Category Archives: Exams & Critical Thinking

Empowering your students: Managing exam stress

By Fiona Deane

athlete pose 2Exams make many of us feel stressed.  For some students, stress helps them to achieve a higher mark.  For others, it turns into “distress” (Stanton, 1983) and  this negative stress on their mind (and body) can have an adverse effect on their exam performance, and equally importantly on their day to day life. Unfortunately, some teachers may not be given much training or guidance on how to support students whose stress has got out of control.

This post will:

1) Explain why your students might be experiencing exam stress

3) Discuss academic theory on the relationship between cognition and affect

3) Offer six different activities to help your students get to grips with their nerves

Young people and stress

In 2009,  the Guardian released alarming statistics from the Prince´s Trust regarding the wellbeing of young people in the UK.  Inargh! this report polled by the charity for its Youth Index Study, it reported that “more than a quarter (27%) said they were always or often down or depressed. Almost half of all those surveyed (47%) said they were regularly stressed.”  This is clearly not only a British phenomenon.  In the context of my sector, teaching English as a foreign language, I have witnessed young people experiencing stress as they grapple with living away from home, with managing their money, with establishing and developing new relationships and, in the context of this post, with preparing for international English exams such as CAE, TOEFL, IELTS or TOIEC.

Why do EFL students suffer from exam stress?

  • Economic reality

inflationWith the backdrop of the recession looming large and the workplace becoming more and more competitive, young people are bent on acquiring as many qualifications as possible.  Having one degree may no longer be enough.  This “qualification inflation” or “academic inflation” puts pressure on non-native English speaking students not only to improve their chosen career qualifications but also to gain a high level qualification in English, such as IELTS 6.5 or above or CAE.

  • Expectations

Students may be coming from a family or culture where there are high expectations of young people.   I have witnessed this in students coming from Asian cultures.  Specifically looking at Korea, Daniel Tudor (2012) says that “Confucianism´s power can be felt in the realm of the national obsession, education.   South Korea is famous of its unhealthy preoccupation with exam results and the pursuit of admission to the best universities.  This is a legacy of Confucianism´s injunction to self-improvement through education…”.  He also adds that “every year there are suicides of third-year high school students at the time of …the university entrance exam”. (For more articles on this, see The Guardian Weekly and BBC articles).

  • Lack of life experience 

Just this week, I carried out tutorials with my CAE preparation group.  A conversation with one of the group, a Swiss 19 year old past and futureyoung woman, has stayed with me.  As we reflected on what she was doing differently that had lead to improved results, she interestingly commented that she felt that she was learning how to deal with stress better.   She openly admitted that her high school exams hadn´t been difficult.  Now, she was required to pass CAE in a short time frame in order to be accepted onto a Primary Teacher Training programme.  This was her first experience of dealing with heightened exam pressure.  At the start of the course, she simply had not had the life skills to know how to deal with this.

  • Unhealthy study-life balance

overwhelmedIf they come from highly competitive societies, our students may have developed unbalanced study-life behavior patterns.  Returning to the example of Korea, Daniel Tudor (2012) suggests that childhood in Korea is sacrificed in order to gain the necessary marks that they need.  “Children enjoy relatively few opportunities to play and socialize with their peers.  According to research undertaken by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, Korean children are among the worst in the world at social interaction  (thirty-fifth out of thirty-six countries surveyed).  In school, children are constantly tested and ranked, rather than taught to work with one another.  After the final bell, most are sent to hakwons (private language schools) …When school vacations come, children are not free to relax but instead spend more time in hakwons.”

Academic theory and stress: The Affective Filter

Affective filterFollowing the ideas of Stephen Krashen (1982), the Affective Filter Hypothesis describes how affective (emotional) factors have an effect on learning a second language (as can be seen in the diagram on the left).  Arnold (2009) tells us that “an affectively positive environment puts the brain in the optimal state for learning:  minimal stress and maximum engagement with the material to be learned.”  Thus, there would seem to be a strong relationship between cognition and “affect”.  Neuro-scientist  Joseph LeDoux (1996) claims that “minds without emotions are not really minds at all”.  Indeed, as NLP guru Anthony Robbins believes “80% of success in life is psychology, 20% is mechanics”.

 

Activities to help students deal better with their stress

oprah and mick

So what can we as teachers do to help our students with stress?  Here are six activities.   They are activities which focus on students developing their own self-reflection and meta-cognition (see my earlier post about this – Empowering your students:  what makes me an effective learner?)

 

  • Speaking activity:  Are you a good friend?

adviceAt the beginning of the course, students are asked to discuss what makes a good friend.  In a brainstorm on the board, the teacher elicits “giving good advice” or “being a good listener”.  You then tell students that a friend of theirs is excited but worried about moving to another country to go on a language course .  The class brainstorms what the student might be worried about and come up with solutions and practical suggestions to ensure the student enjoys their language study programme to the max (inspired from the student book of Ready for CAE (2008, Macmillan Exams)  by Roy Norris and Amanda French

This activity covertly encourages your students to make predictions about a stressful experience and to come up with solutions for an unknown other (which may be more comfortable than finding solutions for themselves).  It is a great window for you to see whether they can relate to such stress before and what solutions (or not) they already may have in place for themselves.

  • Self-reflection and prediction:  How do you predict you will perform in the exam?  

This is a more inductive approach carried out just before the mid term mock exam.  Students are asked first of all to reflect on their own experience of exam stress in their own countries.  Here, pressures of their education culture may rise to the surface.  Then they are asked to discuss  whether they think their performance in an upcoming mock exam may be affected by nerves (positively or negatively).  Students share what possible solutions they know of to reduce stress on their mock exam day.   Previous students have come up with ideas such as Steiner exercises, breathing exercises and yoga (I will share more of these ideas in a future post.)   Once the students have taken their exam and have their results, I then ask them to recall this discussion and to see if their predictions were right.  If they were different, they are asked to say why they are different.

  • Understanding the chemistry and biology of stress:  “Amy Cuddy´s power poses” 

I often use TED Talks with my EFL learners to improve their listening skills, to widen their vocabulary and to develop their summary abilities.   So at a significant point in the term, I ask students for homework to watch Amy Cuddy´s talk “Your body language shapes who you are” which explains how stress can manifest itself in the body and how we can reverse the effects of stress.   As part of the homework, the students are asked to take notes, be ready to give a summary of the talk (using some of the vocabulary chunks that Amy uses) and be ready to discuss their views.  This is an excellent presentation, made powerful by the images, scientific fact and the personalized story telling technique so common to many TED talks.  Because the topic is relevant to the speaker herself, it is easy for the students (particularly the girls) to identify with her.  So far, all my students have taken an interest in Amy´s ideas.  We then tried out Amy´s power poses before the next exams.  Each time my students have done this, there have been astoundingly improved results (about 10 – 15% higher marks).

  • Deep listening in one to one tutorials

Giving our students the opportunity to voice how they are feeling is crucial when dealing with stress.  Tutorials can arise spontaneously, when you recognize that a student would benefit from emergency remedial action, or on a systematic basis throughout the course.  Understanding why they may be experiencing stress (which could include some of the reasons given above) is important and this will most probably emerge through “deep listening” (Arnold, 2009); that is, focused listening in a non-judgmental and objective manner.   Being sympathetic to their story will validate their emotions (instead of causing them to hide them through shame).  It is also worth considering whether you feel the student may benefit from your school´s in-house counseling system, should the stress seem to be out of hand.

  • Students share reflections about their stress management to the whole group

In my last round of tutorials, students came up with some really excellent reflections on reasons for their progression, which were related to their own stress management.  I took noteclass discussion of the most useful points and then (with their permission) asked some of the students to share their reflections with the whole group.  For example, one student reported how they chose to walk into school the day of the exam, revising points quietly in their head as they walked (as opposed to coming in on the bus, surrounded by chatter in rush hour).  Another said how they found studying together made them feel less isolated.  This discussion involved very fruitful student collaboration benefitting both the “sharer” and the students who took on their ideas.

  • The last day before the exam: Student created games

20131129_123739It´s always tricky to know what to do the day before an exam.  Exam practice can be inadvisable since low marks can frighten students.  On my previous exam course, students requested that we left the classroom space to be in a more relaxed atmosphere.  We decided to go to a café.  In this group, two Korean students were particularly anxious about the exam the next day.  I took coloured paper to the café and asked the Koreans to teach the other (non-Asian) students to make some origami objects.  All the students became completely enthralled and lost in this activity.  It was a great distraction for both the student “teachers” and for those students learning the art of origami for the first time.

