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The Solutions Writing Challenge: Using Time Effectively

Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBIn 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.

To summarize:

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!)
  3. 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!)
  4. 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.

register-for-webinar


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The Solutions Writing Challenge #3: “It’s hard to find enough class time for writing”

Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBElna is a CELTA tutor and teacher trainer based in Istanbul. She has a lot of experience working with teachers in a variety of contexts and countries. Ahead of Elna’s webinar on 22 and 24 April, she gives us a short preview of what she will be talking about…

I could have been rich, really rich by now…if I had only received 1USD for every single time I have heard the following: ‘’Oh that is such a good idea, but it will take too long…I have to finish the syllabus!’’ Now right from the start I have to say that this is the reality. However, from an educational point of view it is worrying that we feel rushed when it comes to teaching and learning.  A separate issue for another day, possibly with a double latte in hand!

The add-on:

Nevertheless, this is also what happens to writing lessons. They get treated like an extra add-on – only to be brought out when all other lessons have been completed. A shame though, don’t you think? We talk about preparing our students for the world of the 21st century in which digital literacy is key, but we find it challenging to allow time for doing those writing lessons. Those writing lessons  that could combine all the 21st century skills (communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking) and in addition, can prepare our students for a world in which we express ourselves more and more frequently in the written form. Think about it: are there some days when you actually write more than speak?

How to support the writing lesson?

We are treating the writing lesson badly because:
– writing lessons are time consuming;
– students do not enjoy writing, and
– giving feedback on students’ writing also takes time.
So we have to find ways in which we can do more writing, help our students develop their writing skills effectively and do all this without taking up too much of our precious class time. A challenge indeed! In the upcoming webinar we will look at ways that we can work with the writing lessons from Solutions and we will see if we can come up with ideas to be more effective with our time management.

I think we all agree that developing our students’ writing skills is important; we also agree that we need to include more writing in order to prepare our students for the 21st century and offering our students a variety of tasks is essential.

How to do this? Join me to explore some answers to these questions.

Register for the webinar


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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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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.


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Teachers tell us the top writing challenges they face in the classroom

Solutions-Writing-Challenge-logo-WEBIn January this year we asked teachers from around the world to vote for their top writing challenge. Over 450 teachers took part and the results are now in!

With 23% of the vote, the most popular writing challenge was: ‘My students don’t want to write’. Many teachers felt that demotivation lay at the heart of this challenge, with students unable to see the importance of writing beyond the classroom.

Martina in the Czech Republic said: “Lack of motivation is hard to break. (Students) say they don’t need to write in their lives and what they need is to be able to speak English. They even say they’ve forgotten how to write by hand, and they don’t have computers in class.”

Maja in Croatia faces a similar challenge: “My students find writing boring because it usually takes longer than other tasks and they do not feel it is important, since they are not used to writing in their own language. They feel it is something they have to do for school and not something they would do in everyday life.”

Close behind with 21% of the vote, the second most popular challenge was: ‘My students keep making the same mistakes’. Jolinda in the Netherlands emphasised how frustrating this can be: “It seems to me that students do not refer to corrected work which makes me feel like my work is more or less superfluous. The students do not learn from their mistakes.”

Lenka in the Czech Republic was also able to relate to this challenge: “I feel that the more meticulously I correct my students´ writing, the more mistakes they make, even if I write examples at the bottom of the paper.”

The final challenge that made it into our top 3 with 14% of the vote was: ‘It’s hard to find enough class time for writing’.  Silvina in Argentina explains: “It’s difficult to dedicate enough time to written activities with only two lessons a week and groups of thirty students. We usually do as much as we can, but I know that the weaker students don’t get enough guidance or scaffolding from me, and sometimes peers are unwilling to help them.”

Hanna in Ukraine faces similar limitations: “The hours given for English classes are minimal, so writing is usually given as a home task, so checking it is rather complicated. I usually use some extra hours at home and use additional tools like Skype, email or blogs to check this writing.”

Join us as we dedicate a month to each of these three challenges. Through a series of webinars and blog posts, Oxford’s top teacher trainers will cover a range of strategies and ideas which you can use in the classroom straight away.

Challenge Webinar (session 1) Webinar (session 2) Teacher trainer
My students keep making the same mistakes 24th Feb 26th Feb Olha Madylus
My students don’t want to write 19th Mar 20th Mar Gareth Davies
It’s hard to find enough class time for writing 21st Apr 23rd Apr TBC