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Writing Activities to Make the Most of Being Back in the Classroom

by Betsy Gilliland |

As a new academic year starts, I’m excited to be back to teaching in-person classes without the restrictions of social distancing. While the last 2 years have been fruitful in pushing me to think of how to engage my students over Zoom in creative and interactive ways, some of my favorite aspects of teaching are much more enjoyable when students are all in the same room and can move around freely.

Scholars have argued for the value of movement in the classroom, as it has been shown to increase focus and memory while also facilitating learning of new concepts. Even in a skill like writing that would seem to be more appropriate to sedentary, individual work, students can practice their skills through physical activity as well. In this post, I share some of my favorite movement-oriented activities for teaching second language writing. Many of these activities can be adapted for learners of different proficiency levels and for varying class sizes.


In its basic form, this game has students run to a text posted on the wall, read it, then run back to their desks to write down what they read. You can judge winners based on speed–the fastest student to write the complete text wins–or accuracy, or both. It requires reading comprehension and memory, followed by some attention to written conventions and language. This is as much a reading game as it is a writing one, but it does give students practice with transcription and accuracy. It can be adapted in multiple ways:

  • For individual learners in a small class, students can work on their own, running between centrally posted texts and their desks.
  • For larger classes, have students work in teams. A runner reads the text and then dictates what they read to a writer. Teams of three or more could rotate through the two roles, with the other team members coaching from the side.
  • You can use a single text posted in a central location or in multiple places around the room or several different texts. With different texts, decide if you want the students to read and rewrite all the texts, or if each team should work on a different text.
  • The posted texts might include gaps that students need to fill in when they write down the sentences. These could either be grammatical gaps (e.g., articles or prepositions) that have one correct answer or content gaps that could be filled in creative ways.
  • You can use the transcribed texts as the starting point for additional writing activities. For example, students might write a continuation to a story or a response to a complaint letter.

Genre Practice

Adolescent and adult learners already know a lot about genre, even if they do not have the language to give the technical labels for genres like a lab report. This activity, which I learned many years ago from California’s Area 3 Writing Project teacher-consultant Bob Crongeyer, engages students in creative writing drawing on their existing genre knowledge.

The first step is reading a commonly known story or fairy tale. Make sure that the students all know the basic plot and characters. Do not spend too much time on this part, however! The fun is in the various writing activities that come next.

Once the class shares an understanding of the story, give small groups of students tasks to create a text in a particular genre related to the story. Bob’s activities for the story of the princess and the pea included the following:

  1. As the princess, you have had difficulty finding a suitable bed in which to sleep. Your latest mattress is quite unacceptable and you write a letter to the manufacturer complaining about the quality of their product.
  2. The princess and prince are going to visit their friends in the kingdom of Noblewood, but they don’t want to be caught in the rain again. You are a meteorologist (weather reporter). Create a weather report that assures them that the weather will be fine for travel. Practice reporting for a TV news or radio show.
  3. You are the royal cook. You have found the squashed pea and are inspired to create a new recipe. Write that recipe to publish in the royal cookbook.
  4. You are the royal poet and have been commissioned by the new king to write a poem entitled “The Princess and the Pea.”
  5. You are the princess’ best friend and want to honor her with a bridal shower. Create an invitation for the party.
  6. You are a playwright who wants to honor the royal family with a production of their story. Write a scene from your play that tells the story of the Princess and the Pea.

Each of these activities challenges students to use creativity and engages their knowledge of real-world genres. After writing their texts, students can then perform them or read them aloud for their classmates, giving them an actual audience that will respond to their humor.

Games on the Whiteboard

The whiteboard at the front of the class can be used for many planned and impromptu games that get students standing up and using English with excitement. Team competitions to write lists on the board can be exciting and can push students to recall less common words from their vocabulary. Winners will have the longest (and most accurate) list of words. Lists may be of words in a particular category (fruit, animals, colors, etc.) or part of speech (adverbs, nouns, etc.), or words that start with the same letter. Another variation challenges students to write words that start with the last letter of the previous word (e.g., wolf→flower→recipe→eggplant). Depending on class size, you may want to establish rules for how many words each player can write at a given time or how much students can help their teammates.

The whiteboard is also a great tool to use for playing with sentence structure, as words can be erased and replaced easily. One option is to write a somewhat complex sentence on the board for each group of students. One by one, a member of the group should come up to the board, erase one word, and then replace it with another word that maintains the grammar of the sentence. This activity allows students to practice complex sentence structures and experiment with vocabulary. A variation of this game has students erasing words without replacing them, which adds to the challenge of maintaining the grammaticality of the sentence.

Students can make use of the whiteboard to experiment with sets of related vocabulary as well. Given the words “hot” and “cold” placed on a line, for example, they can take turns writing other words for temperatures along the line to indicate a continuum. For temperatures, that line might look like this:

frigid — cold —- chilly —– cool —— pleasant —– warm —– hot —- boiling

Other word groups that can be arrayed visually include sets of animals in order of perceived danger  or metals arranged by value (see Five-Minute Activities by Ur & Wright, 1992). Some groupings may be subjective, which could lead to debates between groups of students to justify their preferences.

These are just a few of the activities I have used in my own teaching and have observed other teachers use to get their students moving around as they practice writing. Please share your own favorite movement-oriented writing activities in the comments, below!

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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