Teach Beginner to Write

Teach Beginner to Write

Teachers generally agree that beginning-level EFL/ESL writers need to learn the basic conventions of writing. This includes being able to identify and write letters, words, and simple sentences, as well as learning to spell and punctuate.

One basic activity is tracing letters, words and sentences. Although a task may seem trivial, it can teach students letter recognition and discrimination; word recognition; and basic spelling, punctuation, and capitalization rules. Students, for example, can use pencils to trace letters and words written in an appropriate size and shape on tablet-style sheets used to teach American children. In addition, students can use their index finger to trace letter and words cut from felt. This can be especially useful for those whose learning modality is more kinesthetic than visual. Some students benefit from saying the letters and words aloud as they trace them.

Another widely used activity is called Copy and Change. Students are given a passage and asked to copy it. But they are also required to change one aspect of the passage- for example, to change the subject from he to she and make accompanying changes (for instance, all references to him need to be changed to her). This activity can be done using other grammatical features, such as changing verb tense from present to past time and changing the subject from singular to plural form.

A similar activity involves teaching students a grammatical pattern and functional rules. For example, we can teach students that we use simple present tense to describe everyday routines, and we can provide a model sentence pattern, such as this one: Subject + Adverb + Pres. Tense Verb + Object + Preposition + Time
I   usually   eat   dinner   at  noon.

Based on this pattern, students make up new sentences by exploring different grammatical conventions, such as investigating the use of other adverbs of frequency (never, rarely, seldom, sometimes, often, frequently, always), as well as changing the verb (have, go out for, make), object (breakfast, dinner, a snack), or time (3:00 AM, 8:30 PM).

Another beginning-level activity is to have students unscramble muddled sentence parts. For example, students are given a list of words – such as school, goes, friend, everyday, my, to – and they are asked to form a sentence.

After students gain some of the conventions of grammar, mechanics, spelling, and punctuation, they can take on more demanding tasks. One idea is to have students plan a party by making two lists: Things to Do and Things to Buy. Students work in groups or pairs to create their two lists and practice related tasks, such as writing invitation notes.

Another activity for advanced beginners is to read and write public notices, such as the ones on supermarket or dormitory bulletin boards. I have had ESL students in beginning-level classes practice with reading notices I bring to class and copy notices they see on bulletin boards and bring them to class. We also prepare for and role-play telephone conversations to practice asking questions related to a notice. Base on their reading, copying, and conversation experience, students write their own notices.

It is interesting that some students have been able to make connections with the larger community outside the classroom through actual use of their notices, thus expanding their language learning opportunities. For example one student started a haircutting business, another found a job doing lawn care, and another found a free ride to a distant city.
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