The Best Writing Activities and Tips for ESL Students

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The best writing activities and tips for ESL students

Are you looking for some fresh ideas and activities to help your ESL students in writing?

ESL stands for learning English as a second language. You might even see this referred to as ELL, ENL and EAL. This means that the student’s native language is something other than English. 

In young children, language skills and writing skills are extremely important for academic success. It can be difficult to understand sentence structure, sentence patterns and even short writing assignments in a brand new language. (Plus we all know how tricky the English language already is!)

This blog post is meant to give some practical ideas for ESL teachers and general education teachers who have ESL students in their class. It will provide you with simple tips and fun activities to help sharpen students’ writing skills when English is a new language for them.

English Language Learners and the Writing Process

Teaching writing to English language learners requires direct instruction on topics like grammar, syntax, and vocabulary but also calls for consideration of students’ linguistic and cultural backgrounds to make connections between languages. It can be overwhelming as a teacher to navigate this. Not to mention, extremely difficult for the student. 

It can be hard for English language learners to show true creative writing skills and capabilities when they might still struggle with the overall mechanics of the writing process, such as writing a complete sentence or a simple paragraph.

Pulling students into small groups to really figure out their exact needs can be super beneficial before moving forward on lesson plans for writing instruction.

When instructing writing, keep in mind the importance of meeting students at their current level and fostering a classroom environment that motivates them to delve into the world of writing and learn to love to express themselves through writing. When students see the benefit of writing and have fun with it, it will help to engage them in the writing process overall.

How to Help ELL Students with Writing

When working with ESL students or ELL students, it’s a good idea to remember to talk them through their writing before they put pencil to paper. Having them use their communication skills to explain what they are thinking before they start writing is a great way to make a student feel more at ease with writing. 

A simple activity to implement this tip is to divide students into pairs or small groups and do “Think, Pair Share” in your classroom. This encourages students to articulate their ideas verbally before they start writing. It also provides them with an opportunity to hear and learn from their peers, which can be a really valuable learning experience for ESL learners.

Another idea is to give sentence starters. Try things like:

  • One thing I want to say about this topic is…
  • I think a good point to start with is…
  • In my opinion, the most important part of this is…

Try These Simple Writing Tips for ESL Students

The writing tips below are a perfect way to fine-tune writing skills for students in your class learning English as a second language. Remember that all students learn in different ways so what works for one student might not necessarily work for another. 

Here are some go-to ESL writing exercises:

Have Students Label Pictures

This might seem like too simple of an activity depending on the grade level but trust us when we say, for ESL students it is not. And yes, we are just talking about using single words to label pictures. Students who are not completely familiar with English need tons of support in building their vocabulary in English. Picture labeling is a fun way to show them a visual representation of each word.

Use Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers are every writer’s best friend. They can be an extremely useful tool for students who don’t speak English as their native language because they help show students a visual representation of their thoughts by getting them out on paper in an organized way. Grab the FREEBIE below to help with paragraph writing.

free graphic organizer for ESL writers

Use Picture Prompts

Usually, we think of using picture prompts for writing a short story. However, you can use a picture prompt just to write a simple sentence with students.

Model Model Model

A key skill of being a good writer is understanding what good writing looks like. As the teacher, it is your job to consistently model what good writing looks like so that students can have concrete examples to model their writing after. 

Generate a Word Bank

Giving students a word bank to use can be a really helpful tool for ELL learners. Try brainstorming as a class some helpful words depending on your writing topic and create a class word bank on the board for students to access. You could even add a simple visual picture or drawing next to each word if you feel necessary for your students.

Talk it Out

Another fun exercise is to talk it out as you write. Model and do this as the teacher to show your students how they can do the same. Talk through what you are writing on the board. Check that your sentence has a subject and verb. This also helps to encourage critical thinking skills.

Try Sentence Frames

ELL students typically have a limited vocabulary when it comes to the English language which is one of the reasons it can prevent them from creating a sentence in the correct structure. You can help guide them on this by giving sentence frames for them to complete. 

Here’s an example: If the topic that you are writing about is pets, you might give a student this sentence frame to write about their dog-

My dog is____ because ______.

Then they might complete the frame with things like: 

My dog is friendly because he licks you when you get home.

My dog is playful because he chases his toys.

Once you have their general ideas, it is easy to change the sentences around to become a topic sentence and supporting details to create a simple paragraph.

Fun Writing Games To Try with English Language Learners

Here are some fun exercises that will help ESL students with the grammar and mechanics of writing.

The Simple Story Game

A fun writing activity is called The Simple Story Game. For this game, pair students up. They each give each other 3 words. Then they must each create a funny or simple story with those 3 words. Don’t have them write it. For this activity, it’s all about communication and getting your thoughts out.

A- Z Alphabet Game

This is a fun activity to do when you have an awkward amount of time in your way. Maybe you have 20 minutes before lunch or dismissal.

Give students a topic- it can be whatever you want.

Then students write the alphabet going vertically down the left side of their paper. They must think of one word for each alphabet letter on that topic. You could give students a certain amount of time if you wanted or even put them in teams.

Word Association

This is a fun activity to try as a warm-up activity before you start the writing lesson.

Start with a word and go around in a circle having students say a word that relates to the word that came from the person in front of them.

Sentence Scramble

Write a sentence on a strip of paper and cut it into individual words. Mix up the words and have students work together to arrange them in the correct order to form a sentence.

This pairs really well with The Parts of a Sentence Differentiated Bundle.

Favorite Writing Resources for ESL Students

The resources below are your guide to crafting a mechanically correct sentence with ELL students. We aren’t joking when we say these have EVERYTHING you need to teach students how to write a complete sentence!

What writing tips and activities will you try with your ESL students?

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