Teaching Writing: What is successful language teaching?


Frank Bonkowski is an educational writer, English language teacher, and e-learning specialist, passionate about learning and teaching. As a lover of writing, Frank has a twofold mission: to teach English learners to write better and to train language teachers in teaching effective academic writing. He was a teacher trainer at several universities, including McGill, Concordia, and TELUQ, a center of distance education.  We are thrilled to have Frank as a member of our online course community at English Learner Portal.


Teaching Writing: What is successful language teaching?

In today’s post I give you a peek into part of the lecture “What is successful language teaching?” in Module 2, from my new three-credit graduate course in teaching writing.

JOIN me on June 28 for a 2-hour online writing workshop!

New Online professional development course

Teaching Writing to Intermediate and Advanced English Language Learners is now available. This 3-credit graduate course is aimed at beginner and experienced English-language teachers who want to improve their knowledge and skills in teaching academic writing.

Teaching Writing, a multimedia course containing five modules, is your complete guide to teaching academic writing. Each module has a short video introduction, several recorded lectures, an accompanying tape script, a reading, an interview with a writing expert (in three of the modules), and a self-assessment exercise. To obtain university credit for the course, participants must complete five quizzes and two assignments.

A peek inside “What is successful language teaching?”


In today’s lecture, we’re going to paint a broad picture of effective English language teaching and learning.

We are going to answer the following questions:

  • How can teachers help students learn successfully using a model called ESA: engage, study, activate?
  • What can teachers do to engage students?
  • What are some effective study activities?

ESA Model

blog2aThe ESA model—which involves equally teacher and learners—is based on the ideas of Jeremy Harmer from his influential book, How to Teach English.

In a nutshell, this teaching/learning model is based on these three principles: learners need to be motivated, exposed to meaningful language, and provided chances to use the language.


I will illustrate these three principles using examples from my own teaching with second-language learners. I will present different materials and activities dealing with the story “The 39 Steps.”


In the language classroom, for students to learn it makes good pedagogical sense to engage them. You need to “arouse the students’ interest, thus involving their emotions” (Harmer 25).

In my experience, even before you get students interested, you first have to catch their attention. When I started second language teaching in high school many years ago, I was lucky to have a brilliant pedagogue as school principal. He would often remind teachers about the importance of being enthusiastic and engaging ourselves in our subject matter. You can’t expect learners to be interested if you are not passionate about what you’re teaching. I have never forgotten that sound advice.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

As you can see in the chart below showing Bloom’s Taxonomy: The Affective Domain, the very first level is “receiving phenomena.” Learners need to be aware, show willingness to hear, and be attentive. In my very first meeting with new second-language learners at the beginning of a new term, I always demonstrate and practice “receiving.” How so?

First, I tell learners my name. Then I mention something interesting about myself, such as how I like to do triathlons—a combination of swimming, running, and biking. This always catches their attention, even if they are not particularly interested in sports.

I then ask students to say their name and something memorable about themselves. This is not only stimulating but also challenging for learners. By the end of this exercise, an added bonus is that I’m usually able to remember about 80% of the students’ names.

Notice in Bloom’s Taxonomy, it is at the second level: “response to phenomena” that learners can be expected to participate actively in the class.

Bloom’s Taxonomy: The Affective Domain


Useful activities and materials

Here are some useful activities and materials to engage students’ interest (Harmer 25):

  • Stimulating pictures
  • Games
  • Music
  • Discussions
  • Dramatic stories
  • Amusing anecdotes

The 39 Steps: activity

For example, in each new term I take learners to see a live play. But before talking about the live play students will be attending, I show a stimulating picture. Recently I took students to see “The 39 Steps.” I showed this picture and asked students to guess what they think the play is about, who the man is, what the menacing hand suggests, and what the title means.


By the way, I shared these interesting fun facts with students. The 39 Steps was originally a spy novel written in 1915 by John Buchan. Alfred Hitchcock made it into a suspense film in 1935. Later, it was brought to the Broadway stage as a thriller/romance/comedy in 2005 and won numerous awards.

