Writing Instruction


Dialogue journals provide an excellent opportunity for regular fluency writing. In this video, Bow Valley College instructors share about how they use dialogue journals in the classroom.

Many LIFE have some fluency in spoken English and are comfortable with colloquial expressions. They do not monitor every sentence they speak for grammatical accuracy. However, the process that generates their oral language often fails them as soon as they pick up a pencil. Most LIFE have not been in school long enough to develop abstract concepts about the way language works.

The ESL Literacy Curriculum Framework guides users through five main considerations in the process of curriculum development. For more information on setting writing outcomes, see Stage 3.

There are a number of things to consider when teaching writing:

  • Letter and word formation
  • Composing sentences
  • Writing topics
  • Spelling
  • Correcting writing
  • Composing paragraphs

Letter and Word Formation

Some learners have difficulties with letter formation and need time to form letters carefully.


  • Have learners do various activities to practice fine motor skills such as cutting, pasting and handling small pieces of paper.
  • Have beginning learners copy information using a model to get a proficient piece of writing down on paper.
  • In the beginning, when letter formation is still difficult, spend most time on very practical tasks, such as filling out information forms.

Composing Sentences

Composing sentences is an ongoing challenge, even for learners who are quite fluent in English. A person must see how words relate to each other to write effectively. The formal study of language in school teaches these relationships between words, but most LIFE have never analyzed language this way. LIFE, with very low levels of formal education, are often unaware that sentences are made up of individual words. LIFE often see communicative expressions in blocks, such as "Howaya?" or "Wadzamatta?" Learners often copy phrases letter by letter without spaces between words. Not only are they totally absorbed with letter formation, but also the break between words may be insignificant to them.

Do not let difficulties with the mechanics of writing become a barrier to learners composing their own sentences.


  • Learners can put together words that are printed on flashcards.
  • Language Experience Approach stories let LIFE create stories without worrying about the mechanics of writing.
  • Try teaching pronunciation at the sentence level, making learners aware of the rhythm of the sentence, including stressed and unstressed words.
  • Scrambled sentences on flashcards make learners deal with all the elements in a grammatical sentence, even the unstressed prepositions and auxiliary verbs. They can easily experiment with various patterns until they find one that is correct.
  • Explain punctuation to learners when reading a text aloud, especially at lower levels. Periods come where the voice drops and stops. Question marks come when the voice stops and goes up.

Writing Topics

What to write about can be as much of a problem as how to write it. It is hard for learners to feel enthusiastic and creative about writing when they have little confidence in their ability.


  • Guided compositions let learners write about themselves without the worry of generating ideas and structuring work.
  • Give learners a series of questions, have them answer questions in complete sentences and then have them organize the sentences into paragraphs.
  • Have learners take their own series of photographs to inspire a personal story of a party or field trip.
  • Celebrate the learners as authors by collecting their stories into booklets.


Spelling for LIFE, as for all writers of English, can be challenging. Even native speakers often have difficulties with spelling and regularly use dictionaries or the spell check function on the computer.


  • Devote some class time to spelling. Learners need to acquire a bank of words they can spell.
  • Encourage learners to check spelling just like everybody else.
  • Start with picture dictionaries and move on to word lists and then learner dictionaries.
  • Encourage learners to take risks and try spelling on their own.
  • Encourage learners to experiment with various methods until they find one that brings them success.
    • Visual learners will look at the word, putting a photograph of it in their memory, close their eyes, visualize it and then check to see if they have it correctly in their visual memory.
    • Aural learners will repeatedly spell the word aloud to set the pattern in their aural memory or spell syllable by syllable phonetically.
    • Kinesthetic learners benefit from writing the word repeatedly.

Correcting Writing

LIFE need to have time in class to write. Instructors should circulate and give encouragement, suggestions for revision and guided support. Correction should be immediate and positive, as opposed to correction in pen handed back days later. Class volunteers give learners more encouragement and individual attention. To become better writers learners must write, check, revise, rewrite, check, revise, rewrite and so on.


  • Dialogue journals are excellent tools for learning to write. This journal goes back and forth between the learner and instructor. The focus of a dialogue journal is communication through writing, not correct grammar and spelling. The instructor models correct spelling and sentence structure rather than correcting the learner's writing. Learners are encouraged to read the instructor's comments carefully and look at words for spelling and sentences for patterns.

Composing Paragraphs

As learners move along through the literacy Phases, they will have to write more independently.


  • Show learners as many models as necessary, taking apart the models and examining how each sentence fits into the whole.
  • Discuss topics of paragraphs.
  • Remind learners that in a paragraph all the sentences must be about the main topic.
  • Learners can write beginning paragraphs by answering a series of questions and putting their answers together to make a paragraph. Once learners are comfortable with writing these beginning paragraphs, they can progress to writing simple paragraphs about highly familiar topics.
  • Discuss the parts of the paragraph: the topic sentence, the supporting sentences, and the concluding sentence.