Getting writing right!

Jake Whiddon
26 June 2016

Boosting UP student motivation to write in English

Writing in English as a second or foreign language is a challenge for both students and teachers all over the world. It really doesn’t have to be. To be a great writer you need the skills and the motivation. As teachers, we need to spend time on both. Too much time on motivation will lead to poor skills and vice versa. However, in most schools, we tend to see a focus on skills when it comes to writing leading to less motivated students. Recent research shows that in Asia, TEFL teachers believe that teaching writing is the most difficult of the 4 skills to motivate students to keep engaged in. This short essay highlights 4 areas: personalization; differentiation; meaningful interaction; & context, to help you ensure you give your students to best opportunities to be motivated to write.

First, let’s take a look at the research. In a recent online survey conducted for TEFL/TESL teachers in Asia, participants were asked which skills or aspects of English they felt most and least comfortable with teaching. The majority of all respondents stated speaking as the most comfortable. See the tables below for the results of where they felt least comfortable.

It was fascinating to note that the more qualified the teacher the more likely they were to rate teaching writing skills as one of the top 3 skills in English they were least comfortable with teaching.

“Which skills are you least confident in teaching? (choose up to 3)”

Fig. 1 - All teachers surveyed
Fig. 1 – All teachers surveyed


Fig. 2 - Teachers with MA Tesol, DipTESOL or DELTA
Fig. 2 – Teachers with MA Tesol, DipTESOL or DELTA

In further face to face interviews, teachers mentioned that they felt their students were not motivated to write. This was particularly true of students aged 14-20. Essentially, teaching writing is combining the skills and the motivation. The writing skills focus is usually integrated into text books or the curriculum, therefore, the role of the teacher becomes motivating students to want to write. The following are my top tips to keep your students not only motivated to write but engaged in all aspects of the class.

Personalization techniques in class allow the teacher to relate any topics to the students’ lives. By simply taking the class topic and asking the students their opinions or feelings about the topic adds more reason to want to write about it. Better still, we can allow students to be choosing topics for themselves and relating as much as possible to their own lives.

Differentiation of expected outcomes allows for teachers to develop all the students in class to input +1. This is especially true for large class sizes of 20 or more. We all know that not all students in a class are of the same level or ability. In reality, all classes are mixed ability and as teachers we need to be aware of and be able to cater for this. Differentiating the expected outcomes of students in the class is one way to do this. As teachers, we can also group our students in homogenous (all low or all high) or heterogeneous (high/low) groupings. This can allow for higher level students to support their peers and encourage learner to learner training. Alternatively, grouping students in the same level helps them feel comfortable within that group and can allow more advanced students to push each other even further.

Meaningful interaction is the idea of encouraging and giving students a genuine reason to communicate with each other. In writing classes this can be done through group brainstorming, peer feedback on other’s ideas and writing, and open discussion on topics before writing. The more reason students have to interact with each other, the more likely they will be motivated to do so.

Finally, setting a context is the key to introducing any new language or topic. Without context we are just teaching lexis & forms without reason. Language does not exist in glass jar. Language exists in meaningful environments. Ensuring a strong context allows students to be exposed to, notice, and understand new grammar and vocabulary on their own building on their learner autonomy.

The ideas above are the pillars of learner centered teaching. They are part of the learner training concepts and promoting as much meaning in the class as possible. Integrating these concepts into writing classes will help to motivate students, particularly your young adult and teen students to acquire the skills to become great writers.

by Jake Whiddon


Feel free to take the survey and add to our research on student motivation in Asia.

Scan for survey
Scan for survey



Also check out our eltupgraders podcast on motivating students by clicking on the logo above or follow us on iTunes.