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Teaching Students to Write Using The “5 Ws” Principle

Teach the 5W's to help expand the vocabulary of your students.

By 4 min read 14

In one of my recent posts, I discussed the importance of project work and how if taught creatively even something as seemingly non-communicative as writing can become an effective source for promoting English discussion amongst your Japanese junior high school students.

Following on from the ongoing success of our 3rd grade magazine project, my 2nd grade teachers asked if I could turn a similar magic wand to their students. The end of term writing test was fast approaching, and the students were far from ready.

As an ALT in Japan the majority of your classes will be focused on spoken English communication, it doesn’t hurt to mix things up a little once in a while. It’s also a good way to show your colleagues that, while you may not be a fully-certified teacher as they are you can be so much more than just a human tape recorder!

So, with this in mind, my task was clear, how could I take these students who seemed only capable of writing 20 to 30 words at a time, and turn them into students capable of writing the 100 word or so mini-essays required to score well on the mid-term test?

It’s actually a lot easier than you may think. I told them that what they were writing was not necessarily wrong, but rather that they could improve it by adding more detail.

A couple of weeks ago, my students had their annual school trip to Kyoto, as a precursor to their test, I asked them to write a short article telling me about their trip. Here is a sample of the somewhat “minimalist” responses I received:

We went to Kyoto,
I ate lunch.
I saw temples.
It was fun,

Brief to say the least. At only 15 words, this falls far below the requirement of a minimum of 50 words for their test. Time to roll out my secret weapon, the old journalistic armament of the “5 Ws”.

The 5 Ws are “Who, What, Where, When and Why”.

As a child I always dreamed of writing for a newspaper or magazine. Throughout it all, one particular quote stuck with me. “A good reporter doesn’t get great stories, a good reporter makes them great!” Bonus points for any of you who can remember which movie that quote comes from!

Taking this principle on board, I applied it to my students. I told them that each sentence they write needs to conform to the 5W principle. Of course this can be a bit tricky to explain in simple English, so it really helps to have a Japanese Teacher of English (JTE) who is on board and ready to help translate your explanation where necessary.

I took the example submission above and broke it down for the students, sentence by sentence. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, let’s look at the sentence: “I ate lunch.” I asked the students how we can make this sentence bigger.

“Ok,” I said. “When did you eat lunch?”
“At 12,” the student replied.
“OK, was it exactly 12 o’clock?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” the student replied.
“Ok,” I said, “so let’s add this to our sentence:”

At around twelve o’clock, I ate lunch.

Suddenly our 3 word sentence had more than doubled in size.

I repeated the pattern with “Where, Who, Why and What”. Finally our 3 word sentence had vastly expanded into its own short story:

At around twelve o’clock, my friends and I felt hungry, so we ate lunch in Maruyama Park. I ate 2 tuna onigiri, and they were delicious.

Our initial 3 word sentence had now become a whopping 27 words. I told the students that if they can just apply this same principle to 3 or 4 of their short sentences, they will easily exceed the minimum required word count for their mid-term test.

My JTE’s jaw hit the floor. She seemed genuinely in awe of something that seemed like second nature to me, as indeed it would to anyone with a basic understanding of journalistic theory.
And therein lies the beauty of the “5Ws” principle. It is as simple as it is effective, and best of all the students are only using words they already know. It’s about reorganizing and maximizing the effectiveness of the words they already know rather than wasting valuable time trying to assimilate complicated new vocabulary that they will most likely never remember come test time anyway.

As I write this, the students are currently in the classrooms upstairs taking their tests. Here’s hoping they will see the fruits of their labours.

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  • Maribeth Shannon says:

    Valuable info! How does one find the right homeschool writing class among the million choices available? It takes a lot of self – assessment, a little bit of soul searching and a great deal of research to determine the best one for you and your kids.

  • Larissa Bhöñam Polletté says:

    Really good. Applies for more than teaching English. Thanks for sharing it. (*^^*)

  • primalxconvoy says:

    Nice story. Have you considered elaborating into discourse analysis? Perhaps give the learners some concepts of the audience, the discourse topic and discourse type? Then you could inductively teach the use of discourse markers, etc to improve cohesion, while the topic and types might focus improvements on coherence?

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Thanks, its definitely an area I hope to expand into after summer vacation. For now though i think the most important thing is to get the kids comfortable with the fundamentals of sentence structure and get them writing confidently. Already they are beginning to surpass some of the third graders in this regard.

  • Elaine Mira says:

    Your 5Ws principle is brilliant!!:) It does not only apply to English sentence construction but to other languages as well.:) Very helpful:)

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Thanks Elaine, i actually made the same point to my JTEs and now the same principal is also being used in the students’ Japanese classes too.

  • jeri says:

    you should tell your students to eat proper lunch. 2 onigiri is not enough for a growing kid. 😀

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Fair point 🙂 though its probably better than the pizza and chips i used to eat every day at school 🙂

  • Emily_7 says:

    Also, I’m glad that the JTE gave you the freedom to expand like that. I hear stories about how it’s tough to implement new ways to engage students because of the JTE’s curriculum.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Im lucky that i work with some really good people who respect me as an educator despite my lack of formal qualifications.

    • primalxconvoy says:

      However hard it may be to empathise with the JTE’s, their need to get the learners to pass the exam is THE reason for the course.

      It’s a bit like being a health, nutrition and safety consultant at a McDonald’s training day, at a local branch. Your presence might be a legal requirement, but you’re only there to consult.

      • Liam Carrigan says:

        You make a valid point. I guess the reason this particular lesson works is because the immediate result, i.e. students writing longer sentences does have a direct and immediate impact on test scores. Unfortunately though until Japan loses its unhealthy obsession with test scores, things won’t improve

  • Emily_7 says:

    Thanks for the interesting article! I’m about to take my CELTA, but I till am grateful for tips from working ALTs.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Hi Emily. Thanks for your comment. I also did the Celta course back in 2006, it gave me a really good foundation before i went into the English classroom for the first time. Im sure you’ll really enjoy it. Good luck.



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