Teach Writing to Beginner Level Students

Teaching adult, non-native speakers how to write English requires two things. One, an awareness of how hard it is to learn English writing from a low starting point. Two, core activities that support skills development and build confidence. In that regard, here are 4 writing activities that work well with beginner adults.

Controlled Composition

Sometimes called guided writing, students are given a short text. They read the passage several times to ensure comprehension. Then they write the text on their paper. However, they are asked to change part of the original text. They might be asked, for example, to change:

  • the verb tense from present to past
  • the subject from she to they
  • the noun from car to keys

Here is an example of a short text I am preparing for low level ESL students in a business writing class. Students read the text. They then rewrite the passage by changing the subject from SHE to THEY.

  • She is an export agent. She works for a manufacturing company. She sells many things. She sells batteries and SIM cards. She is busy. She is in the office from 9am to 7pm.

Want to read more? Try this article: Controlled Composition for Basic Writers by Donna Gorrell.

Want to try a textbook: 10 Steps: Controlled Composition for Beginning and Intermediate Language Development.

Word Order Exercises

The aim is to get students writing and thinking by turning sentences into a puzzle. Write out a few sentences and then scramble the word order. Students read the words and put them into the correct order.

When designing word order questions, it’s useful to create question sets based on a single theme. For example, one group of questions might focus on simple present tense BE verbs. The next set might practice past tense BE verbs. This enhances learning because students are able to focus one pattern at a time.

Here is a short list of sentence pattern ideas for low level adult students learning English writing:

  • sentence patterns with BE verbs present tense
  • questions with BE verbs present tense
  • sentence patterns with BE verbs past tense
  • questions with BE verbs past tense
  • negative sentences with BE verb
  • negative sentences with does and doesn’t
  • sentences with There is and There are
  • WH questions
  • adjectives before nouns

Want an easy way to make jumbled sentence? Try this sentence jumble maker.

Question Transformations

Students are given a list of statements. Their task is to change them into questions. As above, student comprehension can be enhanced by grouping sentences according to a standard pattern which an be explained with an easy to understand grammar rule, or two. Some examples of question transformation include:

  • Questions with Is there and Are there
  • Question with BE verb
  • Questions with DO
  • WH questions
  • Yes-No questions


Prepare a text of about 100 words. Read the text 3 to 5 times at normal speed. Students listen but do not take notes. After listening students write it all down. If students need a little extra help, write a few key words and phrases on the board before the exercise.

Usually, a dicto-comp follows language-focused activities, such as a vocabulary drill or grammar point. In this sense, a dicto-comp is a kind of review activity. In addition, the pre-teaching activities help to shift student focus to the ideas of the text rather than individual words or phrases.

What’s the difference between dicto-comp and dictation? Get the answer in this rather ancient article by Paul Nation called Dictation, Dicto-comp and Related Techniques.


Enjoy the activities. I hope they work well in your class and simplify your lesson prep time.


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