Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Helping your students to become effective writers

Julie Moore
This was the title of a recent webinar hosted by Oxford University Press and presented by Julie Moore.  What follows is a summary of what she had to say.

Writing in a digital age

What do we write?
  • shopping lists
  • greetings cards
  • e-mails
  • text messages
  • Facebook updates and comments
  • online reviews
  • Tweets
  • blogposts and comments
  • personal profiles
  • etc., etc.
Of this list, perhaps only the first two are handwritten.  Everything else is typed.  We are probably doing more writing than ever before, but not by hand.  Writing content isn't just by professionals anymore.  Everyone writes and publishes online.  Writing skills, therefore, should be an increasingly important part of what we teach, but they are often neglected.  Far too often, writing is moved to a homework task and then taken in and marked, but without any meaningful teacher input.

 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?
  1. 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. 
  2. 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.
  3. Coherence and cohesion - Get students to look for the language and mechanisms that link ideas together.
Follow the noticing with a writing activity.  Ask students to transfer the principles of what they have seen to their own writing.  You must set them an easier task to write than the text they've just read.  For example, you could get students just to write effective topic sentences.  When they've written them, swap with a partner who has to guess what's to come in the rest of the paragraph.  This will tell them if they have written a good topic sentence.  Alternatively, when a complete writing task is done, ask students to highlight or underline their topic sentences and check that they're clear and that all of the supporting sentences are relevant.

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
If you've been working with a text for a while and the students are very familiar with it, it's a valid exercise to ask them to turn it over and summarise it from memory.  For longer and more complex texts, get students to extract some keywords from which they then have to write a summary.

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:

Gareth Bale moved to Real Madrid for £85 million.
You then ask students to elaborate, for example, by asking, 'Who's Gareth Bale?'  This could lead to:
Welsh footballer, Gareth Bale moved to Real Madrid for £85 million.
'What is Real Madrid?'  'Where did he move from?'
Welsh footballer, Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham to top Spanish team, Real Madrid for £85 million.
'When did he move?'  'Is £85 million a lot for a footballer?'

In September, Welsh footballer, Gareth Bale broke the world transfer record when he moved from Tottenham to top Spanish team, Real Madrid for £85 million.
Now, we have a very good summary sentence!  We have stretched the students so they have written more, but still limited them to one sentence.  This encourages students to use prepositions, reduced relative clauses, etc., and moves their writing from the simple sentence to a much more complex one without ever having to talk about grammar!  We are gently pushing our students to do better.
Stretching students' writing - a summary
  • 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.
Drafts and feedback
How do we give feedback on students' writing?
Some traditional ways:
  • 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.
Some alternatives:
  • 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.
Develop a personal proofreading checklist
1. Get students to make their own proofreading checklist of common language issues, based on feedback on previous writing assignments.  They could include:
  • general language areas - spelling, punctuation
  • areas of grammar - subject-verb agreement, articles, etc.
  • areas of vocabulary - uncountable nouns, collocations, etc.
If you are going to do this in class, get students to bring in lots of examples of their work from past lessons.
2.  It can be very difficult to spot errors in your own writing, so get students to work in groups and discuss how they can use the tools and techniques below to systematically check their writing.  Get them to come up with other ideas of their own.
  • computer spell-check
  • computer 'find' facility
  • dictionary
  • peer feedback
  • reading aloud
Teaching writing skills - a summary
  • 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.

1 comment:

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