How to Teach Autobiographies to ESL Students

Gary John Norman/Lifesize/Getty Images

Requiring your English as a Second Language students to write and present autobiographies can prove useful for teaching various grammatical concepts, as well as vocabulary. Having your students write about their interests, family, past and future plans can also produce topics to use for discussion and speaking practice. You can use autobiographies to practice general English language skills such as writing, vocabulary building and pronunciation, or to teach specific grammar points. Teach this over the course of a few lessons, introducing or reviewing one concept a day, and have the lesson end with students writing short autobiographies.

Introduce the grammatical concepts needed to write an autobiography. Students will be expected to cover their past and present as well as their future plans, so make sure you have introduced or reviewed the simple past, simple present, present progressive and simple future tenses. You can also add sequential phrases such as "then," "after that," "next" and "finally." With upper-intermediate and advanced classes, you can also ask them to use more sophisticated grammatical concepts such as conditionals and conjunctions. For example, you might expect a higher-level student to write something like "I am taking English right now because I would like to work in an international company. If I pass a proficiency test, I will be qualified for the job I want."

Provide lower-level students with some examples of autobiographies to read as homework or together as a class. This will give them an idea of what you are expecting from them and a template for using correct grammar, tenses and spelling. For more advanced classes, only provide a prompt for what to include in an autobiography. Give them a few questions whose answers will make up the autobiography. Make a list of questions on the board or give the list as handouts in class. Include questions like, "Where were you born?" "How many brothers and sisters do you have?" "Where did you grow up?" "What is your current job?" "Why are you studying English?" and "What do you want to do in the future?" Assign the autobiographies for homework.

Require your students to present their work to the class. You can do this in several ways. Each individual student can present his own autobiography to the class; your students can then use the new information they have learned about one another to start a group discussion and practice their spoken English. To add an extra element of fun and mystery to the exercise, you can collect the homework and type up the autobiographies yourself, omitting the names from the papers. Pass them out randomly to the class and have each student present an anonymous autobiography to the class. The rest of the class can then guess who wrote it.