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Re-purposing the writing process for beginner ELLs

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Trio Writing authors Alice Savage and Colin Ward offer 6 practical activities to help your beginner level students write successfully in English.

For native speakers, a writing process that starts with a plan and ends with sentence-level editing makes sense.  However, non-native writers have different challenges, especially at the introductory level.  Fortunately, process writing is not set in stone.  We can adapt it to suit our students’ needs.

The first step is to identify those needs. Lower level ELLs need language, lots of it, and early on.  They may also need extra support in meeting the expectations of target language readers.

The following classroom activities offer options for tweaking the standard writing process.  They are meant to be flexible, working tools that can be used individually or together depending on the unique characteristics of a class and its goals.

1. Front-load with language

Students who sign up for a low level English writing class bring very little language with them, so it makes sense to start with vocabulary and grammar, but which vocabulary and grammar?  Fortunately, the prompt itself points the way.

For example, in a beginning writing class, the prompt What does your country look like? suggests the target language.  The vocabulary elements might include mountains, beaches, rivers, a desert, and other place nouns.  Adjectives such as green, tropical, tall, beautiful would also be helpful. The grammar lesson might include the plural –s and There is/ there are.

Pulling all these elements together can already feel like an uphill climb; however, the lesson can be made more efficient if the language is taught in chunks. Consider using images to teach beautiful mountains, tropical beaches, or a large desert.  Then set up activities that allow students to mix and match to create new patterns such as the following:

Use the words to make phrases about your country.  Add a for singular, and –s for plural. Then fill in the chart below.

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In the example above, students practice vocabulary and grammar to produce accurate sentences that are ready to go when it is time to write a paragraph about their country.

The activity can also be extended by eliciting additional adjectives and nouns related to the students’ own contexts.

2. Conference at the point of need

One on one conferencing is generally helpful for all writers, but it can be adapted to suit the particular needs of ELLs.  Multi-lingual writers may need more direct guidance if they are to meet the expectations of L1 readers. A simple checklist can provide both focus and flexibility for this task.  In the example below, developed for a two-paragraph assignment, the teacher may comment on all items, but targets only one for the conference.  This focus keeps the revision manageable for the low level English learner.

Conferencing Checklist

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  • The assignment indicates the student has gone off topic, and the conference will focus on planning for a new draft.
  • Paragraphing might include options for rearranging content to develop ideas and shape them into paragraphs.
  • Language focuses on vocabulary, grammar, mechanics and/or other syntax issues.
  • Ideas discusses ways that a strong student might stretch their skills by elaborating or even adding an additional paragraph.

3. Share the revision process

Peer interaction helps English learners develop both language and writing skills.  The following activities can be implemented during conferencing or any stage of development where students need review or practice. The first partner activity below practices grammar and vocabulary, while the second focuses on paragraph awareness.

Grammar Puzzles

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Collaborative Writing

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4. Repurpose peer review

Students can sometimes treat peer review as an error hunt, but peer readers can play other roles as well.  For example, why not make the reader more of an active listener by asking questions to help the writer clarify ideas?

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Teachers can also set a quick and motivating publishing stage by having writers exchange final drafts and directing them to simply enjoy and respond to one another’s ideas. This gives beginning writers the chance to have their final draft read without being evaluated.

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Even beginners can write a paragraph or two when the process is tweaked to meet their needs. By going a little lower, a little slower, and rethinking the writing process from the perspective of language learners, it’s possible to help students succeed from the very beginning.

All materials adapted from Trio Writing by Alice Savage and Colin Ward, Oxford University Press

An earlier version of this article first appeared on englishendeavors.org.  If you’d like to read more ideas for the English language classroom, click here.


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The Vocabulary – Grammar Continuum: A third approach to activity design

The Vocabulary-Grammar Continuum: A third approach to activity designAlice Savage and Colin Ward are professors of ESOL at Lone Star College – North Harris in Houston, USA.  This article is adapted from their presentation ‘Beginning Writing Students and the Vocabulary-Grammar Continuum’ at the 2014 International TESOL Conference in Portland, Oregon.