In addition, since students usually have their cell phones handy, I asked them to work in pairs and to Google the term “The 39 Steps.” I gave them 8 to 10 minutes to take notes and then share what they found with the class.

When students saw how excited I was about this story, they participated well in the activity.

Study Activity: 3 parts

In study activities, students focus on language or information and how it is constructed. For higher-level students, these activities can range from the study and practice of new vocabulary to an analysis of how a writer achieves an effect.

There are different ways to do study activities: the teacher can explain or demonstrate a particular point or students can work alone, in pairs, or small groups to discover language for themselves.

Let’s look at this three-part language activity I used with learners before they attended the play “The 39 Steps.”

In the first part of the activity, I had students watch the first 15 minutes of Hitchcock’s 1935 movie that is available on YouTube. Interestingly, one student commented to me after seeing the live play that viewing the opening of the film was extremely helpful in understanding the complicated plot.

In the second part of the activity, I referred learners to the synopsis of Act 1 that was in the Teacher Guide (See below). Initially, I asked learners—working in pairs—to define the verbs that are underlined in the first paragraph.

These verbs include: rings out, turns out, trailed, lurking, seek, on the run, and clear.

Then I asked them to define any other verbs in the text that they did not understand.

In part three of the activity, I asked learners to write down in their own words the principal events in Act 1. I instructed them to use either the simple present or the present progressive tense in rewriting the plot.

Here’s an example of what I asked students to write:

  1. Richard Hannay is attending a play in London.
  2. Someone shoots a gun in the theater.
  3. A lady called Annabella goes home with him.

Act 1 (Teacher Guide)

After heading to a London theatre to find some excitement, a man named Richard Hannay is watching a performance by a man with a photographic memory named “Mr. Memory”, when an unexpected gunshot rings out. As the audience clears out, a woman named Annabella follows him home, and that’s when the real excitement begins. She turns out to be a spy on a dangerous mission, trailed by assassins who want her dead. Aware of danger lurking outside, she warns Richard about a dark figure at the head of an international espionage ring and “The 39 Steps,” which she does not explain. Her plan is to seek help from a professor in Scotland at a place called Alt-Na-Shellach the next day, but before Richard can get more details, she is killed, sending Richard on the run in an effort to clear his name and save Britain from its enemies.

Exiting his building cleverly disguised as a milkman, he hops a train to Scotland, with the law hot on his trail. When police begin to search the compartments, he masks his identity by kissing a female passenger. Although this buys him some time, the woman (named Pamela) isn’t buying his story, and she quickly turns him in. Luckily, he is able to jump from the train, and eludes capture.

Later that night, with Alt-Na-Shellach in the distance and the cold reality of the Scottish moors setting in, Richard convinces a poor old farmer named Crofter to offer him some shelter. However, tension arises when Margaret, the man’s beautiful young wife, finds herself attracted to her guest, and he to her. Feeling threatened, Crofter calls the police in the middle of the night, but Margaret wakes Richard to warn him. He then pays the farmer for his silence and steals a few kisses from Margaret before slipping out with Crofter’s best Sunday coat on his back.

After eluding the police, he is welcomed at Alt-Na-Shellach by the professor and his wife. However, the amiable pair is not what they seem. Richard realizes too late that the professor is missing part of his little finger and is the spy Annabella warned him about. Before he can act, the professor shoots him in the chest and leaves him for dead. Lucky for him, the hymnbook in Crofter’s coat pocket stops the bullet and saves his life. (Cleve 4-5)

For more helpful teaching tips, enroll now in Teaching Writing to Intermediate and Advanced English Language Learners and earn 3 university credits.

In the next blog post, we will take a look at the lecture on “Plagiarism“ in Module 3 of the course.

JOIN me on June 28 for a 2-hour online writing workshop


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Set a larger table….

Set a Larger Table
by guest blogger Laurie Meberg

I had never felt more isolated in my life. My family had just moved to a town where we knew only one family. This was my first opportunity to live in a foreign town where I did not have a local community on which to rely. To make matters more isolating, I was a stay at home mom to two girls under the age of three while my husband set up his office in the town center. My shortcomings in the local language limited me further. Finally, I was used to blending into the chaos of an international city and had found myself in a small town where I stuck out more than I had in the city. While I saw the same people every time I went out of the house, they did not seem to recognize me.

