Tag Archives: writing

Just write: short, inspiring activities to get students writing

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In recent blog posts I have looked at some different aspects of writing in class. Common to all of them has been the point that good preparation is key to producing a successful piece of writing.

However, there is also a lot to be said for writing completely unprepared; short, fun activities where, instead of thinking and planning carefully, students just get on with it and write. These sorts of activities can be used as a warmer, or slotted into your lesson to change the focus and pace. They encourage students to see writing as fun and help to develop creativity and confidence.

In many cases the activities can also be used as a starting point for longer writing activities, but that’s up to you.

Soundtracks

Play students a series of short extracts of classical music, with very different moods. If you don’t have your own collection, a good way of doing this is to use the free samples you can play when deciding whether to purchase a download. Tell students each one is part of the soundtrack to a film, and ask them to write down what they imagine as they listen. Where is the film set, what characters are in the scene, what are they doing..

Similarly, play students a short part of a film (perhaps from YouTube), but only let them listen to it (not see it). Again, ask them to write down what they think is taking place and what the scene looks like. They can then see the original and make comparisons.

With both these activities, students could then go on to use their snippets of writing as the basis for a story or film-script.

Visuals

Give students a selection of pictures of people. Ask them to choose one each and write a brief description of the person (perhaps as much information as they can put down in 5 minutes). Then put them in pairs and ask them to imagine their two characters meet on a train (or anywhere else you like). They have a further 5-10 minutes to write a conversation between the two. Then take in the pairs of pictures and the dialogues and put them up on the wall, so that the pairs of people are together but the dialogues are separate. Number the dialogues and then ask the students to read them and guess which pair of pictures each dialogue refers to.

Similarly, you could use pictures of places and ask students to write a description, or what happened before and will happen next. There are some great pictures taken from Google Earth at http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/gallery/2012/feb/20/google-street-view-nine-eyes-in-pictures but BE SELECTIVE before the lesson as you might not want some of the pictures flashing up in class!

Or show students a photo of a friend of yours or a member of your family and ask them to write about who they think the person is, what they think their personality is like, how you met them etc. Then tell them the truth.

Realia

Bring in a bag with a selection of unconnected objects. Ask students to pick one out each and either and describe it in as much detail as possible (this is a great mindfulness activity), or put the students into 2s or 3s and ask them to each write a short story which involves all the objects in their group, before comparing their stories for similarities and differences.

Ask students to look around the classroom and choose any object they can see (clock, handbag, board pen). Students then write what from the viewpoint of the object. What can it see? What does it think is happening in the classroom? What else does it see during the day, or at night? What does it do all day? You could also ask students not to mention the name of the object, which then allows them to read each other’s and guess which object is being described.

Other

Give out small 5 slips of paper to each student and ask them to write down words which they have recently learnt and want to recycle on each slip. Then put the slips into a bag and ask each student to pull out 3-5 slips (if any words are the same, one should be put back.) They then have a time-limit, say ten minutes to write a (very) short story, which uses all the words. These stories can then be read aloud (perhaps in small groups) and the others can guess what the 3-5 words were.

Tell students to write a short note to anyone in the class. Once the note is received, students read it and reply. It’s fine if some students are replying to more than one person. You have to be a bit careful about the kind of class you do this with, as you can’t possibly see what’s being written, but it can be a great warm-up for a class.

Reading and writing: Give students 5 minutes to open up the coursebook and read the first text or dialogue they see (it doesn’t matter if they only read part of it). They then have 5 minutes to write about what they read.

Show a picture of a Genie (or dress up if it takes your fancy !) and elicit what a genie does- gives three wishes. Ask students to write down their three wishes, saying why they would choose those things and how their lives would change as a result.

In all these activities, the focus is very much on fluency, rather than accuracy. Just as in a speaking activity, you could, of course, incorporate feedback in a number of ways. You could have a feedback slot at the end, where together you correct some errors you have noticed while monitoring. Or you could use the free writing as a first draft, and take a process approach. Getting students to repeat the writing task later, or on another day, would also be likely to improve accuracy.

However, the main point of these activities is really to have some fun with writing and to get students into feeling happy to just write freely.

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Collaborative writing activities

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Collaborative writing

Some teachers tend to avoid writing in class, perhaps feeling that as it is something which learners do individually and in silence, it is better done for homework.

However, when writing is done as a collaborative activity, it can have many of the same benefits of a group speaking activity:

Discussing the writing process obviously provides more opportunities for learners to interact in English, a benefit in itself.