 

Do write to me and share any experiences and successes you have with stressed students.  The life skill of dealing with stress is such an important one in modern life.  As one of current exam students said to me recently:  “I have learnt so much more than just language on this course”.

Fiona

References & Recommended Reading

Arnold J Affect in L2 Learning and Teaching (2009) Estudios de Linguistica inglesa aplicada

Arnold J Coaching Skills for Leaders in the Workplace (2009) Howtobooks

Brown B The Power of Vulnerability (2010) TED Talks

Gregoire C American Teens are even more stressed than Adults (2014) The Huffington Post

Chakrabarti R South Korea´s schools: long days, high results (2013) BBC News

Cuddy A Your body language shapes who you are (2012) TED Talks

Harmer J The Practice of English Language Teaching (2001) Pearson Education Ltd

Kim K et al Students´stress in China, Japan and Korea: a transcultural study ( 1997) International Journal of Social Psychiatry

Krashen S Principles & Practice in Second Language Aquisition (1982) University of Southern California

LeDoux J The Emotional Brain (1996) Simon & Schuster

Lightbown P. & Spada N How Languages are learned  (2006) Oxford

Norris R with French A Ready for CAE (2008) Macmillan Exams

O´Hara M Depression amount the young at alarming level says charity (2009) The Guardian

Oxford R Language Learning Strategies: An Update (1994) http://www.cal.org/resources/digest/oxford01.html

Pert C Molecules of Emotion (1997) Simon & Schuster

Petty G Teaching Today A Practical Guide (1998) Nelson Thornes

Scharle A & Szabó A Learner Autonomy, A guide to developing learner responsibility (2000) Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers

Senior R Korean students silenced by exams (2009) The Guardian Weekly

Stanton H E The Stress Factor: A Guide to More Relaxed Living (1983) Optima

Tudor D Korea The Impossible Country (2012) Tuttle Publishing

Student-made IELTS quiz

By Emma Claydon

Have you tried student-made quizzes only to realise that student’s aren’t that great at writing questions?  Have they turned out to be more trouble than they are worth? Well, that’s probably because they need  some training and the general content needs to be chosen by you.

puzzled man test

 

When learners are trained, student-made quizzes can help to:

  • foster a more enjoyable way of learning
  • practise all 4 skills
  • reduce anxiety towards test taking
  • give students more power over their learning

So here’s a lesson idea that I’ve used many times with my IELTS class and has really helped them to get to grips with the reading exam.

Lesson idea:  

Helping students prepare for the IELTS reading exam

Procedure:

Max class of 15 with 5 groups of 3 (Min class of 6 with 3 pairs, only 3 articles needed)

Lesson Aims: 

  • to practise reading strategies (making predictions, skimming and reading for detail)
  • to review the features of true, false, not given questions
  • to practise rephrasing parts of a text

Authentic Materials

Often when we’ve done tests or reading passages in class, I ask them where they would find articles like these and elicit publications such as The New Scientist, The Ecologist, The Economist and National Geographic or papers such as The Guardian.  For lower levels you could also use graded readers.

guardian article 1

Preparation

I select 5 different texts between 700 and 950 words each to reflect the length of the exam texts from one of the above publications.  Each group will create questions for one article only so I print them a copy.  Then for each group I create a pack containing all the articles as they will need this is the second part of the lesson.

Step 1:  Review the exam format and question types

I start by eliciting what they know about the reading exam:

  • How many questions are there? (40)
  • How much time do you have? (60 minutes)
  • How many passages are there? (3)
  • How long is each passage? (700 – 950 words)
  • How many different question types are there? (14)
  • Can you name them?  (e.g. labeling a diagram, short answer questions, summary completion, sentence completion, true / false, yes / no etc.)

Then I ask which question types they have difficulty with and they usually say true/false and yes/no and summary completion.  I then elicit the difference between the two question types (yes / no questions are about the writer’s opinion whereas true/false are about facts in the text).  They also find three aspects challenging:

  • distinguishing between false and not given,
  • understanding the vocabulary in the question or the text
  • paraphrasing the question
  • employing reading strategies (predicating, skimming, scanning and reading for detail)

Then I refer back to the reading passage we recently did and elicit the strategy for true, false and not given:

  • The questions are in order in the text
  • You can make a false question true by making it negative
  • Not given means there is not enough information in the text to say with confidence if the answer is true or false.

