Talking with Students about Writing

The idea of formal writing—whether it’s a long essay or just a short piece—is intimidating for a lot of people, but it’s especially intimidating for English language learners, who are still developing in their language abilities and often feel like they’re bad writers.

In the fall, I started teaching an advanced-level ESL class with a heavy focus on academic reading and writing, so I’ve been trying to figure out my own approach to writing instruction and how I can help my students to develop confidence in their writing and to enjoy the writing process more.

At the beginning of the class, I wanted to give my students an opportunity to reflect on their feelings toward writing before we started doing any of it in class. Part of the reason was for me as a teacher to learn about my students’ attitudes toward reading, but it was also in hopes of helping them to be more reflective, which I hope will ultimately help them to be better, more creative writers.

In August, I started off the first day of class by asking my students about their feelings toward writing. These are some of the questions they discussed with a partner and that we then discussed as a whole class:


I gave each of my students a Post-It note and told them to write down one of their thoughts about writing, whether positive or negative. They each completed the sentence I like writing because… or I don’t like writing because… Then, they posted their notes on the whiteboard. I read some of their Post-It notes aloud and we discussed their ideas. As a class, we talked about how writing can be both enjoyable and hard at the same time.

This semester, I wanted to continue some of these reflective conversations, so I started out during the first week by giving my students a list of several quotations from successful authors:

Quotations about Writing - 2

You can download the handout here.

The quotations focus on some of the ideas that I want to impart to my students about writing: that reading a lot is essential for our development as writers, that writing ability is something that gradually gets better over time, and that we shouldn’t expect to write something perfectly on our first try.

I think a lot of students assume that good writers just sit down, write their thoughts, and end up with a perfect finished product. Students who feel like they can’t do that then assume that they are bad writers. And when they start writing something, they have a mental block because they feel pressure to write perfectly from the beginning.

With these kinds of discussions in class, I hope to decrease some of the anxiety my students feel about writing. I want to encourage them to start the writing process by simply getting their ideas out on paper without worrying about smaller issues like spelling or grammar. They can always go back later to edit what they wrote. I hope to help my students understand that even the best writers don’t produce excellent work on their first draft, and that those authors have to do lots of editing and re-writing just like the rest of us.

My students will work on developing their writing abilities throughout the rest of the semester, but first, one of my main goals is to help students find and develop their own identities as writers. For more ideas on this topic, I recommend Pernille Ripp’s post, “Starting with Writing Identity First Rather Than Writing Skills.”

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