If anyone has any trepidation when doing written freer practice in class with fears of slumped shoulders, audible groans and heads on desks then here are a few ways to spice up your classes and to get students to write. These activities generally do the job when I want to activate certain language points and provide students with written freer practice. If these don’t work then make sure you provide cushions on the desks for soft landings when students nod off!
(Light-hearted) Letter of complaint
The context is that their teacher (you) has been incredibly rude in class and the students have to complain to the Director of Studies. Before they write, the students think of all the inappropriate things a teacher could say in the class. This can be done as a board rush to create ideas and pace. Then get the students to choose 3-4 ideas that they think are the worst. They then write the letter of complaint reporting to the DOS exactly what you said. This task works well as the students try to out-do each other with their complaints. The lesson can be extended in a worthwhile manner by getting the students to read all the boarded complaints and vote on who had the most noteworthy complaint. This writing activity is particularly useful to get students using reported speech.
At first this could seem a tad grim but I have always found it to work well. To set it up get the students to think about all the great things people hope to achieve in a lifetime. Here get them to be a bit creative, for example: discover Atlantis, learn how to talk to animals, discover the secret to a long life, learn how to teleport etc. Then tell the students that it’s 2113 and ask them whether they think they are alive or not, to which they say no. Next, tell them that in fact they have just died and that they have to write their epitaphs, reminding them that they have died at a very, very old age and that they have led great lives. Alternatively, put the students into pairs and get them to write the epitaphs for other students in the class. For feedback get the students to put the writing on the wall and get the others to read them and vote on who had the most amazing life. This is useful for getting students to use past simple tenses and vocabulary to do with achievements etc,
If you search for ‘crazy Japanese inventions’ on Google a selection of fun (real?) products appear such as: a helmet that you can wear on the subway to allow the wearer to sleep upright, a baby romper suit that doubles up as a mop, a butter container in the form of a glue stick etc. Give each pair or group one product and get them to come up with a description of how it is made, what it is used for, how it is used etc. Give students a template to write on and tell the students that there will be a vote on the most popular one at the end. Afterwards get the students to present the products and attempt to ‘sell’ them to each other, which turns the writing task into a fun, competitive speaking task. This writing task works well if you want students to use the passive.
I have about 12 pictures of different stages in a relationship such as the first meeting, the first date, marriage, a row, a break up, etc. I put them on the white-board and invite the students up to write verbs and adjectives associated with the pictures. I do this mostly when I am teaching phrasal verbs and idioms to do with relationships. This task works as a brainstorm and if it’s for a lower level also get the students to tell you the past tense of each verb. Afterwards, give the students a set of the 12 pictures and tell them to choose 6 pictures to tell a story with either a happy or a sad ending. Then get the students to stick the pictures on a template and in pairs they write the story. However, before they write encourage the students to think of a title, give the people names and discuss what is going to happen. For feedback get the students to cover up the writing and get the pairs to tell others what happened in their stories by using the pictures that they have selected as prompts.
I give the students a product, usually a new car, to promote. The students then have to come up with a promotional leaflet aimed at young adults to promote their product. Once the students have thought of a name for their make of car, board all the names for the other students to see. Then tell the students that in their promotional leaflets they are allowed to make (disparaging) comparisons to the others and that they can say what they like in order to sell their make of car. For feedback get students to vote on the most ‘effective’ leaflet other than their own. This can be quite useful to get students using the first conditional or comparatives and superlatives.
Answering unanswered questions
I get students to read a short piece of text taken from a novel or a short story. The piece
I use, which was given to me by a former trainee, Donald Quist, is taken from The Girl on the Fridge by Etgar Keret. The extract is interesting enough that it creates lots of unanswered questions (It’s about a man who comes home to find everything stuck down and his wife hanging upside down glued to the ceiling laughing. He then reaches up to kiss her and they become stuck together). Put the students into pairs and get them to come up with questions that they want the answers to. Generally, the students come up with 6-8 questions, which are then boarded. Then get the students to choose a question that they really want the answer to. Having done that, tell the students that you don’t have the answers but they in fact do and that they have to come up with and write the answer to the question that they have chosen. For feedback put all the stories on the white-board and get the students to read and find out about the ‘whole’ story. This task is useful for higher levels to activate a range of narrative tenses. If anyone wants the text please feel free to email me and I will send it to you.
Setting the tasks up
There are many things that as teachers we can do to set up tasks effectively but the following are suggestions that I find to be quite useful to ensure the writing tasks go well.
Before getting the students to write, try to ensure that they are well-prepared for it and aren’t going into the task ‘cold’. Techniques that work quite well here are setting some discussion questions, playing quick vocabulary games with vocabulary associated with the context or picture, brainstorm tasks such as the one mentioned above in ‘Picture Stories’. Also ensure students have some time to prepare their ideas and think about what to say and the language to use.
To help the students to use the target language and to inspire them with ideas, it’s useful to give the students a model (one that you have come up with) of the task. However, it’s difficult to always do this if you have a busy teaching schedule. Though I try to make sure the students have a template to work on and if possible have it mounted on colour card. I find that if students have a template then it makes the task seem so much more manageable than if you just hand them a blank piece of paper. Also if students have a well-presented template, as opposed to a scrappy piece of paper, then they are more inclined to take time over it and produce a more presentable piece of work.
At the end ensure that there is not only language feedback but also content feedback on what the students have produced. A useful technique to get content feedback is to use the writing task as a spring-board into a speaking task, such as getting students to present their work or sell their ‘idea’ to each other.
If you have any questions about any of the ideas please feel free to email me or give me feedback on how successful or not the tasks worked for you.
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