How to Teach Writing to ESL Students

The following is an Off2Class guest post by well-known ESL materials writer and teacher Frank Bonkowski. Here he breaks down how to teach writing to ESL students. More info on Frank can be found at the bottom of the post. Meanwhile, take it away, Frank!


Introduction: Let’s Talk Writing


I am both a classroom ESL teacher and a teacher trainer. In the classroom, I teach the four language skills –- listening, reading, speaking and writing – to young-adult upper-level ESL level language learners.  I also show English language teachers how to teach writing to ESL students with my online professional development course.

When I talk about writing to learners, I like to compare it to swimming. What does swimming have to do with writing? I am a swimmer, so I know how hard it is to swim well. I am a writer too and it is just as difficult for me to write well. Fortunately, I am a better writer than I am a swimmer.


How to Teach Writing to ESL Students
Writing well is a lot like swimming well: it doesn’t come naturally!


According to psychologists, human beings easily learn how to walk and talk; learning to swim and write well is another matter. According to one expert, “Swimming and writing are culturally specific, learned behaviors.” We need to be taught how to swim and write.

Before I talk about how I teach writing, I’d like to give a few reasons why teaching writing – particularly academic writing – is so important for learners.  Then I’ll explore briefly the kind of language used in writing, whether it is expository, narrative or descriptive . I’ll follow that up with an overview of the five features of good writing.  

Finally, I’ll share a simple activity I use in my very first class with ESL learners.


Why Teach Writing


If you are an English language teacher in today’s language classroom, you know from experience the importance of teaching academic language as well as academic writing. It has become an important part of the curriculum. Research shows that academic English is a necessity for English language learners at any level for achieving success both inside and outside the classroom.

However, attaining language proficiency is a long process. It takes three to five years to become orally proficient in English, and four to seven years to become proficient in academic English.


Teach Writing to ESL Students
Academic proficiency takes longer than oral proficiency!


It is not surprising that good reading and writing skills predict academic success. Having these essential skills motivates learners to stay in the classroom and not drop out. Not all English language learners will go on to higher education. However, equipped with these two skills, learners will be better able to participate more fully in society.

Other great reasons to teach writing to ESL students in the classroom include:

  • Writing reinforces understanding English and keeping language in memory.
  • The actual writing process is a mental activity that helps learners learn better.
  • The task of writing appeals to some learners who need to see the written language and reflect on it.
  • Writing is a linguistic skill just as important as reading, listening, and speaking. In both language and content classrooms, English language learners must be able to communicate effectively. Learners need to think critically, analyze information, and express their opinions and thoughts if they are to succeed.


What Kind of English is used to Teach Writing?


One of the first things I do in my classes is remind students about the distinction between conversational English and academic English. Most of my students are able to communicate orally in English at a high level. However, when it comes to writing many are indeed less proficient.

Academic writing requires rich, meaningful content as well as linguistically complex language.  Writing well is such a challenging task involving so many skills. Students have to:

  • be aware of their audience and purpose in writing
  • elaborate a good thesis statement and provide supporting evidence, especially for argumentative writing
  • know how to use both general language and technical language depending on the writing task
  • understand the principles of coherence and cohesion
  • produce well-organized, developed paragraphs
  • vary the length and variety of their sentences
  • know how to revise and edit their text


Woman writing
A lot goes into good writing!


It is no wonder that teachers find it so difficult to teach writing – and learners so difficult to master. Let’s now move on the features of good writing.


Five Elements of Good Writing


Here is a brief overview of the five features that are the foundation of effective writing. First, focus your text. Second, organize your ideas. Third, support your ideas with examples. Then, use appropriate style, and finally, use correct language.


1. Focus your text


A  writer needs to establish a focus.  So a good essay, whether it is expository, narrative or descriptive:

  • Has a clear original thesis or main idea
  • Is focused and specific
  • Has a clear purpose
  • Shows logical development of thesis that fits the purpose
  • Has conclusions consistent with reasoning

I find students need help in formulating a proper thesis statement or main idea, which in fact is the foundation of any good essay.


2. Organize your ideas


This is the second element of good writing. The essay needs to have an effective beginning, middle, and end.

Just as your kitchen needs to be well organized to make a great meal, a student essay needs to be well structured to communicate ideas effectively.

A good essay needs to:

  • Be organized
  • Show logical sequence appropriate to the assignment
  • Have well-developed paragraphs  
  • Contain one idea per paragraph with support and smooth transitions between paragraphs
  • Progress clearly from beginning to end
  • Have a good introduction and conclusion


3. Support the main idea with examples


Craftsmen need quality tools to produce good work. So too students need to support their main idea by:

  • Using consistent evidence
  • Showing originality and depth of ideas
  • Defining main points and support with evidence
  • Having clear and relevant supporting details
  • Being sure support is valid
  • Assessing sources critically  
  • Including counter-arguments
  • Making connections between sources and own writing
  • Not overusing quotes


4. Use an appropriate style


A Halloween costume is great fun at a party. But it is not quite appropriate to wear to English class.  It’s the same for good writing; you need to use appropriate style.

