On Campus and Beyond: From Speaking to Writing, Part 1

I have just finished teaching a summer ESL course entitled “Cross-Cultural Talk”—a speaking class that focuses on language fluency at a low-intermediate level of language proficiency. Because I always try to help my students to become more familiar with the campus environment and use resources available on it (as all of them will be “regular” university students soon after they finish their intensive English course), I designed my syllabus around cross-cultural topics that could be explored both on campus and beyond.

That is, for each unit of the course, I spent one day discussing the target topic in its relation to our local campus and one day discussing the same topic on a broader scale—in its relation to American society/culture. In both days, students were also expected to share experiences from their own cultures.

Here are the units that I used in this course:

  • Everyday interactions
  • Social life and entertainment
  • Health and well-being
  • Cultures and diversity

Although this course focused on speaking, I kept thinking about how a similar approach could be applied to a writing class. Following, I will provide examples of a few activities and assignments used in two units, “Everyday interactions” and “Social life and entertainment,” by trying to make connections with writing. In my next blog (Part 2), I will provide suggestions for the other two units of the course: “Health and well-being” and “Cultures and diversity.”

Everyday Interactions

On campus

  • Activity: Students discuss appropriate and inappropriate classroom behavior and language.
    • Suggestion for writing: Students can analyze in written form both appropriate and inappropriate classroom behavior both in American culture and their own.
  • Activity: Students perform a few role-plays on the topic of “talking to a professor” (e.g., negotiating time for an office visit, unplanned office visit, planned office visit, discussing a course grade).
    • Suggestion for writing: Students themselves can write and perform several role-plays for similar situations.


  • Activity: Discussing small talks: “good” and “bad” small talk topics; suggestions for making small talk; appropriate phrases based on situations/places.
    • Suggestion for writing: Students can write a paragraph/short response on how small talk in the United States might be different from (or similar to) the way people make small talk in their own culture.
  • Activity: Students analyze critical incidents in which body language was a source of misunderstanding.
    • Suggestions for writing
      1. Students can create their own critical incidents by writing them and reading them in front of the class—this could be followed by the discussion of the incident.
      2. Students can pick one feature of nonverbal communication (e.g., gaze, head nod) and describe its function in interpersonal communication in American culture and their own.
      3. Students can write a short text describing possible problems that can be caused by body language in interpersonal communication and propose ways to avoid these problems.

Social Life and Entertainment

On campus

  • Activity: Students discuss dos and don’ts for balancing social and academic life.
    • Suggestion for writing: Students write a “recommendation” piece describing several tips on how to balance social and academic life as a student.
  • Activity: Students read about “wild” college traditions in several U.S. universities (the examples can be found online) and create a tradition for their local university.
    • Suggestion for writing: Students write a “proposal” piece describing a tradition that a local university should implement: They will describe the tradition in detail, provide a rationale for implementing this tradition, and offer some practical suggestions on how this tradition could be executed in an effective way.


  • Activity: Students discuss statistical data that represent how working parents in the United States spend their average weekday, and how Americans spend their leisure time (the data can be found line).
    • Suggestions for writing
      1. Students write a comparative piece analyzing this phenomenon with respect to American culture and their own.
      2. Students can write an opinion paper discussing the question: “What do these data tell us about American society?”
  • Activity: Students research and present about some of the most popular types of entertainment in American culture: amusement parks; summer festivals and fairs; and concerts, shows, and performances.
    • Suggestions for writing
      1. Students pick one type of entertainment and write a short piece discussing the following questions:

      • What do people do for this type of entertainment?
      • Why do you think it’s attractive to people?
      • Whom is it mostly attractive for?
      • Is it family friendly?
      • How much does it cost (generally speaking)?
      • What are some specific customs/behaviors related to this particular type of entertainment?

2. Alternatively, students can write an “advertisement” piece describing one of these types of entertainment.

As you can see, these activities can be adapted to your local environment, the proficiency level of your students, and your course learning objectives. I hope these examples can inspire some ideas for your own writing class.

About Elena Shvidko

Elena Shvidko
Elena Shvidko is an assistant professor at Utah State University. She received her doctorate in second language studies from Purdue University and her master’s degree in TESOL from Brigham Young University. Her work appears in TESOL Journal, System, Journal on Response to Writing, TESOL interest section newsletters, and TESOL's New Ways series. Her research interests include second language writing, multimodal interaction, interpersonal aspects of language teaching, and teacher professional development.
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