How do our students feel about writing?: It has been said that fear of public speaking has been ranked higher than fear of death and that our loathing of cockroaches exceeds our aversion towards anything else, yet in my experience our students’ feelings towards Writing rival both the above in intensity! 🙂
Why do our students feel like that?: That’s an easy one – the answer is two-pronged: a) in most classroom tasks our students lack a reason to write. Yet the very same students who whinge about writing a paragraph will happily spend 3-4 hours a day chatting with their friends on Facebook! b) Very often our students do not know how to go about producing a long piece of writing. Their favourite approach is to sit down, look at the topic…and start writing. This of course means that they are trying to plan, order their ideas, put them on paper and edit their text – all at the same time! No wonder it seems like hard work!
A different approach: In this article I would like to propose a slightly different approach to teaching writing. Its key elements are two: a) We can start by giving our students a scaffolding – something on which to build. By this I mean a text written by another student. In this way they can see what is expected of them. b) Then we can get our students to improve this text bit-by-bit so that they do not feel overwhelmed. I will be demonstrating this approach by means of a specific example.
[NB: This article is based on a presentation of mine. To download the complete set of slides, just click here]
A typical writing task: This task is a real one, taken from a public exam (The Pearson PTE General – Level 3 [B2]): ‘A friend of yours is interested in following a Portfolio Career. Write an e-mail to him/her explaining the advantages and disadvantages of such a career and giving them your opinion’.
Here is a sample piece of writing by a (not so good) B2-level student:
Step 1 – Brainstorming: Before showing studentss the text above it is a good idea to get them thinking around the topic. A quick brainstorming session is enough. In this case it should be on the pluses and drawbacks of a Portfolio Career. Then you give the students a list of ideas (the 4 which are mentioned in the text, plus some extra ones) and you ask them to identify the former (this is in order to give them a focus to their reading). Students then read the text and they are ready for the next steps.
Step 2 – Analysis: Once they have looked at the ideas expressed in the text, it is time to look at the text itself from the Examiner’s point of view. This is a good opportunity for you to check that students know what is expected of them (e.g. in terms of length, relevance, format etc.) Then you give them the marks this particular piece of writing has received so they can see how accurate their assessment was. (NB: It is vital that you have chosen a less-than-perfect text so that it is easy for students to see in what ways it can be improved).
Step 3 – Coherence: You then focus on different aspects of the text. For instance, while this particular text is generally understandable, cohesion is not so good and this in turn affects coherence. So you point out to the students what the problems are and you get them to suggest improvements (e.g. repetition in line 2 / the word ‘but’ in § 5 / the lack of a connector like ‘All in all’ in § 7 etc.)
Step 4 – Topic Sentences: Although this text is an e-mail, it still makes sense for the students to clearly state the main point of each § in the first sentence. So you ask students to tell you what is wrong with the Topic Sentences here (e.g. the TS in § 3, 4 and 5 are unclear, while in § 5 the TS is actually the second sentence) and you get them to rewrite/improve them (e.g. in § 5 the TS could be ‘On the other hand, people with a portfolio career do not have regular work’).
Step 5 – Development: It is not enough to state an idea – one also needs to ‘flesh it out’. In § 6 for instance, there is no development whatsoever! So you get the students to write 2-3 sentences explaining/supporting this idea (e.g. ‘People in a regular job tend to have colleagues who may become friends. A portfolio career on the other hand often means working from home where you hardly meet anybody’). [NB: Q: What if your students cannot come up with any ideas? A: You give them the ideas yourself (in note form) so all your students need to do is expand them!]
Step 6 – Editing: Having produced a piece of writing, one needs to proofread it and correct any mistakes one may have inadvertently made. So you ask students to look at, say § 7 and try to rewrite it using correct language. (e.g. ‘I would advise you to look for a full-time job and forget about a portfolio career. Having a proper job means having more work’).
Step 7 – Rephrasing: Very often when trying to correct mistakes, students find that the text constrains them so that they make as few alterations as possible. In such cases it is important that we encourage them to completely change the original. A good case in point is § 4 which you could ask students to rephrase (e.g. ‘In addition, not having a regular job means you have more freedom. As you have no fixed schedule, you have the flexibility to plan your day any way you want’).
Step 8 – Language Enrichment: Being accurate is one thing – using advanced language is quite another. Our students’ default tendency is to ‘play it safe’ by using high frequency, simpler vocabulary and grammar, rather than take risks with less familiar structures/expressions. To counter this, we can ask them to ‘upgrade’ the language of a part of the text – say § 3. As they may not be able to come up with much, it makes sense for the teacher to give them some expressions in advance (e.g. ‘acquire knowledge’ / ‘gain experience’ / ‘steady job’ / ‘switch to another career’ / ‘alternative’ / ‘develop skills’ / ‘discover your strengths’ etc.) Students study these for 1-2 minutes and then they put them away and rewrite the § trying to incorporate some of the new language into the text.
Step 9 – The Beginning: Finally, it makes sense to use this text as an opportunity to raise students’ awareness of conventions relating to how we begin/end letters and e-mails. In this case, the beginning is a bit too blunt. The writer gets straight down to business without any reference to previous e-mails or to the sender. It would be far more appropriate to have a personal remark there or something about how difficult such life choices might be.
Step 10 – The Ending: The ending is similarly unsatisfactory. Once again we would expect some remark like ‘I hope I have been of some help’ or ‘Do let me know what you decide to do’. In both the last steps, the students are encouraged to think of issues of sociolinguistic appropriacy and to consider the recipient of the text.
A much improved version: If the class work on this text diligently, the final version can be a far cry from the original. Here is an example of what it might look like:
Why use this approach? In my opinion using this structured approach has a number of advantages: a) students start with a complete text so they do not feel the need to produce something from scratch; b) students know what they are supposed to be doing at each stage; c) students only produce 2-3 sentences at most each time so the task does not seem onerous; d) students get to hear alternative versions so they break free from the ‘single correct answer/way’ mentality; e) students implement essentially a process approach and they get practice in all the stages of writing; f) the teacher can use each stage as an opportunity to provide students with input about writing in general and the specific genre in particular.
A final tip: Methodological issues aside, you also need to take into account the age range and interests of your class before selecting a topic. Whatever you choose, unless you passionately hate your studentss don’t give them a text on Portfolio Careers! 🙂