 

true false ng qs

Step 2:  Practise reading strategies:  predicting and skimming

Each group then receives their own article. They read the title and make predictions about the content.  Then they skim by reading the first paragraph and the first sentence of the subsequent paragraphs.  They check their predictions and discuss what they understand about the overall topic of the text. Source:  Focus on IELTS

Step 3:  Reading for detail and selecting the areas to test

Then they read carefully and choose which areas of the text to test.  Once they have gone through the text and identified the areas then they have to write 4 or 5 questions (in text order) and on a separate piece of paper they record their answers with justifications.  They must do this together and not divide up the tasks.

Step 4:  Writing the questions

During this stage I ask if it’s ok to put some music on low so that they can discuss their questions at a normal level without whispering or getting distracted by others.  They all agree and I usually put on something relaxing.

They look back at the questions from the course book to see how they are written (as statements, using modals etc.).  They use dictionaries and discuss how to use parallel expressions, this is the most challenging part and I’ll go around monitoring and scaffolding where necessary.

Also I will discuss their questions with them, asking them to justify their answers but I try and not to help them too much.  Even if I see that they have created a false question when in fact it’s a not given, I’ll wait to see if the other students will figure this out which will lead to discussions at the feedback stage.  I try to focus on clarity and point out if the questions are too easy.

Once they have written their questions, I take pictures to display them on the IWB.  For classrooms without IWBs students can take pictures of the questions as they circulate as they will need them in the feedback stage.  Alternatively they could be photocopied.

Step 5:  Passing the questions round

Students are now ready to answer each other’s questions.  They receive a full set of the articles so that they can annotate each one as required.  Each group needs a third piece of paper where they will write the title of the article they are working on and their answers with their justification.  They need to discuss the questions and try to reach an agreement as a group.

feedback student made quiz board shot

Step 6:  Feedback on answers

Once they have passed around all the sets of questions, each group takes it in turn to come to the front and elicit the answers and checking where in the text they found their answers.   Students then discuss their answers and it can get quite heated.  Sometimes the authors got the answers wrong and their classmates got it right, but this is helpful and usually clarifies the difference between false and not given.

To round off we discuss what was difficult about the task:

  • writing good questions
  • limited by lack of vocabulary
  • ability to paraphrase
  • being caught out and really testing the difference between false / not given

Subsequent testing has shown improved results in students reading for detail and not just guessing the answers.  The actual score are not important instead the facilitation of student quizzes gets them to practise their skills in L2, develops /and consolidates lessons, encourages learner autonomy and makes lessons less teacher-centred.

Variations:

  • Different question types e.g. short answer, sentence completion, multiple-choice
  • Here are the answers, what are the questions (looking back over the week to recycle lexical items or grammar points)
  • Creating gapped sentences for each other

 

Recommended Reading

Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers

Teaching Large Multilevel Classes by Natalie Hess

Learner Autonomy: A Guide to Developing Learner Responsibility by Agota Scharle and Anita Szabo

 

 

 

Empowering your students: What makes me an effective learner?

By Fiona Deane

frustration“I don’t get it!”.  “That´s stupid!”  “That´s impossible!”  These  student utterances may resonate with you and perhaps hound or hinder you in the classroom.  The age of screenagers, google and instant gratification can lead to impatience, exasperated sighs and a holding of the teacher as responsible for classroom success or failure.   Many students are not yet aware that they themselves magically hold the key to better learning and understanding.

 

As the first of a series of posts focusing on empowering our students, this post will:

  • explain students´ lack of faith in themselves
  • discuss theories to resolve this
  • give an activity to start empowering our learners to trust and develop themselves

Passivity

Harmer (2001) tells us “passivity… is the enemy of true learning”.  The role of instant media plays its part in this passivity. Manyiphone_addiction students come to the classroom with a developed reliance on others or a search engine to give them quick answers.  Problem-solving, critical thinking, brainstorming, deep reading can therefore be met with a rolling of eyes or infuriation since demands are made on the brain beyond lower-order thinking such as “copy” and “paste”, or “play”.

