Monthly Archives: May 2014

The Missing Link: how teachers can help dyslexic language students in the classroom, Part 2

Part 2 (linked with previous post, see Part 1): Practical strategies and ideas for teachers and trainers to implement with adult students.

By Jenny Harris


‘’Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere. Imagination encircles the world.

Education is not the learning of facts but the training of the mind to think.’’

–         Albert Einstein.


Dyslexia support: knowing more than just a student’s learning style

Understanding learning styles is important, and the links between the kinaesthetic style of teaching and dyslexia are critical but it seems to be more than just a preference for sensory or visual style learning – dyslexic students have often developed an ability to see and imagine so much more.


thinking outside the box


As teachers, how do we tap into the more visual and sensory part of the brain? How do we make a course book ‘come alive’? Two practical examples:

 Since researching this topic, I’ve started to adapt many of my own teaching methods. After a while it has started to become a more natural and unthinking approach. Two simple examples include:

1. With an interactive white board I’ve started using entire slides with no words –enabling students to create their own interpretation and vocabulary from the images and then I follow up with target lexis. The students sometimes go in far more interesting directions than I had initially anticipated when selecting the images. The onus is on speaking strength to start with, the image then connects with the vocabulary, and in turn the phonics are connected to an image (in much the same way as a primary teacher will use flash cards so the picture and the word are connected in the memory).

2. I’ve also recently started experimenting with phonology teaching among lower level students. I ask them to come and touch the door – ‘door’: we make the long vowel sound and touch the door at the same time. A few lessons later we talked about ‘poor’ and ‘law’ in conversation. I touched the door – remember the sound? – their repetition of the new words was perfect. Not a phonemic symbol in sight. No problems with that challenging ‘law’ spelling and sound mismatch. It felt slightly unorthodox, until I mentioned it to my sister who has been teaching phonics for some time: ‘But that’s how we teach phonology with Jolly Phonics – it’s always best when you relate a real word to a real sound and image’.

 Research into language learning for dyslexics has made me seriously reflect on how and when I use the phonemic chart. I saw one piece of research describe it as 46 extra symbols to learn on top of 26 letters.

I would be really interested to hear of any other examples from teachers.

How to assess dyslexia in language learners

The process of assessing language learners for a learning difficulty should not be taken lightly. If you are interested in testing and assessing I really recommend contacting Ann-Margaret Smith to talk through her comprehensive ‘cognitive assessments for multilingual learners’ (assessment tasks for identifying specific learning differences in learners who do not have English as a first language).

Signposting to specialist resources is, in my view, the main role for the teacher rather than taking on the complex task of assessment themselves.

 What kind of teaching practices make a dyslexic student nervous?

I was surprised to discover that many of my own favoured exam teaching methods included tasks that can make a dyslexic language student panic. Typical tasks include:

  •        Locating information quickly in a dense reading text
  •        Dictation
  •        Extended periods of listening
  •        Speed writing tasks
  •        Time limits on reading and writing tasks

Having taught IELTS, Cambridge, Trinity and Edexcel exams I am struck by how many of these tasks are critical for developing exam skills. So what can we do to help dyslexic students tackle these tasks more confidently? Good teaching practice is one thing, but high quality exam preparation can add an extra dimension.
Are there any good strategies out there that particularly address this exam preparation gap?
I would be really interested to hear of any other examples from teachers – particularly tasks which strengthen exam skills for adult dyslexic learners.

Both the Cambridge suite of exams and IELTS have exam provision for dyslexic students, outlined on their websites. But it is worth noting they need a three month lead in time for exam arrangements. 

What do dyslexic students do to survive and succeed in an ESOL/EFL classroom?

