In this blog Elna Coetzer continues to talk about ways we can use our time more effectively (inside and outside the class) when doing writing tasks.
How does one become a successful cook? The answer really is very obvious – by cooking, of course. But does that mean just cooking dish after dish, over and over again?
No. Even if you are a successful cook, it is not about the number of dishes that you prepare, but more about the focussed attention you give to each aspect of a dish. In essence, you have to practise every step of the process over and over again. Only in this way can you know which choices are correct and what possible actions should be completed in order to create a masterpiece. And only in this way can the cook use their time effectively.
If we link this with writing, similarly our students need to make choices every step of the way. And if our students do not know what the possibilities are, they cannot make the correct or best choices at any given time in the writing process. So firstly, writing is about having knowledge available – knowledge of language and vocabulary, style, layout, genre etc. Secondly, writing is about making the best choices with what you have available in order to communicate successfully with your audience. Therefore, thirdly, writing is about making these choices (based on your available knowledge) in a timely manner. Returning to our cooking analogy: if I see that the sauce is getting too thick, I need to make a choice immediately and this choice I make on the basis of my prior knowledge and experience cooking exactly the same dish.
1) students need a lot of support in order to complete writing tasks (the prior knowledge),
2) students need to be aware of a variety of ways of expression etc. (choices), and
3) students need to be able to access the above-mentioned aspects easily and most importantly, quickly (retrieval time).
And all of this is accomplished by targeted practice activities.
What are targeted practice activities?
Targeted practice activities are tasks that focus on a very specific aspect of the writing process, which allows students to notice in an explicit manner how something works or how something is done. These activities can take the form of vocabulary exercises, for example brainstorming language for a suspense story (extreme weather words, adverbs, etc.). Looking at the writing sections in Solutions, you will immediately be able to notice these types of tasks. These tasks are about noticing specific aspects of writing and raising the students’ awareness of the requirements when writing a specific type of text.
Why are they so useful?
These types of tasks allow students to focus on specific aspects of writing which will help them in the overall writing process. This means that if my students have practised a specific aspect extensively, they will have the knowledge required, will be able to make the best choices in a specific writing task and retrieve the information fast. Of course this is not an immediate process, but over a period of time students will become more efficient in their writing which necessarily then means that writing lessons will not be so laborious.
Here are some ideas:
- Focus on only one aspect in each writing section. So instead of thinking about the layout, useful vocabulary and useful language chunks in the writing task, what about choosing one aspect to address? This would allow more time to focus explicitly on one aspect, more detailed attention given to the chosen aspect and more detailed practice for the students. This would also allow for more effective correction, because you would then focus only on the aspect discussed.
- Use jigsaw writing tasks. For some writing tasks it may be useful to show that the style and layout students are using can be used again for different purposes: for example notes written to say thank you, to congratulate or to take a message. In these cases one could get students in groups to only work with one type of task: group A only work on thank you notes, group B on congratulatory notes etc. When they have finished all the tasks related to their note writing task, regroup the students so that they can share what they have learnt with students from the other groups. You might want to give students some kind of grid or table in which they can take notes from the other students. (We learn better when we can teach somebody else!)
- Collaborative writing. If, for example, your students need to write a book review, it would be more time efficient to do all the tasks in groups. This means that the thinking and planning stages (brainstorming ideas, thinking of useful lexis and language, considering the layout, etc.), the writing stage (a draft, some editing and a rewrite) and also the feedback after the writing stage (peer correction), will be performed in groups or pairs. (Learning is a social activity!)
- Promote self-awareness, task-awareness and strategy awareness. This is useful because this actively encourages students to analyse, evaluate and create during writing tasks (Bloom’s revised taxonomy!). This can be done by getting students to think about the purposes of tasks (both before the writing and afterwards) and also by setting evaluative questions which prompt students to look more critically at the writing process. Questions like the following are useful:
– who is the audience?
– why would the audience be reading this text?
– which register should be used?
– what is the purpose of this text? (to advertise, to thank, to invite etc.)
– which aspects of writing do I enjoy – which aspects am I good at or do I need to work on? etc. (Learning is a conscious process!)
In conclusion, we can offer our students more differentiated and effective writing support within our time constraints by making sure that we include more targeted practice tasks, by raising our students’ awareness of the specifics of the writing process and thinking more deeply about the planning stages of writing lessons.
Join Elna in her upcoming webinar to learn more about how we can use class time more effectively in improving students’ writing skills.