Scrivener (2012) argues that a certain type of passivity may be developed at home.  Some teenagers may have experienced an education culture where obedience to authority is valued above thinking for yourself.  In his book “Korea The Impossible Country”, Daniel Tudor writes that Confuciansim has created a culture where between “older and younger….the superior partner should act with a duty of responsibility and benevolence to the lower, who should respond in return with loyalty and obedience.”  This older/younger relationship is easily transferred to the teacher/student relationship.

Lack of self-awareness

who am iMany learners come to the classroom “not… aware of their individual cognitive or perceptual learning styles” (Lightbown & Spada, 2006).  Indeed, they may not even be aware that such concepts as learning styles or multiple intelligences exist.   Answering questions such as: “Am I open-minded to different points of view?”, “Am I a visual or kinesthetic learner?”, “Do I like solving puzzles?”, “Does stress affect my performance?”, “Can I think on my feet?”  are crucial to establishing and prioritizing individual learner needs.

Meta-cognition & Reflection

rockwell_mirrorAccording to Geoff Petty (1998), “reflection involves a systematic and objective evaluation of the student´s concrete experience”.    Encouraging students to consider who they are as people and share this with their classmates is arguably the first piece of the learning puzzle.  The cornerstone is their reflection on their innate strengths and weaknesses, which can then be followed up regularly with reflection on their progress on these points.

Taking responsibility

Petty (1998) suggests that reflection “may be largely undertaken by… the teacher at first, but the long-term aim should be to get the students to carry out the process by themselves”.  Scharle and Szabó (2000) believe that responsible learners are “learners who accept the idea that their own efforts are crucial to progress in learning, and behave accordingly”.   They go on to say that learners “need to realize and accept that success in learning depends as much on the student as on the teacher”.  By asking your students to question their learning habits and identity, you are effectively turning them into responsible learners without them realizing.

make hole in wall-breakthroughThe gateway to empowerment & self-belief

Crucially, we as teachers need to disengage from our “leader” role and encourage our students to get to know themselves, look at themselves in the mirror and know their strengths and weaknesses.   At this moment,  the student may first experience positive feelings of empowerment and trust and begin to understand that they hold the key to their learning.

 

questionimgClass activity: What skills and personal qualities make me an effective learner?

Class type:  ELT Exam or General English groups at Intermediate to Advanced levels.

1) Learners are asked to discuss in pairs the question:  “What skills and personal qualities do I need to be an effective language learner?”

2) After about ten to fifteen minutes of discussion, we share our ideas together on the board.  It is always the students themselves (with little if any prompting from myself) who come up with such fantastic answers as these:

  • imaginative
  • open-minded
  • finding fun in the learning process
  • thinking outside the box
  • believing in myself
  • patient
  • outgoing
  • not afraid to get things wrong
  • hard-working/diligent
  • able to identify what I need to improve
  • reading frequently in English”

3) The students are asked to reflect in pairs on which of these attributes they already possess and which they might perhaps need to work on.

4) This is then fedback to the class as a whole to ensure that learners understand that all students have strengths and weaknesses and that these will be different for each of them.

what makes a good language learner5) Creators of their own advice:  I take a picture of the ideas brainstormed on the whiteboard, print it out and put it on the pin-board in the classroom.  Conveniently, as the course progresses these student created ideas can be referred to at times of struggle to encourage them on their journey.  For example, if a student may resist trying out a new technique or activiity, I refer them back to the ideas that they came up with and ask them if open-minded was a good quality that was mentioned in order to be an effective learner.

I have found this an invaluable activity on all the Cambridge CAE exam classes that I have taught. It lays the foundations for further reflections that take place throughout the course.   Try it out and let me know how it goes!