Students look for patterns and structures in a teacher’s approach. Which day do you test? Regular routines allow them to plan ahead. Lesson aims are useful and helpful. Common coping strategies include:

  •  Sitting next to confident students who enjoy answering questions; helps divert the teacher’s eye contact when they are looking for someone to respond to a reading comprehension question.
  • Rely on peers to double-check homework, class instructions etc. (poor short term working memory).
  • Purposefully messy handwriting to hide spelling mistakes.
  • Often strong speakers, with real communicative strength in team or project working.
  • Ask contextualisation questions so they can build up the picture before a reading or writing task.

happy student


What can the teacher do?

Firstly,  focus on what the students can do, not what they can’t. This can be hard for teachers because we are trained to identify areas for improvement but try and avoid thinking in terms of a deficit model. Advice from ‘ELT Notebook: Helping Students with Learning Disabilities, part 2’ reinforces this point:

‘many of the strategies recommended for helping students with learning disabilities are no more than good teaching practice – they just become more necessary in this situation’[1].

Practical tips and advice to improve your teaching for dyslexic (and other) students

Here are a mix of tips and strategies that I found made an immediate difference to my teaching. I’ve amalgamated them together but they come from a range of teacher-focused resources:, ELTnotebook, Hannah Bienge IATEFL Brighton 2011, Gavin Reid, Edinburgh University.

Practical ideas:

  • Dyslexic students like lesson aims at the beginning – they want to know what is coming. Gives a heads up on any tests coming for the week.
  • Colour code and avoid too much use of the underline, italics and bold function where you are highlighting something. No curly fonts.
  • Colour code consistently, for example: blue for noun, red for verb, green for third person singular
  • If you use IWB then have the back screen on a light pastel colour. Find out if pastel paper can be made available for handouts or coloured rulers (black on white paper provides a strong glare and makes it harder to process the letters)
  • Help prepare exam access arrangements well in advance (usually a 3 month notice period is required)
  • Use materials that activate a range of senses: touch, smell etc. Tap into the creative part of a student’s visual brain on your IWBs – use maps, flowcharts, mindmaps, images…..

Grammar, marking and reinforcement 

  • Do not over-emphasise exceptions to every grammar rule you teach. Use ‘’narratives’’ to help poor working memory, ‘q is followed by u’.
  • Verbally explain as you write on the board, explicit step by step instructions, then recap and review regularly: on instructions/homework/grammar points/vocabulary meaning.
  • Marking is a sensitive area – mark for effort and mark for achievement. The advice is not to correct every spelling mistake because it is too disheartening, but point out regular pattern mistakes, don’t use a marking code for these.
  • Be creative with technology (accept emailed homework or recorded speaking tasks which use target vocabulary).
  • Try not to change student order suddenly during a read out loud task (the dyslexic student is already focusing only on their allotted segment and waiting for you to get to them).
  • Pause during the lesson – allow thought process time. Don’t let the IWB slides dominate the pace.
  • Finish lessons with reflection and reinforcement time: ‘what 5 things did you find difficult, what 5 ways can you develop your own learning… (adapted from Gavin Reid’s useful template on this student reflection exercise). Use vocabulary recap as a standard wrap-up.

I hope these ideas help you. They have certainly enabled me to become a better teacher and trainer, not just for those with dyslexia but for everyone else in the group too.

If you have any other suggestions or strategies particularly aimed at enabling adult students with dyslexia to flourish, please do get in touch. We are particularly keen to hear of any IT or integrated technology ideas.

Resources: : also provides very useful classroom materials for adult students. 

Research sources:

ELT Notebook:

Gavin Reid: ‘Metacognition, learning  styles and Dyslexia’, Edinburgh University

Hannah Bienge, Basil Paterson College, Edinburgh ‘Learning a second language when your first is a struggle’, IATEFL 2011




Empowering your students: What makes me an effective learner?

By Fiona Deane

frustration“I don’t get it!”.  “That´s stupid!”  “That´s impossible!”  These  student utterances may resonate with you and perhaps hound or hinder you in the classroom.  The age of screenagers, google and instant gratification can lead to impatience, exasperated sighs and a holding of the teacher as responsible for classroom success or failure.   Many students are not yet aware that they themselves magically hold the key to better learning and understanding.


