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Writing About Food: 5 Activities for the Language Classroom

by Betsy Gilliland |

November begins an intensive season of holidays around the world, from Día de los Muertos on November 1-2 to Chinese New Year in February. Many of these festivities include traditional foods that vary by culture and region. Food is a topic that can often engage learners in spirited discussion and encourage participation from many reluctant students. It also lends itself to a wide range of genres for developing writing skills. In this blog post, I describe a few suggestions that can be adapted to your learners at different proficiency levels.

1. Food Vocabulary Development

Before students can write about food, it is helpful to support their food-related vocabulary knowledge. A useful guide from the TESOL Resource Center is Sarah Sahr’s “Three Activities for Bonding Over Food,” which recommends kinesthetic activity stations for developing food-word vocabulary and collocations. This resource concludes with guidelines for facilitating students to develop a menu for a special occasion in their home culture. Jose A. Carmona’s TESOL Resource Center activity “Shop ‘Til You Drop!” also supports learners to review and deepen their food-word knowledge. In this activity, learners engage in supermarket role-plays, negotiating with partners over shopping lists and product selections. For a more immersive experience, Carmona recommends bringing in realia (milk cartons, cereal boxes, etc.) to also give students opportunities to read the packaging. Though both of these activities are primarily oral, they can be extended to include writing practice, with students writing down the menu they create or writing out their shopping lists.

2. Recipes

Recipes are an essential real-world genre that draws on learners’ ability to write procedures and provide carefully thought out detail. As a subsequent activity to writing a menu, students could then be asked to write a recipe so others can prepare the dishes on the menu. Key features of recipes include:

  • List of ingredients, including quantities needed of each ingredient
  • List of materials needed for preparation, such as mixing bowls or baking pans
  • Step-by-step procedure for turning the separate ingredients into the final dish
  • Specifics about cooking temperatures and times

As readers of recipe blogs know, contemporary recipes are often introduced with a narrative from the author, telling about why they have chosen to present the dish or what memories they have about the dish. After the recipe, authors may also provide suggestions for adapting the dish or warnings about what might be difficult about making the dish.

Learners may choose to share their recipes with classmates in an oral presentation or demonstration. They could bring in a sample of the dish for their classmates to taste. If the class is interested in sharing their recipes more broadly, they could publish a cookbook (as this sixth grade ESL class in Missouri did a few years ago) or start a blog.

3. Reviews

Restaurant reviews are another real-world genre that can engage learners in expressing their opinions while practicing descriptive language. A lesson focused on writing reviews might begin with studying the genre of Yelp reviews. Students will notice that these reviews vary in length, focus, and language, making them an ideal goal for learners at different proficiency levels. Some reviewers choose one point that they want to make (such as the quality of the food or service), whereas others give a narrative of their visit to the restaurant. Many describe a favorite dish or a particularly problematic service encounter. Often reviews end with a statement of whether the reviewer encourages others to visit the restaurant.

In learning to write restaurant reviews, students should start by thinking about somewhere they have eaten recently. Guide them to describe what they ate: What did it look like? How did it taste? Was it the right temperature? Was it too bland or spicy? They should also reflect on how the service at the restaurant and whether it met their expectations. If any employees were particularly helpful or bad, they might describe that person’s actions in more detail as well. Once they have figured out their overall opinion about the restaurant, they can then draft a review. If they have photographs of the food they ate or the interior of the restaurant, they can add these to their review. During peer review, classmates could decide whether they would want to go to that restaurant, given the evaluation from the writer.

4. Descriptions in Fiction

Food writing isn’t only for functional purposes. Many fictional texts include descriptions of meals, menus, and foods in markets or at parties. If your writing curriculum includes creating short stories, you might add in some food writing as an element of the tale.

In writing food into their stories, students can be guided to think about how food fits with the plot. Is the character a chef or baker? Describe the products they create at work. Do they love to eat? List the things they consume as part of their daily routine. Do they miss their family’s traditional cooking? Reflect nostalgically about what they remember from a childhood holiday or a grandmother’s care.

To prepare for writing about food in a cultural practice, you might consult Fulya Kurtulus’s TESOL Resource Center activity “Culture Talks: Describing a Typical Meal in a Culture.” This activity provides guidelines for scaffolding students’ descriptions of a meal from their home cultures. After doing something like this orally, students can then write down their descriptions in a way that reflects the voice of their story narrator. For example, if the character is enthusiastic and loud, they might use a lot of adjectives and intensifiers (the most wonderfully scented loaf of cardamom-spiced bread he had ever tasted!). If the character is frugal and concerned with saving money, the description might focus instead on the cost of the food (an overpriced, too small slice of a dry and unsalted cake). Students can also use their imaginations to create dishes that might be served on a space colony a thousand years in the future or in an empire of elves.

5. Academic Writing in the Disciplines

For more advanced writers, there are times when food is relevant to writing in the disciplines as well. Some fields that second language writers may be studying are directly related to food, such as nutrition, food science, or family and consumer science (what used to be called “home economics”). In these fields, researchers examine the chemical and physical properties of foods, how those foods are taken up by living beings’ bodies, and how foods are prepared. Other social and life sciences also include food as part of their focus areas, such as anthropology, sociology, and biology. These scholars may examine how particular cultures use food in daily life or rituals, how food insecurity is addressed in national policies, or how animals interact with ecosystems, for example.

Upper division undergraduates and graduate students in these disciplines might be encouraged to pursue genre study of relevant academic texts dealing with food. If you are teaching a class of students from many different disciplines, consider guiding them through the process of finding model texts in their fields and analyzing how those texts are structured and written. If students are just starting to learn about genre, Elena Shvidko Taylor’s activity “Demystifying Audience and Genre” is a good introduction. As students progress through their genre study, they can compare notes with classmates analyzing texts from a different field to see how writers approach the same tasks in varied ways or how the same text type (such as a journal article) varies depending on the field. They may discover that while a nutrition article reports on the chemical makeup of various foods using graphs and tables, an anthropology article describes with words and images the ways that a culture prepares and serves those same foods. When they write their own texts, students could all write about the same food-related topic but in the genres of their individual disciplines.

These are just a few ways that you might connect the foods of the holiday season into your teaching of writing. What else have you done with food? Share in the chat!

About the author

Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she was chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section (2019-2020) and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.

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