Gareth Davies, an experienced teacher and teacher trainer gives his thoughts on the second of our Solutions Speaking Challenges: ‘My students don’t want to write’.
I was sitting on the tram this morning watching at least three teenagers talking to each other. I didn’t know the exact number, why? Well there were two girls standing in front of me but the conversation was taking place in two ways – one was a face-to-face conversation and one was a text message conversation with person or persons unseen. The texter was revealing information that was making the girls giggle and laugh and then they were composing replies together, carefully choosing the right words. After pressing send they would chat to each other while impatiently waiting for the next text.
When I got home I started looking at the responses of the survey that OUP ran regarding writing in the classroom, the comments from around the world had a similar theme, ‘they don’t even write in their own language’, ‘pace of life is very fast and they don’t have time to write’, ‘writing is a bore’. This created a curious paradox in my mind.
The written word is becoming more and more important in terms of communication – emails, texts, tweets, Facebook updates, YouTube comments all require writing skills. Yet students don’t see a link between these and what they are doing in class. So what are the differences?
Possibly in class or as homework writing is seen as a solitary task, a task to do alone, but as the girls showed on the tram writing became fun when they were working together, crafting the perfect line to send to their friend. So can we make class writing a collaborative task and would this increase motivation?
The girls were writing on a screen, maybe pen and paper seems old fashioned to teenage students, they probably never write a note or a letter. So can we save writing activities for our hour in the computer room or allow students to do their writing tasks on their mobile phones or tablets?
The girls on the tram were communicating but do classroom writing tasks feel like a communicative activity or just a chore, an exercise to be marked? For writing to have meaning it needs an audience. So can the students write to each and reply to each other in class? Or do we as teachers need to reply to the content of the piece of writing as well as assess it and correct it? I like to reply with a list of questions that the text left unanswered, this might encourage the student to write back or rewrite the text.
Are students too worried about the mistakes being there in black and white for the world to see? I think it is important for teachers to set criteria for the writing assessment and not focus on every little mistake. So for example, for this task I will be looking at your articles. Also calling the writing ‘a draft’ helps students to understand that they can make mistakes as long as they are willing to redraft and improve.
Even worse than mistakes for teenagers might be that they are writing their hopes and feelings down in black and white for the world to see. One of the benefits of asking students to work alone is that they might open up and share things, but they won’t do that if they fear the teacher will make their writing public. The girls on the tram knew exactly who their audience was, so let the students know who the audience will be – other students, the whole school or just the teacher. Maybe allow them to choose themselves whether the writing is public or private.
So we can see that a few changes to our classroom management techniques can help to make writing a more enjoyable activity but we still need to show students how important writing is. An easy way to do this is to do this quick 5 minute activity.
Write the following on the board –
Whatsapp message, Facebook comment, text message, phone call, tweet, email, face to face.
Call each one out and ask students to put their hand up if they’ve communicated with that tool in the last 24 hours. Then ask students to categorise if they are writing or speaking tools.
This shows them that writing is something they do all the time in their own language whether they realise it or not. So it might be a skill they want to practise in English too.