Writing in a digital age
What do we write?
- shopping lists
- greetings cards
- text messages
- Facebook updates and comments
- online reviews
- blogposts and comments
- personal profiles
- etc., etc.
Noticing features of texts
The first step in improving students' writing is getting them to understand how writers convey information and ideas effectively to their readers.
When speaking, you're usually face to face. You're in the same place, you have a shared context. You have gestures and facial expressions to help with communication. You can ask for clarification. Also, listeners tend to be sympathetic and forgive grammatical errors. In writing, the situation is totally different. You often don't know who is reading your work. You need to be much clearer and pay much more attention to accuracy when you write.
How should we notice?
We should start with a reading text and work with it in the usual manner - lead-in, vocabulary analysis, comprehension questions, etc. - so that students become very familiar with it. Then we can go back and analyse the features of the writing in order to understand what makes it readable. It's important to integrate reading and writing skills.
What features should we notice?
- Genre - When writing, it's very useful to start with a model to learn about the genre; the appropriate style of writing, the type of vocabulary to use, etc.
- Structure - We can focus on a particular aspect of structure, topic sentences for example, and get students to recognise it and understand what makes it effective.
- Coherence and cohesion - Get students to look for the language and mechanisms that link ideas together.
The important thing is to get students thinking about how they write and how they convey their meaning to the reader.
Stretching students' writing
The key here is to focus on a specific skill. For example:
- this is a useful skill in many contexts (profile writing, review writing, etc.)
- it's about expressing key information concisely
- it's paraphrasing and reusing language from the text - very important to prevent plagiarising, especially in the 'cut and paste' age.
- it's ideal for pairwork and groupwork
Single sentence summaries are fun and quick to do. Give students news stories and ask them to summarise them in just one sentence. For example, a newspaper article might elicit:
- Focus on specific micro-skills: summarising, describing a sequence or process, persuading, making suggestions, etc.
- Give short, classroom activities which involve pair and group work.
- Gradually build and stretch language skills
- Reading/listening/speaking into writing - you could get students to listen and then summarise what they heard - the summary doesn't have to be based on a reading. You could even get students to summarise a group discussion.
- Correct everything.
- Underline or highlight where mistakes are and ask students to correct their own work.
- Use a writing correction code.
- Write comments (both positive and negative) on students' work.
- Give focused feedback - don't try to give feedback on everything at the same time because students are overwhelmed, put the work away and forget about it. It's better to focus on one area - structure, content, grammar or language.
- Write questions and prompts that students have to respond to.
- Get students to rewrite parts of their work, based on the feedback you've given, rather than all of it.
- Get students to evaluate, check and edit before they hand in their work. Ask students to bring their work to class and give them clear guidelines on how to check it - perhaps in groups.
- Teach editing an proofreading skills.
- general language areas - spelling, punctuation
- areas of grammar - subject-verb agreement, articles, etc.
- areas of vocabulary - uncountable nouns, collocations, etc.
- computer spell-check
- computer 'find' facility
- peer feedback
- reading aloud
- Noticing features of texts: reading into writing.
- Understanding and applying key principles.
- Focusing on specific writing skills.
- Stretching students' writing skills.
- Varying feedback.
- Teaching editing and proofreading skills.