As the first of a series of posts focusing on empowering our students, this post will:

  • explain students´ lack of faith in themselves
  • discuss theories to resolve this
  • give an activity to start empowering our learners to trust and develop themselves


Harmer (2001) tells us “passivity… is the enemy of true learning”.  The role of instant media plays its part in this passivity. Manyiphone_addiction students come to the classroom with a developed reliance on others or a search engine to give them quick answers.  Problem-solving, critical thinking, brainstorming, deep reading can therefore be met with a rolling of eyes or infuriation since demands are made on the brain beyond lower-order thinking such as “copy” and “paste”, or “play”.

Scrivener (2012) argues that a certain type of passivity may be developed at home.  Some teenagers may have experienced an education culture where obedience to authority is valued above thinking for yourself.  In his book “Korea The Impossible Country”, Daniel Tudor writes that Confuciansim has created a culture where between “older and younger….the superior partner should act with a duty of responsibility and benevolence to the lower, who should respond in return with loyalty and obedience.”  This older/younger relationship is easily transferred to the teacher/student relationship.

Lack of self-awareness

who am iMany learners come to the classroom “not… aware of their individual cognitive or perceptual learning styles” (Lightbown & Spada, 2006).  Indeed, they may not even be aware that such concepts as learning styles or multiple intelligences exist.   Answering questions such as: “Am I open-minded to different points of view?”, “Am I a visual or kinesthetic learner?”, “Do I like solving puzzles?”, “Does stress affect my performance?”, “Can I think on my feet?”  are crucial to establishing and prioritizing individual learner needs.

Meta-cognition & Reflection

rockwell_mirrorAccording to Geoff Petty (1998), “reflection involves a systematic and objective evaluation of the student´s concrete experience”.    Encouraging students to consider who they are as people and share this with their classmates is arguably the first piece of the learning puzzle.  The cornerstone is their reflection on their innate strengths and weaknesses, which can then be followed up regularly with reflection on their progress on these points.

Taking responsibility

Petty (1998) suggests that reflection “may be largely undertaken by… the teacher at first, but the long-term aim should be to get the students to carry out the process by themselves”.  Scharle and Szabó (2000) believe that responsible learners are “learners who accept the idea that their own efforts are crucial to progress in learning, and behave accordingly”.   They go on to say that learners “need to realize and accept that success in learning depends as much on the student as on the teacher”.  By asking your students to question their learning habits and identity, you are effectively turning them into responsible learners without them realizing.

make hole in wall-breakthroughThe gateway to empowerment & self-belief

Crucially, we as teachers need to disengage from our “leader” role and encourage our students to get to know themselves, look at themselves in the mirror and know their strengths and weaknesses.   At this moment,  the student may first experience positive feelings of empowerment and trust and begin to understand that they hold the key to their learning.


questionimgClass activity: What skills and personal qualities make me an effective learner?

Class type:  ELT Exam or General English groups at Intermediate to Advanced levels.

1) Learners are asked to discuss in pairs the question:  “What skills and personal qualities do I need to be an effective language learner?”

2) After about ten to fifteen minutes of discussion, we share our ideas together on the board.  It is always the students themselves (with little if any prompting from myself) who come up with such fantastic answers as these:

  • imaginative
  • open-minded
  • finding fun in the learning process
  • thinking outside the box
  • believing in myself
  • patient
  • outgoing
  • not afraid to get things wrong
  • hard-working/diligent
  • able to identify what I need to improve
  • reading frequently in English”

3) The students are asked to reflect in pairs on which of these attributes they already possess and which they might perhaps need to work on.

4) This is then fedback to the class as a whole to ensure that learners understand that all students have strengths and weaknesses and that these will be different for each of them.

what makes a good language learner5) Creators of their own advice:  I take a picture of the ideas brainstormed on the whiteboard, print it out and put it on the pin-board in the classroom.  Conveniently, as the course progresses these student created ideas can be referred to at times of struggle to encourage them on their journey.  For example, if a student may resist trying out a new technique or activiity, I refer them back to the ideas that they came up with and ask them if open-minded was a good quality that was mentioned in order to be an effective learner.

