Esl Essay Writing Activities

Writing might seem like a daunting task for ESL students.

But writing activities can totally spice up your classroom and teach your students to express themselves in new ways.

Writing encourages creativity and imagination in your students.

There are plenty of writing activities out there in the ESL galaxy for you to choose from and adapt if you wish. Possibly thousands, but keeping your students in mind when choosing one is quite possibly the most important thing.

ESL writing should be fun and encouraging, though many of us can remember the boring essays we had to scribble out in school. So break the mold and put a dash of excitement into your writing lesson.

Developing lesson plans around writing practice can often be challenging, but have no fear. With a little thought and some awesome new insights on this ESL topic, you can craft exciting ESL writing activities that your students will actually enjoy.

Setting Up Your ESL Writing Activity

Before letting your eager students discover the joys of writing, it’s essential that they have the proper knowledge to do so.

Normally, ESL writing activities will be carried out in the production stage of your presentation, practice and production (PPP)lesson plan. You’ll have a few short writing activities in the practice stage, but these are mainly to set your students up with the skills they need to really show off their stuff in the production stage. Production is where students are left more to their own devices—they’ll finally get a chance to try their hand at full-on English writing.

A good teaching tactic to make sure your students are ready to move into the production activity is to check in with them from time to time. Ask questions that revolve around the new writing material, questions that may only be answerable if they really comprehend what’s going on. Your practice writing activities are also great for this. Chances are, if students are having trouble with the practice activities, you’ll need to hold off on the production exercises for a bit longer.

When everyone is ready, confident and ready to start writing with little guidance, you can than introduce the pro-action writing activity. Remember, this is your students time to shine, so give them all the information they need to be successful. Delivering clear and concise instructions about the ESL writing activity is very important. You can review the structure needed to complete the task, passing out a handout or writing the outline instructions on the board. Reviewing the structure is essential and will lead to less frustration as your students begin crafting their amazing writing work.

Once all key aspects of the activity has been delivered, with a short question and answer session on what is expected, let them loose. This is your time to roam the room and feel good, watching your students go for it, using the methods and information you presented earlier. Be available for any questions or problems that may arise, you will be their editor and muse in many ways during the duration of the activity.

5 Flavorful ESL Writing Activities to Spice Up Your Classroom

1. Start Small with Tweets

Twitter, Tweeting and Tweets have become a part of mainstream social media.

These little tidbits of information have revolutionized the human experience, sharing thoughts that would otherwise be just that: thoughts. Tweets can be an effective tool in ESL writing activities for many reasons. Though tweeting during class is otherwise frowned upon while you’re presenting new material to your class, you can harness this social media phenomenon for learning.

Chances are good that your students are familiar with tweets. That means that they’ll be able to relate immediately to the topics and tasks you’ll assign to them. Depending on the ages and interests of your students, you could even start a real-life classroom tweet board where you’ll thumbtack brief texts from students. You can also start a classroom Twitter profile, allowing your students to send their new English tweets out into the world.

Tweets are great for starting off small, limiting your students to 140 characters or less. That means they’ll need to target their writing to one particular topic of focus. The best part of all this? The structure behind tweets is almost nonexistent, so your students can get extra creative. Students will comprehend the activity without any strict structural or stylistic information.

Plus, tweets allow students to explore more casual writing and fun topics. A tweet can discuss movies, TV shows and more topics in popular culture. And who doesn’t love that?

Tweet Writing Activity Example

A great example of a tweeting ESL writing activity is to use something related to their everyday lives.

Let’s say your students are all excited about an upcoming movie. You’ll introduce the movie trailer and let them watch it, discuss it and ask any questions they may have about it. This is great for some communicative practice as well. After they’ve discussed the movie, give them a handout with three blank tweeting spaces. Each tweeting space will give a different tweet topic. Remind them that they have 140 characters to produce a short message about the movie subject.