It can also help learners to develop their communicative competence by forcing the negotiation of meaning. As learners try to express their ideas to each other, they will have to clarify, rephrase and so on. The process should also help them to actually develop their ideas.

According to Vygostsky’s theory of ZPD (zone of proximal development),  working with others  can provide the opportunity for learners to work at a level slightly above their usual capacity, as co-operating with others who know a little more can boost achievement.

Collaborative writing has been shown to lower anxiety and foster self-confidence, compared with completing tasks individually (Johnson and Johnson 1998)

Research by Storch, found that texts produced by pairs were shorter than those produced individually, but that they were better  ‘in terms of task fulfilment, grammatical accuracy and complexity.’ It appeared that the process of working together meant that learners were giving each other useful feedback as they went along, and thereby producing more accurate and complex texts. [Incidentally, I plan to look at feedback on writing in a future post]

Collaborative writing can also be a lot of fun, and, with the growth of webtools for collaboration (not my personal expertise!), it is becoming increasingly popular.

Planning collaboratively

Planning is usually an important part of a successful writing process (though ‘free’ writing has its place). Even if students are to go on to write individually, planning together can be very motivating. It tends to work best if the process is given some kind of structure, so that the group is not simply staring at a blank sheet.

In terms of getting ideas, I love this activity from Learner based Teaching. Students are preparing to write about a topic they know a lot about, such as a hobby or their job. They write the topic at the top of a piece of paper, then, sitting in a circle, the pieces of paper are passed round clockwise. Students have to read each topic and add a question about it, making sure that they don’t duplicate any questions. When the paper comes back to its original author, they then have to write a text which answers ALL the questions, organised in a logical way. The texts are then displayed with the questions and see how they question was answered, asking for clarification if necessary.

One of my favourite activities for collaboratively planning academic type essays is to start by brainstorming the topic onto a mind-map on the board, or use a mind-mapping tool. For example, in describing a festival in your country, you might have sections for dress, food, music and so on.

Then stick a Cuisenaire rod of a different colour onto each section of the mind-map. Of course, you could use coloured strips of paper, but I like Cuisenaire rods… Next, put the students into smallish groups and give each group a set of rods in the same colours. They can then use the rods to decide or to order and arrange the topics within the essay. It’s a simple idea, but there is something about the tactile nature of the rods that seems to help with planning. It’s also concrete, rather than abstract.

Writing collaboratively

The first activity that came to my mind when thinking about collaborative writing was the time-honoured circle writing activity. One student writes a line, then passes it on to another who writes the next line and so on. I have to admit that I am not actually very keen on this activity. It can have some amusing outcomes, but I wonder what exactly the students are learning, as the process rarely produces a coherent or cohesive outcome.

One activity of this sort that I do like, however, is Genre Circle Writing, which I originally found in The Minimax Teacher. This works beautifully with more advanced learners who have been learning about the features of different genres. Start by brainstorming different types of narrative genres, such as news article, romance, conversation, fairytale, sci-fi. Ask each student to choose a genre they would like to write in and ask them to think about the features of their genre, e.g. typical vocabulary and fixed expressions, register, word and sentence length. Put the students into groups of 5-6, then ask each of the to write the first paragraph of a narrative in their genre. After an agreed time limit they pass the papers clockwise, read the new story and write the next paragraph, but in their own genre, rather than following the original genre. Continue until the story reaches its originator, who writes the concluding paragraph. Some of the stories can then be read aloud and the students listening have to say what genre they think each paragraph is. These texts won’t be any more coherent than the usual circle writing texts, but they are really good for raising awareness of genre.

Jigsaw writing is another way of structuring collaborative writing, so that the process is clearly defined. This works well with picture stories or cartoon strips. Put students into small groups and give each group one or two pictures from the sequence. They have to write a paragraph describing what is happening or happened in their picture(s), and should have a copy each. [Incidentally, make sure everyone is using the same tense. ]Then regroup the students into larger groups so that there is someone in each group who has written about each of the pictures, and ask them to decide on the correct order of the pictures and make any changes necessary to turn their paragraphs into a coherent whole. Students can then read and compare the different versions.

If students are quite used to working together, and don’t need quite so much structure, adding an element of competition can provide some fun and motivation. This activity also comes from Learner-based Teaching. Ask the class to choose a current event or issue. Then put them into small groups (3-4) and ask them to write a short article about it together. They should try to make the article as informative as possible. Once the groups have finished the articles are passed around. Each group should look for pieces of information or facts which their group did not remember. Students can then vote for the most informative (and best written) text

What other collaborative writing activities have you used successfully?