I have found this an invaluable activity on all the Cambridge CAE exam classes that I have taught. It lays the foundations for further reflections that take place throughout the course.   Try it out and let me know how it goes!


References & Recommended Reading

Harmer J The Practice of English Language Teaching (2001) Pearson Education Ltd

Lightbown P. & Spada N How Languages are learned  (2006) Oxford

Oxford R Language Learning Strategies: An Update (1994)

Petty G Teaching Today A Practical Guide (1998) Nelson Thornes

Pulverness, A. Just how low can you go? IATEFL Learner Independence PL Newsletter (2000) IATEFL

Scharle A & Szabó A Learner Autonomy, A guide to developing learner responsibility (2000) Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers

Scrivener J Classroom Management Techniques (2012) Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers

Tudor D Korea The Impossible Country (2012) Tuttle Publishing

The Missing Link: teaching a second language to a student with dyslexia, Part 1

By Jenny Harris: Dyslexia and ESOL, EFL, ELL (English language learning). Part 1: the theory, the overview, the student perspective: dyslexia and second language learning. Part 2: How teachers can help dyslexic adult students in the classroom…… follow


How do you teach a second language when your student has challenges in their first language?

Over the last few years this is a question I have regularly asked myself. I know that statistically I must have taught a good number of dyslexic language students. Yet I didn’t really know how to tackle it effectively. Teaching in an ESOL or EFL environment you are immersed in skills methodology: reading, writing and phonology processing is core to the job. Any problems a student has with these skills you are likely to notice quickly. But when is a lack of student progress a language problem, and when is it a deeper learning issue?

Current lack of resources

We often lack the specialist resources for learning support that are available in mainstream schools. Even within colleges it hasn’t always been easy: as a College Lecturer I taught three years of ESOL evening classes and the learning support staff had all gone home by then; my students worked during the day. And in private language schools it is very rare to find additional specialist support. For adult community learning, it can often be just one teacher with a rucksack in a community centre! In line with the ethos of this blog, this post is very much based on teachers helping teachers. This post includes a full list of the websites and materials I found and that are quoted here.

Why are English language teachers in a particularly special role?

Because our primary focus is on reading, writing, speaking and listening development. Our marking codes and practices are remarkably similar to the ones used by dyslexic and literacy specialists (MW: missing word, WF: word formation…..), pre-teaching challenging vocabulary or ‘tricky word’ sheets as primary teachers call it. But it all comes back to two fundamental questions:

–         How do we know when it is a language learning problem, and when it is a deeper learning block?

–         More significantly, what should we do about it? (Our students are typically over 16 and may be learning outside their home country).

Questions, questions, questions

The more my staffroom colleagues and I discussed dyslexia in language learners, the more we realised we needed to know more. marking code

 How do we mark written work when we suspect the student has dyslexia?

 Is it ok to mark for effort and spelling separately?    

          Is the student even dyslexic – how would we know?

         When is it lazy spelling or something more?

Should we address it when they are here only for a limited time?

For students over 16, what referral systems are there?

What if dyslexia isn’t sympathetically dealt with in their home country, are we doing them any favours in raising the issue when they return back to an educational establishment which may not be supportive?

This post (part 1) and the accompanying post (part 2) aims to :

  • inform teachers about dyslexia; particularly educators who focus on reading and writing skills or language teaching
  •          signpost to resources
  •          give practical ideas about how to integrate useful strategies within your teaching, training, coaching or facilitation 

What is dyslexia? A broad overview man words head

Dyslexia is not about intelligence or a lack of interest in learning; it’s about neurological sequencing and processing. Dyslexic students use the visual cortex of the brain far more than non-dyslexic students (

The Oxford Dictionary defines it as:

a general term for disorders that involve difficulty in learning to read or interpret words, letters, and other symbols, but that do not affect general intelligence.

