Writing Activities for ELLs: Getting to Know You

While preparing for the beginning of the new semester and planning my first teaching week, I thought it would be a good idea to share in my blog some getting-to-know-you activities that can be implemented in a writing class. Those of you who are more experienced in teaching may already have lots of such activities in your teaching arsenal, but for others, the activities I describe below might be new. I have collected these activities throughout my teaching practice and frankly I cannot even recall who shared them with me, or when. So I definitely do not claim them to be my own. From the pool of the getting-to-know-you activities that I possess I decided to share the ones that require students to write; and therefore, I believe they can particularly be effective in a writing class (although they can be used in any other ESL classes).

The teacher gives each student a blank timeline, and the students mark five to seven important events that happened in their lives. They should not write their names on the timeline. The teacher collects the timelines and asks the students to interview each other to gather information about their classmates. The teacher can either divide the students into small groups or ask them to rotate and switch their partners a few times. Then the teacher posts all timelines on the board and asks the students to identify the author of each timeline.
Note: You can keep the timelines and use them for your classroom activities later in the semester (e.g., to teach about transition words of time and sequence).

Venn Diagram
The teacher pairs the students up and gives each pair a Venn diagram. Each student should put his or her name at the top of one circle of the diagram. Then the students chat with each other for a few minutes to get to know each other, so they can fill out the Venn diagram. In their own part of the circle, the students should write things that are unique to them. Where the two circles intersect, they need to write things that they have in common (e.g., age, qualities, hobbies, languages spoken).
Note: If you are teaching a compare/contrast essay later in the semester, this activity can later be referred to as an example of describing similarities and differences.

Two Truths and One Lie
The students write two facts that are true about themselves and one fact that is not true. Then each student reads his or her sentences, and the rest of the class tries to identify the lie.
Note: This is my favorite activity! The students get quite imaginative in creating their lies, and the entire class gets engaged in the guessing game. I also noticed that this activity helps the students to get to know each other very quickly.

Who Am I?
On a small piece of paper, each student writes a few sentences about himself or herself. Then all papers are collected and put in a small box or a hat. The teacher takes one paper and reads what it says, and the students have to guess who wrote this paper. Example: “I have long brown hair. I like casual clothes. I enjoy hiking and traveling. Who am I?”
Note: As you can see from the example, the students may not know about the person’s hobbies, but they can certainly guess who that person is by the appearance (the hair and the clothes). I suggest that the teacher instruct the students to be neither unbelievably mysterious nor totally transparent in their descriptions.

All About Me
This is a perfect activity for beginners! The teacher gives each student a marker and a sheet of paper (size A4 works great). The students write some words and numbers that somehow relate to themselves (e.g., age, a language spoken, a pet’s name, favorite food). Then each student shows her or his sheet to the rest of the class, and they ask “yes/no” questions trying to figure out what those words and numbers represent.
Note: This can also be a great exercise for practicing “yes/no” questions and answers.

As mentioned earlier, all of these activities implement a writing component, but they can be done in any ESL class. Try them, adjust them as you see them fit, and enjoy your first week of teaching!

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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2 Responses to Writing Activities for ELLs: Getting to Know You

  1. Shizhou Yang says:

    Hi Elena,

    So glad to “see” you here again! Beginning first class of a new semester next week. Your tips inspire me to think about how to make the first writing task more interactive. Thanks!


  2. brad johnston says:

    Nice, Elena.


    Thank you.

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