4 Tips to Teach EFL Writing More Effectively
Teaching EFL students how to write English sentences, paragraphs and long text is a difficult, time consuming job. If you are an English teacher, you know that.
With so much of your own time invested in the class, how can you maximize student learning and achievement? Here are four classroom tips ideal for intermediate+ students.
1. Add Consistent Fluency Activities
Writing fluency is the ability to produce lots of output. Many EFL students have poor writing habits which prevent them from learning to write faster and improving their skill level.
These habits include too much erasing during the drafting stage and an inability to formulate the first sentence (i.e. the dreaded blank page syndrome).
One cure for these bad habits is a weekly freewriting activity. This fluency task takes only about 10 minutes, but over a 16-week term it produces observable improvement in student performance.
To help students track their own progress, I hand out a recording sheet at the beginning of the term so each student can record the number of written words.
2. Be Specific About Proficiency
Writing proficiency is the ability to create error-free text. In order to help students achieve proficiency improvement, teachers should focus on a narrow set of well-defined leaning objectives.
A syllabus with a learning objective that states, “Students will learn to write with more accuracy” is simply not good enough. Teachers must be specific. Otherwise, you may find yourself wondering at the end of the semester, “What did I accomplish?”
In my undergraduate writing class, proficiency development tends to focus on:
- Parts of Speech: This is the vocabulary of writing, students have to know and recognize these terms.
- Definite and Indefinite Articles. EFL students need years to learn how to use these little words accurately.
- Proofreading. Practice makes perfect. When students become proficient at error detection, they will be able to rewrite their second and third drafts with more accuracy (and rely less on the teacher).
3. Include Sentence-Focused Teaching
EFL student writing can be a little dry. Okay, boring. That’s because of a tendency to rely on simple sentences repeated over and over. Sure, the style is poor … but how do you teach style?
There are many ways to teach elements of style to EFL students. Here is one example: teach students how to write appositives and complex sentences.
These sentence patterns are terrific writing tools because they pack a lot of information into a compact space and create variety in paragraphs normally dominated by simple sentences. Appositives and complex sentences are difficult to learn, so it is a good idea to have a variety of teaching materials that can reinforce leaning over many weeks.
During the first 4 to 6 weeks of the semester, I spend a lot of time helping my EFL students learn these tricky sentences with a mix of techniques like sentence combining and guided writing exercises.
And it works. During the second half of the semester, it is common for me to read student passages – maybe one-page summaries of a video – and come across stylish text that demonstrates good sentence variety including appositives and complex sentences. It’s small moments like these which demonstrate to me the teaching is beginning to stick.
4. Teach Reasoning Skills
Writing is thinking.
I am a big believer in that idea, but for years I struggled to find a way to convert that concept into teachable lessons which EFL students could understand and apply in their own writing.
I tried many techniques, but they produced unsatisfactory results. The five-paragraph essay, for example, is popular because it is easy to teach, but does little to advance student thinking. It is intellectual spoon-feeding. It asks students to replicate sentence patterns and paragraph structures. It assumes if you follow a cookie cutter pattern you can write persuasive, well-reasoned arguments. And that is simply not true.
There is a better way to teach students how to write and think logically. It’s called an inquiry-based approach to reasoning. There are four steps:
- begin with a question
- sort through the data and collect meaningful evidence
- develop warrants that give context to evidence and link it to the conclusions
- formulate tentative conclusions
Teaching students how to write argumentative pieces with this approach serves their academic and professional interests. First, it teaches students how to think, not what to think. Most teachers, I guess, aspire to fostering a spirit of critical thinking in the classroom. This approach gives students a model for critical thinking.
Second, it prepares EFL students for a professional career. If students find a job which requires English business communication (i.e. short reports, memos, customer emails), the inquiry-approach provides them with a clear framework which guides them to writing articulate, persuasive and intelligent text.
Teaching an EFL writing class is a little bit like baking a cheesecake. They both require a lot of preparation and careful execution. In addition, the list of essential ingredients is remarkably simple, but you need all of them in order to create something exquisite.
You can’t cut corners when teaching students how to write. That’s why it is important for teachers to look for ways to help EFL students improve fluency, become more proficient, use sentence-focused teaching to improve style and show students a model for independent thinking.
If you like these ideas and would like detailed lesson plans, worksheets and handouts … consider buying my ebook: Teach Essential Writing Skills.
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Featured image by Ken’s Oven. Its use complies with the owner’s creative commons licensing terms.