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Why is writing so hard?

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Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBOlha Madylus, an experienced teacher and teacher trainer gives her thoughts on the first of our Solutions Speaking Challenges: ‘My students keep making the same mistakes’.

As teachers we may despair of marking our students’ written work and writing that ‘C+ must try harder’ at the bottom of their compositions, but let’s spare a thought for those poor students, who may after all be trying as hard as they can.

First let’s admit it – writing is hard!

They are on their own

Students face a number of challenges producing correct and appropriate texts. For a start it is usually a solitary task, often given as homework and therefore unsupported. In class students can find support from each other doing pair or group work and also from their teacher. Writing a composition for homework, they often don’t know how to help themselves.

*Consider allowing students to write compositions collaboratively in class, especially when writing long texts is new to them.

Topics can be uninspiring 

How easy would we find it to write something interesting (let alone grammatically correct) on the topics given. While practising other skills it is possible to be genuinely communicative and even have fun, but this is rare in writing practice.

*Consider allowing students to choose their own topics to write about; doing creative writing; tapping into the interests of the students.

Too much feedback is counter-productive

When it comes to motivation, students often feel a great sense of failure when they have writing returned to them covered in red ink, with each mistake highlighted. It is not easy to know how to pick yourself up and start again. If our students are teenagers this is particularly difficult. They may put on a show of not caring, but teens find criticism very painful and may feel great frustration in not understanding exactly how they can redress their weaknesses in writing.

*Consider being selective about what you mark; marking positively; reducing the word count of written tasks so that students can focus on quality rather than quantity.

Writing is a difficult skill even in our mother tongue – consider how often we have to write continuous impressive prose in our lives, especially when texting and emails encourage short abbreviated text.

There are many skills involved in producing good compositions. We should not expect students to be able to write well without breaking down the skills and practising them separately. Footballers practise shooting at the goal, dribbling, tactics etc. They are not simply asked to turn up at the match and play the game!

These are just some of the skills needed to produce good writing:

  • Correct grammar
  • Range of vocabulary
  • Accurate punctuation
  • Correct layout
  • Correct register
  • Accurate spelling
  • Good range of sentence structures
  • Linking
  • Imagination
  • Planning
  • Drafting
  • Proof reading
  • Communication

I am sure you can think of more!

Rather than expecting students to put all these skills together, we must consider how to break them up, practise them effectively and gradually combine them – on the journey of developing writing.

Students sometimes get register confused when writing. This activity helps them to recognise style/register.

Hand out this list to students, or pop in onto a PowerPoint slide and display each line one at a time:

Once upon a time…
I regret to inform you…
All my love, Boris xxx
She grabbed the gun and pointed it at Dillon.
 Add two tablespoons of sugar and stir…

Ask students to consider, discuss and then suggest where they think these are taken from and why. For example, the first one must be from a children’s story, because it’s formulaic.

To expand the activity, ask students to work in pairs and add one more line either before or after using the same register. Check together if they sound correct.

This type of task (which doesn’t have to take a lot of class time) helps focus students on the conventions of different styles of writing. It can be used if you notice that students are using incorrect register in their writing assignments to raise awareness.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

9 thoughts on “Why is writing so hard?

  1. This report summarizes studies on teaching writing to adolescent native speakers. It’s incredibly useful for ESL teachers as well. http://all4ed.org/wp-content/uploads/2006/10/WritingNext.pdf

    Writing is hard and teaching writing is hard. In addition to the fine points made by Olha, I’d add that among all the things that go into good writing, students often don’t know what to focus on. In my own corrections, I try and focus on brevity more than grammar or style. I find that if you’re able to say something in an efficient way, then grammar/style errors are less significant (and you have fewer chance to make them).

    Jeremy
    http://stuartmillenglish.com

  2. Thanks for the post that is sure to help EFL/ EST teachers envision the expected outcomes with the constant evaluation of methods they employ. No doubt, many more students seem to be confused at what to start with, when it comes to writing. And, we do have a deep-rooted understanding that writing is a hard task. Perhaps, it is the most-challenging-to-overcome psychological barrier to taking writing as an easy and interesting ‘play’.

  3. Reblogged this on Stop Complaining – Enjoy Teaching! and commented:
    Writing is a skill to be trained: “Rather than expecting students to put all these skills together, we must consider how to break them up, practise them effectively and gradually combine them – on the journey of developing writing.”

  4. Reblogged this on Laia's TEFL corner and commented:
    The big mystery…

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