TESOL Connections

Making Writing Instruction Meaningful: Suggestions for Engaging Academic Student Writers

Zuzana Tomas, and Jennifer A. Mott-Smith

Writing teachers often struggle to make instruction meaningful to their students because the assignments they require or practices they employ often seem either inauthentic or hard to relate to. This article presents 10 approaches to make instruction more meaningful to second language writers, thus improving student outcomes and reenergizing writing instructors. 

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:https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110239331.1

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:https://doi.org/10.1002

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).

Free Chapter From TESOL Voices: Young Learner Education

The young learner classroom expands far beyond the classroom walls. In this chapter, "Using Language Practice Games to Teach English in Chilean Primary Classrooms," Maria-Jesus Inostroza A. discusses how to provide a meaningful environment for utilizing language learning games and explores how two teachers implemented games for teaching English to young learners in two primary schools in Chile. 

Chapter 10: Using Language Practice Games to Teach English in Chilean Primary Classrooms
by Maria-Jesus Inostroza A.

From TESOL Voices: Young Learner Education

Games are among the most frequently recommended and used activities in young learners’ classrooms around the world (e.g., Garton, Copland, & Burns, 2011). However, little is known about their use in Chilean classrooms. As an experienced Chilean K–12 teacher of English, I like using games with my students but had never reflected much on this area of my practice. Therefore, I decided to put on my researcher hat to explore the extent to which games are used in Chilean classrooms. In this chapter, I explore how two teachers implemented games for teaching English to young learners (TEYL) in two primary schools in Chile. With the aid of these two teachers’ voices, I discuss how games are implemented for teaching English, the frequency of their use, and the constraints faced by these practitioners.

Games in the Language Classroom

In a classroom setting, we understand games to be purposeful and familiar activities for children, governed by rules and which provide a meaningful and comfortable environment for target language use (Khan, 1991; Tomlinson & Masuhara, 2009). Language learning games (LLGs) have been defined by the following six features:

  1. Rules and goals: clear rules that need to be followed to achieve the expected goal, acknowledgment and feedback on the outcome (Garris, Ahlers, & Driskell, 2002; Sørensen & Meyer, 2007; Tomlinson & Masuhara, 2009).
  2. Fantasy/authenticity: a safe environment of fictional situations that are authentic in their language use (Garris et al., 2002; Guevara & Ordoñez, 2012).
  3. Challenge: interesting content matter with an appropriate level of difficulty (Garris et al., 2002; Rixon, 1991; Sørensen & Meyer, 2007; Tomlinson & Masuhara, 2009).
  4. Curiosity: opportunities to apply intuition and to explore and discover effective ways to achieve the goals (Garris et al., 2002; Sørensen & Meyer, 2007; Tomlinson & Masuhara, 2009).
  5. Sensory stimuli: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic stimuli (Garris et al., 2002; Tomlinson & Masuhara, 2009)
  6. Learner control: opportunities to contribute with ideas, select approaches, and make decisions to achieve the aim (Garris et al., 2002; Guevara & Ordoñez, 2012).

Within LLGs, Khan (1991) makes the distinction between language practice games (LPGs) and communicative language teaching games. LPGs are defined as those “which involve repeated use for particular language items, where language form is given and controlled and where accuracy of reproduction is required in order for the player to succeed” (p. 149). Communicative language teaching games are “games where the need to communicate is powerful and urgent but no fixed language formulae are available or adequate for doing so” (p. 150).

Research on the use of LLGs for TEYL remains scarce, particularly in public school contexts (e.g., Butler, 2015; Griva, Semoglou, & Geladari, 2010; Guevara & Ordoñez, 2012). Similarly, researchers have recently begun discussing the purpose of these games and their role within the English as a foreign language (EFL) lesson in different teaching contexts. In this chapter, I describe the use and adaptation of LPGs in two primary schools in Chile.

Download the full chapter and references (PDF)


Adding a Spark to ESL Homework With YouTubers

by Hall Houston
Learn about some of the best YouTubers who produce high-quality videos for English language learners and how to utilize their content with your higher education students.

In my classes, I frequently design homework involving short videos produced by a new tribe of celebrities known as YouTubers. I find this generally appeals to students more than traditional homework assignments, as watching short videos on YouTube is already a well-loved activity among university students.

