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ESL Life Sketch

The Benefits of Writing Your Life Story in a Second Language

Forward by David C. Brake

The Life Sketch
There are so many benefits to having English learners tell their own story in English. It can increase understanding and awareness by native English speakers when they hear about the events and struggles that the author may have gone through to get to where they are. It can touch other English learners who may identify with the story and inspire them to tell their own life stories. It can act as a motivating catalyst for the author's own personal growth and reflection, and it can serve as a recorded document to facilitate a connect between the author and his or her own family members and future generations.

The only problem is, writing an autobiography or a partial autobiography is a huge undertaking even in one's primary language, let alone a second language like English. Add to this the fact that the act of writing in English itself is intimidating for anyone who doesn't speak it as their first language, and it's no small wonder that most English learners who want to write about their life experiences in English never complete the work.

The Academic Environment

Academic environments are helpful, and in some instances essential, for feedback, improvement, and keeping an autobiographical project in a second language on task, but are they intimidating? One would think the chances of completing an autobiographical work might be greater in an academic setting where writing is the focus, but there is also more psychological friction in that environment, because students have to be concerned about grammar and the correct use of the language as much as the content. Let's not forget, the time commitment is also much higher for ESL academic students who want to be ambitious enough to write their life story in English, when they already have to spend so much more time navigating English to complete their other studies than native speaker students.

Using A Translator

Of course, an English learner could hire a translator, but that can be very costly. Even if a student of English could afford it, leaving the ability to interpret one's own life story to someone else while having your own limited editing ability requires a huge amount of trust. The benefits of writing a life story in one's own words would be gone, and the most personal project imaginable would then be taken out of the author's own hands. Is hiring a translator for an autobiography in a language that you are still learning a viable option? Perhaps, but not without great cost, risk and time commitment. These are not usually luxuries that most English learners have.

The Hidden Short-Term Benefit

Regardless, as it turns out, there is an additional benefit not previously mentioned for English learners to write their own stories in their new language that is often overlooked, yet possibly the most powerful of all. Believe it or not, one of the quickest and most helpful ways to improve an English learners' writing ability while conquering their fear of the language is to facilitate the autobiographical process. You can find out more about the validation of this statement here: Transforming ESL Writing Fear Through Autobiography.

This is in no small part because the English learner who is writing in their second language knows he or she is the only one who can write about the subject matter from their own perspective, and because the stories and experiences from the author's own life are something that he or she invariably cares about. The importance of the English learner's personal content and the way it is imparted then take over the student's concentration long enough to get to where the fear of writing in a second language becomes secondary. So how do we do this without it making the project seem overwhelming? By breaking it down into smaller exercises and more "digestible bites."

Getting Started is the Hardest Part

When concentrating on the techniques and exercises below, students are usually highly motivated when they see how quickly the autobiographical process leads to progress, improvement and step-by-step small project completion. As a result, most students not only improve their command of the English language, but are less likely to fear writing in English, more likely to share their life stories with others, and more likely to continue making writing in English a priority in their lives.

The Life Sketch

The Life Sketch

by James G. Owens

The autobiographical technique below that is recommend for both ESL teachers and students is called the Life Sketch. The Life Sketch is designed to quickly increase English language writing ability and vocabulary, while motivating students to express themselves in their new language by sharing their own real-life experiences and accounts.

The Life Sketch can be used as an academic ESL writing tool in the classroom or as a jump start for English learners who wish to complete their autobiographical stories in English but don't know where to start. When English learners are ready to start editing their autobiographical pieces from the Life Sketch or put them together into larger chronological chunks, consider using the Writing Sketch. Use the Life Sketch prep sheet to facilitate Life Sketch writing exercises for ESL students. Students can also gain valuable speaking and reading practice by voluntarily reading their pieces when it is appropriate to do so.

Life Sketch Prep Sheet

Directions: Write a brief autobiographical piece based on one or two topics described below.

Topic one - Recall and write about a real-life experience where you were hurt and/or others were hurt. Share thoughts, feelings, and what you learned from the experience.

Topic two - Reflect on your life and write about three or four subtopics noted below:

    Your beginnings - Give birthday and birthplace, and tell who named you and the meaning of your name. Also describe the person you most resemble or look like in your family.

    Your family - Describe briefly your mother, father, brother(s), sister(s) and/or extended family, and include why each person is important to you.

    Your education - Talk about why education is important to you, what schools you attended, what your major was if you went to college, what teachers were important to you and why, and what diplomas and/or degrees you earned.

    Your mentors - Talk about who helped you get to where you are today, and describe why they are important to you. This could include family members, your religious leaders, or public officials.

    Your dreams (goals) - Describe what you have accomplished, what you hope to accomplish, and why you want to achieve it.

    Your jobs - Write about the jobs you have had, why you worked in those positions, and what you gained from working there.

    Your friends - Describe two or more of your friends who have been a part of your life, how you met each person, and why each one is important to you.

Topic Three - Choose and write about someone you admire, and explain why that person inspires you. For example: an actor, a famous person, a writer, or a world leader.

Outcomes from Life Sketch Exercises

Students should be able to:

Write a brief autobiographical piece
Write about thoughts, feelings and what you learned from your experience
Write about an experience in which you or others were hurt
Write about an experience from which you learned a specific life lesson
Write specifically about a particular topic taken from your life experience
Write about your family and what they mean to you
Write about your education and what it means to you
Write about your mentors and what they mean to you
Write about your dreams (life goals) and what they mean to you
Write about your job (or jobs) and what it means to you
Write about your friends and what they mean to you
Write about someone you admire and why they inspire you
Write about a famous person (actor, actress, author, or world leader) and why they inspire you
Think about how brief autobiographical written pieces can fit together chronologically into a larger piece
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