14 ESL Writing Activities to Spice Up Your Next Class

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Writing is one of the four basic English proficiencies next to reading, speaking, and listening. Developing a well-honed ability to write fluidly, naturally, and confidently — while using well-crafted grammatical structure and a wide array of vocabulary — carries several benefits for English learners.  

A developed writing ability is essential for scoring well on standardized tests that include essay sections and a well-chosen ESL writing activity can increase the ability to express increasingly complex ideas succinctly and fully, thus improving communication skills across all four proficiencies.

How to Use ESL Writing Activities

As an ESL teacher, part of your teaching scope likely includes improving the writing skills of your students. Fun, engaging activities can be effective tools for achieving the gains in their writing abilities that you hope to see in the classroom. 

When to Use ESL Writing Activities

Depending on the type of activity, writing activities can be used:

  • At the beginning of a lesson to pique students’ interest and generate excitement about the upcoming lesson.
  • Mid-lesson to assess students’ absorption and retention.
  • At the conclusion of a lesson to review previously learned vocabulary/grammar.

Setup for ESL Writing Activities

Some ESL writing activities featured here require virtually no setup. Others require a whiteboard and/or projector with computer access. A handful require some preparation before class and pre-printed materials for handout.

Here are a few of the premier ESL writing activities for students divided by age and skill level.

ESL Writing Activities For Young Learners

Flash Card Writing

Young learners are often best engaged with visual cues, so ESL flashcards are great tools for the classroom at the primary level.

To conduct the flash card activity, do a warm-up session by going through each card and, together as a class, writing the correct spelling on the board letter by letter.

Then, heat things up by dividing students into teams and having one member of each team write the vocabulary term on the board as quickly as possible when you prompt them with the corresponding flashcard.

The first student to finish earns a point for his or her team. Incentivize the students, if necessary, with a prize for the team with the most points at the end.

What’s Happening?

Building on the theme of combining imagery with writing for younger ESL learners, consider showing students a picture (the more vibrant, colorful, and detailed, the better) and asking them to write what they see. Consider using images with recently learned phrases as a review method.

Write a Letter to Santa (or Spiderman, Harry Potter, or Whomever)

Letter writing is an essential aspect of a young student’s English. Make it fun by having them write to their favorite superhero, celebrity, or best friend.

If your students need extra guidance, prompt them by suggesting what to write about; if writing to Santa, for example, encourage them to discuss what they would like for Christmas.

Help them frame their letter logically by providing a structure guide and helpful suggestions as necessary.

Postcards to Pen Pals

Capture young learners’ imagination by introducing them to a fictitious young boy or girl (or one inspired by real life) who is their same age and who lives in an exotic far-off land.

If your students are interested in a particular region or city, such as San Francisco, adjust your character’s geographic location accordingly.

Have them write a short composition to their new faraway friend that will fit on a postcard about who they are, what they like doing, etc. You can even make your own DIY postcards in the office using colored cardboard or other material.

This is a great opportunity to teach basic introductions and conclusions in English writing, a foundational component of almost any form of writing.

ESL Writing Activities For Adults

Write a Business Email

Many adult learners are businesspeople, office workers, or other teachers themselves, so chances are all or most of your students have to send emails at some point in a work-related capacity.

Learning how to use professional, natural-sounding business language is a practical, valuable skill that adult ESL learners will appreciate —  in fact, you may find that sounding “native” in both written and spoken word is a major goal of many English students, particularly adults.

Using a projector, create a relatable and entertaining work-related scenario and write an email to a boss or co-worker together about the situation.

Then, have your students craft their own email either in response to the example you provided or in a fresh scenario.

Illustrative Descriptions

Fluent English writers and speakers have the ability to translate visual experiences into the written word, an advanced skill set that can serve your students well in a variety of real-world English-speaking contexts.

Consider using a well-known piece of local imagery with important cultural meaning (such as a portrait of a well-known historical figure or leader) and help your students to write verbal descriptions of the visual cue.

Paraphrasing Activity

Paraphrasing is the ability to quickly recreate sentences with different grammatical structure and vocabulary while retaining the meaning and content of the original sentence.

The ability to paraphrase off the cuff is an important skill that can come in handy for adult learners who interact with other English speakers. Practicing paraphrasing encourages a greater understanding of the nuances of the language and developing alternative ways to construct sentences.

Offer your students a sentence, then ask them to capture the essence of what is communicated and reconstitute the critical elements into a new sentence structure.

Personal Ads for Dating Sites

Due to human nature, social conditioning, or a combination thereof, adult ESL learners’ ears tend to perk up when the topic of conversation moves to the birds and the bees.

If your adult students don’t use personal dating apps like Tinder, chances are they did at some point or their sons and daughters do.

Have your students write a personal ad – either about themselves or about one another in pairs – to be placed on a fictional dating app. Depending on the context of the learning environment, you can spice the activity up by encouraging uncouth language if/when you feel it is appropriate.

ESL Writing Activities for Beginners

Acrostic poem

This simple writing activity encourages creativity in use of the English terminology as well as recall of vocabulary. To create an acrostic poem activity for your students, write a short series of letters such as BIRD on the board, one on top of the other. Each of the four letters is its own line of poetry like this:

  • B
  • I
  • R
  • D

Create an example first for your students, such as:

  • Barbara and
  • I went to the garden where
  • Red flowers grow
  • Down by the creek

Then encourage students to think of their own poems to create.

Fill in the Letters

Mastering the letters and their phonetic sounds is a foundational element of ESL writing for beginners.

Present your students with words containing missing letters. You can either use pre-constructed worksheets from other teachers, create your own, or write the words with missing letters on the whiteboard.

After your students complete the words, take the time to sound out the terms again to strengthen students’ phonetic grasp on common English sounds and their corresponding letters. This will build their capacity to conceptualize letters when constructing words and sentences.

Letter/Word Chains

Print a series of words with one giant letter on each page. For example, if the word is HOUSE, then print an H, O, U, S, and E, each on its own respective page.

Scramble the papers up, then call an equal number of students to pages to the front – in this example, five. Say the word they should spell (house) and then watch them scramble to organize themselves in the correct order – helping them when necessary.  

Although beginning ESL students don’t put pen to paper in this activity, it is nonetheless a writing activity in that it instills proper spelling and a basic grasp on phonetics that are critical at this stage of language development.

Students also enjoy and may benefit from the social, team-building aspect of this writing activity.

If single words are too easy, you can up the difficulty level by printing entire words on separate pages that form complete sentences.

ESL Writing Activities for Intermediate Students

Mad Takes

Western ESL teachers might remember Mad Libs from their youth, a game in which a handful of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are extracted from a prewritten story and left up to the participants to fill in.

Mad Libs and its variants like Mad Takes can be wildly entertaining for ESL learners.

Fantasy Dialogue Using Pop Culture

Most of your students, especially in the mid-secondary school age range with a typical skill level for that group, will find this writing activity engaging.

Create a fantasy meeting between two well-known pop culture figures – for example, in Thailand, this would be something like Lady Gaga meeting Harry Potter if selecting from Western celebrities.

You can make the activity more exciting by setting the dialogue against an unusual background – for example, backstage at a concert in Bangkok.  

Writing Descriptions of Visual Stimuli

Flash an image of a busy street corner in a major city in your student’s country, or of a well-known piece of historic architecture or famous landform – anything that your students are likely to know well.

Write the question words on the board:

  • Who?
  • What?
  • Why?
  • When?
  • How?
  • Where?
  • How many?

Then ask your students to craft their own descriptions of the images you show for the question words. Some might not fit well – for example, the answer to who? may not appear obvious in an image of an island with no inhabitants. Encourage creative, “out of the box” answers in this regard and reward them with positive feedback.

The Directions Game

Giving and receiving directions is an intermediate English skill that ESL learners who want to travel will need to have. Additionally, this activity is useful to include at the outset of a lesson because the competitive nature captures students’ interest.

Draw a handmade map or grab one off of the internet. Divide the students into two teams. Then, have one student from each team come to the whiteboard with marker in hand.

Ask how to go from point A to point B on the map. Each student, with the help of his or her team, must quickly write coherent directions (turn left, turn right, go east, go west, etc.) from start to finish.

The first team to complete intelligible directions wins.

ESL Writing Activities for Advanced Students

What Happens Next?

This writing activity has the potential for several modifications to spice it up, but the essential idea is that the class, as a group, creates a story line by line.

The simplest version of Collective Story Time is to begin, as the teacher, with the introductory sentence on the whiteboard or projector: “Billy went to the skatepark.” The next sentence is completed by a student chosen at random, who then passes the baton to another student of his or her choice.

Depending on the age, maturity level, and preferences of students, you might put content limitations in place or interject with your own sentences from time to time to keep the story on a productive track.

Social Media Posts

Nearly everyone uses social media; they identify with it; they engage with it. Instead of fighting students to stay off of their phones in class, why not consider crafting your own Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram posts together as a class?

Use projection technology to supersize the browser or app and brainstorm a Tweet or post about a popular topic or the latest news in your learners’ home country.

Getting to the Point/Cutting Out the Fat

In English writing, more is not always better. The stage at which ESL students begin to develop advanced writing skills and become more confident is the right time to begin to introduce the concept of brevity and its benefits.

Start by offering your own writing sample that is chock full of redundancies, extraneous details, and non-sequiturs. Point some of them out yourself so that they know what to look for. Ask your students to shorten the story by half while keeping the original meaning and the critical details.

Transcription Practice (Dicto-Comp)

For some advanced ESL students who are either working already or will soon join the workforce, the ability to translate spoken English into written form quickly and accurately is an important skill.

Help them develop this skill set by selecting a text that is commensurate with their comprehension level. If you can’t find a suitable sample on the web, consider writing one yourself. The text should be about 500 words.

Students will listen and transcribe what they are hearing as quickly as possible. Emphasize the equal importance of accuracy and speed.

Read a few sentences at a time, pausing when you think appropriate.

Where to Start as an ESL Teacher

Devising effective ESL writing activities — and, equally importantly, adapting them to match the needs, interests, and social context of your students – requires a good bit of trial and error. Inspiration from other teachers’ examples and outside resources can help.To get started developing high-quality writing activities for your students, take a look at our list of free lesson plans. They are full of effective teaching strategies that are backed by years of practical success in ESL classrooms around the globe.

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