For example, one subject can be about the main actor, so your students will write a tweet about the actor, how he looks, his attitude or what he might have been doing in the movie trailer.

After they’ve successfully written down their tweets, you can discuss them, bring back some communicative aspects into the lesson and, if relevant, begin tweeting to the world using a class Twitter account. Your students will be more than excited to see their words on the Internet for all to read. It’s a great confidence boost for their writing!

2. Write Informative, Useful Emails

Emails have become the backbone of our world. They’re essential in both our personal and professional lives. Not many people today send real letters, written or otherwise.

Emails are the main source of communication between people around the world. That’s why email writing is a key ingredient to effective communication. This ESL writing activity is more for young adults and adult learners, since children aren’t sending too many emails, in theory.

Emailing can often be a scary task for your students, especially in a new, strange language that they don’t feel very confident about yet. You can utilize an email writing activity to help your students build confidence and get more comfortable with writing in English. There are also other scary elements to emails for your students, like proper language, structure and format. Structuring an email can be just as daunting as writing it, so spending some time discussing and looking at examples of email structures is essential.

Once your students have a good grasp on structure, introduce them to some elements of formal and informal email writing. Utilizing certain words can be the best way to approach formal and informal emails, but don’t overload your students with too much. Remember that the focus of the lesson is on actual writing and not discussing wordplay. It’s more than enough to start by covering the basics of “Sir” and “Ma’am” for formal introductions, as well as “Sincerely” or “Kind Regards” when wrapping the email up.

Email Writing Activity Example

With structure and formal/informal basics covered, you can get your students writing.

One great email writing activity can be thick with writing and communicative skills. Pair your students up and give them an outline for a specific email topic. Let’s say the focus is on an upcoming birthday party for a friend. This will lead to an informal email exchange between two people.

  • Student A will be given one worksheet explaining the details of a birthday partyfor a friend. They’ll need to write an email to their partner inviting and explaining the key aspects of the party.
  • Student B will read the email invite and develop a reply based on the information they have on their own worksheet. This worksheet should have information about Student B’s situation. Maybe Student B can’t make it to the party until later, or maybe they need to ask about a food dish or gifts.

During this time, you can float around the room and make sure everyone is focused on the task at hand. Answer any questions which may arise during the activity.

3. Create Creative Advertisements

Advertisements surround us on a daily basis and you can probably bet that your students will have a few favorite ads of their own.

This activity can be for all ages and can be adapted to most students and their needs. Advertisements are a great way to show your students how to write with flare.

They’ll enjoy analyzing a product and making use of the awesome writing creativity they have bottled up inside them after the presentation and practice stages. This great ESL writing activity can help your students use their adjectives more freely as well. Knowing when and how to place adjectives in their writing is a wonderful skill.

Utilizing advertisements as a writing lesson has so many benefits for your students and you as well. The best part about an ad writing lesson is that you’ll never run out of excellent and informative examples to show your students. There are hundreds of thousands of ads out in the world. You can find any type or topic you want with just a click of the mouse or turn of a magazine page. Examples are important when showing your students structure and how to formulate their very own ad, so utilize all those great examples out there.

Creating advertisements is also a great way to implement communicative skills by pairing or grouping your students together. Your students can develop their ideas by brainstorming with their classmates, really pushing out those imaginative thoughts and descriptive adjectives.

Advertisement Writing Activity Example

A great ad writing activity is to have your students focus on a product you bring into class. Let them see it, touch it, use it and so on. Having a tactile experience with the product they will be writing an advertisement for is essential in many cases. Students might not be so excited to write about something they can only see in a picture, so let them experience it.

For this example, you can use something familiar to them, but not too familiar since you want to keep it challenging. Maybe you have an old point-and-shoot camera lying around that you can charge up and bring into class.

