Writing skills practice in the EFL classroom

How can we select engaging, authentic tasks to boost our EFL learners’ writing in the TL?

Here are 7 criteria for selecting the most suitable activities for a writing skills lesson.

  1. Focus on the overall aim of the lesson

    When selecting writing tasks for our EFL classroom our main focus should be on whether these activities promote the overall aim of our lesson. For example, in exam oriented classrooms we may need to boost our learners’ skills with regard to a particular type of writing or register or focus more on composition writing. Other EFL classrooms, depending on the students’ level could benefit more from creative writing tasks or from interactive writing activities that promote student cooperation and boost student talking time.

2. Activating schemata / Pre-teaching key linguistic features

          In order for the writing tasks to be successful, we need to make sure our learners have the adequate knowledge of lexis related to the topic they will be focusing on. Selecting and pre-teaching language chunks can be very beneficial. We also need to activate our learners’ relevant background knowledge on the subject through some discussion and brainstorming during the lead-in stage.

    We need to make sure that our learners will know what to say on the subject and how to express themselves in the foreign language. For certain topics we might have to supply our students with key language and provide all the necessary information they need in order to familiarize them with the topic and activate their relevant schemata. Using a variety of realia and stimuli during the lead-in stage is important as well as pre-teaching certain lexical chunks or L2 structures that will facilitate the writing process. We must provide our students with all the necessary input they will need in order to focus on their creativity and on expressing their thoughts in the L2. We must also make sure our learners have received adequate training and exposure to the rules that underlie the different types of register and genres.

The importance of extensive reading (turning input into output)

     We should also keep in mind that successful writing in the TL should go hand in hand with extensive reading. For input to become intake and then output, our learners need a lot of exposure to the TL. Instilling the ‘reading bug’ to our learners is one of the greatest achievements of a language teacher. We need to make them want to read in the TL not because they have to but because they want to. This starts in the language classroom by choosing interesting texts, relevant to their age, level and needs. Texts that focus on topics that might trigger our learners’ interest will automatically boost their intrinsic motivation will turn reading in the TL into an enjoyable process. it is when our learners will have received the necessary input that they will begin to feel confident enough to turn it into output and freely express themselves creatively in the TL.

3. Pre-teaching register/writing style

    Our main focus should be on helping our learners develop the basic writing skills in the TL and receive adequate training in the different forms of writing that they may encounter not only in their language exams, but also in real life situations. It is thus important to focus on all different types of register, both formal and informal and introduce them to the different structures used through a sufficient amount of TL input. We must make sure we use authentic materials and language at this point and that our learners have received the adequate practice before having to produce a similar piece of writing. Focus on vocabulary use, on the richness of lexis, on the structure and organization of the written work and its accuracy in terms of language and content are all important points to pay attention to in order to help our learners improve their writing skills.

4. Promoting learner motivation: focus on our learners’ age and interests

    For Penny Ur (1996), activities that combine ‘purposeful and original writing’ will foster the learning process and will significantly boost learner motivation. We must give our students a reason to want to express their thoughts and ideas in the L2 and turn writing into a fascinating process for them. We need to increase our learners’ willingness to get actively involved in the lesson and use the TL in a more relaxed and playful way. Our learners need to feel motivated enough and discover new lexis and L2 structures on their own in order to appropriately convey meaning in the target language.

   Through this process of helping students find new ways to express themselves in the L2, learner autonomy is being promoted. Our students do not only ‘discover’ new vocabulary and grammar but they also develop an intuition of how certain types of texts are being constructed. Ur (1996:169) stresses the positive impact to language acquisition of this ‘journey of self-discovery’ through imaginative writing. When students find the task and the topic interesting, challenging and relevant to their age, they will ‘strive’ harder than usual to ‘produce a greater variety of correct and appropriate language’ in order to express their ideas.

5. Boosting student interaction / writing as a collaborative activity

Writing tasks can also promote student cooperation. By working in pairs or groups in order to write a role play or a story for example, our students will combine their imagination and their knowledge of L2 lexis and grammar and will learn from one another. As Beck (2012:37) points out, through writing learners consider the ‘meaning’ and ‘implications’ of their written output and learn to be responsive to the writing of others ‘in an informed and playful way’.

6. Task authenticity

   As Harmer (2001:259) points out, the term creative writing suggests ‘imaginative tasks’, such as writing poems and stories, whose ‘end result’ is to promote effective learning and maximize learner motivation. For Beck (2012:35) creativity and authenticity in the writing tasks does not only help students ‘develop their language skills’, but it also promotes our learners’ introduction to the TL’s cultural contexts and writing culture.

    When it comes to unleashing learner creativity the options are endless: storytelling, article writing, rewriting a story, students alternating the end of their favorite book, pretending to be a famous writer/actor/singer/politician, writing imaginary replies to fan letters, writing stories based on pictures/songs, etc.

Below you can find a selection of EFL writing tasks that can easily be adapted to each classroom’s specific level and needs.

7. Respecting our students’ different learning styles


    In order to grasp our learners’ attention and increase their willingness to participate in the lesson we need to focus on their different learning styles, on their personalities, their feelings, their likes and dislikes. A whole class discussion or students filling out questionnaires on what they like and what they don’t in terms of topics and task types could enlighten us on the activities we can select for our specific language classrooms. We need to focus on topics our students will feel eager to write/talk about. This way we will be satisfying our learners’ different learning styles and we will be more successfully directing our teaching towards their needs. With regard to writing activities, we should choose the tasks based on our learners’ specific needs and make sure that we satisfy their different learning styles. Kinesthetic types may enjoy some hands on materials more than others, visual types will find some brainstorming notes on the whiteboard during lead-in very helpful, whereas other learners may benefit from interactive writing tasks and pair work.

    It is important to remember though that participation during the lesson is beneficial as long as it is not stressful. Some students may not be willing to interact with others. We must therefore carefully examine our students’ different learning styles and focus on what our learners could benefit from. We need to be able to direct our teaching towards our learners’ strengths and offer personal focus and guidance to our ss. We must carefully examine and monitor our learners and adjust our teaching in order to satisfy their learning styles and needs.

Published by Joanna Nifli

Greek-Canadian ELT teacher and freelance translator with work experience at the United Nations and the European Parliament. Holder of an MA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (MA TEFL), the Cambridge CELTA and an MA in Applied Translation Studies from the University of Leeds. Interested in innovative pedagogies in language education, TESOL, teacher training, applied linguistics and related topics

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