Writing Workshop

Something that’s struck me, doing EFL, is the approach to writing that seems endemic across the sector.

Basically, the teacher (and this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, true of all teachers) gives students a writing assignment to do at home. Ideally, this assignment is based on a language point, such as the present perfect simple (write about your favourite place to go on holiday), narrative tenses (write a short story) or conditionals (what would life be like if you’d been born as a so and so?), a topic (create a diary about your weekend on safari) or a function (write a letter of complaint to a local restaurant). It is a commonly accepted way of providing semi-controlled to free writing practice without taking up valuable class time.

This idea, that writing takes up class time, and is, in and of itself, a waste of class time, reflects a long-standing principle that is generally taken for granted, but not obviously sound. Communication, and therefore speaking, is the number 1 goal of learning EFL. (A non-sequitor, I know, but that’s the point I’m getting at.) Yes, writing is used much less often in everyday communication in English-speaking culture, but how much time does a footballer spend actually trying to score a goal in those 90 or so minutes on the pitch?

There are plenty of plausible reasons to do writing for homework (students expect it, there are time constraints, just over a century of industry and expert-led pedagogy has demonstrated the importance of speaking, it’s boring, it’s difficult to monitor, correct errors, and develop language purely through writing, it gives the impression of a teacher lazily filling up time, etc), and it isn’t a problem to set writing for homework at least sometimes. The problem comes when ‘homework’ becomes the default position for writing, because the teacher has already resigned themself to the idea that writing is less important than the other skills, but also because that attitude is being projected onto the student, and then what does the student think? That writing is less important than the other skills.

What happens next? The students do the homework, the teacher sits at a desk/in bed/ on the bus marking it, painstakingly identifying each error and categorising it accordingly in terms of language systems or skills so as to provide the student with a justified, accurate mark that reflects the quality of the work, along with a well-thought-out comment that summarises the detailed analysis the teacher has given to the work. Then, the teacher gives the work to the student, the student glances quickly at the grade to ensure they’ve met the minimum required standard, and reads the comment carefully. “Teacher,” asks the student “what strategies might you recommend for addressing this syntactical error I keep making with limited adverbials?”, then the student goes home, researches the matter, and writes a much-improved second draft. The point sticks, the teacher is happy, the student is happy.

Or, the student checks the grade, shoves the paper in their bag/folder/pocket/space between the leg and seat of their chair, and forgets about it.

Quite recently, I decided to involve writing more in my lessons, rather than as homework. First of all, I was growing tired of marking endless assignments, only to see students dismiss the comments. They check the grade, they forget about it. I could just as well look it over in class, and say “pass, pass, fail, pass, fail, fail, pass, pass” and so on. It’d save me time and, for the majority of students, produce the same outcome.

As I said, earlier, this scenario is not reflective of all teachers, and this post is not intended to bash teachers, whether they approach writing in the manner detailed above or not. To put the blame and onus on the teacher is naive and simplistic. There are myriad factors beyond “The teacher decided to do it that way” that must be taken into account, and these factors stretch all the way through the industry (and beyond, if you want to get into educations systems such as the UK and the US ones).

Initial teacher training (e.g. CELTA) needs to address the fact that writing, whilst less commonly used than speaking, is still an important skill in its own right. To the best of my knowledge, there is little evidence of writing having a significant place in classes between EFL students and EFL trainees (though I am happy to be proved wrong).

Many coursebooks and materials propagate the importance of speaking. This brings in other issues, such as the problem of introversion in the classroom (my student is shy; how can I get them to participate more openly in class), and is seen in the plethora of communicative exercises that penetrate writing-preparation activities (in a group, brainstorm solutions to climate change. In pairs, discuss where you’d like to go on holiday). This is all fine, and, if done properly, an excellent way to prepare to write. However, if the next stage is “Do it for homework”, the task being worked towards becomes an afterthought. “Well, it’s not really worth anything, but I might as well stick it in if we’ve been building up to it”, said no teacher ever (whilst setting the task for homework at the end of the lesson!)

