How To Teach Writing [Theory And Practice]

Writing is both a struggle and a pain. Any English teacher will testify that out of the four skills (reading, listening, speaking, and writing), it is writing that seems to pose the greatest problems to language learners. But why is that?

Why is writing hard?

One obvious reason is that writing does not have the wide range of expressive possibilities of speaking. When we write, we cannot use all the devices available to a speaker, such as facial expressions, gestures, tone of voice, and stress. All these are powerful communication tools and non-verbal communication is often louder than words.

Another important reason is that, compared with the free flow of speaking, writing requires a number of things in order to be effective: organization, accuracy, carefully chosen vocabulary, correct grammatical patterns, and above all style appropriate to the topic and the reader. In writing you can’t go back and correct yourself like you do when speaking.

What are the reasons for writing?

Before we tackle the specifics of writing, it is crucial to address first the question of why we write. In the classroom we usually write

  • to help students learn the language
  • to establish a student’s progress or proficiency
  • for assessment

However, in real life we usually write in response to a demand of some kind: an email to a customer, a report to our boss, a comment on Facebook, a text message to a friend, a post-it note to our spouse. And of course, let’s not forget our inner need for self-expression.

And this is where the problem lies. Writing in the classroom can become irrelevant and unreal if it is only ever produced for one reader: the teacher.

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Making writing relevant for students

In order to make writing relevant, we must ensure that it is not just a mechanical exercise, but that it fulfills a real communicative purpose. Students need to imagine their readers and motivate themselves to write for them. It is even better if their writing can become genuine communication to real audiences: a how-to piece for fellow students, a post in the school’s blog, a comment on a news website, an appeal to an international organization. The opportunities are limitless.

Therefore, it is our task to help our students become aware of their readers and develop a sense of audience. Because it is this sense of audience that facilitates communication. The practical activities that follow aim to give you some creative ideas on how to make writing more meaningful.


1. Treasure Hunt

CEFR level: A2+ | Duration: 45 minutes

Students form pairs. Open Google Maps and ask one student from each pair to pin a location where the hidden treasure is supposed to be. The other student pins a location where their treasure is supposed to be. The two locations should fit on the screen. Ask each student to write directions to their treasure, from one location to the other. The student who directs the other one correctly wins.

2. It’s Your Birthday!

CEFR level: A2+ | Duration: 50 minutes 

Students must have email accounts for this one. First, put up a wall calendar and ask students to mark their birthdays. Every time it’s one of the students’ birthdays, ask the class to go online, find or create an appropriate birthday card, and email it to their classmate. The next day discuss which card was the most interesting, the funniest etc.

3. For and Against

CEFR level: B1 | Duration: 30 minutes

The aim of this activity is to introduce students to the ‘for’ and ‘against’ type essay. First write the topic on the board, e.g. ‘The internet has brought people together’. Ask students to find one argument for and one against this statement. Write the arguments on the board in two columns, one for ‘For’ and one for ‘Against’. Students form small groups and try to think of as many additional arguments as possible. Write all the arguments on the board in the respective columns. Depending on the level, this can form the basis of an essay they will write for homework. 

4. Giving Instructions

CEFR level: A2 | Duration: 30 minutes

A good writer always has their reader in mind. This is a good exercise to instill this way of thinking to your students. First, tell them that while they’re on holiday, a friend or relative of theirs will be staying at their house. They must leave them clear and precise directions, e.g. ‘check that all windows are locked before going out’ or ‘don’t let the heating on when you go out’ and so on. Students must imagine their reader and think of all the questions he/she may have, such ‘where do I put the garbage’, ‘how do I know if there’s hot water for a bath’, ‘where is the nearest supermarket’ etc.

5. Selective Focus

CEFR level: B1 | Duration: 25 minutes

This is a good exercise to help students focus and prioritize when writing. Go online and search for some really interesting photos that tell a story. A very good source is World Press Photo, which hosts the most prestigious photo contests every year.

Students form small groups or pairs. Assign one photo to each group or pair and ask them to write a description. Students discuss, brainstorm, and take notes before finally producing a description.

Now, ask them to say orally what the most important thing in the photo is, and review their writing accordingly: have they focused on that in their written piece? Talk about how detailed their description is, how much space they have dedicated for the main focus, where have they put it in their paragraph, what stylistic devices they have used to place emphasis and so on. At the end, they review their work and come up with the best possible version.

6. Person Description

CEFR level: A1+ | Duration: 45 minutes

An easy introductory activity for younger students. Find some photos of people, preferably doing a task and showing various emotions (in other words, not the passport-type). Students form small groups and take notes on:

  • General appearance (tall, slim, blonde etc.)
  • Clothes
  • Emotions

They will most probably need help with additional vocabulary. When they finish, they write a short paragraph describing the person in the photo. 

The activities above will help your students develop, sharpen, and refine their writing skills.

How to Teach Writing: The Writing Process

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Education born and bred. I have worked as a teacher for many private language schools, as a test centre administrator, as a teacher trainer, as an educational consultant, and as a publisher. I am an advocate for literacy and a huge proponent of using technology in the classroom. I have a BA in English and an MBA in Marketing. I mostly write about English Language Teaching. I live in sunny Athens.


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