What is a YouTuber? According to Wikipedia, a YouTuber is “a type of internet celebrity and videographer who has gained popularity from their videos on the video-sharing website, YouTube.” Though YouTubers (also known as YouTube personalities or YouTube celebrities), all produce videos, the content of these videos varies greatly. Some, such as the glamorous Michelle Phan, deliver beauty tips. Others, such as Smosh (a duo consisting of Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla) make videos of their own comedic skits. To millennials, YouTubers such as PewDewPie and Ryan Higa are equally as popular as world-famous singers and actors. (For more information about popular YouTubers, see Dredge, 2016, and Stone, 2015.)

Though these YouTubers’ videos could certainly help students learn English, I tend to use videos especially produced for English language learners. Now, I will briefly introduce some of the best YouTubers who consistently produce high-quality, enjoyable videos for ESL/EFL students.

Best YouTubers for Teaching English

English with Lucy

A charming and eloquent YouTuber from the United Kingdom, Lucy has been making videos for English learners since 2016. She has more than 120 videos on her channel with videos covering grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. Her videos include a lot of wit and humor, so it’s no surprise that she has more than a million subscribers.

Eat Sleep Dream English

In these videos, YouTuber Tom introduces English language learners to British English. His well-produced videos are entertaining and cover numerous areas of English, such as vocabulary, pronunciation, speaking, slang, common errors in English, and useful expressions. In addition, he has a few videos on other subjects, including London, British food, and even a few glimpses of his personal family life.

Speak English with Christina

Christina has made around 200 fun, clever videos introducing students to American English. Her videos cover not only grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, but they also tackle learning strategies, American culture, business English, and small talk. She began producing videos in 2015 and now has more than 200,000 subscribers. Please note: her videos are aimed at EFL students in France, so occasionally the videos feature a bit of the French language.


Emma is the YouTuber behind this channel of cleverly produced videos, covering areas of learning English such as grammar, phrasal verbs, vocabulary, and idioms. In addition, she has several videos related to food, cooking, and eating, a topic clearly close to her heart. Emma is from Australia, so this is the perfect channel for students who want to become familiar with Australian English.

Using YouTube in Class

Use the following steps to utilize these YouTube channels to encourage your students to learn English in and out of class watching YouTube.

Step 1: Introducing the YouTuber

Before the semester begins, look over several channels and consider which ones will appeal the most to your students. Next, choose a video to share with the class. Take some notes and prepare a few questions to ask the class based on the video, preferably using a mix of different question types (short answer, true or false, fill-in-the-blank). Base questions not only on the language content, but also the visual content. In class, play only a minute or two of the video, then begin asking your questions. Play the video segment again if necessary. To encourage students to watch more, provide students with a link to the video (e.g., embedded on your university’s learning management system) and tell them to watch the rest of the video in their spare time. You can post additional questions for students to answer.

Step 2: Assigning Homework

After two class periods where you preview a video with the class, assign them to choose a video from the YouTuber’s channel, but ask them to refrain from selecting one you’ve watched in class. Emphasize that they should look over the videos carefully and choose one that appeals to them. Provide a worksheet divided into two sections, Before Watching and After Watching (see the Appendix [PDF]). I always show my class an example of an exceptionally well-written report, and remind them to take extra time and invest some thought into filling out the sheet, instead of scribbling down a couple of words here and there.

The Before Watching section requires students to identify which video they chose. Furthermore, students need to write down the reason they chose the video, what they know about the subject, and what they want to know. I feel that this work helps students to focus on their own connection with the subject, and predict what they might hear in the video.

In the After Watching section, students need to express their feelings about the video. They need to explain why they liked it or hated it. Also, they need to write five words or phrases they picked up from the video. Finally, they need to write three questions they would like to ask the YouTuber. This allows students to reflect on the content of the video and consolidate their learning.

Step 3: Collecting Homework

On the day that the assignment is due, a few minutes before the bell rings, collect the homework. I recommend using a method called “The Homework Chair” (Grove, 1998): I put a chair in the front of the blackboard, and write HOMEWORK in big letters on the board, with an arrow pointing to the chair. Once the bell rings, I pick up all the papers in the chair. Papers that are delivered later receive slightly lower scores. (You can learn more about this simple, but powerful technique in Grove’s, 1998, article, “The Homework Chair.”)

