Sneaky micro-writing activities for students who hate writing

I’m so happy to announce my first-ever guest post on Ms.ESL. This one is by Stuart Price, a fantastic ESL teacher with about eight years teaching experience, who also happens to be my husband! Without further ado…

I love writing and I love teaching writing but since coming to Saudi Arabia, I have found it a tough task. When it comes to writing, Saudi students have a unique set of problems, apart from the ones that plague nearly all ESL students:

  • the whole Roman script thing
  • no vowels in Arabic which leads to astonishing spelling problems
  • writing from left to right and
  • a lack of ideas to put into a paragraph of short piece of writing

As well as the usual paragraph structure / ideas flow issues, this makes writing a particularly demotivating task for students here. But as I said I love writing and like a moth drawn to a flame, with the inevitable frazzled end, I can’t but try to pass on, if not my love, then at least a glimmer that it is possible to write 150 words about your last holiday or to cobble together a story from a picture board.

So I sat down and gave it some thought. And after some serious mulling I figured I would need a two-pronged approach to 1) address their structural / compositional needs and 2) increase the amount they wrote (to give them practice) but in a way that wouldn’t seem labourious, or like ‘oh-no-not-more-writing!’.

In a flash of inspiration, I remembered one of my DELTA module 2 LSAs where I had the class writing / posting responses and counter-responses to a blog article. More about that in another post.

I then came across Ceri Jones’s excellent workshop and subsequent blog on micro-writing, and discovered the approach I had used in my LSA is actually a methodology. The approach that Ceri uses sets students tasks that only take a few minutes of class time and are designed to stimulate students writing skills by increasing the amount of writing they do over a course but without them really realizing that they are doing writing practice. Most of the tasks are in some way realistic and mimic ways in which they use writing in Arabic, and range from caption writing for instagram photos, short back-and-forth text / Whatsapp messaging, Facebook comments to brainstorming ideas for extended writing tasks.

One of the beauties of this approach is that students are not phased by a blank sheet of A4 which they need to fill up with a large chunk of text. It is easier, as a teacher, to go around making corrections as they are writing, providing ‘hot’ corrections and students are spared an A4 page covered in red ink. I always use a marking key (you can download my Guide to Marking Key here) and once the students are familiar with this, I simply circle an error and label it with the appropriate symbol. Students make on the spot corrections and I have found that even fossilized errors are becoming less frequent.

One particular problem I found is that Saudis tend to write very little and often run out of ideas quickly, one the most noticeable benefits I have seen from using micro-writing is that because they are responding to each others’ ‘live’ messages and responses their questioning faculty has increased and they are now thinking more about the content their own individual writing tasks.

Here are some of the tasks that I have used in class that I have taken from Ceri’s workshop and a few ideas of my own



1) Bio-writing:

Give each group of students a picture of a person (real, fictional, imaginary). In their groups, students write a short bio for the person (e.g. name, age, job, hobbies, favorites etc.). Now, regroup students so that each student in the new pair/group has a different person’s picture and bio. In their new pairs/groups, students write a short dialogue between their two characters (possible scenarios: two people meeting on a train, in an online forum)

2) Guess what:

Establish the context or theme for the lesson e.g. leisure activities. Students write a definition for their own favorite leisure activity and ask others in their group to guess what it is.

3) Social Media micro-writing

Social media like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter etc. provide great triggers for writing. Ask students to write status updates imagining themselves to be a character in the text they have just read/listened to. Other examples:

  1. At the start of the week, instead of the usual ‘How was your weekend? What did you do?’ which elicits minimal response, ask students to write a status update on Twitter/Facebook about their weekend.
  2. Ask students to share an Instagram picture on their class group with a caption.
  3. Ask students to write a reaction update to a news item they have been discussing (the opening of a new shopping mall, the release of the latest iPhone etc.)
  4. Students can now comment on each others’ updates on the classroom wall.

4) The camel ate my homework…

When students don’t do their homework, ask students to get creative with their excuses in writing.

5) Arranging a meeting via text:

In a recent business class I paired students off with about ten strips of paper stapled together and asked them to arrange a business meeting via text. I have also used the same approach with Beginner 3 students to ask for and give directions using their phones after creating a Whatsapp group.

6) Story-writing:

I give groups a photo still from a movie and each group writes two or three sentences about what they can see. Students then pass what they have written to another group, who then write questions to further flesh out the story. I have found the results to be creative and often quite funny, with the dark humor of the students coming out. This approach also works with helping students work on prediction skills, for instance I show a movie clip and stop it at various points and ask the students to write their guesses for what comes next.

7) Texting directions to your friend

In the New Headway Beginner book there is a section of giving directions. Once we have completed the tasks in the book I ask to students to use their phones to write directions to each other.


So what do you think?

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