Words are powerful things. When we look at research-based word lists, such as the General Service List or the Oxford 3000, we come across many useful words that can inform our teaching of vocabulary in the classroom.  We know these words are the most important for our students to learn. Yet, from the perspective of the student, the task of acquiring these lists of words can be daunting.

One challenge is length.  How can students learn hundreds, or even thousands, of words when learning only a select few at a time?  And once new words are introduced, how can they be internalized without a sufficient amount of recycling and repurposing?

Another and more interesting challenge is meaning.  Meaning turns out to be a complicated notion when dealing with high-frequency words. For example, the Oxford 3000 includes three main categories. The first includes content words such as red, car, fast, which are obvious and easy to teach. The meaning is sharp and clear, so it can easily be demonstrated with a white board, a photo or pantomime.

The second category includes grammar words.  The words so, is, the, of, and their high frequency siblings hold a prominent position on the list and yet resist attempts to be neatly defined as solitary words. These worker bee words have become so directly associated with specific functions that they have become grammar (Larsen-Freeman, 2013).  Their place on a word list is obvious, and they get much treatment in grammar syllabi.

Then there is a third more elusive category, which we call shadow words. Words such as join, thing, important and place are extremely useful but difficult to teach because they hide in the shadows of other words.  Rather than being specific in meaning like the content words, shadow words tend to be abstract, vague, and flexible. They may not call attention to themselves, but they are important because a great number of other words like to partner with them in collocations. (Schmitt, 2000).

As a result of their accommodating nature, shadow words can be very useful when taught in phrases. For example, become is quietly helpful.  Phrases such as become an engineer, become friends, or become rich illustrate the supportive nature of become. When become is taught with other words, learners can better pick up the meaning of both. Become does not like being alone. It needs friends.

Shadow words can also have multiple personalities.  They take on different meanings depending on their context.  Have appears on high-frequency word lists because it collocates with so many other words—have fun, have a sister, have to leave, have an idea, have enough money—yet each pairing has its own personality.

So, in looking at all these different types of words that populate high frequency word lists, it becomes clear that vocabulary is not just one thing.  While some words can meaningfully stand alone, many of the most common words prefer to be in groups. These words unleash their full power when paired with other words in collocations (word partners), lexical chunks (groups of commonly occurring words that include grammar), and prefabs (fixed expressions that allow students to frame ideas by slotting in different vocabulary) (Hinkel, 2004).

Perhaps it is possible to conceive of teaching language a third way, not to present vocabulary lists, word form charts, and grammar items separately but together on the same continuum.

There are many benefits to this approach.  If students are exposed to words in these groupings, they have more opportunities to gather and use words in their natural environments. Furthermore, these distinct environments can help classroom participants make decisions about which meaning or meanings to focus on (Hyland, 2004).  For example, play means one thing when talking about children and toys, and another when used in an academic setting as in, Teachers play a role in helping students choose vocabulary.

Teaching words in phrases also mitigates the difficulty of learning parts of speech because students see adjectives being used before nouns, and nouns as objects of verbs or the subjects of sentences. They can establish cognitive hooks for storing the words in the same manner in which they will be used (Schmitt, 2000).

Finally, words in phrases maximize vocabulary learning by providing whole unit chunks of meaning that clarify individual words at the same time.  A list of 12 phrases includes more language than a list of 12 individual words.  For example, the lexical chunk blew snow in our faces can be visually depicted in one go while teaching 5 different words, including content words, shadow words, and grammar words.

The following example activities demonstrate how vocabulary and grammar can support each other in providing useful language for specific writing tasks. While each activity has a specific aim, the basic structure can be adapted for different topics and purposes.

