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September 2018
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Making Writing Instruction Meaningful: Suggestions for Engaging Academic Student Writers
Zuzana Tomas, and Jennifer A. Mott-Smith

It is commonly accepted that the level of student engagement with an assignment yields better results both in terms of the writing produced and the improvement of skills. However, teachers may find it difficult to promote student engagement when assignment topics are not to students’ liking, the rhetorical situation feels contrived, or L2 writing is viewed from a deficit perspective. Therefore, in this article we focus on 10 ways to promote student engagement and make writing assignments more meaningful to student writers.

1. Make Assignments Local

Can you really handle reading another essay on why smoking is bad for your health? We sure can’t. Beyond being boring, generic assignments tend to get students in trouble—the cyber world can tempt students to copy and paste, especially when they are overwhelmed. A locally situated assignment, on the other hand, creates an opportunity for students to engage in a real community or connect a current event to their own lives. It can involve a particular purpose (e.g., collecting marketing information, incorporating survey or interview data in research writing) and engage students in a particular genre (e.g., brochure, website, research paper). For instance, students can be challenged to write about international students’ experiences at their institution and include an analysis of interviews or surveys of their peers.

2. Incorporate Volunteering or Service-Learning

Writing instructors can use community outreach as a way of encouraging students to venture out into their community. While setting up service-learning programs can be time-consuming and logistically challenging, writing instructors who offer service-learning writing courses find that their students improve their writing while taking part in a meaningful activity (see Perren & Wurr, 2015, for sample service-learning courses, including some focused on writing). We have engaged students in volunteering experiences in which students provided service to a local nonprofit organization (e.g., helping organize items in a local food bank warehouse) and service-learning experiences in which students simultaneously offered and received service (e.g., interacting with speakers of English by assisting in a senior home).

3. Emphasize Meaning Over Form, Improvement Over Perfection

Writing instructors frequently tell student writers that they need to improve their composition skills to communicate effectively. At the same time, our feedback often prioritizes form over meaning. Writing instructors wishing to stay true to a communication-focused message need to balance feedback on content with feedback on form. Additionally, we need to assign genres that our writers find meaningful. To illustrate, writing instructors can explore how to teach certain writing concepts (e.g., audience awareness) through social media posts or blog commentary. Alternatively, we can address purpose for writing or writing stance by having students produce or analyze customer product or travel reviews. These low-stakes assignments can strategically complement academic writing instruction and make it more meaningful by tapping into writers’ natural interests and experiences. Including engaging, low-stakes assignments can also help writing instructors focus on students’ improvement rather than on perfection, which often becomes the case in writing courses built around producing a number of “perfect” academic essays. In sum, such assignments can help instructors avoid creating a codependent reliance on form in which the teachers’ job is to correct and the students’ job is to make errors (Benesch, 2017). We believe that it is important to lead students away from the belief in perfection and to curtail the perfectionist approach in ourselves as well.

4. Have Students Share Their Writing With a Broader Audience

Traditional writing courses may not seem meaningful to students because the audience is always the teacher. Student genres often demand that writers construct a hypothetical reader and, though this is an important skill to have, writing for an actual audience teaches important rhetorical skills. Moreover, expanding the audience can go a long way in making writing more meaningful to students. In one assignment sequence we have used toward this end, students read an article and an open letter from the student newspaper, identifying purpose, author identity, intended audience, topic, tone, effect, and moves in each in order to come to understand the genre better. Then, they choose to write either an article or open letter; both require some research. The article requires observation of a campus event, and the open letter usually focuses on something that the student would like to see changed and therefore requires research into current practices, what efforts at change have already been made, and who else is invested in the change. Students are then encouraged to submit their writing to the school newspaper. In another assignment, students have reworked their research papers into articles published in a newsletter aimed at immigrants in the community.

5. Employ Multimodal Approaches

Increasingly, writing instructors are experimenting with integrating videos, visuals, and music into writing and presentations of writing projects. These trends are particularly appealing to technologically savvy students, many of whom enjoy creative expression. Moreover, multimodal assignments allow students of different learning preferences and abilities to interact with material in different ways. In addition, students can give in-class multimodal presentations that engage classmates and create opportunities for authentic communication.

6. Have Students Lead Instruction on Specific Areas That They Find Challenging

To draw students further into the teaching-learning process, we challenge student writers to do microteaching sessions about writing concepts or strategies with which they are struggling. Following the identification of problem areas, we ask them to prepare a short (3- to 4-minute) presentation for peers about a particular point that they need to improve on. Doing so not only solidifies the students’ learning, but it also helps equip them with useful autonomous learning strategies that they can employ postsemester.