Step 4: Marking and Returning Homework

When you look over students’ homework, keep an eye open for papers that show a great deal of effort, as well as the occasional paper that indicates the student made little effort or misunderstood the assignment. In some, but not all, cases, leave notes for the students. If many students did not seem to enjoy watching the YouTuber’s videos, make a note and choose another YouTuber for the next semester.

In the next lesson, return the homework to the students, giving praise to the students who made the most effort. If a student did poorly, speak to that student in private, and give him or her an opportunity to do the assignment again.

Other Ways to Use YouTubers in Class

This is the format I use, but I’m aware there are lots of other possibilities for exploiting English language teaching YouTuber videos in class, including:

  • Using videos from YouTubers that reinforce grammar or vocabulary covered in your coursebook
  • Adding a few questions to exams based on content in the videos
  • Assigning students to do individual or group presentations in class about their favorite YouTubers
  • Asking students to share videos from their favorite YouTubers on your learning management system
  • Exploiting non-ELT YouTuber channels for intermediate or advanced level classes

And one more suggestion: If you are interested in doing project work with your students, you might consider asking them to create their own YouTube channel, basing their videos on language covered in recent lessons. Who knows? Perhaps someone in your classroom might end up being a well-known YouTuber!


Dredge, S. (2016, February 3). Why are YouTubers so popular? The Guardian.
Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/feb/03/why-youtube-stars-popular-zoella

Grove, R. (1998, July). The homework chair. The Language Teacher, 22(7).
Retrieved from https://www.jalt-publications.org/tlt/departments/myshare/articles/2342-homework-chair-practical-furniture-managing-university-classes

Stone, M. (2015, June 27). 9 YouTube stars who are still crazy popular after a decade of fame. Business Insider. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/9-early-youtube-stars-still-famous-after-a-decade-of-fame-2015-6


Download this article (PDF)
and the Appendix (PDF)

Hall Houston has a master's degree from The University of Texas at Austin. He has produced several ELT books, including The Creative Classroom, Provoking Thought, and The ELT Daily Journal. He is a Cambridge English teacher trainer and presenter. He currently teaches at National Taipei University of Nursing and Health Sciences in Taiwan.

    Listening to Real-World English, Part 2: Filled Pauses

    by Elvis Wagner, Linlin Wang, and Mark R. Emerick
    In the second of this three-part series, the authors discuss the hesitation phenomena of filled pauses and provide a lesson to raise your learners' awareness. 

    This article is the second in a three-part series on developing language learners’ ability to listen to real-world spoken English. The first article discussed connected speech and provided a lesson plan, and the third will discuss backchanneling.

    In many real-world speaking contexts, the speaker is composing and uttering at the same time. This results in numerous hesitation phenomena that are common to unplanned (unscripted) speech. In English, filled pauses are perhaps the most salient type of hesitation phenomena. They can be nonlexical (um or uh) or lexical (e.g., you know, like) and serve a number of purposes. Often, speakers unconsciously use these fillers while planning what they are going to say next. By verbalizing the pause, the speaker indicates that he or she does not want to give up the floor. Indeed, filled pauses are much more common than unfilled (silent) pauses among advanced English speakers. Sometimes, a speaker’s repetition of a word or phrase is essentially a filled pause; the speaker repeats the word or phrase while processing what to say next.

    Numerous research studies have shown that spoken texts with hesitation phenomena can be more challenging for lower ability second language (L2) listeners than texts without them. Griffiths (1991) argued that filled pauses present comprehension difficulties for L2 listeners because these listeners do not recognize them as filled pauses, but instead try to assign semantic meaning to them.


    There are numerous filled pauses in the spoken text used for the lesson provided here, and drawing listeners’ attention to these pauses should serve to make learners much more aware and conscious of just how prevalent they are in unplanned, real-world spoken English. Because learners will both hear and see the filled pauses in the spoken texts and in the transcripts, the ubiquity of filled pauses in spoken language should be particularly salient for the learners (Wagner, 2014).

    It is likely that some or most of the students will be aware of the typical filled pause in English (uh or um), but the idea that expressions such as you know, like, and I mean also serve as filled pauses in English may be new. Even if they have heard these words or phrases used in different contexts, they probably were not made aware of how commonly they are used in English as fillers, and the discussion of how these fillers function in English will serve as a useful consciousness-raising task.