Effective essay writing needs to:

  • Be coherent
  • Use good word choice, purposeful vocabulary
  • Have clear, concise sentences
  • Structure each sentence carefully
  • Use a variety of sentence styles and length
  • Communicate your meaning as skillfully as you can


5. Use correct language


Good writing needs to be error-free.  Spelling, grammar, or punctuation mistakes detracts from the quality of any essay.

So in their writing learners need to:

  • Eliminate errors of punctuation
  • Avoid spelling mistakes
  • Use appropriate format and presentation
  • Show standard referencing and a reference list – particularly for academic writing
  • Avoid grammar mistakes


Sample 2 Class Writing Activity


Now we’ll give you an excellent 2 class activity to teach writing to ESL students:


Teach Writing to ESL Students
It’s time to put the theory into practice!


Writing Activity for Class 1


In the very first class I teach, I engage learners by telling learners my name. I mention something interesting about myself – that I am I a triathlete for example. I then follow that up by asking learners to say their name and something special about themselves to help me remember their names.
The activity doesn’t stop there; I continue with a speaking activity and a writing activity. I have students do a paired speaking activity using G.A.I.N.S. – an acronym explained below – and then a writing activity in which they write a short paragraph. Since my first class takes place partly in a language lab,  I have students post the text on their personal English class blog – which they have previously created using

I explain that G.A.I.N.S. is an ice-breaking activity that you can use to get to know another person better:

G stands for goals, either short-term, mid-term or long-term.

A stands for achievements, whether they be small, like to stop smoking or bigger, like to earn a lifeguard certificate.

I stands for interests or hobbies.

N stands for social network, which students can relate to once I mention Facebook.

S stands for skills such as musical talents or mathematical abilities.

Before learners begin the paired speaking activity, I ask them to choose one of the letters, sit quietly with a pen and paper, and write notes about themselves.
Then I ask learners to interview another student about their G.A.I.N.S. letter and take notes about that student. Finally, I ask learners to write about the student they interviewed. I tell learners to take on the role of a reporter for a young adult magazine.

Role play:

Here are the role-pay instructions that I give them:

  • You’re a reporter for a young adult magazine.
  • Interview a classmate using one item of G.A.I.N.S: goals, accomplishments, interests, network, skills.
  • Write one paragraph (150–200 words) about the student you interviewed.
  • Post your text on your blog.
  • Writing Guidelines:
    • Give your text a catchy title, such as “Student Teaches Flying Lessons.”
    • Write about only one of the G.A.I.N.S. letters.
    • Begin the text in an interesting way using a strong topic sentence.
    • Give two examples to support your topic sentence or main point.
    • Keep in mind you are writing for a young adult audience

As you can see, from the very first class, I introduce learners to the first four elements of effective writing: focus your text, organize your ideas, support your main idea with examples, and use an appropriate style for a magazine.

Writing Activity for Class 2


In a follow-up class, I have students review and revise their text after they have received comments from me. I introduce learners to the Virtual Writing Tutor, a grammar and spelling correction tool. This activity stresses the importance of using correct language, the last element of good writing.
Here are the instructions I give students:

  • Once you get feedback from me on your text, revise it, and post the following improvements in another blog post.
  • Make these changes:
    • add two new concrete and specific details by focusing on who, what, when, where, how, and why questions (real or imaginary)
    • include the full name of the person and field of study, if they are missing
    • use action verbs wherever possible
    • include 2 new adjectives and adverbs
    • include 2 new transition words.

Use the Virtual Writing Tutor to:

– correct any grammar, punctuation and spelling errors. Indicate the corrections with color.

– analyze the conversational and academic language you use as well as the power words you use.



I hope my primer on teaching writing has given you ideas to teach writing to ESL students. If you want more information about how I teach writing or how I use a blog, please contact me at

Frank Bonkowski

Frank Bonkowski, co-author of nine ESL textbooks, has been a best-selling materials writer for over 30 years. He has been teaching English second language learners all his professional teaching career. Frank has self-published online ESL courses for learners at He has also created a university 3-credit online teacher training course for teaching academic writing at
Frank presently teaches at Cégep de Saint-Laurent, a francophone college in Montréal.


  • Abiodun Ogunkeye says:

    April 25, 2019 at 2:47 pm

    Thank you so much Mr Frank.I am a female Nigerian Primary school teacher who has been teaching English and creative writing to children for about 26 years and reading through your writing is more of great help to me as school will resume next week.I will save this and read through again .I will surely revise with the children using your writing techniques.Thank you for sharing.

  • Francis Bonkowski says:

    April 26, 2019 at 3:37 pm

    Hello Abiodun,
    I am so happy you find the information in the post useful for your teaching. For more helpful tips and strategies, you may want to subscribe to my newsletter at
    Best of luck in your teaching.
    Frank Bonkowski

  • C. Yolanda Anderson says:

    May 24, 2019 at 11:20 pm

    This article is pact with useful information to guide me in teaching English. Thank you so much for sharing, Mr. Bonkowski. I will certainly be referring to the content in the future.

    • Chris says:

      May 27, 2019 at 11:36 am

      So glad that you enjoyed it. I agree, he wrote a great article!

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