This is sometimes not just with language, but also with numbers. The word itself is derived from the German prefix ‘dys’ meaning difficult and the Greek ‘lexis’ meaning speech. The term was first used in the late 19th century.

What is the scale of dyslexia?

The numbers tended to vary in the research I looked at but the most well-researched reckoned a 5-15% occurrence level (ELT well – a fantastic website and one of the best set of resources for ELT/ESOL teachers, states a ‘5-15% occurrence level in a population’).

But assessment and occurrence levels are problematic – if home countries tend not to test for dyslexia, there’s unlikely to be an accurate picture on the true size and nature of the issue. The international cultural nature of recognising dyslexia is probably the subject of a whole other blog post – for now, I only address the practicalities of teaching.

But it is safe to say if you are teaching a class of 20 students, the probability is there will be at least one student in your classroom with a form of dyslexia (whether from mild to severe)*

How can the teacher identify it? 

wordsI think it is really useful to know exactly how dyslexia can manifest itself, because you will see how much it overlaps with typical errors a language teacher is trained to look out for.

‘Bright Solutions for Dyslexia’ website recommends keeping an eye out for:

  • phonological mix-ups: aminal, instead of animal for example
  • spelling phonetically, spelling incorrectly – letters jumbled in their order and their form (no control over lower or upper case for example)
  • difficulty with reading, especially with timed reading
  • short-term working memory (for example remembering instructions, turning to other students to be reminded)
  • letter decoding abilities – legible handwriting

For more on this go to: (


What does second language learning feel like for a dyslexic student?

mountain top view Dyslexic students use the visual cortex of the brain much more. They often process the overall picture, rather than the specifics. (

Hannah Bienge, from Basil Paterson College in Edinburgh describes the experience of taking an ESOL lower level group of students to the post office to practise everyday target language in a real context: ‘’they (students with dyslexia) may notice elements of the experience such as the shape the queue made in the space, the colour of the cashier’s hair and feeling of the metal tray where you put your mail these will all help them remember the process for next time’’.

 Other commentators feel that second language learning can be a positive experience for a dyslexic: when you learn the rules in a new language (for example, the use of articles, word order, modal verbs etc.) it can help make the linkages in your own.

A case study: Peter

What we can learn from primary teaching

A few years ago Fairlight Primary School in Brighton had a new pupil who arrived from Poland in the last couple of weeks of Reception Year (the first year of school in the UK for children aged 4 or 5).

Peter was starting a new life in the UK with his dad. Peter’s dad speaks very little English so the only language at home was Polish. In Year 1 Peter was very unsettled and the school arranged bilingual support, focusing only on improving Peter’s speaking skills so that he could communicate in the classroom and outside school. During Year 2, Peter became increasingly comfortable in class but after each holiday his English language skills slipped back.

What started to become significant was that the bilingual support assistant reported back that Peter’s Polish language skills were not developing either. So once he reached about age 7 the school arranged for Peter to be screened for dyslexia in both Polish and English and he registered as ‘moderate’, the level just under ‘high’ (E is the highest rate for this screening test and in Fairlight’s experience, very rare; Peter came in at a ‘D’).

The Assistant Head, Donna Barbar says: ‘The classrooms are already ”dyslexia friendly”: lots of visuals, tricky word lists, image/word flash cards for vocabulary association, and coloured reading rulers are all standard practice for topic lessons. All the teachers have access to a dyslexia toolkit of resources they can dip into, or make their own and share with each other.”

Peter is now in Year 3. He is much happier. He sees a specialist literacy support teacher once a week and then their advice is implemented by a trained teaching assistant for 30 minutes each day. Donna says: ‘Half an hour a day is just about right for Peter now. He loves learning about the Romans and the Egyptians so I’m very careful to ensure that his literacy is embedded in the topic, rather than over-do the specialist support at this stage’.

