An article discussing ways to overcome the problem of students who don't want to write.

What would you do if your students refused to write in the lessons, saying they’d rather do it as a homework activity?

This is quite a common problem which has certainly happened to me in the past, particularly in adult classes in the evenings, when students were tired and had come straight from work etc. So, I concluded that the problem here is most probably not connected with writing so much as the learner’s perception of writing as being something tiring and boring, or maybe a “waste of time”, when they could be doing this mythical activity known as “conversation” which can mean as many things as there are students in the class. In fact, what they probably mean is that they want to be doing something that is more “fun” so what we have to do is to make writing enjoyable and clearly useful to their learning process.

Why should they write?

There are a lot of good reasons for writing:

  • Writing, takes more time than speaking, which allows students to process the language and vocabulary they use.
  • Teachers can monitor efficiently during the tasks, asking students to think again and reformulate language.
  • Teachers can take notes of areas that require more work and plan remedial micro-teaching slots based on their findings.
  • At the end of the task there is a product which can usefully be used for further work.
  • As preparation time for other tasks it gives students valuable time and space, in which they can elaborate the language forms they might need in the next stage of the activity.

There are also a lot of bad reasons for writing and they are the ones to avoid:

  • Filling in time in a lesson.
  • Writing because it is a “serious” activity.
  • Writing because that’s what the teacher did when she was at school.
  • Writing with no reason to write. ( This is probably the worst one, and is truly boring!)

Charles and Jill Hadfield, in their excellent resource book, Writing Games, tackle the question of what students need to think about when writing, and they identify four questions: "Who am I addressing? Why am I communicating in this way at all? What have I to say? How should I best express it on paper?” They go on to say that, traditionally, writing approaches look at “what “ and “how”, this includes work done on formal and informal letter writing, film reviews etc., but not the “who” and the “why” questions which can help to make the task more realistic for the students.

How does this work in practice?

Here is one way of applying the four question technique to a writing task found in a coursebook. The task asks students simply to “write a review of the film, play etc. you have already described or another you are interested in.” (Cutting Edge Intermediate p. 65. Follow up work to a task where students prepared a review of a film, TV. programme etc. for a radio programme.) This can be adapted by asking students to think of a film, video, song etc. that they think would appeal to someone else in the class and then, either individually, or in groups, asking them to write a quick description of the item itself and tell the person why they think they would like it.

In this way the work they do is integrated into the framework of the class, so it is personalized, and they are also answering the questions “Who” am I writing to? And “Why am I writing?. The task could then be extended in many different ways including putting the papers up on the walls and asking students to find what has been recommended for them. They could then discuss whether or not they agreed with the ideas. (This, however, is only one of lots of ways of extending this work depending on the area of language learning you want to focus on.) It is important, however, when asking students to write to someone else in the class, to then make sure that that person gets the chance to read the letter. Otherwise the purpose of the task is defeated.

Training learners or making them aware

If our students tell us that they don’t like writing, of course, we have to listen to them and ask them why not. This can lead to useful class discussion where some of the reasons for writing, mentioned above can be discussed. There are, however, other less confrontational ways of training learners. If, for example, the students see that what they are writing helps them to plan what they are going to do in the next part of the class, they often do not even see it as a “writing task”.

One example of this might be writing questionnaires which are later going to be used in a class survey, another type of exercise is writing “do-it-yourself” gap-filler exercises, or stories about the students themselves which contain some information which is true and some which is false, and which the other students will then have to read and work with in an appropriate way, either filling in the gaps, or identifying the true and false information. As long as the activity is not too long, and they can see where it is leading, students are generally happy to take part, and there is the added element of personalization and fun which is highly motivating in itself. Then, if they see that whilst they are writing the teacher is monitoring their work and offering constructive help, they will be even more appreciative of this type of activity. Thirdly, if they see that the teacher notices “problem areas” or areas of structural or lexical interest, which are then looked at in micro-teaching slots after the task, such as self/peer correction or development and extension of a language area and more work on that specific language, they will understand how valuable writing in class can be.

If learners are trained to prepare for speaking tasks, for example by thinking through what they are going to say, writing notes and asking for or looking up vocabulary they will need, even though this is not strictly a writing activity, it involves a certain amount of writing and is also an activity that they will eventually see as being useful. With all these things, if they are new to learners, they need to be introduced and done a few times before they get used to them, and really appreciate their value.

What kind of writing should they do?

We have already looked at adapting tasks from coursebooks, and mentioned tasks such as questionnaires, “do-it-yourself" gap fills and true/false stories ( see above). A lot of writing tasks can be designed in this way as part of integrated skills work, where the writing comes as pre-reading/ speaking/ listening as awareness raising activities (questionnaires etc) or as post-task activities such as the letter to other students in the class, outlined above. There are also many other “writing activity types” some of which are directly related to language structures, such as interactive dictations (see “Dictation New methods, new possibilities” by Paul Davis and Mario Rinvolucri Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers), and Writing Games has some excellent writing activities in them which can be used as they are and adapted to other areas as well. These activities are both fun and creative whilst being rewarding for students to do, and include letters, advertisements, poems, manifestoes, postcards notices newspaper articles etc.

Some schools have student newspapers or magazines and project work writing for these can be very useful too. The effect for students of seeing their own work in print is not to be underestimated. Students have been known to frame their own articles and one dentist I worked with put his English work up in the dental waiting room for his patients to admire. When working on this type of project teachers need to think about how much time should be spent in class on the work and how much revising and editing needs to be done, both by the students themselves and by the teacher.

Other useful formats for written work are e-mail and forums. Students can be encouraged to write freely to each other by e-mail, which is very motivating for them and is seen as being “real” communication, and is completely learner-centred as the teacher does not direct what happens or intervene. This just needs to be set up and work can be done in class to set the students off writing to each other, or using forums, which may be forums which already exist on the Internet or are set up by the school just for certain students, which may be less daunting, but by the same token less “real” as well.

There are, in fact endless ways of bringing writing into the classroom and developing it for students. Half the fun is trying out new ways of adapting existing activities, in fact. To come back to the original question, however, there is no reason why some writing should not be done as homework too. All of the tasks mentioned above, such as letters, questionnaires etc. can also be done at home in preparation for the next lesson.

Follow-up tasks done at home reinforce the work done in class by bringing back students’ thoughts to that work. This is also highly motivating because it means that the students arrive at the next class with the expectation of receiving a letter from someone else etc. Even though there are always students who, for whatever reason, do not do their homework, there are always those who do and the rest of the class can work with this material, reading letters in groups and replying to them etc.

Writing, therefore, can be used both in class and at home, and can lead from or onto a whole range of different activities. All the teacher has to do is to choose the best activity to do and decide how to use it, whilst having fun with the students along the way.


“Writing Games” Nelson 1990 by Charles and Jill Hadfield
“Cutting Edge Intermediate” Longman 1998 by Sarah Cunningham and Peter Moor.
“Dictation New methods, new possibilities” CUP 1988 by Paul Davis and Mario Rinvolucri.