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Process writing: mixing it up

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As the name suggests, process writing is an approach to writing which focuses on the process rather than the end product. The argument goes that, just as writers in the ‘real’ world go through a process of editing and revising what they write, so should our students.

The typical structure for a process writing lesson might be:

1 Brainstorming ideas.

2 Plan the structure of the writing

3 Write first draft

4 Get feedback on first draft from teacher or peers (or self-evaluation)

5 Write second draft (and third if appropriate after feedback)

I think there is a lot to be said for taking a process approach to writing:

Feedback

Generally speaking, whatever colour ink we use and whatever correction code we use, we often might as well have not bothered marking written work. No-one reads what we’ve written on their essays. At best, they look to see how much we’ve written, and they might glance at any final comment.

For most students, once something has been written and handed in, it’s over: out of sight, out of mind. One of the great things about taking a process approach is that feedback doesn’t come at the end. It’s an intrinsic part of the writing process, and as such, there is a much better chance of some of it actually being taken on board.

Peer feedback is often used in a process approach, and that can be great both for developing students’ ability to criticise constructively and for giving a genuine sense that the learner is writing for an audience.

Students also develop their ability to self-evaluate, which is something they can go on to use independently. It chimes with that crucial part of being a good teacher- making yourself redundant.

Task repetition

Just as in speaking, repeating a task gives more opportunities to notice and appropriate new language. Through a process of drafting and redrafting, it is that much more likely that language will be acquired.

However, there are also some issues with process writing (at least if done in the traditional way outlined above):

Not all students (indeed not many at all in my experience) are very keen on brainstorming, planning, drafting and redrafting their work. An awful lot seem to want to chuck something down on paper and hand it over for you to sort out. Now, of course, part of our job is to encourage them to take more responsibility for learning, but it is nonetheless a downside that it’s such an uphill struggle (is that a mixed metaphor?)

Even if your students are enthusiastic, going through the process cycle is necessarily very time-consuming. There is also the question of how you manage to give detailed feedback on several drafts and actually get anything else done. It may work well in a pre-sessional context, with small groups and 5 hours of tuition a day, but maybe not so well in 2 x 90m a week or less.

Peer feedback can help with the time issue, but research shows that students tend to concentrate almost exclusively on lower order feedback, or focusing on surface errors like spelling and grammar. It’s hard to get students to be able to give feedback on content or organisation or discourse level stuff.

And last, but not least, traditional process writing doesn’t take account of the fact that the actual process of writing has changed dramatically since the advent of technology. People simply don’t write drafts in the same way anymore. See this interesting article from the Guardian, ‘Has Microsoft Word affected the way we work?’

Equally, tools such as spell check and grammar check have completely changed how writers deal with surface errors.

So, given the positives and the drawbacks of the process approach, what can we take from it, and how might we mix it up?

Keep it small scale

Process writing doesn’t have to be carried out on 250 word plus essays. You could focus on just a paragraph. This will make the stages move along more quickly, allows you to really drill down into the details, such as using a an effective topic sentence and giving reasons and examples, and the perfect paragraph produced can then be used as a model for further writing.

Change the staging

You don’t have to start with brainstorming ideas and planning. You could incorporate a feedback and redrafting stage into a lesson which takes a genre approach, or you could just get students writing straightaway (more ideas on this next post), and then get them to look again at what they’ve written and make changes.

More imaginative brainstorming and planning

Getting ideas and planning is a key part of successful writing, but how can we make it seem less of a chore?

Brainstorming an essay using a mindmap on the board is not a new idea, but try blu-tacking a Cuisenaire rod of a different colour to each bubble of the map. Then give groups a set of rods in the same colours and ask them to use the rods to make a visual plan of the essay. Somehow adding a visual and physical element to structuring the essay seems to engage many students more.

Or try moving from speaking to writing to get ideas. For example, if you want students to write a letter of complaint, try roleplaying a complaint first, or if it’s an informal letter, try it as a phonecall first. This should help learners to anticipate what their audience will want to know or how they might react, which should help with making the writing as effective as possible.

Change who gives feedback and how they give it

As well as the teacher or a partner, experiment with some different models. For example, a recent twitter discussion with @cerirhiannon started me thinking about using ‘carousels’. Put the students into small groups and pass round a piece of written work done by someone in the group (anonymous if preferred). Each group has to give a comment on an aspect which has not been covered by a previous group before passing the work onto the next group. This could be a good way of encouraging students to look beyond surface errors as discussed earlier.

