The Internet TESL Journal

Making the News: A Motivating Writing Skills Project for ESL Students

Clare Wardman
c.wardman1 {at}
York St John University (York, UK)


Many ESL students, children and adults alike, dislike or even dread writing tasks in the ESL classroom, finding them boring or difficult (Winer,1992: Cimcoz, 1999). This can lead teachers to avoid all but the shortest of writing tasks in the classroom, for fear of not being able to motivate or support their students highly enough.

The project described below has been used to good effect with two different groups of students studying on short courses at a university in northern England and can be adapted to suit different levels with relative ease. It can also be condensed or expanded to last between just two or three sessions and almost a whole week of a full-time programme. At the end of their programmes, both groups of students rated this activity as one of their favourites, despite initial reactions to writing tasks being rather less than favourable.

Introduction to the Project

The goal of the project is for small groups (between three and five students) to produce a newspaper, or the front page of a newspaper within the timescales decided. In completing this project the students will develop:
This project was carried out with a group of higher intermediate students and comprised the bulk of their work completed during the week themed “Media” of the summer programme. Adaptations made for a group of elementary learners later will be described in parentheses throughout.

Technological Requirements

There are, of course, a number of ways in which the students could present the final ‘newspaper’. Without access to computers or printers, it would be possible to produce a hand-written newspaper on A3 paper, for example. However, I found that, by using Microsoft Publisher, the groups could produce very professional-looking documents with minimal design effort, which is also endorsed by West (2002). The fact that there is a wide range of newsletter templates to choose from allows each group to opt for very different and individual styles. This and the resulting professional look certainly increased motivation levels.

At the end of the project, it is likely that you will want to print copies of the final product and  therefore, it is important to think about whether the printers you have access to will cope with the fairly large files that will be produced. Additionally, the newspapers will look far better if it is possible to print them in colour, but, of course, this is not completely necessary.

The Process

In this section, I will describe the week in which the newspaper project was completed, which comprised 10 teaching sessions of 90 minutes. You may wish to omit some of these sessions and enhance or expand others.

Day One

Session 1

An introduction to the media: bring in some newspapers. This leads to a lot of discussion around newspapers in the students’ home countries and whether they read them, political leanings and the ‘quality’ versus ‘tabloid’ debate.

Session 2

This lesson is spent looking in more depth at the newspapers, scanning and skimming newspapers to categorise them and learn vocabulary about particular sections of the newspapers. At the end of this session, I set homework for the students to write about something that was making the local news in their home town, which meant that we could have an International News section in our newspapers by the end of the week. This homework was submitted on day two and feedback given for corrections on day three.

Day Two

Session 1

An introduction to writing for a newspaper: upper-intermediate and advanced students may be interested in the fact that newspaper articles and press releases are written in a very different way from more ‘normal’ pieces of writing. All of the important information is contained early on with progressively more detail added later. An interesting reading for detail exercise can be designed, using texts found in current newspapers to allow the students to discover this. In reality, whether they incorporate this in their final work is not so important.

Session 2

A short writing task, set as you wish (using coursebook materials if preferred) culminating in each student writing a film or music review that will form part of the newspaper by the end of the week.

Day Three

Session 1

Introduce the students to a piece of research per group. I did this by visiting a local museum and asking the students to choose an aspect to research and then write about in more depth later (the adaptation for the lower level group was that each student worked in a group that corresponded to their travel groups from the previous weekend and they were asked to write a report of their visit, including photographs).

Session 2

Return to the classroom to follow up on the groups’ choices and begin the online research. The group will need to decide on individual responsibilities for writing, researching and editing of the article and the teacher can set a word limit depending on the group’s capability. A number of the groups will have begun writing their article by the end of this session.

Day Four

Session 1

During this session you may wish to concentrate on headline-writing. This is not an easy aspect to cover, but there are a few course-book and online lesson suggestions to  make it accessible for upper-intermediate learners.

Session 2

An interesting addition at this stage (if you feel the groups are on track) is to teach a lesson on advertising. There are a variety of fun activities on advertising and marketing to be found in coursebooks and online. To make the week feel rounded skills-wise, you may wish to include a listening exercise. Ideally, the students should feel inspired to create an advert or two for their newspaper. You may wish to incorporate that into this session or leave the decision to them.

Day Five

Session 1

Students will be working in groups to write, edit each others’ work and find photos for their newspaper. The teacher simply facilitates as required. If any students have finished their work, you may wish to have a few extra options for articles that they research and write under time pressure (great for differentiation). You could choose topics such as local events, up-coming festivals or major world current affairs.

Session 2

The newsroom deadline day. All students should be working individually and as a group to pull the final newspaper together. It is quite fun to create a slightly manic feel to this session as the deadline draws closer!

After the Project

Following the final session, you will want to print off copies for the students (a lovely memento of their studies if they are only with you and their group for a short time) and perhaps a larger colour version for the classroom wall.

Feedback on the quality of writing produced may be a very personal consideration. My opinion is that the feedback should be almost wholly positive, with perhaps only recurring issues and major issues leading to communicative breakdown being dealt with, especially given the many opportunities for peer-teaching offered throughout the project.

I believe that the value of this project lies in allowing the students a lot of free reign in terms of what they choose to write about and how they write it, hopefully giving them “an understanding of their capacity to write, motivation, self-confidence and courage” (Cimcoz, 1999). I hope you may find the same with your classes.


The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 1, January 2010