Activity Type: Categorizing

Activity Type: Manipulating chunks 

Activity Type: Flow Charts

Having students attend to the boundaries beyond individual words can begin to help them see vocabulary and grammar on a continuum and may be one approach to making vocabulary learning more meaningful and efficient.  Collocations, lexical chunks, and prefabs can be used to introduce not just content words, but also grammar and shadow words.  Through scaffolding, students can then learn how to mix and match these words to produce new lexical strings.   They will see that words are not just dynamic, but do in fact have many friends.

 

References

Hinkel, E. (2004).  Innovative and Efficient Construction Grammar.  Selected papers from the 21st International Symposium on English Teaching.  English Teacher’s Association, Republic of China (ETA-ROC), Taipei, 51-59.

Hyland, K. (2004).  Genre and second language writing.  Michigan: University of Michigan Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (2013).  Transfer of Learning Transformed.  Language Learning 63:Suppl. 1 pp. 107-129 Language Learning Research Club, University of Michigan
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9922.2012.00740.x

Schmitt, N. (2000).  Lexical chunks.  ELT Journal, Volume 54 (4), 400-401. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Savage, A. & Ward, C. (in press). Trio Writing.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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Writing their way to the top: Process strategies for English language learners

Teacher writing on whiteboardWhat are some strategies for helping students with academic writing? Alice Savage, Effective Academic Writing co-author, will look at this topic in her upcoming webinar on December 10th. In this article, she presents a task to help build students’ confidence in their writing.

When hikers plan an adventure, they agree to take on a challenge. They understand that it might be hard sometimes, but they also know that if they stick together and have faith in the process, they will make it to their destination. The same is true for writers, particularly writers learning to operate in an academic English context. In my webinar, we will examine the writing process and look at specific strategies and activities that can support English learners along the way.

The following group task is one of several strategies in the webinar. Its aims of community-building and orienting students to process writing techniques can ensure that a class gets started on the right foot.

Objective: To help students build community, confidence and an understanding of the writing process.

Start by putting the students in groups of four and creating roles such as manager, note-taker, writer, dictionary-person, or editor. Tell them that they are going to do a writing task together that shows their combined experience and talent. Then set the following questions:

  • How many languages does your group speak in total?
  • How many years has your group been studying English in total?
  • How many countries has your group traveled to in total?
  • What kinds of writing has your group done in the past?
  • What is a name that fits your group?

Once they have shared information, instruct the writer to turn the answers and notes into a paragraph. Have them start by introducing their group’s name in a topic sentence. Then have them explain why they chose it. They can include answers to the questions or other ideas that come up while they were talking. The teacher can circulate and provide assistance as needed.

When the writing section of the task is finished, the group can work together to edit. The editor, with help from peers, can check for complete sentences, grammar and spelling. As they work, they have an opportunity to see how their knowledge and skills fit with their classmates and to see how they can benefit from or help others later.

To mirror the stages of writing, the task ends with publishing. The groups can post or circulate their finished texts and compare results. The class can identify which group speaks the most languages, has studied English the longest, or seen the most countries. This final stage, in addition to serving as an icebreaker, allows the class to experience one another’s writing as readers. This publishing stage can instill a habit of responding to content that will pay off later during peer feedback throughout the term.

Finally, the teacher can build confidence in the process by leading a reflection on the stages that the groups went through. They can look at generating ideas and developing content, planning, revising, editing, and publishing.

The teacher might then use the opportunity to highlight the activities and aims of each stage. For example, many teachers do not address grammar errors in the early revision stages because students are still shaping content and often cutting or changing sentences. Many students do not automatically anticipate these major revision tasks, so working through revision techniques in an explicit way in a practice activity can foster trust in the process.

The discussion can end with the question, “What do you know now that you didn’t know when you started this assignment?” as a way to finish with a focus on writing as knowledge making. If all goes well, students see the advantages of the writing process and its ability to provide a sequence that allows them to focus at distinct stages. They know their classmates and the writing process better, and perhaps they feel better equipped for the adventure of a new task.

To find out more about improving students’ writing skills, register for the webinar at either 12:00 or 15:00 GMT on December 10th.