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Focus On Basics

Volume 3, Issue D ::: December 1999

Focus on Teaching: Seven Easy Pieces

Writing Activities for Beginning ESOL Learners

by Shirley Brod
It is often difficult to develop writing activities that beginning learners can handle. The suggestions below are very simple, but give students increasing confidence that they can, after all, write on their own. I hope the activities will trigger ideas that you and your learners will enjoy.

Since beginning-level English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) students run the gamut, you will want to pick the activities appropriate for your students. The easiest, which focus on pencil holding and letter formation, come first.

1. Vanishing Letters: Using words that learners will face frequently, write the complete word. Then write the word with one letter missing, replaced by a blank that learners fill in. Keep adding blanks until learners are writing (and spelling) the entire word on their own.




_A_ _

_ _ _ _

2. Document Literacy (Form Language): All our learners have to fill out forms, whether they are ready to or not. Instead of subtracting letters, add items, one at a time, beginning with NAME (first, middle initial, last), which learners always want to learn first. In another lesson, when you have taught the meaning of address, give them a new form that repeats NAME and adds ADDRESS. Continue this simple spiraling until they can complete a simple form with their own personal identification items.

3. Labeling Pictures: This activity works well with a picture dictionary, such as the Oxford Picture Dictionary from Oxford University Press. After your learners have worked with new vocabulary, such as parts of the body, have them transfer what they've learned. Give them a new and different picture, with blanks beside targeted body parts, and have them copy the appropriate words from the picture dictionary, or from a labeled work sheet you have provided. This is a good starting place for learning how to use a dictionary, and the completed page provides each learner with a vocabulary list to keep for review.

4. Dictation Pairs: Give your learners practice in speaking and listening, reading and writing, and asking for/giving clarification through paired dictation. Make a worksheet that can be folded in half vertically, so each student sees only one side of the page. One side is for Student A; the other, for Student B. The top of A's sheet has the items that A is to dictate to B. The bottom of A's sheet has blank lines for words B will dictate to A. B's page is the reverse. When you model the exercise, be sure to model ways to ask for clarification: Please speak slowly. Please repeat. When both students have dictated and written, they spread the page out and check their work. Learners can be introduced to this activity very early on, using such simple items as numbers, letters of the alphabet, times, dates, or simple words they spell to each other.

Student A         /          Student B
SAY.               /           WRITE.
1. 3:00            /           1. ______
2. 5:45            /           2. ______

5. Lists: Take learners a step forward by providing an opportunity for them to choose their own items. The simplest way to do this is with lists.

a. Shopping lists — Learners write a list of things they want to buy. Then the class can take a field trip to a store where they locate the items and their prices, or learners can do this as an outside activity. If food items are used, they can locate them on an aisle directory.

b. Family lists — After studying family vocabulary, learners make a list with the names of members of their families, including their ages and relationship to the writer. If they add telephone numbers, this can be their emergency contact information.

c. 'Who am I?' lists — Learners list all the naming words they know that refer to their identity: wife, student, mother, refugee, female, daughter, Mexican, etc. A reader can read the lists while the class tries to guess the identity of the writers.

6. Scaffolded Writing: A satisfying first prose writing assignment can be an extended fill-in-the-blanks activity. Perhaps learners want to write notes for their children when they have been absent from school. Learners copy a basic note, filling in blanks for the date, child's name, and the reason for the absence, and sign their names. They select items from a word bank, or ask you for additional items if needed. The final product is a complete handwritten letter. Thank you notes are another good choice, and are especially motivational if they are actually mailed.

7. Tiny Books: Individual Composition: This activity is an outgrowth of a show-and-tell class. Students bring a favorite object to class and tell the other learners about it. My learners used photographs, hand-crafted items, ethnic costumes, musical instruments, and even special foods. You take notes as learners talk, and provide a simple story that each learner copies into a tiny book
(3"x 5") with construction paper covers and several lined pages, adding a signature. Here is an actual example: "Nyoua's Picture."

My husband took the picture at my home. This picture is from 1984. I went to a party for Hmong people's New Year. My dress was White Hmong. I wore a black dress and a green sash. I wore a Hmong "sao" or necklace. My hat was red, white, and black. This was a happy day.

Type the stories, one to a page, and have each learner sign his or her story. If they wish, they can draw the item on their page. Combine the stories in a booklet and give each learner a copy. These booklets can form the basis for individual reading practice.

About the Author
Shirley Brod, an ESOL teacher for more than 20 years, has written and edited materials for ESOL students and their teachers for Oxford University Press, Steck-Vaughn Company, and Spring Institute for International Studies. She was director for Spring's English Language Training/Technical Assistance Project, which provided consultation and training for refugee ESOL providers throughout the country.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL