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Teaching Writing Skills: How Did You Learn to Write?

In the field of TESOL, teaching writing skills is very different from teaching other skills. When acquiring a new language, we learn to speak like we learn to walk: through trial and error,  and as we develop the moves and techniques we are soon toddling around.

Writing skills are more analogous to learning to play a musical instrument. There is a language that must be learned to be able to read music and specific strategies that must be learned and practiced in order to become proficient.

There must also be motivation to learn, a purpose to practice, and students must go through stages in developing specific competencies before proficiency can be achieved.

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What Happens When You Are Asked To Write In Your Native Language?

Imagine you are asked to write a paragraph about a memorable holiday. What happens? In school we are trained to write to the extent that much of the process is subconscious. You identify the topic (a memorable holiday), you think about who will read this paragraph and why you are writing it, you think about what a paragraph is, and you calculate how much you should or can write in a given time frame.

Your mind has been trained to brainstorm; you mentally run through different ideas,  ‘see’ the potential in numerous topics, choose the best one that matches the audience, time frame, and within minutes you are likely writing your topic sentence “My most memorable holiday was…”.

It is relatively easy for you because this is a process that has been developed over a lifetime. Schema in your mind exist for holidays, for writing, for what a paragraph is and it is your native language, so ideas, words and the correct tense you need to use should come easily.

This is a process that has become subconscious for you, but it is a process that needs to be carefully worked through with ESL students.

They may have the schema for holidays and writing in their native language, but not in their second language and both the schema and the strategies for writing need to be carefully developed.

Imagine you are asked to write a business proposal for a tech start-up company.   Can you jump in and write? You would have needed to have studied business, know what a business proposal should contain, and have some ideas of what a ‘tech start-up’ means before you could even imagine beginning this writing assignment.

If you felt the task was impossible, that is likely the feeling ESL students get when asked to write about a memorable holiday. Teaching writing to ESL students can only begin after they have a basic foundation of the language.


If you are teaching writing, especially for learners with academic goals, it can be very helpful to explore some of the differences between spoken and written language with your class.

Although misunderstandings in spoken communication can be negotiated and overcome, even small inaccuracies in written language can present barriers to effective communication. This need for grammatical and lexical accuracy is one reason why most L2 learners find academic writing to be the most difficult skill to learn.

Negotiating Meaning

Besides the opportunity to negotiate misunderstandings, speaking differs from writing in many other important ways.

For example, natural speech is full of hesitations, paralanguage, and fillers (uhuh, Ummm..), and we often speak in sentence fragments and phrases, not full sentences (A: “Why do you recycle?” B: “Because I don’t want to throw away so much.”)

In more formal writing contexts, it is not acceptable to write Because I don’t want to throw away so much. Most beginning writing students, including native speakers, tend to write as they speak, and will produce sentence fragments in their writing.

Writing students need to realize that in most cases writing is not reciprocal, and it is non-negotiable.  That is, once they hand in their final assignment, all of their messages must be communicated through their words and sentences on the paper.  They cannot go along with the reader to negotiate meaning if there is any misunderstanding.


Raising awareness of this difference and others can help your writing students learn to value accuracy of form in their own writing.  Here are a few more points to consider.  In general:

–       writing is planned; speaking is spontaneous

–       writing is concise; speaking is full of repetitions and redundancies

–       the meaning of speech is always context-dependent; the meaning of written language does not change with social context

–       speaking is supported by other communicative input such as tone and gestures

–       speaking is produced in informal vocabulary, including contractions

Want to Learn How to Teach Writing Skills Effectively?

The 250-hour TESOL Diploma program includes the following sections:

  • How To Motivate Your Students To Write
  • Stages In A Writing Lesson
  • Classroom Proven Examples Of Writing Tasks
  • How To Apply Task Based Learning (TBL) To Writing Lessons
  • How To Use Mind Mapping In Writing Lessons
  • How To Teach Writing To Beginner Learners

Learn to Teach Writing Skills Using Communicative Language Teaching Methods with OnTESOL!

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