Write the Story

Finding a Topic
What's up? Find out what has happened recently in the life of your student:
  • Family, school, or work incidents/anecdotes
  • Visitors or trips
  • Problems with health, money, car, neighbors, etc.
  • Something the student is happy about or proud of (i.e. communicating in English successfully in an unfamiliar setting)
  • News events or controversies in the community
  • Everyday routines (what did you do yesterday?)
  • Good news/bad news...
  • Describe the clothes student/tutor are wearing today
Your student can decide to write about what's new, or choose another topic to write about, such as:
  • Describing a person (family member, friend, etc.)
  • Recount an event from childhood, or long ago (this can turn into an oral history project, a few sentences at a time each week)
  • Life in the native country-food, clothing, homes, daily life, religion, customs, holidays, weather, etc. (this can also turn into an oral history about The native county, one topic at a time)
  • Comparing American life and culture to the native country
  • Dreams
  • Future plans
  • Retelling a native folk tale or legend
  • Opinions (about current events, cultural values, etc.)
  • Likes and dislikes (food, TV shows, animals, places, etc.)
  • Letters to a friend
  • Taking a favorite photo and describing the event it depicts or the feelings/memories it evokes
The tutor can supply open-ended sentence completion options such as:
  • Someday I hope my children will...
  • When I was young, I thought...
  • I feel happy when...
Sometimes a "hot" topic will emerge unexpectedly from a reading or an ESL lesson. Why not use it to generate a story as an extension of your lesson?

Elicit the Details
For ESL students it's important to process the topic orally before writing anything down. The tutor can ask questions to make sure he/she understands the information and to draw out some of the details. This is a good time to practice "mirroring," that is, repeating the information back to the student to see if you understand it correctly. Ex: "So you have two sons in China, and one daughter here in America. Is that right?"

Get it on Paper
When a student decides to write about a given topic, the writing process becomes a sort of negotiation between tutor and student. The tutor's role is to help define the content, and to get the ideas into print as faithfully as possible. Some tutors make editorial suggestions to help the student communicate more accurately in terms of grammar, vocabulary, and syntax. Other tutors just use the student's exact words without correction.

There are various ways to get the story on paper, depending on the student's ability level and preference:
  • The tutor constructs the story based on info. supplied by the student. With very low level students, the tutor may want to make corrections and supply correct vocabulary. For example, if the student says, "Sidewalk no good today I fall down 3 time!" (and she acts out slipping on some ice), the tutor might write: The sidewalk is icy today. I fell down 3 times. The tutor needs to clarify the new word (icy), but it isn't necessary to go over each correction (such as "fell" instead of "fall" and "times" instead of "time") unless the student asks.
  • With slightly higher level students, the tutor can take down the student's words, but indicate where there are omissions or errors. For example, the student says, "I go store yesterday buy food." If the student has already studied past tense verb forms, but just isn't using them, the tutor could write:

    I (go) _______ ____ ______ store yesterday buy food.

    The student is invited to self-correct the verb tense and try to supply the missing words.
  • Another variation on this theme is for the tutor to construct the story based on the student's words and information, but leave some of the words for the the student to fill in him/herself.

    For example, the student says, "My daughter sick. She have fever." The tutor writes:

    My _________ is ______. She has a _______.
  • The student can try to supply the missing words from memory, by sounding them out, or by looking them up in a personal dictionary. Hints:
    • Only omit words that the student is already quite familiar with.
    • You can give the student a little more help by supplying the initial consonant in the missing words:

      My d__________ is s_______. She has a f_________.
  • The student may elect to write the story him/herself, with a little coaching & encouragement from the tutor. The tutor can supply corrections if asked to. (This works best as a homework assignment so the student can spend lots of time on it.)
Check / Revise / Embellish
Once the words are on the paper, the tutor should check to see that they are accurate. Read the story and ask, "Does it sound OK like this? Do you want to change anything?" and invite the student to add on to it, "Is this finished? Do you want to add anything else?"

Practice Reading the Story Aloud
Invite the student to read the story back to you from start to finish. A playful tutor might read the story to the student, but pretend to get stuck every few words, so that the student ends up supplying some of the words for the tutor.