Two Important Guidelines for Choosing Writing Topics


Students usually tell me their goal is to speak better English. I like to emphasize how skills can develop together, and if I have the chance to work with a student privately, then I encourage some form of writing. Even the student who wants to improve pronunciation can benefit from writing a short assignment and using the original text for oral reading practice. I’ve had intermediate students work with personalized texts in order to practice linking and observe thought groups.

Recent assignments with my private students reminded me how important it is to observe two guiding principles:

  1. A writing assignment must be meaningful.
  2. A writing assignment must be purposeful.

How are texts meaningful?
With one advanced student, I allow complete freedom in the weekly writing assignment. She writes about things that are meaningful to her, and this is the motivation to write — the subject matter provokes thought. While some students need suggestions for writing topic, others may enjoy exploring a range of ideas. This is exactly what this one student does from week to week. Her writings have included book reviews, reactions to articles, and summaries of her daily activities.

With other private students, business emails have been a part of our writing practice. They use real messages they sent or intend to send, or they write the kind of message that they need to send at work. This writing is meaningful in another way. It’s relevant to their daily work.

How are texts purposeful?
With all writing assignments, there must be a point to the exercise. Self-expression is always key, but more specific goals can be mastering text organization, establishing tone, avoiding a student’s common mistakes (e.g., with parallel structure or subject-verb agreement), and reducing wordiness.

Which topics are taboo?
With some of my adult learners, I find there’s very little that’s off-limits. In the past, I’ve discussed reasons why we might hesitate to address so-called taboo topics in the classroom, and I’ve even shared ways sensitive topics might be brought into a language activity (click to view). Writing assignments may not necessarily be shared with a group, so it’s all the more reason to allow a lot of freedom.

I think the choice is mainly about balancing interests and objectives. Back at TESOL 2013, I recall a group of Materials Writers sharing their criteria for topic selection. See post. Having a set of criteria or at least a guiding principle can help us recognize the value of a writing topic.

Here’s a case in point. The advanced student I mentioned earlier recently wrote about animal cruelty. If you’re curious to delve into some dark history, you can read online about the tragic fate of ‘Murderous Mary,’ an elephant. Her troubling tale is somewhat related to Topsy’s, another upsetting incident that my student mentioned. Both stories are documented, though the details vary from source to source. The point is that while I wouldn’t have chosen this topic myself, I’m fine with a student writing about it. The story is horrific and it provoked a strong reaction in my student. It was her choice. Writing to express our thoughts and feelings is a healthy outlet, and in the end her text was both meaningful and purposeful. I guided her through a couple revisions, and she later read the text aloud for me.

Have you ever had a student write about a difficult topic?

Photo credit: Woman, Thinking, Girl, Female, Person by ioana_radu. Retrieved from the Public Domain at

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