second draft, I make more specific comments, grammar, etc. The students then type, spell-check and grammar check their essays.  Every draft is turned in with all the previous copies stapled behind it.

See the chart the Writing Process. (requires PDF viewer / reader such as Adobe Reader)


Some teachers say that they don't have time to grade journals so they don't ask their students to write in them. Personally, I love journals.  I have students write in their journals 20 minutes per day (outside of class), on an assigned topic or one I choose.  They give me their journals with four entries in them every Monday. I read them and comment on the ideas only (not grammar, spelling, etc).  I ask questions in their journals and answer questions they ask me in their journals as well. I grade the journals on length only (1 or 2 pages double-spaced gets 100%).  The students learn to communicate by writing in English. I feel like I get to know them and they feel like they have a teacher who listens to them and is interested in what they have to "say."  You can catch student problems such as too much stress, bad roommate situations, or severe depression, and you can also learn about fun and happy news that they would be too shy to shout out in class.  Writing in journals builds their confidence in writing and they like having some writing that doesn't come back to them covered in corrections.  It only takes me 45-60 minutes per week to read a class set of journals and make short comments. I believe it is well worth it.  Some teachers stagger the deadlines so they have a few students turning in journals each day.  Anyway, I highly recommend journals.  It helps students gain writing fluency and produce probably twice as much writing per semester as without journals.

Last updated May 30, 2003