Emphasize the audience

Learners are more likely to want to plan and draft if there is a real reason for writing the best possible text that they can. So using a real life context, such as those discussed in this recent post , can provide some genuine motivation.

Use technology more

Students may not have access to computers in class, but they probably will at home, so you can ask them to consciously use the correction features to make changes, and underline spelling or syntax that the computer has highlighted that they aren’t sure how to correct. You can then focus on these areas in class or individually.

Online corpora, or even google, can also be useful tools for students to check their intuitions about collocations. See this article for more indepth discussion of this.

And, using a screen capture tool, such as Jing, you could give verbal feedback on their writing rather than writing comments. There is a useful presentation from Russell Stannard on this here.

Add a sense of humour

The notion of process writing can be terribly earnest. You could work on the skills of correcting and redrafting by giving learners, for example, the worst job application letter in the world and asking them to rewrite it so that the person has at least SOME chance of being invited for interview.

Or give learners some real examples of writing from young native speakers. For example http://www.esher.surrey.sch.uk/Default.asp?page=172  and ask them to correct, revise and redraft.

While the traditional staging of a process writing lesson may be something you don’t want to do all the time, the principles behind it are something which could be used effectively in any lesson with a writing focus. You just need to mix it up a little.

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Using a genre approach for writing

Real Life Adv Pearson (1)Real Life Adv -Pearson (2)As we saw in the last post, all ‘real life’ writing is embedded in a social situation: we write for a specific purpose and audience. We can, of course, also do this in the classroom, but often we are engaged more in rehearsing skills that can later be applied outside the class.

However, the genre approach to writing still places a lot of emphasis on the context and purpose for which the writing is produced. By genre we mean different types of writing such as narrative, report, informal letter and so on. Each of these has quite specific features in terms of organisation and language, and the genre approach usually takes a model and gets the students to analyse these features, before producing something similar.

This approach undoubtedly has its roots in the product approach. A typical product writing lesson might involve:

1 Reading and analysing a model

2 Controlled writing, such as writing individual sentences using a substitution table

3 Freer or guided writing (such as  using notes given to construct one or two of the paragraphs in a letter -the rest being already given)

4 Free writing of a parallel text.

In the same way, however, that there is a big difference between PPP (presentation, practice, production) and more modern paradigms, such as Scott Thornbury’s awareness, appropriation and autonomy , there is actually the same kind of difference between product writing and genre-based approaches.

Thornbury’s ‘awareness’ is about giving students the opportunity to notice features of language, rather than having language presented to them on a plate.  In writing, as in speaking, this is about exposing learners to features of written language and setting tasks which will help them to notice the salient features.

‘Appropriation’ is about making something your own; not just repeating patterns but actually assimilating the new language into your personal store. Thornbury makes a memorable contrast between controlled practice and ‘practised control’. The difference he says is that in the latter, the students are working on controlling the language, rather than the teacher trying to control what language the students can use. This can obviously apply just as well to writing as to speaking.

‘Autonomy’ is about using the language ‘under real operating conditions.’ When looking at writing, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the writing has to have a ‘real’ audience (though it can), but that the learners have complete control over the message they want to convey. They aren’t just reproducing a model.

At the top of the post is an example from Real Life Advanced (an upper secondary coursebook) of how I have tried to take a genre approach to writing. It’s is very easily generalizable to any genre of writing or level.

1 Through a lead-in discussion and a few questions, students first deal with the meaning of the text. It’s a travel anecdote or narrative.

2 Next the learners look at how the text is structured. This follows Labov’s Standard Western Narrative, and is a useful little structure to learn as a lot of different kinds of narratives (such as excuses, examples of past experience you might give at a job interview and so on will follow the same basic stages)

There are also some questions about the tenses used. This is something which students focused on earlier in the unit, so, as well as fleshing out the narrative structure, it acts as a review.

3 Then we start to ‘unpack’ some of the language in the text. ( Incidentally, I would highly recommend Scott Thornbury’s video on ‘unpacking a text’) Here we’re focusing on adverbs. Students compare the examples of adverbs they can find in the text with the rules and examples in the box.

4 The next exercise is intended to give students the opportunity to get some control over the language, putting the rules into action. They aren’t just drilling correct sentences; they’re having to think about how to use the language correctly and appropriately.

