ESL Tips: How To Make Writing Assignments More Appealing

by Jenna Makowski /
Jenna Makowski's picture
Apr 20, 2011 / 0 comments

I used to dread writing assignments. As a high school student, and even into college, my pre-conceived associations with writing tasks – boredom, time consumption, lack of relativity to everyday life – always seemed to ruin the assignment before it had a chance to breathe. For ESL students, the task of writing in a different language only adds to the challenge. Here are two pre-assignment tips to motivate students to write, and to write well.


Warmer: Making the topic relevant, familiar and interesting


Before beginning a writing assignment, I give my students the chance to become familiar with the topic and generate interest in it by making it relevant to their own lives through a speaking activity. I recently set an assignment with the task of writing a letter of complaint, based on a prompt from the textbook. Before they even read the prompt, I put a few warmer questions on the board to warm them to the general topic. Have you ever bought something and needed to complain about it? Why? How did you complain? I gave students two minutes to discuss the questions in pairs, and the stories flowed. “I bought a pair of shoes that broke after a week.” “I bought a sweater that shrunk in the washing machine.” “I bought some sour cream that had spoiled.” My students love to complain.


Brainstorming: Structure is just as important as content


As both a writer and a teacher, I’ve noticed two things. The more I teach English, the better my writing becomes. And the more I write, the more awareness of language I bring to my classes. Teaching writing is not only an exercise in language function, it’s also an art. Learning to string together structure, arguments supported with examples, flow and style is a skill that develops alongside language acquisition, in much the same way native speakers learn to write in the English 101 courses. And it’s a skill that needs to be taught (something I learned firsthand teaching undergraduates – native English speakers – in America).


This is why I always try to incorporate a brainstorming exercise in class, before assigning a writing assignment. Brainstorming not only helps students to develop the structure of their piece, but it’s also an opportunity to provide them with the necessary language tools needed to help their writing flow.


In my letter of complaint assignment, I began by having students read the task, which centered on a mis-marketed computer game. Then, I had each student fold a piece of paper into four sections. Together, we labeled the first section as the introduction, the second and third sections as reasons to complain (with examples), and the fourth section as the conclusion.


I then gave them a list of language functions, which they put into the respective sections. Tell the company why you are complaining. Section 1, introduction. The game guarantees a winner every time, but in reality, there isn’t. Section 2, reason to complain. Tell the company what you want them to do. Section 4, conclusion.


I also gave them a list of transition words, which they placed into the appropriate sections. I am writing in order to; first; second; for example; also; however; in conclusion.


Once they had filled in each section, they realized that much of the work for the writing task was already finished; they had a concrete outline paving the path, and the tools needed to get there. They just needed to put it all together.

Jenna Makowski is the ESL Editor for Wandering Educators.  She
has taught in the United States and Russia, and she currently lives and
works in Poland.  Follow her adventures on her blog:



This is part of the ESL Educators Blog carnival, hosted this month at