Sunday, September 06, 2009

Getting ready for writing class: considerations

In the second semester every year I have a ESL writing class, and traditionally around ten students sign up for it. There is also traditionally a 20% drop rate. In trying to make the class as rewarding for the students these are my considerations and how I intend to meet them this year.

Writing for fluency
Writing for accuracy
Writing for organization
Writing for real purposes
General English general language development

Writing for fluency is a skill most of the students who enroll know very little about. Schools stress accuracy, with volume as an after thought. Neither of these is fluency. Writing fluency is writing with an high interest in communication and a low focus on accuracy. Most writing in schools is on the word level, writing words in spaces in test mode. Students may write on the sentence level, but rarely longer in any language. If there is any focus at all on longer pieces, the one who writes the most words with the fewest "errors" is the winner. At the beginning of class no one knows how to start just writing their ideas without paying attention to, for example, spelling. Here are two activities that I use for fluency.
1. Oneword (as in
The students get a word and the write about or with the word for one minute. I use three different words and use this activity as a warm-up.
2. Blacken the page
The students get a lined half sheet of B5 paper, and they fill it up with their writing based on a topic that I give them or on any topic that I give them.

With both of these activities I have problems at the beginning with students who have "nothing to write about." By the end of the semester they have plenty to write about.

Writing for accuracy is something the students are used to, and is the consideration that I spend the least time on. At the beginning of the course they are much more aware of this than anything they want to actually communicate, and their fear of error blocks most anything interesting they have inside them. In the world of word processors, most of what they have to worry about is remedied by the software, spelling, and strange grammar. I focus the entire course on two points, punctuation and capitalization. Since the learners have almost no experience writing beyond the sentence level, they often don't know how to punctuate. They are also confused as to the rules of capitalization, and their first works come out looking like German, with all the nouns in caps. They rarely use grammar that is complex enough to need attention, but when they ask me directly for how to write something in English I help them with acquiring that pattern.

Writing for organization is an interesting cultural awareness issue connected with writing. Students' awareness of organization comes almost entirely from the reading they have done in their L1, and their understanding of it is passive. When you point out to them how a written passage of Japanese is organized, they have their first "Aha moment." Their second comes when we compare that with a passage written in English. The same message is repeated three times, an idea that learners think has to be wrong. When you point out that messages are repeated three times in Japan, like on NHK news and on announcements on the train, then they have something to latch onto and use.

Writing for real purposes is something the learners are very self-conscious about in the beginning. They are not used to seeing their own words in print, and they have a very hard time commenting on other's work. Writing for real purposes also included writing in a real setting, which includes collaboration. Scholars work with other scholars on drafts of their work. Written reports in companies are reviewed and commented on for rewriting by coworkers. However most school students' work is done by the learners alone, for the teachers, and maybe others will see it during open houses at school or when they take their work home at the end of term. Recently students have been using Japanese writing more since email and texting have become so popular with the advent of the cell phone, but English writing is almost entirely done in testing circumstances, and almost never read or commented on by anyone other than the teacher. In my class students are party to any writing, formal and informal, that is done in class. Informal writing assignments include their English Log 2.0, and fluency exercises. Formal writing assignments include a self introductory piece, an introduction to their home town, their favorite recipe, and a piece on one of their special interests. These are all written and rewritten cooperatively, and finally published with a copy for everyone.

General English language ability improvement is another goal of the writing class. Since all of the communication in class should be done in English, this makes the writing class truly a four-skills class. They will be reading passages similar to the ones they will write. They will read their work and the work of other learners. They will talk about their writing and about other's, and listen to classmates talk about themselves and their writing.


Betty C. said...

This is a brilliant post and was very inspiring to me. I am a pretty good (I hesitated on saying "great") speaking teacher, but I tend to avoid writing lessons. I'm always thinking the students will find it boring compared to speaking -- a strange bias on my part, since personally I love writing.