    One of the discussion questions asks the students if they are surprised that the vast majority of the pauses are filled pauses (rather than silent pauses). Silent pauses are much more common in L2 English speech than in native language (L1) speech, and discussing this question, as well as hearing the filled pauses in the L1 speakers’ conversation, will help learners become aware of this. In addition, asking the students if they use silent pauses in their own speech should serve to reinforce this notion.

    The following lesson is designed to make L2 listeners aware of what filled pauses sound like, and also to make listeners aware of just how common they are in spoken English.

    Lesson 2: Understanding Filled Pauses

    • Audiotext: “Tiger Farm” and basic transcript
    Appendix A (.docx): Student handout (“Tiger Farm”: Comprehension Activities)
    Appendix B (.docx): Student handout (“Tiger Farm”: Filled Pauses)
    Appendix C (.docx): Tiger Farm” transcript (0:00 to 1:21) that indicates the filled and unfilled pauses, repetitions, and backchannels
    Audience: WIDA level 2; CEFR A2
    Objectives: Students will be able to identify filled pauses in real-world speech.
    Outcome: Students will listen to an audiotext, identify filled and silent pauses in the audiotext, and evaluate their experiences with pauses in speech.
    Duration: 45 minutes–1 hour


    1. Break students into groups of four and introduce “Tiger Farm” through the prelistening activity (Appendix A, Part 1), which taps into learners’ background/contextual knowledge. This audiotext is from http://www.elllo.org, which is an excellent resource for finding authentic, real-world spoken texts for L2 lessons. In this audio clip, two speakers are discussing a “Tiger Farm” in Thailand in which people can interact with live tigers. The entire text is 4 minutes and 5 seconds, but only the first 1 minute and 21 seconds are used for this teaching task, and only the first 42 seconds are used to focus on the filled and unfilled pauses aspect of the lesson (with advanced listeners, the entire text can be used, and the lesson expanded).

    2. Move into the while-listening task (Appendix A, Part 2), focusing on overall comprehension. Play the text from 0:00 to 1:21.

    3. In their groups of four, students discuss Postlistening Task A (Appendix A, Part 3), focusing on comprehension of the text. Then, have them review Postlistening Task B (Appendix A, Part 3), and allow them to listen to the audiotext again before answering the questions in their groups.

    4. After the comprehension activities, draw students’ attention to the filled pauses by asking the class if they heard any pauses or hesitations in the “Tiger Farm” text. Students will volunteer responses to the rest of the class. Follow up with an explanation about how pauses can be unfilled (silent), or they can be filled, in which the speaker says a word or makes a sound while pausing. Stress that these pauses occur in almost all speech, that they are incredibly common among native-speaker speech, and that most speakers and listeners are not even aware of them. You can even use yourself as an example, stating how commonly you have filled pauses in your own speech.

    5. Ask, “What do filled pauses sound like in English?” Give students 1 minute to work in pairs to come up with all the examples of filled pauses they can think of in English, and then share out with the class. Write all the filled pauses on the board (making sure to include common fillers such as uh, um, you know, like, and I mean), and also tell the class that pauses can also include repetitions, such as repeating a word or series of words.

      Then ask, “What do filled pauses sound like in your native language?” and lead a short class discussion. If the class has an L1 in common, they can discuss it as a class. If there are many L1s represented, students can volunteer what they sound like in their respective L1s.

    6. Hand out the student handout “Tiger Farm”: Filled Pauses (Appendix B), which includes a transcript of the “Tiger Farm” text, and give students 1 minute to read the transcripts. Then, explain that there are many pauses in the text and that students should try to listen for the pauses and write down on the transcript every pause that they hear. If there is a silent pause, the students should indicate that by writing “SP.” Play the audiotext again (only the first 41 seconds).

    7. After the text finishes playing, students work in the same pairs to compare their transcripts and discuss any disagreements or discrepancies. Next, play the text again, instructing the learners to see if they hear any additional pauses and to modify their transcription if necessary. After the second playing, lead a class discussion of which pauses were present, and/or distribute or display a completed transcript of the text with all the pauses noted (Appendix C), and discuss which were most common. If appropriate, you can play the text a third time, so that learners can follow along with the transcript to simultaneously see and hear the pauses in the text.

