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Getting Young Learners to Write

Young boy smiling and writingCharles Vilina, co-author of the forthcoming Young Learners series, Oxford Discover, shares some tips on helping young learners to write well in English. Charles will discuss this topic in more depth in his upcoming webinar, taking place on 21st and 23rd January.

I teach writing to primary students almost every day. Fellow teachers often ask me, “Isn’t it difficult to teach students to write well? I couldn’t do it!”

I understand the sentiment. Of the four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing), writing is often the most challenging to teach… and to learn. Many people find writing to be difficult even in their native language, so the challenge is even greater for our EFL and ESL students.

Why isn’t writing an easy task?

  • Writing is a productive skill that requires concentration and effort, even for those who write professionally throughout their lives.
  • Writing, like playing a sport or a musical instrument, requires regular practice to do it well. The more often students write, the more likely they are to improve.
  • Writing is a process. Revision is always part of good writing (which is why pencils have erasers), and revision takes patience and effort.
  • Good writing has a very important companion: good reading. Without daily reading across many literary genres and text types, it is difficult for students to develop strong writing skills.

Now for the good news.

There are strategies teachers can apply to make the task of writing easier, clearer, and even enjoyable for our students! Here are three that work especially well in my classes, for both fiction and non-fiction writing tasks:

1. Introduce students to good writing

Fiction:

A good story has the ability to send us on amazing journeys, create strong emotions, and even change the way we look at life. Children need to read good works of fiction, and then always consider the question, “What makes this story so good?” In every class I teach, I try to introduce good fiction, and the love of reading, to my students.

Non-fiction:

In the world of non-fiction, clear and organized writing makes all the difference when learning something new. My students and I read examples of excellent explanatory writing about topics they find interesting. In this way, students learn the best ways to inform others through writing.

2. Motivate students to write about the world around them

Fiction:

“Write what you know about” is excellent advice for a fiction writer. I encourage students to choose a setting that they are familiar with. In this way, they can focus on creating strong characters and an interesting plot within that familiar setting. They are also more able to describe the scenes with greater detail. Later, they go on to create stories in other times and places of their choosing.

Non-fiction:

I first ask my students to write about what they have seen and experienced in their everyday lives, through a personal narrative written in the first person (I). This task teaches them to be observant and aware. They learn to consider all the information that might be useful to the reader (who, what, when, where, why). Students focus on presenting what they know in a clear and organized fashion. Later, they use these skills of clarity and organization to write about subjects outside of their personal experience.

Suggestion:
One simple activity is to think of a clear topic sentence on a theme students know well, such as “I really like English class.” Write this on the board. Then, invite students to give reasons why they like English class, such as, “My teacher is always helpful.” Write these reasons on the board as students say them. After many reasons are listed on the board, ask students to write a paragraph that begins with “I really like English class,” followed by three or four of their favorite reasons.

Mind maps can help students brainstorm what they know, while organizing the information at the same time. For example, students can write and circle the words my school in the center of a sheet of paper. From this circle, lines can be drawn out to subheadings such as my friends, my classes, and my activities. Examples can branch off from those subheadings. This activity can give students a physical profile of what they can write about.

3. Emphasize that good writing is a series of steps

As I mentioned before, writing is a process. We can teach our students to achieve their writing goals more efficiently by following a specific series of steps that will lead them to a stronger piece of writing.

Here are the steps I ask my students to follow in both fiction and non-fiction writing tasks:

  • Brainstorm your ideas first!
    This means to write freely, allowing your ideas to flow without judging or thinking too hard. Fill the page with anything that comes into your mind. This step should be fun and creative.
  • Organize your ideas into groups
    Each group of ideas should center around one main idea. This step also allows you to arrange your ideas in order of importance, and eliminate those ideas you don’t need.
  • Write a paragraph around each group of ideas
    A good paragraph will have one clear main idea, usually stated at the beginning. Continue the paragraph with three or four sentences that support the main idea.
  • Revise your work
    As you read through your paragraphs, ask yourself, “Can I make my topic sentences clearer? Can my supporting sentences be stronger? Are they listed in the best order? Can I find nouns and verbs that are more specific, and adjectives that are more descriptive? Is my grammar and spelling free of errors?”

A final step is often referred to as “publishing” the piece of writing. This step means that students have revised and edited their writing to the best of their abilities, and are now ready to share what they’ve written with the class.

Because each of the above steps is unique, and has specific outcomes, students do not become bored or frustrated with the process. It is best to do the steps over a number of days, so that students can begin each step refreshed and ready to continue.

Suggestion:
After “publishing,” one very effective activity is called peer review. Students read each other’s pieces of writing and then write comments about them. By giving students the responsibility of looking critically at another’s writing, they are able to look more objectively at their own writing.

In closing, I would like to add some final thoughts for teachers:

  • Don’t expect perfection at any level. Writing is a lifelong pursuit, and even the most gifted writers know that they can always do better.
  • Always emphasize the more important writing goals for your students: creativity, clarity, organization, and conciseness.
  • When giving feedback, focus on one area that needs improvement per writing task. For example, does each paragraph have one main idea? Circling every error with red ink will only frustrate students.
  • Whenever possible, for every weakness you point out in a student’s writing, also point out two strengths. Confidence is a prerequisite for all great writing, and we never want to dishearten our students. Stay patient and focused, and you will see real progress over time.

