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
- proof-reading and editing
- giving feedback
- classroom routines
Attitudes to writing in the ‘communicative’ classroom
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
White, R. & Arndt, V. (1991) Process Writing. Longman
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Badger, R. & White, G. (2000). A process genre approach to teaching writing. ELT Journal, 54(2), 153-160.
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