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TEACHING WRITING TO TEENAGE STUDENTS

Четверг 26 Февраль 2015


Почему так важно учиться письму? Несомненно, письмо — одно из основных средств коммуникации. Каждый день ученики пишут смс, электронные письма, обновляют статусы в сети Facebook и ведут блоги. Взрослым же студентам необходимо составлять резюме, писать сопроводительные письма и отчеты, делать презентации на английском языке, если они хотят найти хорошую работу в современной конкурентной бизнес-среде.


настроение: творческое

ключевые слова: обучение подростков, творческое письмо, навыки письма, работа в группе, мозговой штурм, экзамены, Spotlight

город: Москва

e-mail: lipasova@mail.ru

 

If we take a sample practice English test for the Russian State Exam and look at its writing part, we will see that it contains two assignments: first, the students are supposed to write a personal letter of 100–140 words and then they have to comment on a general statement (e.g. “Many people enjoy watching television. However, some people believe it can be harmful”). For writing this essay the students are given a certain plan to follow, i.e.

  1. Introduction (state the problem).
  2. Arguments “for”.
  3. Arguments “against”.
  4. Conclusion.

So, by the time students finish school, they are supposed to know how to write letters and be able to produce a coherent piece of text on a stated problem. But as far as I can see, the writing ability of adult students is often quite poor. In my experience, students who may be fine in terms of listening, speaking and reading are often significantly below this level on writing, which seems to be the skill that trails behind all the others, possibly reflecting the modern belief that the most important skills for most students will be speaking and listening. That is why it is crucial for teenage students to learn how to write while they are at high school.

Definitely not all students are likely to become successful writers. According to Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory, all people can be roughly divided into seven categories:

Table 1. Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory

Intelligence type Capability and Perception
Linguistic Words and language
Logical-Mathematical Logic and numbers
Musical Music, sound, rhythm
Bodily-Kinesthetic Body movement control
Spatial-Visual Images and space
Interpersonal Other people’s feelings
Intrapersonal Self-awareness

As we can gather from this theory, linguistic types are usually good at writing due to their ability to memorize details and use logic. Students of interpersonal type also prefer writing to speaking as they do not like the exposure of oral tasks.

In this article I am going to try to share some practical recommendations on how to teach writing to teenage students. Tasks and vocabulary are taken from the textbook “Spotlight” for the 10th grade.

So why is writing so difficult for students? I have outlined the main obstacles and tried to give some hints on how to tackle them.

1. Students do not plan before they start writing.

The process of planning a written text can be split into four stages. The first stage can be called “Inventing”. Here students try to come up with the ideas related to their assignment (I will stop at this creative step later) and organize them into paragraphs. Drawing a mind map can be of great help. Here is an example of a mind map for the topic “Writing a letter of application” (Unit 3).

On the second stage, which is called “Drafting”, students write their piece based on the mind map and a paragraph plan. Writing a draft doesn’t mean producing a piece which will be later rewritten in a nice neat handwriting to be handed in by the end of the class. By writing a draft I mean writing a first version of the final text which is going to undertake the third stage — “Revising”. It can be done by the teacher (it is better just to underline the students’ mistakes, not simply correct them), by the peers or by a chosen “editor-in-chief” if it is a group project. On the fourth stage, “Editing”, students make final amendments based on the received feedback.

2. Students don’t attempt to use more sophisticated, more descriptive words

This challenge has many aspects. First of all, students should be aware of the fact that, being high school students of Upper-Intermediate level, they are supposed to use more complicated grammar constructions, not just Present and Past Simple. According to Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEF), students of B2 level (Upper-Intermediate) should know how to use Present Perfect Continuous, Past Perfect, all types of conditional sentences and a wide range of modals. If they fail to demonstrate this knowledge, their level of English can’t be considered Upper-Intermediate.

Secondly, if you want students to use more varied vocabulary in their writing, a good idea is to teach them topic-based vocabulary. My experience shows that giving new words in a topic-related form will pay off in a long-run. For example, your students have to produce a paper on the topic ”Describe your best friend” (Unit 1). They may be asked to cover the following points:

  • His/her physical appearance.
  • His/her personality.
  • How you met.
  • What you do together.

So, the students should be given a block of vocabulary, which they will have to use in order to succeed with this task, e.g.:

  • Overweight/slim/thin/plump.
  • Well-built/muscular.
  • Sporty/athletic.
  • Blonde/brunette/black/auburn/fair hair.
  • Complexion: dark/pale.
  • Extrovert/introvert.
  • Outgoing/reserved.
  • Shy/conceited.
  • Easy/difficult to get on with.
  • Classmate/colleague/neighbor/relative.
  • To go out/to talk/to walk our dogs together/to do homework together/to go swimming/to do yoga.