Put your students into pairs and have them use the camera for a few moments to get a feel for their proposed writing object. Pass out a worksheet with some key areas for them to focus on. This is a great way to keep them organized. Have one area on the worksheet for adjectives, another area where they can write down all their thoughts about the camera and still another spot for them to note any details you’ll explain prior to beginning the activity.

Let them brainstorm in their pairs and allow them time to craft their advertisements together. Once they have all their creative writing on paper, you could allow each pair to share their advertisements in front of the class. The pair activity is a great way to get them started. You can transition this into an individual writing activity in the next lesson, using a different object for them to colorfully describe.

4. Form Informative Reports

Another great ESL writing activity to put into your book of lessons is report writing. At some point in every student’s life, they’ll have to generate some kind of report and many have already done so in their native language.

Report writing is an essential part of life, academia and business, so you can build on the structure they may already be familiar with. Report writing can enhance your students’ careers and even get them higher scores on ESL exams.

Report writing also contains a communicative element. Not so much during the writing activity, but later, allowing your students to present their reports in front of the class and field questions about the presentation material. This is another skill builder for your career-minded students, since many of them may be working in international companies and that’s why they’ve chosen to study English with you. Presenting their report is also an excellent way to build confidence in your students in both communication and writing.

They’ll be able to see what works and what doesn’t after a few report writing activities and presentations. Building on these skills is the cornerstone to ESL.

Report Writing Activity Example

In many ways, a report writing activity isn’t as intensive as other writing tasks. Your students won’t have much communication in pairs. The need for exciting visuals isn’t as necessary. Report writing is more about the research and structure that go into it.

First, you’ll want to introduce the topic that your students will write about. This topic is generally carried over from the presentation and practice stages. What have you been talking a lot about in class? Do you discuss any topics related to popular culture, current events or social issues? Use your class’s more commonly discussed topics as jumping off points for report writing.

Showing them proper structure is important. You can reinforce the report writing structure that you presented and they practiced by handing out a worksheet outlining proper report structure. You could even have it on the board for them to reference. Essentially, you just let them craft their report using the material provided, but with a little twist. Give them an issue or problem to discuss in their report. If you and your students discussed bears eating fish in Yellowstone Park recently, give them this as a topic and throw them a curveball for the report. For example, you might ask them, “what if there were no more fish?”

This simple question and twist on the topic will cause an imagination explosion. This is perfect when it comes to report writing and now they must really think and put their informative thoughts into a formal report structure. They’ll need to write strong topic sentences with great supporting sentences that link everything together. Keep your students on their toes in report writing and you’ll have students eager to write more reports.

5. Craft a Class Newsletter/Newspaper

This ESL writing activity is a bit more intensive and will allow your students to employ many different aspects of their ESL knowledge. Crafting a class newsletter will build collaboration, communication, listening, speaking and, of course, writing skills.

This project could be a lengthy, ever-changing ESL writing activity that’s fun and exciting for your students. Sharing their class information with the world will keep them excited for the next writing lesson.

There are many layers of class participation involved in this.

Communicative skills will be very important during the creation of the class newspaper or newsletter as students start brainstorming what content to include. You can break up your students into paired writing teams or keep them in a more freelance writing position, whichever you choose. It’s just important to remember that group participation is essential for the success of this activity.

You and your students must get into some fun, in-depth brainstorming about which topics to choose, how the newsletter should be formatted and so on. It’s a great way to get everyone involved and enthusiastic about writing, taking away the daunting aspects which cloud ESL writing in the classroom. Plus, they can share their pride for their class’s English progress.

Newsletter Writing Activity Example

First things first, you must decide if you want pairs or single writers for each topic. Often times this is decided for you, depending on the class size. Let’s say that you have a large class and you put your students into pairs. Each pair will be given a topic for that week’s newsletter and you’ll explain the details involved with their topic during presentation, going over each pair’s topic together as a class. After all, this is a class newsletter.