With my best wishes,

Charles Vilina

Would you like more practical tips on encouraging your students to write and developing 21st Century skills with your children? Visit our site on Teaching 21st Century skills with confidence for free video tips, activity ideas and teaching tools.

Sign up for a free webinar with Charles Vilina and Natasha Buccianti on getting young learners to write in English on 21 & 23 January 2014.


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Productive Skills: Resources for Independent Learning

Girl with headset looking at computer monitor smilingHelen Stepanova is an English language teacher, teacher trainer and author, currently working as a Business English teacher in Latvia. In this guest post, she looks at some of the resources available for improving students’ productive language skills.

Nowadays the Internet provides numerous possibilities for students to improve, polish and master their English language skills. In my lessons I introduce these options, explaining how my students can use them and inspiring them with my own personal experience.

I have divided these resources into two main groups:

1. for receptive skills, with 2 subgroups: reading and listening
2. for productive skills, with 2 subgroups: writing and speaking

In each group there are several useful resources. Choose the most appropriate ones for your class.

Receptive Skills

Productive Skills

Reading

Listening

Writing

Speaking

1.Fiction literature 1.Radio 1. Social networks 1. Social networks
2.Professional literature 2.Audio books 2. Language learning communities 2. Language learning communities
3.Bilingual parallel texts 3. Films  3. Writing Clubs 3. British Council
4.Newspapers, magazines, online news 4.Podcasts  4. Private journal 4. Speaking Clubs
5. Blogs 5. Conversations 5. Couchsurfing
6. Scripts 6.Music 6. International learning and volunteer programs

In this post, I’ll be looking at Productive Skills. I covered Receptive Skills in my previous post.

Writing

1. Social networks

Skype, Twitter and Facebook are examples of free resources to communicate in written English as you would orally. Write in your Skype profile that you are looking for a native speaker to improve your English. When someone contacts you, explain your needs and offer to correspond on a regular basis. You can then chat with them through Facebook chat, on Twitter, through blogs, etc. The disadvantage of this approach is that people are unlikely to correct your mistakes (unless you ask them to); however as the correspondence is very informal and friendly, the learner can relax and express himself/herself freely. Twitter messages make you formulate your thoughts very concisely, as the maximum length of the post is 140 characters. It teaches you to write the core idea. Blogging is also a good way to present your ideas to a wide audience and invite comments and corrections to your writing.

2. Language learning communities

Language learning communities, such as Lang-8, Phrase Base are specialized sites to help you polish your language skills, where native speakers from 180 countries will correct your writing for free. First you have to log in, and then write your text, publish it and wait until a native speaker (possibly even a teacher) checks it and gives a detailed explanation of any mistakes. You can write your own blog, correct posts of other participants if they are in your native language, make friends, create your own community, and expand your network.

3. Writing Clubs/Classes

These are a very popular form of mastering the language. The teacher gives you a theme for your writing and a deadline to submit your work. The goal is to write an essay, to develop writing skills and to monitor your mistakes, both grammatical and stylistic. Sometimes writing clubs can include written debates on a particular topic. When the discussion is over the teacher individually comments on mistakes, or a peer assessment is provided. Different Universities offer such courses, and there are several such classes on Coursera.

4. Private journal

This resource demands a higher level of motivation, as the student has to commit to keeping a regular journal. It can be a fictitious or simply a record of everyday events. The habit of writing regularly promotes a habit of thinking in English. There are several online journal tools, such as Life Journal. Nobody monitors your mistakes, but Life Journal’s password and encryption system keeps your information safe and private, unless you choose to share it to get feedback on your writing.

Speaking

1. Social networks and 2. Language learning communities

The same principle as with writing, with one difference – you have to talk with your new native language friends. Speaking demonstrates any gaps in your language knowledge. Corresponding with pan-pals through social networks, ask them to have a conversation via Skype or another service. Regular real-life conversations will put what you’ve learned into practical application. The best practice will come from conversations with a native speaker, but even if he/she is not, you will learn to speak spontaneously and across a variety of different topics.

3. British Council

The representative office of the British Council is in every country. The main aim of the British Council is to help to share British expertise and knowledge with over 100 countries worldwide. You can attend seminars and workshops in English, meet English-speaking partners and master your speaking skills.

4. Speaking Clubs

This is a very popular forum to improve your speaking skills. Clubs are often organized to discuss the latest news and talk about different subjects.

5. Couch Surfing

Participating in a ‘’Couch Surfing’’ club allows you to host travellers at your house and to connect with new friends all around the world by staying at their houses while travelling. You can offer your guide services in your home town and invite the foreign visitors just for a cup of coffee, which will definitely involve and improve your speaking skills. Some examples are CouchSurfing, HomeExchange, and The Hospitality Club.

6. International learning and volunteer programs

Participation in different learning and volunteer programs, such as archaeological excavations, building projects, medical volunteering, wildlife conservation or life-long learning programs, such as Grundtvig practical learning for adults, gives you the opportunity to improve your speaking skills significantly.