The third important tool to tackle this obstacle is to teach your students some functional language. It can be extremely useful since it is a relatively small pool of phrases required for expressing opinion and making suggestions, which can be transferred to any letter or essay. For example, the most common phrases for expressing opinion are: I think, in my opinion, in my view, I reckon, I assume etc. And to make a suggestion, we can use: I think you should, I suggest you, you had better etc. Draw your students’ attention to the words in their tasks which will require using functional vocabulary, e.g.:

Unit 6. Prepare a two-minute talk about improving eating habits using a rainbow diet. In your speech: say why we should have healthy eating habits; mention ways a rainbow diet can help us; recommend the diet.

3. Students don’t know how to use a monolingual (or English-English) dictionary effectively.

Using a monolingual dictionary for every writing assignment will not only make students stop being afraid of it for being “too difficult” for them, but also help them with the problems stated above, i.e. lack of sophisticated grammar and vocabulary. You should show your students that a monolingual dictionary is a useful tool for checking irregular verb forms, countable and uncountable nouns and irregular plurals, finding synonyms and using words in a correct sense (e.g. the verb “suggest” has several meanings: give advice, imply etc). In order to make your students use a monolingual dictionary, not their mobile phones, give them a small assignment (e.g. write a text message or a memo) and try not to set it as a home task, but do it in class. You may watch a TV commercial together and create a slogan for a new product, or watch a movie trailer and try to write a review on it.

4. Students don’t know where to start mainly because they cannot provide the content and ideas.

I am sure you can often hear from your students: “I don’t know what to write about” or “I don’t have any ideas” or “I can write in English, but I don’t know where to begin”. Here are some useful tips on how to facilitate your students’ creativity.

  • Brainstorming. Students may work in groups or pairs. If your students are unfamiliar with the concept, introduce it with a simple task (e.g. ice-cream flavors). Encourage them to be creative and come up with a lot of variants (you can state a minimum of 15–20 ideas). Tell them that there are no “right” or “wrong” ideas.
  • Free writing. It is similar to brainstorming, but performed individually. Spelling and grammar don’t matter as the students’ aim is to produce some ideas in a set time frame (2–10 minutes, otherwise they will lose the focus on their task). Once the students have finished, they go back to their assignment and find the ideas they wish to use.
  • Journalistic questions. The students have to ask and answer the questions related to the topic (who, what, where, when, why, how). For example, if the title of the essay is “Your bad travel experience” (Unit 5), the questions can be the following: When did it happen? Where were you? Who were you with? What did you do? What happened? Why was this experience bad? How did you manage to save the situation?
  • Mind mapping. As I said above, it is a useful tool for planning your text. Write your topic in the centre of the page and put a circle around it. Write either questions or subtopics related to the main topic. Each subtopic will be one paragraph in the text with examples and supportive details.
  • Flow charting. It’s similar to mind mapping but works better with cause and effect relations. It can also be used to plan a narrative composition. For example, here is a sample flow chart for the topic “Cutting down trees can benefit us greatly, but it has quite a few disadvantages, too” (Unit 4):


 

  • Pro & Con list. This tool is useful for an argumentative essay. It contains two columns and the ideas are entered into a respective column. It can also be used for comparing two notions or options. In this case the columns will contain their similarities and differences.

5. Students do not apply a critical approach to their writing. They do not know how to improve a piece.

As I have said, a good way to make students monitor their own mistakes more precisely is to underline them, not correct them. With these mistakes the students can refer to either a monolingual dictionary or their peers. You can also make a small group of students responsible for a writing task. Thus they will be involved in cooperative team work and each member of the group will have a different role in the process, e.g. editor-in chief, reporter, analyst, corrector etc. The number of rewriting stages will depend on a group.

There is another interesting technique which you can try with more advanced students. Ask students to select four consecutive sentences from anywhere in the piece they have just written, totaling at least 50 words. Once selected, they should be copied out neatly in the middle of a new piece of paper, leaving lots of space between lines. Every student should pass their piece to another student. When they receive a new text, students should read it and add comments of their own to the paper, e.g. about the whole text, words, grammar, spelling, misunderstandings, style, and so on, or offering rewordings, suggestions, alternative ideas, etc. They could, for example, underline a phrase and draw a line to link it to a comment written in the page borders. After a few minutes, the papers are passed on again to the new readers who make the new comments, and then again a few more times. When five or six readers have added their thoughts, the papers can be returned to the original writers to read. Encourage students to meet up with comment writers and ask questions about anything that isn’t clear. The writer can then redraft their sentences (if they want to) and add back into the original text.

I hope you will find my suggestions useful and helpful in making your students like writing tasks. Good luck!

 

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