I Have to Teach Writing: Now What? Where to Start with Your First Writing Class

I Have to Teach Writing: Now What? Where to Start with Your First Writing Class

You walk into your writing class on the first day of the semester. Your students are sitting patiently with their textbooks and laptops, waiting for you to begin. But where do you start?

What do your students already know? And what do they still need to learn? Whether you are new to teaching writing or have dozens of classes under your belt, you can use these ideas on the first day of class to help get your students’ words on the page.

Where to Start with Your First Writing Class

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    The Basics

    Of course, one of the most common activities for the first day of writing class is a timed, in class writing. You can give your students a writing prompt and set 20-30 minutes aside for them to fill up the pages. Doing so will give you a good idea of your students’ skills when it comes to writing. This type of writing is also common on standardized tests, something your students will probably encounter in the future. Your students, on the other hand, may not want to write another essay when they have been writing this type of composition for language tests and for admission into language schools. In addition, in class essays don’t always give you, the teacher, much information about your students as individuals, and getting to know them is an important component of successful ESL programs. Timed writings on the first day have even more drawbacks when you strive to create a communicative environment in your classroom because your students are not talking, interacting or using the language they know in a communicative manner.

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    Have a Chat

    You do have options beyond the in class essay for the first day of writing, though. You can get your students talking to one another and give them some writing practice in the process by having students interview one another. Assign pairs of students to ask one another questions and then write their partner’s answers, turning in the written interviews at the end of class. Students will enjoy getting to know each other, and you will still get a measure of the level of writing they are comfortable with. When students hand in their interviews, make sure each one includes the writer as well as the person he interviewed. As students talk, you can walk around your classroom and jump in on different conversations. It will give you a chance to get to know your students a little bit and will also set the communicative tone for class. While better than the in class essay for the first day, interviews still have limitations. Some may see them as a waste of time since they do not touch on the writing curriculum, and your students aren’t necessarily learning anything about written language in completing them. Plus, if you have students who have very limited proficiency in written English, interviews may be too complicated or challenging for them on the first day of class.

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    Group Processing

    An even better activity, which may allow you to get to know your students, help them get to know one another and touch on the writing curriculum, is getting started on the writing process. I always tell my students that there is P.O.W.E.R. in writing as a process (Prewriting, Organizing, Writing, Editing, and Rewriting). They learn in my classes that good writing does not come from just sitting down and putting words on a blank page, but that the process of writing is fluid, changing and flexible. If you plan to teach the writing process in your class, as many writing teachers do, starting your first class at the beginning of the process with prewriting (or idea generating) may be the right plan for you and your students. Students at all levels of English proficiency can do prewriting activities. Some activities are simple, like brainstorming a list on a certain topic. Everyone can participate no matter what language level they are at, and students have a chance to share a little bit of who they are and get to know one another and you in the process. Other activities can touch on language proficiency (like answering journalistic questions about a given topic — who, what, where, when, why and how) or encourage creativity (idea mapping, also known as cluster mapping). Through this type of activity, your students have some common ground on which you can build, and they can use the ideas they generated when composing their first written piece.

Only you know what will work best for you and your students on the first day of class, and the more classes you teach the easier you will be able to discern that answer.

The biggest key to any successful ESL program, though, is being flexible. Taking the effort to read your students’ body language and determine their emotional states will do more for a fun and beneficial ESL experience than anything else. And the more tools you have ready in your back pocket, the easier it is to adjust your plans when you need to!


What are your favorite activities for the first day of writing class?

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