Some thoughts on Writing
It seems to me that writing is still a much-ignored language skill, too often relegated to a homework task and addressed merely because it needs to be done in exams. Not enough attention is given to the process of developing writing skills in the classroom. So, in this post, I’d like to explore some key aspects of why we write and attempt to convince my dear reader to rethink the role of writing in their classroom.
To begin with let’s consider this question – Why should our students write?
1. To help students learn the system of language
As we need to slow down to produce words on the page, we can think more about the choice of words (vocabulary), their order (syntax) and how they interrelate (grammar). Once we have focused on a particular language item, doing some writing that requires assimilating it into a text, helps students to be conscious of the meaning and form.
2. To focus on accuracy
As we are able to slow down and edit what we write (compared with the spontaneous production of spoken language) we do have the opportunity to reflect on mistakes, check our grammar and spelling and produce more accurate language.
3. To consolidate learning
For many of us (I am one definitely) writing things down helps cement words and ideas into our working memory. Interestingly, research shows that handwriting is a more effective tool than typing here. The more different ways we practice language items, the better we will remember them.
4. To enable students to explore and reflect on language in a conscious way
While a certain amount of our learning is through acquisition – language becomes embedded naturally through contextualized use, there is a need to think about and notice how language actually works – how the constituent parts fit together. We also have a text in front of us which we can return to and edit and improve.
5. To have evidence of students’ progress / proficiency
And once students have produced a good piece of writing, they can pat themselves on the back as they read it again and see the teacher’s positive comments. Not only students benefit from having these tangible examples of what they are able to produce (it is so important for them to see how well their language is developing), it is crucial for teachers to see this as well as show parents and other stakeholders.
6. To allow quieter students to show their strengths
Did you know that on average teachers wait 2 seconds for an answer after asking a student a question before moving on to another? As not all students have the chance to speak out in class (or the requisite speed) or have confidence in their English, writing gives them time and sometimes the required quiet space to showcase what they have learnt – as well as their ideas and creative ability (more on that later). We need to be aware of all our students’ capabilities not just the assertive ones’.
7. It’s a good peer-teaching opportunity
I cannot stress enough how important it is for students to engage in collaborative writing tasks where they can share ideas and talk about language (e.g. ‘Is this the right word/tense? How can we make this sound better?) and help each other. I refer you to Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development here. We can always do better and learn from this type of collaborative work when we have support and encouragement. A teacher can be co-collaborator in that process, too.
In this way, the writing process becomes less daunting, more enjoyable and students’ confidence grows.
8. To contribute to intellectual development
‘Who do you admire most?’, we may ask students in a writing task. It’s not enough to have grammar, vocabulary and punctuation, writing requires thought, ideas and the ability to manipulate language to get things done. To persuade, to explain, to surprise etc.
In the worst case scenario, students rely on model answers, but this means they are missing out on firing up the synapses in their brain, using world knowledge, activating schemata and asking themselves questions – What do I actually think about this topic? If they are doing this, they are engaged and motivated. And we are allowing them to develop as people.
9. For variety
A writing activity can take just 5-10 minutes in class and can really help to change focus, calm students down and either consolidate what came before or prepare for the next stage of the lesson. And it can inject some much-needed fun into the class!
10. To prepare for exams
Finally, and last but not least. Of course, writing is a major element in exams. And that’s a good reason to think about it more and plan meaningful and effective tasks.
Why encourage creativity?
Because all language use is creative…
Language is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation.
The classroom easily becomes the place where students think there is a ‘right’ answer that the teacher is looking for and nothing else will do. (I wonder where they get that idea??) They often don’t dare be creative. I have had students look at me with shock and horror when I suggest they don’t have to tell the truth in a speaking or writing exam.
The more creative students can be when writing, the more thought will go into what they write and therefore the more meaningful (and memorable) it will be. We must stress to them that writing something personalized and even, fun, is GREAT! What they need is the opportunity to use and show off as much of the language they have learnt as possible.
I like this Edward de Bono quote:
Rightness is what matters in vertical thinking.
Richness is what matters in lateral thinking.
as it really links with what students need in order to do well in their writing exams. They must try to be accurate but also show off the language they have learnt!!
Here are a few ideas to promote creativity in class.
1. Brainstorming writing questions
Before students write, allow them to make as many suggestions as possible about ideas, topics, vocabulary etc that that might incorporate to answer a writing question. Encourage them to move beyond the obvious, and therefore boring, approach.
2. Supply a frame
Nowadays we are using more and more technology to make life easier and more interesting. I must say that the most …........ tool I have ever ............ is my .................. It is …............. .................. to my everyday life.
I can’t live without it because....
There is only one thing that would make it even better and that is if...............
The frame allows students to relax and focus on the interesting parts of the text. Once they fill in the blanks they have a ‘good’ piece of writing to reflect upon.
3. This is a favourite game of mine. You can use it as a warmer, adjusting the content to suit the level of your students.
Display a selection of words (nouns, adjectives, prepositons, conjunctions etc) like this
coffee stop sheep parents students a teacher lazy and twenty hungry have surprised some are suddenly sometimes eat enough in seem politics summer at smell because look think
Ask students to first produce a one word sentence using any word here. (e.g. Stop!). Make sure you challenge any suggestions that are not actually sentences. Then ask for suggestions for a 2 word, then a 3 word sentence. Once they get the idea, ask them to work in pairs or small groups and keep going, making each sentence they write one word longer. Make sure to give a time limit, otherwise they might keep going until the end of the lesson.
This is a very creative and fun activity, that encourages a strong focus on grammatical accuracy.
A note of assessing writing
• Discuss marking criteria
e.g. I am going to give you marks for good ideas and interesting vocabulary
• Don’t get distracted by ‘mistakes’
• Mark positively e.g. highlight everything that is correct and interesting in the text instead of pointing out all the mistakes, which may well be minor
• Encourage self and peer assessment
• Under no circumstances should you highlight ever single mistake. That is too negative and does not help students to differentiate between the types of mistakes they are making nor recognise their willingness to take risks and try something linguistically challenging.