You had some great ideas here, like using I was wondering on how you deal with feedback and so forth. I teach in the French university system and students tend to expect written work to be "corrected." Also, unlike your students, they are used to writing rather lengthy essays in English, but the purpose of these is pretty vague and detached from the real world.

Anyway, I imagine your feedback depends on the purpose of the writing...?

Betty C. said...

Just a PS because I can't remember if I signed up for comment follow-up...

Barbara Sakamoto said...

These are great ideas, Daniel!

When I did timed free-writing exercises (similar to your Oneword warm up) I'd tell students that they had to keep writing for the entire time (1-3 minutes, depending on level). I allowed them to stick a Japanese word into the sentence if they couldn't remember or didn't know the English word to use. The goal was simply to write, without stopping, for the assigned time in order to break down the filter that stops students from writing if they don't know how to say what they want to say.

I'd collect the papers and then bring them back out at the middle and end of the semester so students could see their own progress, both in amount of text generated in the same amount of time and in the ratio of English to Japanese words on the page.

I hope you'll keep us updated about how your plan works out for you this semester!

Daniel said...

Betty C.,
Thanks for the comment. With the fluency practice, I only comment if they haven't written something or, as some students have done in the past, have written the same thing over and over again, "I did my part time job. I did my part time job..."

You're right, students get into this masochistic, "Show me all of my weaknesses," thing, don't they? I correct when something seems chronic. I try to keep corrections to one or two items per draft. When they say they want me to correct it all, I say that if they focus on these two problems and fix them, then we'll move on to the next two.

Yes, my feedback depends on, as you said, the purpose, bu also the level of the student. Everybody writes differently, so it also depends on the student. Some students also need more support than others. Last year I had a student that was so self-critical that all I wanted to do was boost his confidence. If he found a problem in his work, great, that was what we worked with. I complimented more than coached with that person.

Daniel said...

Thank you for your comment and helpful suggestions. I had never thought to suggest that they include a Japanese word. Great idea.

I always take a glue stick to class so the students can stick their fluency practice in their English 2.0 Logs. These things are great, and lets the students do as you suggested, review their progress at different points during the semester.

Thanks, Barbara. I will make progress reports.

Glennie said...

You mention that all "Writing for Real Purposes" is done cooperatively. I imagine that this means that, for example in the case of the student's favorite recipe, this in effect means that sts write individually but are then given suggestions for rewriting by classmates.
Given sts' previous classroom experience, don't you find that most suggestions are about accuracy and few about content? How do you deal with that?

Daniel said...

Thanks for the comment, Glennie.

You are right, the students write individually and are given suggestions for rewriting by classmates.

You are right about comments concerning accuracy, but I am currently finding it very difficult to get students to comment about anything at all. All they tend to offer are compliments.

At a previous school, I taught English majors, and they had English writing classes in their first and second years. At that time another teacher and I were teaching the classes, and in addition to their classmates comments, the first-years also got second-years' comments, and the second-years were graded on their comments.

We did a workshop with the students first to make sure that they could comment appropriately, and then let them go. It was a lot of work for us, because it would have been unethical for us to have given the first years comments that hadn't been screened and embellished properly, but it worked out pretty well. The first-years got feedback from the second-years, and the second-years got a good review and practice looking at other students' work.

Now it's entirely students from the same class, and they don't feel confident enough to say anything other than they liked it.

glennie said...

Sounds even more complicated than I thought...Sounds like you are a victim of Japanese politeness.

I imagine that you encouraged those 2nd years to make suggestions re. organisation and content as opposed to confining themselves to questions of accuracy, esp. if the pieces of writing had a purpose to fulfill.

It is a difficult issue though because in some 'real purpose' writing (letter of application, CVs and so on)and absolute premium IS placed on grammatical and lexical accuracy.

Anyway, I hope you can get your lot to stop pulling their punches just a little.

A stimulating blog entry indeed. I look forward to more.