This article takes a look at getting started with writing practice and examines why students often find writing difficult.
When we talk about teaching writing, most teachers will say that it is a fairly low priority in their classrooms. Of course, there are exceptions to this. For example, in a writing class, a business class or an exam class where one component is a writing paper, it clearly has its place. But, in general, writing often falls below speaking, vocabulary, grammar, and even reading and listening in terms of perceived importance. One of the problems is that writing is often seen as time consuming. When we only have 45 minutes in a lesson, to take a large chunk of time to do some writing seems a waste. This is compounded by the fact that writing is seen as an individual or solitary activity and usually requires a fairly lengthy product, e.g. a letter, an essay. Therefore, writing is often set as a homework task and neglected in the classroom.
In this article we'll look at a number of these issues and try and dispel the myth that writing cannot be done effectively in the classroom.
Why teach writing?
There are several good reasons to teach writing:
- It is something we do in our first language and will probably need to do in our second language.
- It involves a different process to speaking and gives students more thinking and preparation time.
- It is more tangible than speaking. Students are able to look back at what they have written, analyze it, edit it and improve it.
- Writing is a form of consolidation and can help students remember things.
- Being able to look back and reflect on what was achieved and also see concrete examples of progress can be incredibly motivating.
- It's a good activity for noisy classes and can also be used to change the pace of a lesson.
What is wrong with setting writing for homework?
Absolutely nothing as long as the groundwork has already been done in the classroom. The problem is that this is often not the case. Writing is set cold for homework and then students struggle to write anything half decent, and we really shouldn't be surprised. For example, students do a lesson on holidays. The lesson starts with a vocabulary lead-in activity, followed by a listening on three different holidays, then reading a postcard and matching to one of the holidays mentioned in the listening activity and finally a speaking activity where students discuss which place they would like to visit. Students are then asked to write a postcard imagining they are in that place. To my mind, not enough work has been done to enable the students to produce a good piece of writing. And yet, there is the raw material within the lesson to help students to focus on how to write a postcard and what to include. If a little bit of time had been devoted to this, the written task would have been appropriate homework.
How can teachers help students with their writing in the classroom?
The first thing to do is to decide what exactly we mean by 'writing', because if we define what types of activities are included, then we can take a closer look at how these can be developed within a classroom.
An essential thing to realize is that writing does not just mean extended pieces. Simple things such as copying down sentences from the board, or writing out a jumbled word sentence from a workbook are writing activities. In fact, they are often very important activities in terms of helping our students with their writing. If students are unable to copy sentences correctly, then they will make lots of mistakes when they come to write something longer. Simple writing activities such as copying, filling in the blanks, unjumbling sentences and completing forms are a great way to get students to write at lower levels and will stand them in good stead later on when they do need to write longer pieces.
At higher levels it is important that teachers contextualise any writing activities. Discussing any writing activity in pairs or small groups is extremely beneficial for students. These discussions can be directed with a series of questions: Who are you writing to? Why are you writing to them? What response do you want from them? What is your relationship with them? How formal does the piece of writing need to be? Is there a particular style or format associated with the type of writing? etc. By getting students to discuss these kinds of questions they are no longer going into them cold. Additional classroom tasks focusing on particular language issues such as choice of words, paragraphing, syntax and so on will of course increase the chances of students producing quality pieces of work.
How can students be motivated to write?
Purpose is the key here. If students see a reason for writing that is relevant both to their learning and to their life, they are more likely to be motivated. It is not enough for a teacher to say I'd like you to do this because it will be good for you.
When we write in our daily lives we always have a reason for doing so. It's often worth discussing the type of writing students do in their first language, and trying to mirror these types of things in the target language. So, if your students write lots of texts and emails, why not start with these?
Also, when we write in real life we often receive some kind of response. This may be in the form of a phone call, a spoken comment or a written reply. Is there any way you can build in a response to anything your students write? It doesn't necessarily have to be you replying to everything. Perhaps students can write to each other!
Does writing have to be a solitary activity?
No, not at all. In fact, writing is hardly ever a solitary activity even when only one person actually does the writing.
In many ways writing is like speaking. In both cases there is an audience, someone we are addressing. We would not think of speaking as a solitary activity because we would usually expect someone to be listening to what we were saying. Well, when we write it should be the same; we are writing with an audience in mind (a reader). The main differences are that there is a greater distance and this means there is a time lapse in the responses we receive. However, when we write we often require or expect a response in much the same way we do when we speak. When we are speaking we will usually get an immediate response to what we say. When we write we still want a response, but we have to wait for it.
When we write we have to think about the person who will read it and therefore we have to include them in some form in the process of writing the piece. Probably the only piece of writing that is solitary, and is meant to be, is when we write a personal diary.
In the classroom we can also extend the idea of writing involving more than one person by doing collaborative writing.
Collaborative writing is where students work in pairs or small groups to produce a piece of writing. In many cases this involves only one student actually putting pen to paper but all the students contributing through ideas, discussion on content and language, and checking through the final product before refining, editing and improving.
By getting students to work together the focus shifts from being solely product-orientated to emphasizing the process – how you get to produce the final piece.
For more on process writing go to:
The first place to start is by actually looking at the kind of text you want students to produce and dissecting it. For example, if you want your students to write a postcard, take a few examples into the class. Start with standard reading comprehension questions, i.e. Who wrote it? Who is it to? What is it about? Is it formal or informal? How do you know? What tenses are used? Why? What kind of information does it include?
By deconstructing a text in such a way it is much easier for students to then reconstruct a text when they write one themselves.
- Answering the writing
Make as many writing tasks as you can into a form of correspondence. For example, if you ask your students to write a letter of complaint, instead of marking it in the normal way of scribbling over it in red pen, answer it as if it was written to you. Within your reply you can correct mistakes by modelling the right form. Ask questions when you don't understand something because of an incorrect word or a mistake in tense and then ask the student to write a follow-up letter responding to yours.
Initially, this kind of written dialogue takes slightly longer than conventional marking. But, after a while it takes less time and the results in terms of noticeable improvements in your students writing are well worth the initial effort.
- Preparing in class
Writing is a process that involves thinking, discussing, jotting down ideas, refining these ideas, thinking about the structure, and so on. Most of this cannot be done as homework and is certainly better done in pairs or small groups. Go through these steps in class before even getting to the actual 'putting pen to paper' stage and the final results will be much better.
- Addressing the audience
Choose a topic for which there can be a number of different pieces of writing. Either divide the class into groups and get each group to write one of the pieces, or ask the students to write each one addressing a different audience each time. For example, ask students to think about a disastrous holiday. Discuss the different things that can go wrong and then set three writing tasks: a postcard to your parents, a letter of complaint to the holiday company and a short text to a friend. When complete, compare the different pieces as a class.