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Karen and her students

Adding Interest to Writing

Karen Johnson, ESL Instructor

Karen Johnson is an instructor of ESL
at the
Intensive English Program at
Rice University, Houston, Texas.

As students struggle to communicate their ideas in writing, descriptive details are often left by the wayside. As a result, their writing may come across as lifeless, flat and generic.

To breathe life into their descriptive writing, I often take the time to do the following activity.

I begin asking my students to bring in a photograph, preferably a picture that shows an event or place. I also bring in my own photograph and a written account of the picture. (Read My First Bicycle.) It takes a little extra time for me to write about myself, but I feel that using my own example has several advantages.

  1. Using my own writing allows students to see me, the teacher, as a writer. Students have increased interest knowing that this came from a "real" person instead of just some textbook.
  2. I can adapt the writing to fit the student's level.
  3. My writing provides a tailor-made example of the assignment.
  4. I never need to worry about copyright laws.

Remember: Teachers don't have to be Nobel Laureates to write for their students. In fact, they can use their students as peer evaluators who can provide valuable feedback.

Next, I give each student a copy of my story and picture. We read through the story together and talk about any unfamiliar words. Then I have the students identify examples of adjectives related to the five senses. They go back to the story one more time and look for examples of emotions or memories in the story. We then take the opportunity to discuss what would happen to the story if all the descriptive words and memories were left out of the story.

After discussing my photo, I have the students show their picture to a partner. The partner asks reporter questions (who, what, where, etc.) trying to learn all the details of the picture. Following this discussion, the students are now ready to write about their own pictures. As they write, I encourage the students to include details about what they saw, heard, tasted, felt, and smelled when the picture was taken.

The result is much more dynamic writing that draws the reader into the writer's world.

Karen's class project: Read the papers her students wrote.

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