Donna reports that the screening tests that Fairlight uses are about £5 or £6 each and the school orders 20 tests a year on a subscription cost of £80, after they have paid the joining fee. Referrals are then made to the local Literacy Support Service in Brighton.

I asked Donna if she had a pupil who was only in her school for a short time but had been screened for dyslexia yet was returning home to a country which didn’t have the same level of support in place, would she still raise the issue with the parents? She reflected and then after a moment she said yes: ‘it’s about giving the choice, isn’t it? After that it is up to the parents’.

She finished on an interesting point: ‘We use the same resources and the same good practice for dyslexia support as we do for our EAL children.’. (English as an Additional Language).

Perhaps that is the challenge that adult ESOL and EFL colleges and schools have yet to grapple with in quite the same way as the embedded practice within primary teaching. Ann Margaret Smith who has created a site which has practical ideas for supporting  adult dyslexic language students, maintains a handwriting database so that writing in a first language can be cross referenced for speed and legibility with example scripts.

How the adult student feels

Liz Ball, a severe dyslexic, and now a teacher herself, writes an insightful account in her article ‘From one teacher to another’. Talking about her own experience at school she says: sad book man “Letters and numbers floated and jumped around on the page in front of my eyes, while other children sat happily at their desks reading and writing and spelling what I assumed were perfect little sentences.  I could see the letters strung together on the page; I knew they spelled words, because I had memorized many of them to deceive my teachers into believing I could actually read.

The truth was, I had no idea how to read. Matters were only made worse by the fact that I had a twin sister who was not dyslexic, who often sat happily by herself reading beautiful little books with colorful pictures and intricate plots. Nothing about language is automatic for dyslexics. We are constantly engaged in the process of pulling apart the linguistic pieces we are presented with in order to make sense of their whole.”  


(Full article is fascinating and can be found here:

Hannah Bienge,  from Basil Paterson College gives particularly good advice: ‘Whenever you are teaching dyslexic students, you need to always be aware that they are putting in twice the amount of effort but working at half the speed. This can be draining and difficult to sustain for them so a level of understanding and compassion must always accompany your teaching.’[1]

Are we prepared enough during teacher training?


In 2010 I completed my Diploma in Teaching for the post-16 age group[2] where a whole unit was dedicated to the issues of learning support for language students. Another unit was dedicated to embedding language learning within a specialist subject (I was tasked with vocabulary support on the principles of displacement water theory in mechanical engineering!). We learned about practical strategies – avoiding white paper with black print, using pastel colours wherever possible, knowing when and how to refer a student for assessment. However, in private language schools this is less likely to be part of the educational culture. The aim of this blog post is to signpost teachers that want to have a better idea of what strategies would help them in their lesson planning and their marking. Part 2 has a list of practical ideas that can be quickly implemented in the



1. A fantastic website that answers questions and provides very useful classroom materials:

2. Bright Solutions for Dyslexia:

3. The Yale Centre for Dyslexia and Creativity:

Research sources:

Ann Margaret Smith:,

Sue Swift (2007), An ELT Notebook: ‘Helping Students with Learning Disabilities: part two’,

Gavin Reid (2007): ‘Motivating Learners in the classroom: Ideas and Strategies’, Paul Chapman Publishing, London

Hannah Bienge (2011), Basil Paterson College, Edinburgh ‘Learning a second language when your first is a struggle’, IATEFL

Liz Ball, From One Teacher to Another, The Yale Centre for Dyslexia and Creativity

Interview with Donna Barbar, 2014, Assistant Head Teacher, Fairlight Primary School, Brighton UK

creative brain

[1] Learning a second language when your first is a struggle, Hannah Bienge, Basil Paterson College, Edinburgh, IATEFL, Brighton 2011
[2] Diploma for Teaching in the Lifelong Learning Sector: DTLLS with an ESOL specialism

Process Approach to Writing IELTS Task 2 Essays

By Emma Claydon

This post is about improving your students’ writing by considering:

  • attitudes to writing in class
  • two approaches – Process vs. Product
  • the concept of audience
  • collaborative writing
  • structuring
  • proof-reading and editing
  • giving feedback
  • classroom routines

Attitudes to writing in the ‘communicative’ classroom


Is writing often neglected in the EFL classroom?  Perhaps some teachers don’t consider it to be a ‘communicative’ activity or a priority for their students, while others don’t enjoy teaching or marking it.

