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The Writing Paradox

Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBGareth 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.

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Solutions Writing Challenge: Writing – the new Speaking

Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBTeacher and teacher trainer, Gareth Davies, explores how we can motivate students to improve their writing skills ahead of his upcoming webinar on Solutions Writing Challenge #2: “My students don’t want to write”.

Is writing the new speaking, do we communicate now more through text messages, Facebook chats and tweets than we do through face-to-face communication? If the answer to this question is yes, then writing should be at the top of the list of 21st Century skills that we are teaching our students. Yet students view writing as a bore, a chore, something to be set as homework so they have time to find an excuse for not doing it.  Even if your answer to my question is no, I still think writing has an important part to play in developing students’ language skills. Writing gives students time to put into practice what they have learnt and, if they are confident, to experiment with the language. It also gives English teachers a unique insight into the lives of their students.

So how do we motivate our students to write? 

I think as teachers we often throw our students into the deep end with writing tasks. When we ask them to speak they often only have to say one or maybe two sentences that are quickly forgotten but when writing they have to build whole texts that are there in black and white for all to see. So maybe we need to get our students happy in the shallow end and lead them to deeper waters when they are ready. In other words writing can be developed in stages, allowing students to experiment with language and building up their confidence to put longer pieces of text together.

We can do short activities to help them tap into their creativity and help them structure sentences appropriately. We can do collaborative writing tasks to give students a chance to help each other. We can develop interactive writing tasks that allow students to see how writing is communication and has a relevance to their lives and we can study songs or prose to allow students to see how to use words and phrases imaginatively in the classroom. Finally we can make sure that the feedback that students get on their writing tasks focus as much on the content as on the accuracy of the language used.

In my webinar, I will show examples of these kinds of tasks and show how the process of learning writing skills can be fun and help students to enjoy writing.

writing-the-new-speaking

Register for Gareth’s webinar ‘Solutions Writing Challenge #2: Writing – the new Speaking’ on either Thursday 19th or Friday 20th of March to explore this challenge further.

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Writing – Solutions to Mistakes

Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBFreelance teacher trainer, Olha Madylus, looks at some of the issues related to improving students writing skills ahead of her upcoming webinar on Solutions Writing Challenge #1: My students keep making the same mistakes.

Many teachers voice concerns about their students’ inability to improve their writing and learn from their mistakes. Why is it so difficult to improve? Is it the approach we take to writing? We don’t like to write in our own language so why would our students want to write in English?

There are a number of ways to help students overcome their difficulties. Students jump very quickly from producing short texts, which are often written in order to practise a particular grammar item, to writing compositions which require a lot more than simply getting the ‘grammar right’ to be successful. They need to consider how to address the composition title, come up with arguments and ideas, use rich vocabulary, structure the text appropriately and even be imaginative.

So, it’s a good idea for writing tasks to be ‘scaffolded’. This is a term we use a lot with early years’ language learning. ‘Scaffolding’ means that tasks include a lot of support so that learners aren’t overwhelmed and can be successful. Gradually the support is withdrawn as students’ ability and confidence increases. It’s like teaching a child to swim: once they are ready, you take away your hands from under their tummy and off they go alone. Within scaffolded tasks learners can still be allowed enough freedom for their imagination and creativity, which adds to motivating them to write.

Writing is a process and teachers can help their students by focussing on different parts of that process individually. Tasks can focus on various sub-skills, as teachers help their students improve the communication, the language, even the register of their writing.

Teachers can also drive their students toward success by taking a more positive approach to marking writing tasks. Getting back your homework covered in red ink and negative comments is very demoralising. Success is a key element in the classroom. If learners, particularly teens, whose egos are quick to bruise, feel they are failing at something, they tend to avoid it and rather than making more effort, make less or none at all.

We should also reflect on where students do their writing. Much is done at home, but teachers can also encourage their students to collaborate when they write. Working in pairs or small groups encourages learning writing skills to take place and not just testing these skills.

Register for Olha Madylus’s webinar ‘Solutions Writing Challenge #1: Solutions to mistakes’ on either Tuesday 24th or Thursday 26th February to explore this challenge further.

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Why is writing so hard?

Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBOlha Madylus, an experienced teacher and teacher trainer gives her thoughts on the first of our Solutions Speaking Challenges: ‘My students keep making the same mistakes’.

As teachers we may despair of marking our students’ written work and writing that ‘C+ must try harder’ at the bottom of their compositions, but let’s spare a thought for those poor students, who may after all be trying as hard as they can.

First let’s admit it – writing is hard!

They are on their own

Students face a number of challenges producing correct and appropriate texts. For a start it is usually a solitary task, often given as homework and therefore unsupported. In class students can find support from each other doing pair or group work and also from their teacher. Writing a composition for homework, they often don’t know how to help themselves.

*Consider allowing students to write compositions collaboratively in class, especially when writing long texts is new to them.

Topics can be uninspiring 

How easy would we find it to write something interesting (let alone grammatically correct) on the topics given. While practising other skills it is possible to be genuinely communicative and even have fun, but this is rare in writing practice.

*Consider allowing students to choose their own topics to write about; doing creative writing; tapping into the interests of the students.

Too much feedback is counter-productive

When it comes to motivation, students often feel a great sense of failure when they have writing returned to them covered in red ink, with each mistake highlighted. It is not easy to know how to pick yourself up and start again. If our students are teenagers this is particularly difficult. They may put on a show of not caring, but teens find criticism very painful and may feel great frustration in not understanding exactly how they can redress their weaknesses in writing.

*Consider being selective about what you mark; marking positively; reducing the word count of written tasks so that students can focus on quality rather than quantity.

Writing is a difficult skill even in our mother tongue – consider how often we have to write continuous impressive prose in our lives, especially when texting and emails encourage short abbreviated text.

There are many skills involved in producing good compositions. We should not expect students to be able to write well without breaking down the skills and practising them separately. Footballers practise shooting at the goal, dribbling, tactics etc. They are not simply asked to turn up at the match and play the game!

These are just some of the skills needed to produce good writing:

  • Correct grammar
  • Range of vocabulary
  • Accurate punctuation
  • Correct layout
  • Correct register
  • Accurate spelling
  • Good range of sentence structures
  • Linking
  • Imagination
  • Planning
  • Drafting
  • Proof reading
  • Communication

I am sure you can think of more!

Rather than expecting students to put all these skills together, we must consider how to break them up, practise them effectively and gradually combine them – on the journey of developing writing.

Students sometimes get register confused when writing. This activity helps them to recognise style/register.

Hand out this list to students, or pop in onto a PowerPoint slide and display each line one at a time:

Once upon a time…
I regret to inform you…
All my love, Boris xxx
She grabbed the gun and pointed it at Dillon.
 Add two tablespoons of sugar and stir…

Ask students to consider, discuss and then suggest where they think these are taken from and why. For example, the first one must be from a children’s story, because it’s formulaic.

To expand the activity, ask students to work in pairs and add one more line either before or after using the same register. Check together if they sound correct.

This type of task (which doesn’t have to take a lot of class time) helps focus students on the conventions of different styles of writing. It can be used if you notice that students are using incorrect register in their writing assignments to raise awareness.