      After the final listening, give students about 2 minutes to answer the follow-up discussion questions in the handout (Appendix B). Lead a class discussion explaining that advanced English speakers have pauses in their speech when they are thinking about what to say and how to say it. Also, advanced English speakers tend to use filled pauses, rather than silent pauses, when speaking. Ask the class if they use any of these filled pauses when they are speaking English, and how they feel about using them.

    8. Optional) Tell students that you also naturally use filled pauses in your spoken language, and that for the next few days, students should shout out “filled pause” every time they hear you use a filled pause in your speech.


    Hesitation phenomena, especially filled pauses, are ubiquitous in unplanned spoken language, yet many L2 listeners are unaware that this is the case, and thus can have difficulty comprehending spoken texts with numerous filled pauses. This lesson serves to draw learners’ attention to filled pauses, making them salient both aurally and visually through the use of transcripts.

    The next lesson in this series will focus on introducing and drawing learners’ attention to backchanneling.


    Griffiths, R. (1991). The paradox of comprehensible input: Hesitation phenomena in L2 teacher talk. JALT Journal, 13(1), 23–38.

    Wagner, E. (2014). Using unscripted spoken texts in the teaching of second language listening. TESOL Journal, 5, 288–311.

    Download this article (PDF) 


    Elvis Wagner is an associate professor of TESOL at Temple University. He is interested in the teaching and testing of second language oral communicative competence. His primary research focus examines how L2 listeners process and comprehend unscripted, spontaneous spoken language, and how this type of language differs from the scripted spoken texts learners often encounter in the L2 classroom.

    Linlin Wang is a third-year doctoral student in the Teaching and Learning Department, Temple University. Her research interests include L2 assessment, L2 pedagogy, and multicultural educational issues. She has a master’s degree in TESOL from the University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor’s degree in Teaching Chinese as A Second Language from Beijing Language and Culture University. She has been teaching English and Chinese for more than 6 years, working with students with diverse backgrounds.

    Mark R. Emerick is a doctoral candidate in applied linguistics at Temple University’s College of Education. His research interests involve the ways in which beliefs, identity, and language policy facilitate and/or restrict ELLs’ opportunities to achieve college and career readiness. He has taught ESL and sheltered language arts to 7th–12th graders, designed and implemented ESL curricula, and worked on curriculum and assessment projects for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

    Increasing English Language Writing Fluency With Fanfiction

    by Katie Mitchell
    Use fanfiction (and check out examples) from a variety of genres to benefit your students' creativity, fluency, and productive skills in writing.

    Do your students love Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, or The Lord of the Rings? You can incorporate these popular characters into your classes using fanfiction. Fanfiction has been defined as “writing that continues, interrupts, reimagines, or just riffs on stories and characters other people have already written” or produced (Jamison, 2013, p. 17). Students can create fanfiction based on novels, short stories, movies, or television shows. While writing fanfiction, students analyze characters and remix them for their own creative work.

    The Benefits

    Fanfiction is at its core task-based learning built on “problem solving and play” (Sauro, 2014, p. 240). Because they use source material as inspiration for writing, fanfiction assignments motivate students to read and listen more closely. Fanfiction also encourages students to think critically because they need to make inferences about characters’ values, objectives, and actions in order to place those characters in settings and storylines of their own invention. The writing task changes how students interact with the source material and improves their receptive skills.

    This creative task also benefits students’ productive skills. Creative writing is playful and encourages students to experiment with language; this language play can aid in language learning and fluency (Cook, 2000). In this playful genre, teachers can still focus students’ attention on vocabulary and grammar, but it is inherently lower stakes, more creative, and less formal than other kinds of writing. Finally, fanfiction writing is meant to be shared. It’s fun. Together, this playfulness, practice, and motivation can encourage writing development.


    Changing the Medium: Fanfiction can take many forms. It can be as simple as changing the medium of the work. For example, students can reimagine a traditional story as a comic book using an online tool, such as the one provided by MakeBeliefsComix.com. This task involves reinterpreting the characters, setting, and plot without making substantial changes. See an example comic book assignment from my class here.