Fiona

References & Recommended Reading

Harmer J The Practice of English Language Teaching (2001) Pearson Education Ltd

Lightbown P. & Spada N How Languages are learned  (2006) Oxford

Oxford R Language Learning Strategies: An Update (1994) http://www.cal.org/resources/digest/oxford01.html

Petty G Teaching Today A Practical Guide (1998) Nelson Thornes

Pulverness, A. Just how low can you go? IATEFL Learner Independence PL Newsletter (2000) IATEFL

Scharle A & Szabó A Learner Autonomy, A guide to developing learner responsibility (2000) Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers

Scrivener J Classroom Management Techniques (2012) Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers

Tudor D Korea The Impossible Country (2012) Tuttle Publishing

Process Approach to Writing IELTS Task 2 Essays

By Emma Claydon

This post is about improving your students’ writing by considering:

  • attitudes to writing in class
  • two approaches – Process vs. Product
  • the concept of audience
  • collaborative writing
  • structuring
  • proof-reading and editing
  • giving feedback
  • classroom routines

Attitudes to writing in the ‘communicative’ classroom

too-much-100176105

Is writing often neglected in the EFL classroom?  Perhaps some teachers don’t consider it to be a ‘communicative’ activity or a priority for their students, while others don’t enjoy teaching or marking it.

Having asked my colleagues about their attitudes towards teaching writing, it is clearly a priority for exam classes but not so in General English, as some feel it takes up too much class time so it can be set for homework.  Consequently, they don’t see much of an improvement and it’s demotivating for everyone involved.

When students move into exam classes you may notice that their writing needs considerable work.  I’ve always seen it as an important skill to work on, not only because it is used for assessment and consolidation purposes, but  also involves different kinds of mental processes.  So, I embrace writing and make sure that my students get the chance to do lots of it.

Students are required to think about a question and then they need time to formulate a response.  However, I do not see it as a solitary activity just to get some peace and quiet in class.  Indeed, it can be used to change the pace of a class, but for it to be effective it needs to be collaborative, creative and broken down into manageable stages.

My beliefs probably come from my own difficulties in writing.  It can be a daunting task and I prefer to break the task down into pieces.  In a three hour lesson devoted to writing, only half an hour is taken up with students actually writing in a solitary fashion or in pairs.  The rest is used to prepare and review the writing which is usually conducted through speaking and reading activities with a variety of interaction.

Approaches:  Product vs. Process

Until I started reading about teaching writing, I was unaware that I had been using a mix of both approaches.  The ‘process approach’ considers writing to be a creative process which requires time and positive feedback at various stages and ultimately ends up with improved writing skills.  Whereas the traditional ‘product approach’ analyses model texts and sees writing as a solitary act.  For a comparison of the two approaches you can read more here: http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/product-process-writing-a-comparison

process-definition-magnifier-10088259

Writing for IELTS:  Essays

In the IELTS exam students have to produce two pieces of writing totalling 400 words on their own in sixty minutes.  For part 2 they have to write a 250 word essay in under 40 minutes.

The process of analysing the question, brainstorming ideas, planning paragraphs and putting them together logically is something that students can train together so that they have the skills to go into the exam and perform on their own.  But they need to be explicitly aware of this so that you can get them on board.

To ensure my IELTS students become better writers I actively help and encourage them through a series of prepared stages before I can expect them to produce a final text.

When they are more aware of this preparation process they become more autonomous and create good habits which hopefully they will use in the exam.   The majority of my students are going onto university where they will need to develop an academic style of writing but essentially they are expected to convey ideas clearly.

Pre-writing and Audience

blank-input-diagram-shows-schematic-plan-inflow-chart-100213431

Not only do students struggle with writing in English because of their language skills, it is often a problem that they lack the ideas and content, so we see brainstorming and planning as essential part of the writing process.

We facilitate the generation of ideas through discussion or we use an interesting article related to the essay question as a starting point to get them thinking about the topic or question, but do we all introduce the concept of audience?

With a genre approach for FCE or CAE, this fits naturally into the writing process as, for example, you need to know  to whom you are writing the letter and why.  In IELTS task two students know they are writing for the examiner and they understand the assessment criteria but a sense of audience can be developed further by writing for each other or a student blog.

Writing Collaboratively

I have used group compositions with some success, but as students know they won’t have people to ‘help’ them in the exam they can at first be reluctant to do this.  I have approached group compositions another way where students write two main body paragraphs and then swap so that they have to focus on meaning by reading and understanding someone else’s writing and then write their introduction and conclusion to see if they have understood the opinions and the flow of their partner’s writing.  They then sit together and discuss what was clear or confusing about each other’s writing.  Then they rewrite their main body and write their own introduction and conclusion.

