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How to teach writing skills to ESL and EFL students

You can help improve the quality and clarity of student writing by prompting them to check their own work. For example:

Student in a classroom at elementary school

What is writing?

Writing is a skill that is highly required nowadays. Written communication, for example, is the most common form of business communication. Emails and formal letters fulfill conversational-like purposes that the students have to master if they were to integrate today’s job market.

Writing serves not only communicative purposes in professional activities but also in social ones. In our everyday lives, we write or reply to invitation letters, thank-you letters, text messages, etc. Even journals carry a social-communicative load. Journal writers try to communicate their thoughts and feelings to themselves.

As a communicative skill, sometimes we initiate the need to write. Other times, we respond to someone else’s initiation. When you write an invitation letter, you are the initiator of the conversation. Replying to the invitation, by accepting or declining it, is the response to the initiator.

Make Writing Meaningful

Focusing on the mechanics of writing will often prevent a student from understanding and accomplishing the purpose of writing. Think beyond the traditional ways students have learned to write, and focus on making writing meaningful.

  • Ask what’s important and potentially reinforcing to students, and use the answers as engaging topics for written narratives. Try presenting pictures of characters from a book and asking the student, “Whom would you like to write about?” Let the student select their three most preferred characters to focus on during writing instruction.
  • Teach students to request desired objects by exchanging pre-written words for preferred items. For example, you might instruct a student to get a cookie by handing the written word cookie to a partner. Once the student masters this, he or she can be taught to combine the written words big and cookie to communicate a desire for a larger cookie. This is a powerful way to give students direct control over their environment as they learn the functional use of written words. As a bonus, it allows students to use pre-written words without having to learn more complex fine motor and cognitive skills first.
  • Deliver reinforcement right away. When your student displays any type of writing or prewriting behavior—holding a crayon, scribbling, pressing keys on a computer, drawing on a SMART Board—follow it up with immediate praise and reinforcement. This will hopefully increase the frequency of their writing behavior and improve the fine motor skills they need for handwriting or keyboarding.

Encourage Imitation


Teach students how to copy words from labels, books, and other sources. Provide lists of words your students can copy from to increase their engagement in academics and leisure activities. For example, you can provide a list of words students can copy into search engines to access educational content for school (solar system, dinosaurs, U.S. presidents, etc.) and locate information on hobbies (computer games, stamps, scrapbooking). Once you teach students this skill, they can also use the print within their environment to develop their spelling proficiency. A student who can’t remember how to spell the word “milk,” for instance, can consult a milk carton for a model of the word.

When learning to copy words, some students may need assistive technology to circumvent weaknesses in fine motor skills. You may need to use adapted keyboards (alphabetical, onehanded, large print), AAC selection displays, and/or scanning technology for students who have physical disabilities that affect their gross and fine motor functioning.

Methods and Approaches

Experimental and quasi-experimental work in this area has been the subject of many meta-analyses, with slightly differing emphases. These are fairly comprehensive quantitative summaries of the work in this area, but a substantial number of the underlying studies have methodological problems of one sort or another: e.g., no random assignment, no controlling for the Hawthorne effect, no measures of whether the intervention was implemented with fidelity, or simply no descriptions of the control condition.

More recent studies tend to be of higher quality, and also result in higher effect sizes than older studies (suggesting that earlier studies may have been understating the effect of some of the proposed interventions).

Meta-analyses look at broad swaths of different studies and group studies into categories to be able to calculate the effects of individual types of interventions. These categories are not always mutually exclusive. For instance, the distinction between “writing process” models (which focus on the process of writing — prewriting, organizing, drafting, editing, revising, etc.), “self-regulation” models (which focus on setting writing goals and teaching students to monitor their writing and editing to achieve those goals), and “peer writing” models (where student co-write and edit each others work) can overlap substantially. In other cases, single categories encompass quite a diverse set of practices. For instance, the “strategy instruction” model includes interventions involving pre-writing activities, peer writing, persuasive writing structures, etc.

Another complexity is how writing outcomes are measured. Rubric-based instruction may help students improve their writing when measured by the rubric, but not necessarily when evaluated through other means.

A final qualification on the meta-analyses is that studies used as the basis for the meta-analysis often use differing control conditions. This makes estimating effect sizes particularly challenging because the baseline comparison is different across studies. And there’s usually not enough studies in each category to look at control condition as its own factor.

The Time4Learning Program Structure

Time4Learning has been refined through years of feedback from educators, parents, and students. Parents have access to printable lesson plans, teaching tools, and detailed reporting through our online parent tools. Subjects are organized into chapters composed of interactive lessons, printable worksheets, quizzes and tests. Students are guided through the activities at their own pace by an automated system.

When students log in, they choose a subject, select a chapter, pick a lesson and complete the activities. A bright green arrow tells them where they left off, and completed work is clearly labeled with a check-mark or a gold star. Visual and auditory prompts guide students through the lessons, making it easy for even young learners to follow, and an online playground (controlled by parents) rewards and motivates them to finish their lessons.

Does your child have different achievement levels for math and language arts? No problem!Time4Learning lets you set each individual subject at the appropriate graded level, making this program great for special needs and gifted students.


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