    Bending the Characters: Other fanfiction activities can involve changing the story itself. Students can experiment with self-insert fanfiction, in which they place themselves in the story, reimaging themselves as one of the main characters. They can also experiment with issues of diversity and inclusion by changing the gender, nationality, or religion of the characters. In fanfiction, this is called “bending” characters and is a popular practice online (Thomas & Stornaiuolo, 2016). These changes to the characters’ identities can have ripple effects on the relationships and on the actual outcome of the story. Read this example of a gender and race-bent Harry Potter by an Arab female author on Fanfiction.net. In it, Harry Potter is an Arab girl named Amira Potter.

    Creating New Story Elements: Other types of fanfiction might deviate even more from the original work; writers might create a new ending or use known characters in an entirely new storyline or setting. For instance, students might imagine the next time two characters meet and how they might interact. In these cases, students are applying what they know about the characters’ personalities to new situations. The results can be wonderfully creative. Explore an English language student’s continuation of a Sherlock Holmes story here

    Example Fanfiction Project

    In an upper intermediate reading class, students can create a choose-your-own-adventure version of a novel they are reading. Unlike traditional novels, choose-your-own-adventure stories (CYOA) aren’t linear. Instead, they invite the reader to make decisions that affect the characters and plot. This CYOA writing project can be done over 5 weeks.

    Before starting, you should identify two to four points in your source novel where the story could have taken a different turn. The following example uses The Giver by Lois Lowry. In this dystopian novel, a young boy is assigned to be the new keeper of the community’s memories. For the CYOA, students summarize the story and imagine alternative paths where, for instance, the main character might be assigned a different job or given different types of memories. They also write alternative endings. Developing these alternative paths alongside the summary encourages students to deeply analyze the plot, characters, and setting.

    Week 1
    Students are put into groups of four. They have read the first few chapters of the novel. They write a summary of the beginning of the book that can serve as the first section of their CYOA. They also work on the first decision point at which the reader will choose the direction of the story. With students’ CYOA versions of The Giver, the first choice is to decide on the main character’s job. Specifically, they summarize the actual job the main character was assigned and write a few paragraphs imagining different versions in which the assignment was changed.

    Week 2–3
    Groups continue to summarize parts of the book and to create new alternative paths. You can decide what these alternative paths might be by assigning specific writing prompts or allowing groups to select these themselves. These paths allow the CYOA writers to choose what will happen next. The students’ CYOAs may also include alternative endings. Many of these alternative paths ended quickly with hilarity and absurdity.

    Week 4
    Students have finished reading the novel and writing the first draft of their CYOAs. They publish their CYOA story on a page-building site, such as Google Sites, where each page contains part of the story and ends by asking the reader to choose what should happen next. Then, students read through their CYOA. Each group member has a different editing task (vocabulary, grammar, coherence, style), and they work to improve their CYOA.

    Week 5
    Students share their CYOAs with their classmates. They laugh as they experience surprise and adventure at every turn. They compare the different outcomes in the CYOAs and discuss which one they like the best. See an example student-created CYOA of The Giver here.


    Fanfiction encourages active reading and listening by changing the student’s role from consumer to producer. These fanfiction tasks can be incorporated into many different classes or become an entire course. I recently taught a fanfiction elective at my university based on the Sherlock Holmes canon. Whatever form fanfiction takes in your class, it has the potential to engage students while increasing their reading, listening, writing, and digital literacy skills.


    Cook, G. (2000). Language play, language learning. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

    Jamison, A. (2013). Why fic? In A. Jamison (Ed.), Fic: Why fan fiction is taking over the world (pp. 17–24). Dallas, TX: Smart Pop Books.

    Sauro, S. (2014). Lessons from the fandom: Task models for technology-enhanced language learning. In M. González-Lloret & L. Ortega (Eds.), Technology-mediated TBLT: Researching technology and tasks (pp. 239–262). Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins.

    Thomas, E. E., & Stornaiuolo, A. (2016). Restorying the self: Bending toward textual justice. Harvard Educational Review, 86(3), 313–338.

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    Katie Mitchell has taught in Albania, Germany, Thailand, and the United States. She earned her master’s in TESOL from Portland State University. She is interested in curriculum development, computer-assisted language learning, writing instruction, game-based learning, and English for specific purposes. Katie has presented internationally on these topics and has worked on large-scale curriculum projects, including an online business English product and an Xbox game.