Having asked my colleagues about their attitudes towards teaching writing, it is clearly a priority for exam classes but not so in General English, as some feel it takes up too much class time so it can be set for homework.  Consequently, they don’t see much of an improvement and it’s demotivating for everyone involved.

When students move into exam classes you may notice that their writing needs considerable work.  I’ve always seen it as an important skill to work on, not only because it is used for assessment and consolidation purposes, but  also involves different kinds of mental processes.  So, I embrace writing and make sure that my students get the chance to do lots of it.

Students are required to think about a question and then they need time to formulate a response.  However, I do not see it as a solitary activity just to get some peace and quiet in class.  Indeed, it can be used to change the pace of a class, but for it to be effective it needs to be collaborative, creative and broken down into manageable stages.

My beliefs probably come from my own difficulties in writing.  It can be a daunting task and I prefer to break the task down into pieces.  In a three hour lesson devoted to writing, only half an hour is taken up with students actually writing in a solitary fashion or in pairs.  The rest is used to prepare and review the writing which is usually conducted through speaking and reading activities with a variety of interaction.

Approaches:  Product vs. Process

Until I started reading about teaching writing, I was unaware that I had been using a mix of both approaches.  The ‘process approach’ considers writing to be a creative process which requires time and positive feedback at various stages and ultimately ends up with improved writing skills.  Whereas the traditional ‘product approach’ analyses model texts and sees writing as a solitary act.  For a comparison of the two approaches you can read more here:


Writing for IELTS:  Essays

In the IELTS exam students have to produce two pieces of writing totalling 400 words on their own in sixty minutes.  For part 2 they have to write a 250 word essay in under 40 minutes.

The process of analysing the question, brainstorming ideas, planning paragraphs and putting them together logically is something that students can train together so that they have the skills to go into the exam and perform on their own.  But they need to be explicitly aware of this so that you can get them on board.

To ensure my IELTS students become better writers I actively help and encourage them through a series of prepared stages before I can expect them to produce a final text.

When they are more aware of this preparation process they become more autonomous and create good habits which hopefully they will use in the exam.   The majority of my students are going onto university where they will need to develop an academic style of writing but essentially they are expected to convey ideas clearly.

Pre-writing and Audience


Not only do students struggle with writing in English because of their language skills, it is often a problem that they lack the ideas and content, so we see brainstorming and planning as essential part of the writing process.

We facilitate the generation of ideas through discussion or we use an interesting article related to the essay question as a starting point to get them thinking about the topic or question, but do we all introduce the concept of audience?

With a genre approach for FCE or CAE, this fits naturally into the writing process as, for example, you need to know  to whom you are writing the letter and why.  In IELTS task two students know they are writing for the examiner and they understand the assessment criteria but a sense of audience can be developed further by writing for each other or a student blog.

Writing Collaboratively

I have used group compositions with some success, but as students know they won’t have people to ‘help’ them in the exam they can at first be reluctant to do this.  I have approached group compositions another way where students write two main body paragraphs and then swap so that they have to focus on meaning by reading and understanding someone else’s writing and then write their introduction and conclusion to see if they have understood the opinions and the flow of their partner’s writing.  They then sit together and discuss what was clear or confusing about each other’s writing.  Then they rewrite their main body and write their own introduction and conclusion.


Once they have produced a paragraph plan the students write their essay.  I set a time limit of 30 minutes, which is the time they have in the exam after they have analysed the question and spent time planning.  My rationale for this is that I want them to finish a piece of writing in class and to get used to writing under pressure.


