What rats taught me about teaching writing


We teachers have, I believe, a tendency to focus on all that goes wrong in the classroom. If we teach a stinker of a lesson we spend a lot of time analysing the reasons for our failure. After a successful lesson, on the other hand, we are on a high. We feel proud of what we’ve achieved with our learners but how often do we sit down and analyse what made this successful lesson work?

It is vital, of course, that we address the weaknesses in our teaching. But we also need to recognise what works and think about why.

With this in mind, I want to share one of my most successful writing lessons. The circumstances which inspired this lesson were (as you will see) unique to me. The elements which made this lesson successful are not, and could I believe, be applied to any writing lesson.

It began with a holiday…

In October I went on holiday with my family to the Costa del Sol. We had a lovely time. The sun shone and everyone got along well. There was only one small problem. I had booked us what looked like a pretty nice apartment. And it was a pretty nice apartment. The only problem was that we had to share it – with some not-so-little black, furry friends. You guessed it, rats. (I am terrified of most rodents so this was not a pleasant experience for me. My children on the other hand were fascinated by our housemates and subsequently declared them the highlight of the trip.) The owner of our holiday accommodation did not live locally, and despite the best efforts of the apartment’s caretaker, our long tailed friends stayed with us.

In spite of all this, we had a great holiday and when I got home I decided I was in far too good a mood to make a complaint.

A last minute lesson idea…

The evening after I returned home I was hurrying to work to teach my adult ESOL night class. I was running late and lesson planning on the hoof.

As I walked towards the school I flicked through a writing skills book, looking for a suitable lesson to teach. My eyes fell on a lesson about writing complaint letters. The exercises and languages were good, but the subject of the sample complaint seemed rather dry and irrelevant for my learners. But then I had an idea…

When I got into the classroom a few of my learners asked me if I’d had a good holiday. I said I would tell them all about it, but that they would need to listen very carefully and take notes – as detailed notes as they could.

I told my learners all about the holiday, mentioning that it had been a lovely holiday but focusing on the rat problem. I included plenty of factual detail, for example: how many people were in the group, where we were, the address of the apartment, the name of the proprietor, the number of rats, where and when we found the rats etc.

Then I asked the learners to work in pairs and compare notes on what they had heard. I asked questions to check their understanding and elicited language I had used which was possibly new for them.

Next, we turned our attention to the complaint lesson in the book. It took us about half an hour to look at the samle complaint email and work our way through the follow up language tasks. The class learned how to structure an email of complaint, and were introduced to useful complaint phrases, e.g.:

This is unsatisfactory

I was very disappointed by

I would be grateful if you would let me know how you are planning to address this issue 

It was now time for my learners to put what they had learned into practice. So I told them that I would like them to write an email of complaint to the owner of the holiday apartment. I asked them to use all of the information I had given them at the beginning of the lesson and to use the language and complaint letter structure that we had been learning about. I then told them I would take the best email written and send it to the owner of the holiday house. The carrot? Whatever refund I got I promised to share with the writer of the winning email 50/50.

Well, what happened next was really quite amazing. My learners are a very gregarious, multi-national class who do not care much for writing. And yet they sat in complete silence and wrote furiously for the rest of the lesson. The emails they produced were absolutely excellent – in fact, they were so good that choosing a winner was quite impossible.

In the end, I decided to use all of the learners’ letters, taking a sentence here and a sentence there to construct a really good email of complaint. This finished product I shared with my learners and sent off.

Imagine my delight when the owner of the holiday home phoned me a few days later, to give me a 25 percent refund. With the money, I was able to throw a really good party for my class – I think they deserved it, after all!

Why it worked

Why did this writing lesson work? To me, this rather hastily put-together lesson included several features of a successful writing lessons:

  • A hook (in this case a story of a holiday disaster) got the learners motivated.
  • The task was, to some extent, personalised (it concerned someone the learners actually knew – me).
  • Learners could see the real –life application to this kind of writing activity (we all need to write a letter of complaint at some point).
  • There was a strong language focus element to the lesson
  • There was a real-life audience (not just the teacher).
  • There was a competitive element

I think the rat writing activity worked well precisely because it contained all of the elements above. When planning subsequent writing lessons, I have tried to include as many of these as I can in my planning. Sadly, my other lessons can’t always contain cash incentives!

I wouldn’t wish a rat infested holiday apartment on any teacher but I do believe that we can take the raw material of our own experiences and use it to create structured and motivating writing lessons.

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4 Responses to What rats taught me about teaching writing

  1. joannamalefaki says:

    I really liked this idea especially cause, I have never really told my learners to take notes while I am telling them about sth I did and then get them involved in an actual writing task! I usually chat a bit about stuff, may even extend the chat but never made the chat an active and purposeful listening task! A ‘real’ listening task that feeds into a writing one! Excellent idea. I am so doing this next week.

  2. joco75 says:

    Hi Joanna,

    Thanks so much for dropping by and taking the time to comment!

    Glad you liked the idea. I would love to pretend that I had carefully thought all of it through beforehand (the listening feeding into the writing etc.) but it was all a bit of a happy accident…
    It did work well though, so is an idea worth trying out.

    Hope it goes well for you. Happy teaching! 🙂


  3. jimdysart says:

    Nice one Geni. Can see how that woukd have worked. Sych a strong focus on real life and with a fun competitive element.

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