Structuring

Once they have produced a paragraph plan the students write their essay.  I set a time limit of 30 minutes, which is the time they have in the exam after they have analysed the question and spent time planning.  My rationale for this is that I want them to finish a piece of writing in class and to get used to writing under pressure.

colorful-paper-notes-on-wood-texture-100176338

As we’ve done so much ground work in preparing to write they cope reasonably well and I have seen my students produce more words and a better quality of writing within that time frame over a few months.  However, to add variation to my writing lesson, I get students to write out ideas with supporting evidence and examples on pieces of paper or large post-it notes and work out an order rather than committing their ideas to A4 paper which can still be limiting at this stage.

Proof-reading and Editing

Having finished their first draft, they proof-read it and look for their typical mistakes.   I often organise peer reviews, but they aren’t always effective because some students feel unable to find any errors in a classmate’s work or are unwilling to give feedback through lack of training and confidence, so again this takes time and training for students to be able to do this well.  Others embrace it and enjoy reading their peers’ work.  I find it most effective when they work in pairs looking at one piece of writing at a time. I encourage them to use a pencil and first we focus on meaning buy putting prompts on the board e.g.

  • Is there a clear main idea in each paragraph?
  • What is the supporting information?
  • Have they included examples?
  • Are the examples clear?
  • What is the writer’s opinion?
  • Is it well structured and easy to follow?

They write some comments at the bottom giving the writer some advice. Then they read it a second time and focus on the language and I put the correction code on the board.  After peer-correction, the students then rewrite their essay on the IELTS exam paper and hand it in.

Giving Feedback

Giving feedback is an essential part of writing and many of us use correction codes to encourage students to notice their problem areas, fix them and perhaps log them in a learner diary so they build up a log of their typical mistakes.

It is important to work on the grammar and vocabulary that distort meaning, but in IELTS students can gain so many marks for answering the question in a well organised and coherent way that this is an area that needs so much more attention.  White and Arntd (1991) state that writing will improve by focusing on the message the students are trying to convey instead of concentrating on the language errors.

If I find it very difficult to follow a student’s essay, I feel the correction code is somewhat redundant; instead I respond with a brief letter asking for clarification of their points and requesting a rewrite. I don’t give any feedback about language at this point and usually the rewrite is clearer so I can then give feedback on the language too.  I also find it helpful to reformulate sections of their writing to make it clearer for them.

Classroom Routines

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I do fortnightly writing workshops like this which follow on from the biweekly mock test.  Under exam conditions I use the IELTS assessment criteria; giving them marks for Task Response, Coherence and Cohesion, Lexical Resource and Grammar.  The following week after the workshop and I mark the rewrite using the 4 criteria above so we will all see which areas have benefited from the rewrite and help students see the value in the workshops.

I find it helpful to integrate the product approach into writing lessons where we analyse other students work or model answers, but prefer to do this after they have written their own response to the task.  I make it clear that it is just one way to answer the question.  We use it to see what makes it a good answer, why it is easy to follow and we examine the kinds of cohesive devices used. Together we use the assessment criteria and grade it together.  This helps the students to think like the examiner.

By setting up writing workshops and training students to use a process approach, they are more capable of expressing their ideas in writing and I have become more of a reader and less of a marker so that the critical stage of focusing on the message is not lost.

References

White, R. & Arndt, V.  (1991) Process Writing. Longman

Vanessa Steele. (2004). Product and process writing: A comparison. Available: http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/product-process-writing-a-comparison. Last accessed 23rd May 2014.

Recommended Reading:

Badger, R. & White, G.  (2000).  A process genre approach to teaching writing.  ELT Journal, 54(2), 153-160.

Burgess, S. & Head, K.  (2005).  How to Teach for Exams. Harlow:  Pearson Education Ltd.

Hedge, T.  (2005).  Writing (2nd ed.).  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

Hess, N.  (2001) Teaching Large Multi-level Classes. Cambridge CUP.

Nunan, D.  (1995)  Language Teaching Methodology.  Phoenix

Rao, Z.  (2007) Training in brainstorming and writing skills.  ELT Journal 61 (2): 100-106

Scharle, A. & Szabo, A .  (2000) Learner Autonomy : A guide to developing learner responsibility.  Cambridge CUP.

Scrivener, J.  (2005) Learning Teaching.  Oxford: MacMillan Heinemann.

Ur, P.  (1996) A Course in Language Teaching.  Cambridge CUP.