My neighbors did not know what to make of this blonde-haired, fair-skinned family who had just moved into their building. They had heard through the grapevine that my husband would be teaching English lessons to take the place of our dear friends in the local language institute. While most of the neighbors and people in our community avoided us as they passed us by – watching us only out of the corners of their eyes – one family in particular took us in. My next-door neighbors and their five teenage daughters were life to me in that season.

MebergBlogWithin a week of our arrival, Muzyen and her family greeted us and welcomed us. When I came home from errands, they eagerly kept the kids while I shuttled groceries up the three flights of stairs. Muzyen understood my younger daughter’s nervous cries and stood singing to her in the hallway as they watched me work. When her daughters were home, one of the daughters would keep my girls entertained while I cleaned the house or cooked dinner – teaching them songs, hand-games, and stories.  When my family returned from outings and clomped and chattered our way up the stairs, Muzyen’s family would open the door to talk with us and visit with our little kids. Occasionally, on long afternoons, Muzyen would break up the monotony of my day by inviting me for tea. She offered sweet pastries and savory dishes as we fumbled through small-talk and conversation.

I learned through our visits that Muzyen’s husband had recently retired from a career in mining. In their early years of marriage, the couple lived far from their families while Muzyen’s husband worked long shifts in the mines. She spent those years home with little children having to find her own friends and support system but the early years had been very hard. She encouraged me by empathizing with my isolation and welcoming me into her life.

Holidays were the hardest days for me as a foreigner in a strange land. Surprisingly, our own holidays were not so hard. Rather than wallow in self-pity about missing our family, I would find creative ways to make traditional foods, decorate with what we could find, and teach the children about our holidays. While I missed celebrating with our extended family, I would visit with friends in other cities. I found that – rather than our own holidays – the local holidays were harder for me.

As a local holiday drew near, I noticed the community brimming with excitement as 02A12D2Geveryone prepared for a big event. The neighbors would clean their homes top to bottom – so thoroughly that they would even hang their carpets over the balconies to dry after hand-washing them. The community scoured the local markets and stores for specialty foods they would use for traditional meals, toys to give their children, and outfits to wear for the festivities. Furthermore, people stocked up their kitchens as shops would be closed for a few days.

While some ex-pats might take this as an opportunity to relax and stay home, I could not. Despite my introversion, I longed to be part of the festivities. I too wanted a reason to cook, clean, shop, and visit – anticipation that transformed the routine.

Al Fresco Dining, With Food Laid Out On TableMuzyen knew what it was to be an outsider. Because of that, she invited us to join her family’s festivities. One of the more intimate components of their celebrations was a breakfast to break their fast. Muzyen had already graciously included our family at a few of their iftar dinner meals. The breakfast marked the beginning of a three-day celebration. This was more of a family affair. Normally new friends or neighbors might visit on the third day, but in my observation not typically the first breakfast.

Muzyen taught me a lesson that day. She modeled for me how to be a neighbor and how to be a friend. There were not elaborate schemes or agendas hidden in her invitation – rather a simple invitation from one woman who had experienced isolation to another woman who was in the midst of it. She had no idea that some of her traditional foods were similar to those of my grandparents and she had no idea how honored I was to be included. She expanded her table, added four plates, and welcomed us in – not as strangers but as if we belonged.

I have applied this lesson many times in the past ten years. How hard is it for me to welcome a newcomer to our celebrations?  Being a newcomer is lonely. But to welcome a newcomer in speaks volumes.


mebergLaurie Meberg has been working cross-culturally for seventeen years as a teacher, community developer, and refugee liaison. She learned two languages through immersion and tried to learn a third through friendships in a multicultural community. She has frequently helped emerging English speakers by being a conversation partner – mostly over cups of tea. She lives in Colorado with her husband and three children.
She can be found on instagram @ _lauries_stories_


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English Learner Portal    January 2018