How to teach writing 2 - increasing precision in student essays
A common issue with ESOL learner writing is connected to the appropriate usage of words and phrases for different kinds of text.
As with all language situations, in writing we call on the language we know in different ways to do different jobs (or functions) for the people we are communicating with.
At most high schools around the world, most English language writing is generally performed in response to expository, explanatory or opinion-based prompts, such as:
Expository prompts: Describe…, Write about…, What is your favourite…
Explanatory prompts: Give reasons for…, Why…, What are some causes of…
Opinion prompts: …do you agree?, To what extent do you agree that…, In your opinion,…
Many students rely on a set of fixed expressions to target these prompts. They may have learnt these phrases lexically, in a similar was to studying vocabulary: ‘My favourite ____ is’ presents your favourite item, ’because’ and ‘due to’ give reasons, ‘in my opinion’ and ‘I think that’ mean you will give your opinion. This is fine to some degree - it helps learners to develop some useful functions for putting essays together. However, these phrases may not be enough to communicate different shades of opinion, or different levels of agreeing / disagreeing - this takes more than simple set phrases to achieve.
One way of presenting these shades of opinion is to work with modifying language, which can be used to build on the set phrases that students already use, to communicate more specific levels of meaning. Some useful modifiers could be:
mostly / to a large extent / almost totally / strongly / absolutely / somewhat / largely / often / in many cases, / can / much of… / many of…
Take a moment to think about how these adverbs and adverbials could be used to strengthen or soften the following common phrases:
I agree that…
This is due to…
This is because of…
This is not correct.
You can see that these adverbs are very flexible, and can appear in different positions to produce much more elegant phrases than the off-the-peg language which students tend to draw on in their writing.
Teaching idea: Writing chains
Take some common cause and effect topics from content that the students have already studied (it’s useful to review topics that are familiar to students in this kind of writing exercise, rather than overloading them with new topics at the same time)
Instruct students to take a blank piece of paper and to write a simple sentence answering some questions about that topic, for example: pollution:
What causes air pollution?
Why is there so much plastic in the sea?
Why do rivers get polluted?
Give students 60 seconds to respond to each of these questions, and then ask them to pass their paper to the person next to them. The next student reads the sentence with a fresh pair of eyes, and thinks about whether that statement is always, absolutely 100% true.
In most cases, there is no absolute, 100% link between causes and effects in the world, so these sentences can now form the starting point for more precise meanings. Students add modifiers in the appropriate position to reduce the black-and-white impact of the initial sentence, for example:
Original sentence: Water pollution is caused by farming
Modified sentence: Water pollution is often caused by farming / Farming can cause water pollution
As a follow-up, students can engage further with the concepts in the sentence, and specify the claim by modifying the nouns:
Original sentence: Water pollution is often caused by farming
Items to specify: what kind of water pollution? Where? What kind of farming?
Modified sentence: In developed countries, water pollution in rivers is often caused by industrial farming
These modifiers serve to specify the message and also modify the strength of the sentence, producing a much more effective result in the end.
Tom Garside is Director of Teacher Training for Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in a totally online mode of study, and the RQF level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with a specific focus on online language education.