Students, and teachers, have become victim to the backwash effect (lovely term, isn’t it? Like something you’d want to call a plumber for!). No escaping it: an exam culture exists in education. Not going to get into the argument over whether or not exams are inherently bad because, in spite of the masses of diatribe out there equating exams with evil, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing an exam, or getting a grade. Poor exam preparation, poorly designed exams, prioritisation of grade over development, that I do have a problem with. Why shouldn’t we expect teachers and students to prioritise the grade, for course designers to base the syllabus on the exam, for stakeholders to judge the merits of a course, and from there an institution, on the grades and the exams, if that is the benchmark standard by which all things are decided, and if relatively little time is given to language development AND showing the students, and stakeholders, that language is developing?

Schools the world over advertise the quality of their services with “Native speaking” or “Native level” English teachers (do me a favour and, as far as it is feasible for you to do so, boycott these schools. However good they might be, they don’t deserve your time or services) and “Certified Examination Centre” (which actually means “We prepare you for exams,” rather than “We have a proven track record of high-quality teaching and unrivalled exam preparation approaches). The message, in the second case, is that exams matter. Then you get “We use the Communicative Method”, or “We believe in teaching through speaking” or something of the sort. Now the local market populace (potential and actual students and stakeholders) have it in mind that grades and exams are the primary aim, goal and focus of EFL, and that speaking is how you get there (even though speaking has a fairly small part to play in terms of actual exam content and assessment).

On a grand scale, it would be incredibly difficult to address these issues without cooperation across the industry. A complete overhaul, as it were, is no mean feat! In the classroom, however, the teacher can put into place some practices to bring writing back into the limelight. There are many ways to do this (and you’ll find them on plenty of decent teaching blogs). Here’s one I like to use:

The students do a writing task. You can have them do it in class or set it for homework. At this stage, it doesn’t really matter. Let’s say, for instance, the class is a CEFR C1 (Advanced level) class, probably studying towards IELTS level 7 or 8, or towards the Cambridge CAE, and we’re doing an academic essay, just to give ourselves a context.

The teacher snaps a photo of one of the pieces of work, emails it to himself, and projects it in .doc or .pdf format onto the board. In each lesson, I’d focus on a different issue. Let’s say I’m doing content. What is the question? What points need to be addressed? So, we check the introduction. What points are mentioned? How do they relate to the question? What is the topic sentence in each paragraph? How do they relate to the question? Does each one relate to a point made in the introduction? We check the conclusion (I normally do this bit after the introduction: a good conclusion should reflect the introduction, and you’re wasting your time going through an essay checking content if the conclusion brings in previously uncovered points. It also gets the students into the habit of structuring their work and being more coherent). Are all the points covered in the introduction/main body of the essay covered here? How does the writer connect the points? Are any new points introduced?

Or, I might look at cohesion. What discourse markers can students remember? What purpose is each one meant to serve (generally speaking)? Which markers can they identify in the essay? How do they connect the various points? What purpose do they (appear to) serve in the context of the work? What alternatives can they think of? Are there any places that don’t have discourse markers where a discourse marker could go?

After doing this, or looking at some other issue (lexis, grammar, coherence, readability, etc) the students read through someone else’s essay and write a descriptive comment, with one or two suggestions for consideration. Students then pair up and discuss their ideas (note ideas, not answers or solutions). They then have some time to read through their work bearing the new ideas and suggestions in mind. Then, they can redraft (for homework, if you want)

At no point during this whole process are students asked to evaluate the work. That’s not fair on the students, who may not want to call people out, who may fear repercussion, and who doesn’t have the training and expertise to make that sort of judgement call!

I’ve found that students become much more involved in the writing process, if it is made a part of the lesson in this way (not the only way, as I said). However, there are issues

1.) Students need to have had previous exposure to writing, and to writing evaluation. What you’re essentially dealing with, here, is a reactive process approach to writing. Hence, not so useful at the lower levels.

2.) It relies on technology. You can take the essays away, copy them, make a big copy and stick it on the board, but then you’re forcing a gap between the initial writing activity and the development stages, which means you’re losing impact and student motivation (it’s instrumental: the students want to improve the work they’ve just done, not the work they did a week or so ago)

3.) It takes up a big chunk of time that needs to be justified. If you’re lucky, you’ll see the improvements in the students, and so will there. If you’re unfortunate, you’ll get diminishing returns, disillusioned students, an angry ADOS and despair!

Is writing neglected in your class? In your school? How do/would you address the problem? Is the teacher ultimately responsible, or should more support be provided? How can we fix students’ attitudes so they don’t just assume that grades and speaking are the be-all and end-all of EFL lessons?

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