ESL writing for children is an important, if sometimes neglected activity, in the English class. Writing is important for many reasons. It is needed at school, it deepens the student's understanding of English grammar and vocabulary, it helps students develop their own thinking, provides an alternative creative output for children, allows students to work at their own pace alone, or can be used to encourage group work and more social interaction. Finally, ESL writing can be fun, especially when the children share their final piece of work - perhaps reading aloud in the classroom, or when the teacher puts their work on the wall for other students and parents to see.
As with any ESL activity, it's important to be clear on your aims for the activity, class, and course. What do you want the children to be able to achieve. To some extent this might be decided by your school or coursebook, but even then, the aims of each particular ESL writing activity you do should be clear to you. Certain types of ESL writing activities are more appropriate. For example: stories, rhymes, descriptions of pictures, postcards, email, dialogues and poems.
Perhaps most important, in all ESL activities, is to engage the student's imagination. This can be done by putting yourself in the world of the children, and imagining - and asking - their interests and needs. The topic must be chosen with the motivation of the students in mind. There are classic children's topics which coursebooks use again and again, with good reason. However, you do not only need to use these topics.
At the beginning the students will need more support to complete the ESL writing activities. Little by little, this support can be removed, until the students are able to produce their own written work unaided.
This is a very simple, and very useful activity. This is especially true if you are teaching English in China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand or another country where the roman alphabet is not used. Copying activities include:
• Labeling pictures the students have drawn - or been given. This is useful after teaching a new vocabulary set. For example after teaching vegetables, types of transport, or the rooms in a house, the students can draw and label pictures.
• Word writing contests. Have teams at the board, and say a word. The students write it as quickly as they can. Points are awarded for the first team with the correct answer. This can be done from memory, from posters around the classroom, or from a bunch of words written at the top of the board, from which they can copy.
• Find and copy the different word in a list: dog, cat, mango, fish. The students identify the different word (mango) and write it.
• Spelling contests with the students lined up at the board in teams. The teacher says a word and the students write it. If you can use magnetic letters it will make the activity more fun.
• Hangman. This can be guided, with some letters already given.
• Anagrams of words the students have already learnt. Students can write the correct words in their books.
• Word circle. Ask the students how to spell a word and write it on the board. Then ask for a word beginning with the last letter of the word, and have the students spell it. Eg: fis(h)app(y)ellow... and so on, until there is a circle of words going around the board. The students can read each word in turn as you erase them.
• Gap filling can be done with any reading the students are familiar with. This is a good way of using any boring songs that some coursebooks insist on using. The song can be copied and made into a gap fill exercise which the students fill in while listening to the song.
Dictation is a useful method to help students build up models of good writing in their minds, which can help them in the future. I will just mention two types of dictation that I've found to be useful. There are many more. Two books worth looking at if you are interested in more methods are: 'Grammar Dictation' by Ruth Wajnryb, and 'Dictation' by Paul Davis & Mario Rinvolucri.
Running Dictation is when the class is divided into groups and they have to copy pieces of writing which are stuck on a walls, onto the board. The paper cannot be removed from the wall. They can do this by being organized into runners and writers. These roles can be changed as the activity proceeds to ensure all the students participate.
CD Dictation is when the teacher prepares a short piece of written text - there shouldn't be any new vocabulary. On the board draw the controls of a CD player: stop, play and back. Then read quickly and the students write. They must tell you when to stop, go back and play. They can do this as many times as they need to write the text. The final sentence can be left blank for the students to fill in, once they are used to the activity. This is a good way of exposing students to longer and longer pieces of writing.
It's important to use sentences from the beginning, and as soon as possible move on to short - then longer - paragraphs. Students need to think in blocks of text or speech, not just individual words.
Rhymes and poems can be written - with guidance - by the teacher. This is best done after reading a poem. Students can creatively substitute words into the poem or rhyme. You will need to help start this process by giving some examples and brainstorming more with the children. These can be written on the board for students to copy. Rhymes are fun, and help children improve their pronunciation.
Stories are excellent ESL writing activities for children and there are many approaches to this. One method is the 'Question Story.' Write questions on the board. Eg: "What's his name?" "Where is he?" "What's he doing?" What does he say?" Show the students how to answer the questions. Then give each student a sheet of paper on which they write the answer to the first question. They then fold the paper and pass it to the student next to them. The students then write the answer to the second question, and again fold and pass the paper; and so on. Eventually the students can open and read aloud the stories created by the class.
Stories can also be much freer fluency activities. There are many good books about storytelling for English classes which are able to go deeply into this topic.
There are many esl writing activities to help students develop an ability to build up sentences to describe things in the world. I'll just mention one here. Based on a BBC radio program where contestants choose an obscure word and then give various definitions; one true and some false.
In groups, students choose a word they think the other groups will not know, using dictionaries suitable to their level. Then they write four definitions, of which only one is true. Definitions should become longer as the students become capable of writing more, and according to their level. Once the definitions have been written, the groups can read them out, and the other students must guess which one is the correct definition.
Other ESL writing activities can include writing letters or emails. These can be sent across the class, as well as out to other schools that are prepared to take part in an exchange scheme. Keeping a diary is also a good activity.