Writing in the participatory ESOL classroom

10 Jul

I always look forward to the internal trainings we run at EFA London. As an organisation, we are constantly working on our ‘participatory ESOL’ approach, and trainings are a key space where our teachers and volunteers can master new tools and exchange their ideas, questions and experiences.

Trainings are important because learning to be a participatory educator takes time. This approach often challenges our own educational experiences and how we’ve been trained as ESOL teachers. What you do with each class also depends on the participants, so there are no standardised course books or curriculum plans to fall back on. And, because students also take time to get used to a participatory approach (and see it as ‘real learning’), you have to find the confidence to stick to your guns and remind yourself that what you’re trying to do is worthwhile. Training is a space where teachers and volunteers can explore why things haven’t worked in the classroom and take inspiration from eachother’s successes.

In our training this July, we decided to look at writing. Like anyone living in Britain, the participants we work with need to do many different kinds of writing like filling out forms, sending texts or writing notes to their children’s teacher. Writing can also be a source of empowerment. It can be the means to tell your story or record stories from your culture, it can be a tool to hold your council or MP to account. (Check out letter on workfare, written by students from one of our classes).

However, we can’t assume what writing will be of interest to our participants until we talk to them about it. So, in true popular education style, we started our training with what we knew – our own experiences of writing. Using a spectrum line*, the group of teachers and volunteers in attendance discussed our writing practices – whether we keep diaries, write stories and letters of complaint and whether we like teaching writing to ESOL students. Those who enjoyed teaching writing reflected that students often disclose things in writing that they wouldn’t say out loud in class, and often people have a different voice in writing than they do speaking so it allows you to see a different side of students. We also tried to define writing in small groups and articulate what makes a good writer. In answer to the question ‘why do we write’ the group came up with: to communicate across distance (to another person, to yourself, to a wider audience); for self expression; to make a record; to process or develop your thoughts.

Model, Genre and Process writing

Three prominent approaches to teaching writing in the ESOL classroom are the ‘model’, ‘genre’ and ‘process’ approaches. The model approach presents students with examples of writing to copy. This is a fast way to get students to produce a generically accurate and effective piece of writing, but gives them little understanding of its linguistic features and no guarantee that they’ll be able to replicate their success without the model to hand. Like model writing, the genre writing approach acknowledges that we live in a world where certain discourses hold more power than others – but it gives students the ‘rules of the game’ to produce these discourses themselves. To do so, genre writing approaches divide writing up into ‘types’ or ‘genres’ and analyse their features. In the training we looked at a range of genres – text messages, poetry, diary entries, newspaper articles, informal notes, forms, emails – and then thought about each genre in terms of it: its purpose, audience, format and linguistic features (including how it begins and ends). Unlike model writing, in a genre writing approach, students are given the ‘inside knowledge’ about how powerful discourses work. And taking a genre writing approach doesn’t preclude a critical discussion of dominant culture and its discourses – it just acknowledges that sometimes it’s useful to know how to use these discourses yourself.

photo (18)

the table we used to analyse genre


Process approach to teaching writing

In the second half of the training we explored the process approach to writing, which focuses on building students’ skills in each composite stage of writing production. We brain stormed activities for each aspect of writing – generating ideas, planning, drafting, editing and proof reading and also agreed that an understanding of genre could help in the planning stage, so ‘genre’ and ‘process’ approaches needn’t be mutually exclusive. Here some examples of activities for different stages:

Generating ideas

Disco brainstorm:

-give students a question

– play students a 30 second burst of music

– get students to throw out the answer to the question after each burst of music (and vary the music types e.g. classical, rock, hiphop etc)



Planning pizza

-take a topic

– brainstorm all the areas of interest to do with that topic

-students chose their own areas of interest (e.g. their top 6)

– students divide up a circle into pizza slices and label each slice with one area of interest or sub topic

– students make notes in that segment on the sub topic

– each segment becomes a paragraph

– students could even cut the pizza to rearrange it & experiment with different paragraph orders.


Feeding back on drafts (Editing)

– As a class, students take turns to read out a piece of writing.

– Teachers ask the other students to feed in three things they liked about the writing and three things to improve on.


The day ended on an inspiring note, as we heard from EFA teacher Roseena about a writing project she did with her two Tower Hamlets classes. The idea for the project came out of discussions about how the class could challenge the stigma around mental health. Roseena supported one class to produce individual stories about their mental health difficulties; the other class worked on a collective story which, although fictional, represented many of their own experiences. The final booklets featuring these stories are beautiful and include illustrations from students. I left the training feeling excited to get back into the ESOL classroom in September and try out some of these new ideas. I particularly want to work with my students to find a meaningful, engaging writing project that we can break down into process stages, take seriously and finish with a final product that the group can be really proud of.
photo 2 photo 1 (1)

*In a ‘spectrum line’, participants position themselves along an imaginary line to demonstrate the extent to which they agree or disagree with a statement. Spectrum lines can often be created in a room by having one wall at each end of the line e.g. stand at the right hand wall if you 100% agree, stand at the left hand wall if you 100% disagree. Most people will be somewhere in between. Once everyone has shown their position, participants are often much more willing to explain why they feel that way.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: