Teaching Language Skills Pt 5: Writing skills and sub-skills
As a productive language skill, writing is much more than simply putting words on paper. A complex set of linguistic and cognitive processing skills come into play every time someone composes a message for a reader. Like speaking, writing almost always happens as part of a communicative event, with the written message designed for a specific reader (even when the reader is the same person as the writer). When we teach writing, how can we ensure that our learners engage with their readers, compose and produce appropriate messages, and get better at the set of skills that make up an effective writer in English? This final article in the series will look at ways of structuring lessons for best results, increasing written competencies in English language learners.
Plan for communication, not just production.
When planning to teach a writing-focused lesson, whatever the genre or topic your students will write to, it is essential that writing is seen as a communicative act, not simply a solo activity to be graded by the teacher. There are several ways of ensuring this level of engagement with writing, starting with the way you frame writing tasks in class.
Every writer needs a reader, so this should be a consideration in every learner’s mind from early in a writing lesson. Take some time to think who the reader will be and what they are expecting from the piece that they will read. Exam essay writing, for example, will be read by an assessor looking for certain features outlined in the task or exam rubric. A typical ‘letter to a friend’ needs to appeal personally to someone known to the writer, and even the notes that a learner takes in class should be useful to the reader (the student him/herself) when they come back to look at them later in their study.
When planning writing tasks, leave time in the lesson for the writers to become critical readers of each others’ work, posing as the intended reader from the writing event. Role-play being an examiner, and give the students sets of criteria to mark from, or ask them to get into the character of a teacher, newspaper reader, grandmother or whoever is specified as the reader in the writing task. Only by taking on this role and experiencing each others’ writing in the relevant context can the true effectiveness and feeling of a piece of writing be judged.
Another good way to extend writing activity and increase written communication is to have students write responses to each others’ pieces. Writing a letter or email to a friend can easily lead to the friend writing a reply, picking up points from the original piece and continuing the communication accordingly. This doubles the opportunity for written practice in the chosen genre, and increases interaction through the written word.
Writing as communicative genres
As with speaking events, writing in different genres has expected features such as levels of formality, set phrases, topic-specific vocabulary and conventions of layout and organisation of information. As with the functional speaking activity I outlined in the second article in this series, a functional writing framework can be created for different genres of text. Make a list of vocabulary, phrases, grammar and often found in a letter, email, report, instruction manual or whatever, and introduce these as features to choose from when constructing the message for the lesson. Give alternatives for different levels of formality, tone and style, and students can fill in the content they want to write around the set genre-based features. For example, a formal email might include the following features:
Subject line: (concise summary of topic, often grammatically reduced)
Greetings: Hi + name
Dear + name
Preamble: Thanks for your email
Thanks for this
Thanks for getting in touch
It was great to hear from you
I hope you are well
Main content: (To be chosen by the writer)
I’m writing to…
I would like to enquire about…
I am interested in…
I would like to know… I’m attaching a…
Please find attached…
I’ll respond to your points below:
Signoff: Best regards,
All the best
Giving a choice of initial email and response email content opens up the writing activity to a second response piece, and learners can experiment with building different phrases into their messages as they wish.
Teaching for organisation and cohesion
A common problem with writing performed by students who do not focus on the genre or the reader of their message is lengthy, disconnected ideas which can ramble on as the content is planned and thought out by the writer. This shows a lack of control over the content of a piece in line with the genre, and shows little consideration for the ‘package’ presented to the reader. Redundancy is high and sentences are long and difficult to process, especially if the writer is aiming for high-level language and complex ideas (which through the medium of writing, they have time to think of and compose, unlike in speaking).
A good way of increasing awareness of the effect of flow in a longer piece of writing is a ‘round-robin’ activity, where each student begins their own piece of writing up to the end of the first section (the end of the introduction in an academic or exam essay, the greeting and preamble to a letter, or the outline/aims section of a report, for example). Once the first section has been written, each student passes their piece to the student on their left (or in front, or behind them) for that student to continue.
The second student must first read the new piece and then continue the essay / report / letter they have in front of them, maintaining the same style, tone and content as the original writer. On finishing the second paragraph / section of that text, everyone stops and passes the piece another place to the left for the next student to continue, until each student has a set of ‘Frankenstein’ essays written by several people.
This way of building a piece of writing requires students to come out of their normal flow of ideas and consider how others have presented their content. It requires some flexibility and adaptation of style, and new ways of linking their ideas to those of other students. These are all important skills for English language learners, who typically have to write in many different genres, tones and styles as they progress through their study.
As a final stage to the activity, a final pass to the left gives a new student the role of evaluator, marking the piece for cohesion (how well the piece is connected together) and coherence (how comprehensible it is as a whole). The critical comments of that student are made anonymously to pure content, without the writer being known and in a more objective way.
In summary, teaching writing is more than simply getting students to write to a topic. The development of writing skills depends on genre, connection with a reader, style, tone, register and choice of language. Designing these factors into writing tasks, and adding communicative methodology, can raise awareness of all of these important aspects of student writing.
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 specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.