Once the pair is clear on their topic, you’ll give each of them a specific handout relating to their topic during the practice stage to begin the creative brainstorming they’ll do with their partner. The topics should be general at first: food, travel, news, fashion, technology and so on. This will ensure that each student is focused on one topic. Each week, the topics can change from one pair to the other, giving your students experience writing on various topics.

After your enthusiastic writing pairs have developed their outlines in the practice stage, you can move them into production and let them co-author their article for publication in the newsletter. Once all articles are ready to go, you can go over them with the class and everyone can discuss and have some great communicative practice as you piece the weekly newsletter together.

Next week, a new topic is assigned to each pair and on it goes. Once the newsletters are finished and printed, they’ll get to take them home to show their stuff off to friends, family and colleagues.

They’ll have writing work that they can be proud of. And isn’t that what we want, after all?


Stephen Seifert is a writer, editor, professor of English and adventurer. With over 7 years of teaching experience to students worldwide, he enjoys the many aspects of culture and traditions different from his own. Stephen continues his search for writing inspiration, boldly enjoying life to the fullest.

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What is the hamburger essay and why is it a great main course when serving up ESL writing lessons?

With over 700 million people speaking English as a second language, along with the status of English as the international lingua franca, there are many reasons students flock to English. So, what in particular does the essay form have to offer all these students?

As economic reasons are a prime motivator for many ESL students, essays can be a great format for delving into non-fiction topics and can offer an opportunity to develop coveted skills, such as organizing factual information, undertaking research and coherently presenting one’s own opinions. Essays afford the student-writer a format in which these aims can be achieved.

In this article we will offer some useful guidelines for helping your students to structure their essays using the hamburger model, as well as some handy hints and useful exercises to get your students started on the road to essay excellence!

ESL Essay Writing: The 5 Ingredients of the Classic Hamburger Essay

The Appetizer

1. Top Topic Tips for Teachers and Students

This is a great opportunity to really engage your students. You need to give tips from the get-go, though, so your students do not end up totally overwhelmed.

Essay writing can place great challenges on the ESL student, as they work through the research, drafting and editing stages of essay production, so it is important to get them engaged right from the start. Fortunately, the essay form handily lends itself to the idiosyncrasies of each student.

Here are some tips for you and your students to get off on the right foot with essay writing:

  • Encourage students to select topics that really interest them. This is important to sustain their interest throughout the process.
  • Remember, the focus is on acquiring essay writing skills. Do not be afraid to suggest some off-the-wall topics to students struggling to find something of interest. A well-structured essay on the merits of Indonesian Gamelan music is better than a disorganized one in more traditional ESL territory.
  • Get an angle. Ensure your students do not pick a topic that is too unwieldy. If they do, help them find some perspective on it by narrowing the focus. For example, an essay with the topic of “video games” lacks direction. However, an essay on the benefits of video games in the modern age may offer the necessary refining to focus the student on the task at hand.
  • As essays convey opinion it is often helpful to set the topic in a quasi-debate style. For example, keeping with the topic of video games, the title might be something like, “Video games often have a bad reputation, despite offering some very tangible benefits. Do you agree with this statement? Give reasons for your answer.”
  • With topic firmly in hand, have students brainstorm ideas and write them down. Their best ideas will form the basis of their research, where they will gather data, facts, statistics and more information, as appropriate, to illustrate their ideas.

The Main Course

In writing, regardless of the genre, structure is crucial. Here we will look at essay writing in terms of the hamburger model, which offers a very clear structure with which to approach writing an essay.

2. The Introductory Paragraph

It is time to lay out your essay’s main purpose and get the ball rolling! As with most writing genre, the introduction serves a number of purposes:

  • It orientates your reader to the central premise of the piece.
  • It briefly outlines the points the body paragraphs will address.