As we’ve done so much ground work in preparing to write they cope reasonably well and I have seen my students produce more words and a better quality of writing within that time frame over a few months.  However, to add variation to my writing lesson, I get students to write out ideas with supporting evidence and examples on pieces of paper or large post-it notes and work out an order rather than committing their ideas to A4 paper which can still be limiting at this stage.

Proof-reading and Editing

Having finished their first draft, they proof-read it and look for their typical mistakes.   I often organise peer reviews, but they aren’t always effective because some students feel unable to find any errors in a classmate’s work or are unwilling to give feedback through lack of training and confidence, so again this takes time and training for students to be able to do this well.  Others embrace it and enjoy reading their peers’ work.  I find it most effective when they work in pairs looking at one piece of writing at a time. I encourage them to use a pencil and first we focus on meaning buy putting prompts on the board e.g.

  • Is there a clear main idea in each paragraph?
  • What is the supporting information?
  • Have they included examples?
  • Are the examples clear?
  • What is the writer’s opinion?
  • Is it well structured and easy to follow?

They write some comments at the bottom giving the writer some advice. Then they read it a second time and focus on the language and I put the correction code on the board.  After peer-correction, the students then rewrite their essay on the IELTS exam paper and hand it in.

Giving Feedback

Giving feedback is an essential part of writing and many of us use correction codes to encourage students to notice their problem areas, fix them and perhaps log them in a learner diary so they build up a log of their typical mistakes.

It is important to work on the grammar and vocabulary that distort meaning, but in IELTS students can gain so many marks for answering the question in a well organised and coherent way that this is an area that needs so much more attention.  White and Arntd (1991) state that writing will improve by focusing on the message the students are trying to convey instead of concentrating on the language errors.

If I find it very difficult to follow a student’s essay, I feel the correction code is somewhat redundant; instead I respond with a brief letter asking for clarification of their points and requesting a rewrite. I don’t give any feedback about language at this point and usually the rewrite is clearer so I can then give feedback on the language too.  I also find it helpful to reformulate sections of their writing to make it clearer for them.

Classroom Routines


I do fortnightly writing workshops like this which follow on from the biweekly mock test.  Under exam conditions I use the IELTS assessment criteria; giving them marks for Task Response, Coherence and Cohesion, Lexical Resource and Grammar.  The following week after the workshop and I mark the rewrite using the 4 criteria above so we will all see which areas have benefited from the rewrite and help students see the value in the workshops.

I find it helpful to integrate the product approach into writing lessons where we analyse other students work or model answers, but prefer to do this after they have written their own response to the task.  I make it clear that it is just one way to answer the question.  We use it to see what makes it a good answer, why it is easy to follow and we examine the kinds of cohesive devices used. Together we use the assessment criteria and grade it together.  This helps the students to think like the examiner.

By setting up writing workshops and training students to use a process approach, they are more capable of expressing their ideas in writing and I have become more of a reader and less of a marker so that the critical stage of focusing on the message is not lost.


White, R. & Arndt, V.  (1991) Process Writing. Longman

Vanessa Steele. (2004). Product and process writing: A comparison. Available: Last accessed 23rd May 2014.

Recommended Reading:

Badger, R. & White, G.  (2000).  A process genre approach to teaching writing.  ELT Journal, 54(2), 153-160.

Burgess, S. & Head, K.  (2005).  How to Teach for Exams. Harlow:  Pearson Education Ltd.

Hedge, T.  (2005).  Writing (2nd ed.).  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

Hess, N.  (2001) Teaching Large Multi-level Classes. Cambridge CUP.

Nunan, D.  (1995)  Language Teaching Methodology.  Phoenix

Rao, Z.  (2007) Training in brainstorming and writing skills.  ELT Journal 61 (2): 100-106

Scharle, A. & Szabo, A .  (2000) Learner Autonomy : A guide to developing learner responsibility.  Cambridge CUP.

Scrivener, J.  (2005) Learning Teaching.  Oxford: MacMillan Heinemann.

Ur, P.  (1996) A Course in Language Teaching.  Cambridge CUP.