When employing this idea, bear in mind that a modeling session may be needed to scaffold the assignment.

7. Frame Writing as a Social Activity

Helping students view writing as a social activity is yet another way of making writing instruction meaningful. For us, as professors expected to produce academic writing, this starts with sharing our own process. Our students are often surprised to find out that our disseminated work has gone through multiple reviews and that at times we were asked to revise our writing in significant ways. We also invite guest speakers who write for job-related purposes to class and design lessons around analyses of students’ writing on social media. When our students understand how critical peer review is for academics or professional writers, they become more open to peer review themselves, and with guidance and practice, can find it to be a meaningful writing activity.

8. Present Second Language Role Models to Build Confidence in Your Writers

Second language (L2) writers, even at very advanced levels, can feel like their writing is never up to par, regardless of the amount of effort made or time spent on any given assignment. An important way teachers can help build students’ confidence in their writing, thus making their instruction more meaningful, is by exposing them to L2 role models. Instructors who are L2 writers themselves can use their own experience to encourage students. Others can expose their students to highly successful L2 writers through panel discussions or anecdote sharing. One of the most inspiring, impactful experiences Zuzana—an L2 writer herself—ever had was hearing one of the most prolific scholars in the field acknowledge that she continues to make about two article errors per page! This was happy news to Zuzana, who also comes from a language background that does not involve articles. The scholar laughed off the issue, saying, “But why should I let that get me down?! After all, editors need jobs too!” Seeing the accomplishments of others can be invaluable in helping writers create their own path forward.

9. Promote the Positive View of Your Writers’ Multilingual Identities

Solely encouraging L2 writers on the basis of their improvement in prescriptivist grammar can imply that an educated person’s ultimate goal is to master standard English at the cost of maintaining his or her home or prior language(s). An increasingly popular way of elevating the status of our students’ multilingualism, thereby making the work more meaningful, is translanguaging (Canagarajah, 2011). Writing instructors can incorporate this strategy into text analysis activities or writing assignments. A specific approach is to have students produce identity-texts, which are often multimodal products that showcase students’ multilingualism in positive ways and allow them to see connections between important concepts and their experience while expanding their knowledge of the English language (Cummins, Hu, Markus, & Kristiina Montero, 2015). For instructors whose curricular restrictions do not readily allow for engaging deeply with identity work, even simple messages that acknowledge the value of a student’s multilingualism can be very meaningful to a student who is focused on his or her linguistic deficits.

10. Reenergize Yourself as a Writing Teacher-Professional

Writing instructors concerned about making their student writers’ experiences more meaningful may find it easier to do so when they recharge themselves by engaging in professional development. Observing other writing classes, discussing writing pedagogy with colleagues, reading professional articles, belonging to a professional group, watching webinars or YouTube videos of writing teachers, and attending conferences are effective ways of staying excited about teaching. Instructors wishing to challenge themselves further can consider engaging in an action research project or writing a regular reflective journal. Attending conferences or presenting one’s own work at conferences can also invigorate writing instructors who may lack professional support at their home institution.


We hope that these ideas will help you to offer meaningful courses to L2 writers who may, consequently, feel more motivated to write.


Benesch, S. (2017). Emotions and English language teaching: Exploring teachers' emotion labor. New York, NY: Routledge.

Canagarajah, S. (2011). Translanguaging in the classroom: Emerging issues for research and pedagogy. Applied Linguistics Review, 2, 1–28. doi:

Cummins, J., Hu, S., Markus, P., & Kristiina Montero, M. (2015). Identity texts and academic achievement: Connecting the dots in multilingual school contexts. TESOL Quarterly, 49, 555–581. doi:

Perren, J. M., & Wurr, A. J. (2015). Learning the language of global citizenship: Strengthening service-learning in TESOL. Champaign, IL: Common Ground.

*A version of this article first appeared in SLW News, March 2018.

Zuzana Tomaš teaches composition courses for L2 writers and preservice TESOL courses at Eastern Michigan University. She is a coauthor of Teaching Effective Source-Use: Classroom Approaches that Work (University of Michigan Press), Teaching Writing (TESOL Press), and Fostering International Student Success in Higher Education (TESOL Press).

Jennifer A. Mott-Smith teaches ESOL and first-year composition at Towson University. She is coauthor of Teaching Effective Source Use: Classroom Approaches that Work (University of Michigan Press), and Teaching Writing (TESOL Press).

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