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Teaching formal writing

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Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBIn January we asked over 450 teachers from around the world to vote for the biggest writing challenge they face in their classroom. Since then we’ve dedicated a month to each of the top three voted for challenges with a series of webinars and blog posts from some of Oxford’s top teacher trainers. During our survey we also received some fantastic comments from teachers telling us about other writing challenges they’ve encountered. Join us as we take on 3 extra challenges raised by teachers like you. In this blog Olha Madylus addresses the first of these challenges:

‘My students find formal writing challenging and keep using informal vocabulary’.

Maybe this is something you have experienced? Teenage learners in particular can struggle with formal writing. They rarely use formal vocabulary even in their first language, and don’t see the relevance of formal writing. However, for most teenagers this will prove an important skill when they come to take their end of school exams. Beyond school, formal writing will also be useful in a number of contexts, such as essays, job applications, reports and letters.

Firstly students need to be made aware of the difference between formal and informal English (I am sure they will understand this in their L1). Secondly they need to appreciate when either is appropriate to use and finally they need opportunities to practise both.

  1. Awareness-raising

Write or project two example sentences like this on the board:

  1. After careful consideration, Michael Morris decided to purchase the vehicle, as he had decided the price was reasonable.
  2. Mike bought the car because he thought it was an ok price.

Ask students to work in pairs and answer the following questions

Do you think the sentences were said or written?

Who do you think said or wrote the sentences and why?

How would you translate each sentence into L1.

Which words in each sentence are synonyms or near synonyms? (consideration=thought, purchase=buy, reasonable=ok etc).

Clarify the terms formal and informal, using L1 as needed.

Give out large pieces of paper to groups of about 4 students and ask them to divide the paper into two sections and write formal at the top of one section and informal on the other. Ask students to brainstorm their ideas about when we use each kind of language (they should use their experience of L1 as well as English). Prompt them as necessary.

Hopefully they will have ideas like this. You can show them this on a slide, so they can compare their ideas.

Formal Informal
Usually written
Spoken in official, public and smart situations like speeches
Usually spoken in everyday, personal conversations, films, games, talk shows
Written in songs, dialogues in stories, texts, emails

Then ask your students to come up with three ways in which the language is different. They can look back at the original two sentences. Compare their ideas to your list and add any they have which are not included here.

Formal Informal
Usually planned, edited Usually spontaneous
Official, academic Conversational
Longer sentences Shorter sentences
Longer and less common words More commonly used words
Some words are only used in writing Some words are only spoken
Grammatically correct May include some grammar mistakes
Reader often not known to the writer Listener usually known to speaker
Needed in exam tasks  Not appreciated in exam tasks
  1. Using language appropriately

A.

Show the students the following dialogue:

A: Hi! What’s up?

B: Nothing much. How are things?

A: Not bad. Take it easy.

B: You too. See ya later.

Ask students to discuss

  1. The relationship between the speaker (friends)
  2. Their age (teens or young adults)
  3. The tone (informal)

Now ask your students to ‘translate’ the dialogue so the speakers are (a) strangers (b) older and the tone is formal.

It will look something like this:

A: Hello. How are you?

B: I’m fine. How are you?

A: I’m very well, thank you. Have a good day.

B: You too. Good bye.

Ask pairs of students to practise reading out the dialogues with the correct voices and body language.

They can do such short and focussed ‘translation’ tasks from informal to formal and formal to informal from time to time to remind them of the differences.

B.

When preparing students to write a formal letter you could do a task like this, which helps them think about and distinguish appropriate language to be used in the task.

Dear Sir Hi there
To consider To think about
Firstly To begin
We regret to inform you I’m sorry to say
I wish to enquire I want to ask
Consequently So
However But
We have pleasure in announcing I’m happy to say
Sufficient Enough

Then they could (a) take the formal words and phrases and write sentences which include them so the tone is formal throughout or (b) create a dialogue using the informal phrases or (c) when writing the formal letter try to include as many of the formal words or phrases in it.Cut up the cards and give a set to each group of 3 or 4 students. Ask the students to work together and match the formal to the informal equivalents of the phrases or words.

  1. Next steps

Make sure your students practise both formal and informal English in class and constantly think about why they use different levels of formality. They can practise informal English by writing and acting out dialogues or sketches, writing songs in speaking tasks.

They can also create posters and collect new vocabulary phrases in three categories – formal, informal and slang. It’s all English but they should be aware of when to use it and why.

Author: Oxford University Press ELT

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2 thoughts on “Teaching formal writing

  1. Another difficulty in teaching formal writing is the problem students have in using third person. When writing paragraphs and essays, they continue to include first person narratives as support for their topic sentence.

  2. very helpful ,,,, it is so simple to understand ,, thank you ,,

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