It is probably fair to say that in many English language classrooms around the world less time is devoted to the skill of writing than to reading, listening and speaking. There are numerous reasons for this, not least of which is the question of time. In many teaching situations, teachers may see their students for no more than an hour or two a week and writing is seen as time-consuming and not perhaps the best way of making use of such a short amount of time. Students too may feel that writing is an activity best done away from the classroom and that spending valuable classroom time writing in silence is a waste of time. Another factor that may dissuade teachers from devoting time to writing skills is the fact that written work needs to be corrected.
This may not be a problem in a one-to-one class or a small Business English group, but in a class of thirty of more students this becomes a real issue – 30 minutes work for each of the students could produce several hours work for the already stressed teacher. In addition, the idea of writing itself may have negative connotations for both teachers and students, for whom it might hold uncomfortable memories of having to write long discursive essays on topics chosen by the teacher. In this respect, it is worth considering briefly what you write in your own language on a day-to-day basis. Essay writing will probably not feature on your list of regular writing activities unless you are preparing for an examination. The list will, however, probably contain some or all of the following: e-mails, notes and memos, messages, letters and filling in forms.
As a starting-point for writing in class, perhaps these more authentic writing tasks will seem more relevant. There is also no reason why they cannot be collaborative. Although in the real world we rarely write in tandem with others, we do of course write to other people and the classroom is an ideal place to replicate this type of activity. Writing to the teacher on a regular basis is an excellent way to get feedback from the class. The task can be either individual or a small group task and, rather than correcting all the errors, the teacher can respond to the points made in each letter by writing brief comments or underlining errors to be corrected by the individual student or group. In teaching situations where a sufficient number of computer terminals are available this process can be extended to e-mails. Focusing on the process of writing and introducing skills such as generating ideas (brainstorming the topic for relevant vocabulary), structuring information, drafting and redrafting, reformulating and reviewing can also make writing a communicative and not a silent, solitary activity seen as a waste of valuable classroom time. If, in addition, writing is seen as a valuable way of practising language, in much the same way that speaking is seen as practice, then writing itself can be seen as having a much more positive role in the language learning process as a whole.
Educating learners about the role and value of writing and pointing out the numerous different purposes that writing can have both in terms of communication and in terms of language practice can also help to project a more positive image for writing-based activities in the classroom. In this respect, time spent discussing what people write, how they prepare what they write and how it is corrected and by whom, will be time well spent. In much the same way that learners begin to experiment with speaking at quite an early stage of their foreign language development, they will often want to experiment with writing at an early stage. Trial and error will be an inevitable part of the process but in this modern age, where e-mail communication is rapidly becoming the main means of communication, an ability to compose an effective written message is an indispensable skill and writing must be given its rightful place in the process of language teaching as a whole.
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