5 The learners then prepare to write their own story. They are encouraged to use the same structure, but the content is personal to them and their experiences or knowledge. You may notice that there are prompt questions referring to colours and adjectives used to describe the background, and to what the characters say. These points again refer back to previous activities in the unit (on adjectives and verbs of speaking – mumbled, whispered), providing the opportunity, or ‘nudge’, for students to use this language again in a different context.

Clearly this kind of approach can be used for any kind of text. The key stages are:

1 Read the ‘model’ for meaning first, don’t just see it as a model, but as a piece of communication.

2 Focus on the organisation. Different genres of texts have different organising principles. Research or think about how this genre of writing usually starts and finishes. Is the content in any particular order? For example, an IELTS Part 1 Writing Task, describing a graph, usually begins by stating what the graph shows, then may provide an overview before detailing the key pieces of information (or the overview may come at the end). You could get students to look at examples and draw flow charts of how they perceive the organisation.

3 ‘Unpack’ the language. You can choose some language which seems particularly relevant to the task or you might use corpora to identify language on which to focus. Putting several texts of the genre you want your students to learn to write into a text based concordance, such as that at www.lextutor.ca should give you some useful information about the kind of language students could usefully be encouraged to notice.

4 Provide practice to help students gain more control of the language

5 Help students to put together what they have noticed to help them write their own text. Make sure that the text is more than just reproducing a model, ideally that it has some personal meaning. For example, in the IELTS text type mentioned above, perhaps they could write up the results of their own surveys?

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‘Real world’ writing activities

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‘We don’t just ‘read’ and ‘write’: we always read and write something for a particular purpose, in a particular way, in a particular time and place.’

David Barton

Outside the classroom, any writing our learners do will have a specific purpose and context. Inside the classroom, by definition, any writing is likely to be more simply for the sake of developing skills and language, and displaying those skills.

However, the difference between ‘real’ writing and display writing isn’t a binary distinction; it’s more of a continuum. Our job, as teachers, is to bring the two ends of the spectrum closer together, and help students to see the links.

How much do you know about the purposes for which your learners need to (or aspire to) write in English?

Obviously, if your learners are in an ESE (English-speaking environment), they are likely to have many pressing needs, such as form filling, work-related paper-work, emails, notes to school and so on. There are literally endless ways in which these learners can carry out real-world writing tasks, including writing to local papers, to their MPs and so on. Even in NESE contexts, learners may well need to use written English for work, especially with the growth of the internet and the increased tendency to communicate in writing.

For younger learners and most General English learners in NESE contexts, however, they may not have a current need to write in English at all, but it is still important for writing to be clearly contextualised, and have an audience. We don’t speak without any sense of who we are speaking to, and neither should we write in that way.

That said, I don’t believe that all classroom writing activities have to connect directly to the real world. The important thing is that the activity has a significance or personal value for the learners and that they know why they’re doing it. In the next few blog posts, I’d like to look more closely at some different ways to support learners in developing their writing skills, looking at genre-based and process-based approaches. All of these will, of course, have a purpose and an audience, but not necessarily an actual, immediate real-world one.

Writing for the public can, however, be extremely motivating. Below are some ideas to try, which would work with learners not in an ESE. Feel free to add anything else you’ve tried in the comments, it would be great to build up as long a list as possible:

  •  Writing to a favourite author. Many authors now have blog pages or other ways in which they can be contacted. Learners could choose their own author (which might be someone they have only read in translation), or this could be part of a class extended reading project.
  • Writing a review of a product, film or book on a website. From being a rather unnatural task, writing a review is now something that many people do regularly on sites such as Amazon.
  • Writing on behalf on victims of human rights abuse. Assuming this is appropriate in your context, this is a very real-world writing activity and could really make a difference in the world. See the Amnesty website  where you will find sample letters and advice.
  • Writing fiction for the internet. How about writing an 140 character story for Twitter [#140novel]? Or use one of the many websites where you can publish short stories, such as www.booksie.com? For younger learners, try Littlebirdtales,  where learners can create a picture story which is then emailed to specific friends and family, rather than being open to the whole internet. Or, a personal favourite, www.futureme.org.  On this site, people write letters to themselves to be delivered on a specific date in the future. Still a real audience….
  • Comments on news articles and opinion pieces. Most newspapers now have online version where readers can comment. A particularly good source is the BBC, which asks specifically for comments in the Have your Say section. For example, this article and comments on ‘Invisibility cloaks: will we ever really have them?’

 

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