Activities for Teaching Writing to Young Learners

When we learn a new language, writing is often the last skill we focus on. Listening and speaking take priority, and reading can be integrated into textbook exercises as we learn grammar, for example. Writing may be neglected because of persistent myths about what counts as writing (beliefs that only academic essays are writing) or fears about making errors (which are more visible than errors made while speaking). These misconceptions may derive from first-language literacy learning experiences. In many contexts, writing may be neglected because it is not included on state and standardized tests, whereas the other skills are. As I noted in last month’s post, when learners don’t feel like they’re writing for a real audience, they become less interested in continuing with writing. Writing becomes boring, and when it’s boring, we don’t want to practice it.

This post focuses on ways to make learning to write in a new language fun and engaging for young learners in particular, although most of these activities would appeal to older learners as well. By “young learners” I mean children under about age 12, who are still in primary school.

A key feature of young learners is that they are often still developing their literacy abilities in their first language, which means that they cannot draw on as much prior knowledge about text structure or rhetoric as older learners can. Young learners often have a shorter attention span and less awareness of their own future goals and needs than older learners. They are also still dependent on their family for guidance when they are outside of school, which means they are less likely to be able to seek out language models and practice opportunities on their own. Nevertheless, young learners are ready and eager to learn how to write in a new language.

4 Principles for Teaching Writing to Young Learners

When teaching writing to young learners, I try to keep a few principles in mind:

  1. Draw on kids’ sense of play and imagination: We expect children to be serious, but they like to play. If we design activities that allow them to learn language at the same time as having fun, they will both feel more positive about the language and learn to use it for communicative purposes.
  2. Start writing from the beginning: Don’t wait until learners have mastered the language before letting them write. Even low proficiency learners can do creative things with a limited vocabulary and incomplete knowledge of grammar systems.
  3. A little goes a long way: We don’t have to teach many different things in one lesson. Instead, children learn through repeating. They even like to repeat the same activities and games because it is familiar and because they can gain skill—each time, they can do better.
  4. Focus on progress, not perfection: Children should not be expected to create perfect texts. Instead, we should value their ability to make progress and get better at what they are able to do. Provide feedback for development, and don’t grade based on error.

Writing Letters and Words

When they are just starting to learn a new language, especially if the language uses a different writing system than their home language, low-proficiency young learners need practice forming letters and writing individual words. These activities give them that practice in ways that are more fun than just tracing letters with a pencil.

  • Tactile and tasty: The same letter-formation activities that beginning first-language writers do can help second-language writers practice as well. These include finger painting with pudding, creating letter shapes with licorice strips, or placing chocolate chips on pattern—all of which not only allow for writing practice, but also provide a sweet treat when the learners have completed their tasks.
  • Kinesthetic letter formation and spelling: If you don’t want to bring food into the classroom, you can also have students form letters using ribbon or clay. They can play a game by writing words with their fingers or a chopstick on classmates’ backs; the classmate has to guess what word was written.
  • Games and art: When students are able to write single words, they can play hangman, which requires attention to the alphabet and spelling. Those who like to draw may enjoy various forms of word art, forming images with the letters that spell a given word (see examples of word art animals, or typography art objects). They can also start writing acrostic poems in which you write a word vertically and then choose a related word that starts with each of the letters.

Using Images

Incorporating multimodal elements allows lower proficiency writers to create meaningful texts that go beyond what they are able to say in words. With technology resources, learners can tell complex stories or illustrate their thoughts in more detail.

  • Picture stories using PowerPoint: Students select a series of pictures that convey their story, and then draft simple sentences for each slide to add information. This can also be done in a digital storyboard app or an ebook creator if you have access. The point is that students are able to draw on their full imagination to tell their stories rather than just on their limited second language vocabulary and grammar resources.
  • Make your own manga: Make Beliefs Comix and other comic-creation sites provide structure and images, which students can use to put together as they wish; they then add dialog to complete their stories. Even low-proficiency learners can make simple dialogues using language they have learned in class; kids are often able to combine everyday dialogues in humorous ways when they can put them together with pictures.
  • Postcard to a penpal: Using richly detailed pictures out of magazines or travel websites, students write a postcard to an imaginary English-speaking friend about their visit to that place. If each child has their own copy of a picture, they can start by drawing themselves into the scene and then writing about what they are doing in that place.

Grammar Games

Even learning the grammar necessary for writing can be turned into games. Because learning structures requires practice and repetition, making the process fun instead of tedious has the additional bonus of being something students will actually look forward to.

  • Silly sentences: If you’ve ever studied a language on Duolingo, you may be familiar with such logic-defying sentences as “The elephant is in the sugar on the plate.” Kids can make these kinds of sentences on their own. Make flashcards with vocabulary words (be sure to have both nouns and verbs, as well as adjectives and adverbs if relevant). Students can manipulate the cards to come up with the silliest sentences possible, as long as they maintain grammatical order. You can either provide additional cards with articles, prepositions, and other function words, or you can have students fill those in when they copy their sentences onto the board to share with the class.
  • Erase and replace: Write a paragraph on the board or project a text for the class to see. Students take turns replacing one word with another that fits grammatically. They can choose to maintain the logic or to change it to be humorous.

These are just a few of the ways I have found to make learning to write in a new language fun and manageable for young learners. Many of these activities would also appeal to older learners; we often assume they want to be serious when they actually want to play around with language, too!

What writing activities have you found successful with your young learners? Share your ideas in the comments below!

About Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland
Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she was chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section (2019-2020) and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.
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5 Responses to
Activities for Teaching Writing to Young Learners

  1. Emily D says:

    I love how you included drawing on kids’ sense of play and imagination as one of the four principles for teaching writing to young learners. In this principle for an activity, you included using licorice to make letter shapes. I have always used pipe cleaners when having my students make letter shapes. I am interested in using licorice the next time I work on letter shapes with my students to see if it is easy for them to use than the pipe cleaners. Thank you for your advice!

  2. Banomatee Nath says:

    Objects! I have taught all grades and found that students are more likely to write about items that has some meaning to them. I usually ask younger student to bring an object from home, an object that is close to their heart to write about. For older students I have a box of stuff I have collected over the years called “The wonder box”. Students are allowed to choose an item to write about.

    • Betsy Gilliland Betsy Gilliland says:

      I love this, Banomatee! This makes the content both meaningful to the learners and something about which they are the experts (they know far more about their objects than their classmates or even the teacher).

  3. Le Van Canh says:

    A nice article with interesting and useful teaching ideas. Thank you.

  4. VSJakar says:

    Thank you for that extensive, comprehensive collection of ideas and principles. Useful as a guide for parents, too.

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