Top tip: The “hook” or “grabber” is important in securing your reader’s attention from the outset. Some examples of successful grabbers include:

  • Opening with a relevant quotation from a relevant source. Tons of quotation collections are available online providing inspirational quotes for any imaginable essay topic. A well-chosen quotation can secure the attention of even the most fickle of readers.
  • Stating an interesting and surprising fact can intrigue readers into wishing to find out more. Can the students’ research reveal one?
  • A joke. Dependent on the topic, a joke may be an appropriate way to grab the reader’s attention. The student needs to weigh up whether the tone of the essay is suitable.

3. The Body Paragraphs

If the essay is a hamburger, then these are the beef patties—and it is a triple-decker! As stated above, the main points should be briefly outlined in the introduction.

Each of the three body paragraphs will explore a single point. In structuring each paragraph the somewhat unfortunate acronym P.E.E. proves useful.

Point: Each paragraph begins with making a point in support of the central thesis. Students should endeavor to state each point in strong, clear language.

Explain: A good rule of thumb here is that the simpler the point, the more complex the sentence structure that can be employed. A more complex point can be expressed with greater clarity by employing several shorter sentences which break it down into more digestible, bite-sized chunks.

Evidence: Ensure every point is supported by evidence. Remind the students there are many types of evidence. From quoting from authorities on the subject to book references, statistics and anecdotes, convincing evidence is dependent upon effective research in the pre-writing stage.

4. The Conclusion

Hard to eat a burger without the bottom bun. You would need a knife and fork and, well, that is not how a burger is meant to be devoured. The conclusion is where you seal in all that delicious flavor. A students should strive to give a reminder of the main flavors of the essay. A chance for the student to drive those main points home one last time.

It is important to remember that at this stage of the essay no new points should be introduced. The student can, however, revisit a point with an added insight or two to leave the lingering taste in the reader’s mind. A good essay will leave a thought or two to chew over!

The Dessert

So, there we have it. Well-fed students. We’ve given them a mouthwatering appetizer and a filling main course, but where would we be without the icing on the cake, the dessert?

Essay writing is as much about craft as it is about inspiration. And as with an apprentice baker’s first soufflé, first attempts are likely to be a little flat. So what should the ESL writer be looking to tweak in their final draft?

5. Revisions and Polishing

  • As any writer worth their ink will tell you, sometimes you just need to step away from the pen. After the traumatic struggle of midwifing an infant essay, give baby a chance to breathe before taking stock of fingers and toes. A fresh perspective can often only be attained after a good night’s sleep or two.
  • It is time for a spellcheck and a grammar check. Fortunately, if word-processed, technology will be there to help, but it is important to encourage students to employ their own critical faculties. Peer review is a good technique to encourage this, and it encourages students to benefit from each others’ strengths.
  • Next, it is time to check the essay for its structural integrity. Have the students refer again to the criteria as listed above. you may wish to provide them with a checklist with which they can go through their work to identify missing elements or weak areas.

And there it is. The hamburger essay, quick, convenient and filling. Like its namesake, more complex versions can be built according to the refinement of the appetite.

With plenty of practice and encouragement, your students will be building gourmet versions in no time!

Oh, and One More Thing…

If you liked these tips, you’ll love using FluentU in your classroom. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, cartoons, documentaries and more—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons for you and your students.

It’s got a huge collection of authentic English videos that people in the English-speaking world actually watch on the regular. There are tons of great choices there when you’re looking for songs for in-class activities.

You’ll find music videos, musical numbers from cinema and theater, kids’ singalongs, commercial jingles and much, much more.

On FluentU, all the videos are sorted by skill level and are carefully annotated for students. Words come with example sentences and definitions. Students will be able to add them to their own vocabulary lists, and even see how the words are used in other videos.

For example, if a student taps on the word “brought,” they’ll see this:

Plus, these great videos are all accompanied by interactive features and active learning tools for students, like multimedia flashcards and fun games like “fill in the blank.”

It’s perfect for in-class activities, group projects and solo homework assignments. Not to mention, it’s guaranteed to get your students excited about English!

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach English with real-world videos.

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