Teach English Writing Skills: Voice

Finding the Writer’s Voice

Writing skill: voice, style and perspective

Many ESL students learn to write by following a formula. Copy the sentence patterns and create five paragraphs. Make sure the last paragraph recaps the main ideas. It’s a dull process that often results in blah text. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Helping students find their voice … and the courage to add it to their text … is the objective of this short activity.

What is Voice?

Good question.

I think voice is the way writers choose words and sentences to describe people, ideas and events. Part of it is style. Part of it is perspective.

Is working in a gas station a great job? Most people would think not, but I once met a student who was a gas jockey and liked it. That was surprising and unique.

The story she told me about working in her father’s gas station had great voice. There were image-building details and an overall argument supported by reasons.

I don’t push students to ‘find heir voice’. That’s a little too touchy-feely for an ESL writing class.

I do encourage them to express their own ideas. I show them ways to bring their experience to the text, be it a creative story or a description of a place.

The activity below shows students the value of breaking away from old patterns and bringing some of their experience to the story.


Step 1 Preparation

This activity works best if your prepare ahead of time. Bring a stuffed animal to class. I use a horse puppet, but almost anything will do. Keep it a secret until needed.

Step 2 Introduction

Begin the exercise without much context. Simply state the class will start a writing exercise with a picture.

Step 3 Draw

Ask students to take out a piece of paper and draw a horse (or whatever animal you brought to the class). Allow students a few minutes to complete their drawings.

Step 4 Assess

After calling time, walk around the room and hold up a few examples. You’ll likely find few examples of good drawings. Wonder aloud why that might be the case.

Pull out the horse puppet (or whatever animal you brought to class). Now ask students to draw a horse similar to the one they can see.

Allow students a few minutes to complete the second drawing.

Step 5 Assess Again

Ask students to compare their pictures. It’s likely you’ll see a difference. The first will probably lack details and perhaps imagination. It will be less interesting. The second one will seem more real.

Now comes the key point.

Ask students why the second picture looks better and or more interesting than the first. Move them to the realisation that they could see the horse. Seeing is personal experience.

When students add their experience to the writing the same result can be expected. The writing will be more interesting because it has details and seems more real.

Extension Activities

Now that students have a better understanding of voice, try a writing activity that helps them put the skill into practice.

Activity 1: Doors represent a mystery or journey. Add voice to a creative writing story based on a picture prompt.

Activity 2: Everyone has been on a family trip, good and bad. Add that experience to a story about rafting.

Teach writing?

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3 thoughts on “Teach English Writing Skills: Voice”

  1. Hello people,

    It is an honour to find my picture featured on your site. I wield the pen myself, both in Dutch and in English.

    Mabel Amber, photographer of the image.

  2. Hi Mabel,

    Thanks for the note and the picture. It’s a wonderful image, full of character.

    I try to be careful when using other people’s images and respect their copyright. Just to be clear, I found this image on http://www.pixabay.com which states the image is available free of charge and without commercial restrictions.

    If I made a mistake, please let me know.


    the brain behind this website

  3. Hello Rob,

    Your usage of my image, licensed as CC0 is correct, no worries.

    I wish you a Happy New Year, and lots of inspiration :)))

    Mabel Amber

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