A free lesson plan, which I wrote for the British Council Teaching English Teens page.
This lesson begins by focusing on some anti-smoking posters with students discussing the message and effectiveness of each one. They then learn some vocabulary to talk about four key reasons not to smoke: (health, cost, the impact on your attractiveness, and the impact on others). Students then choose one of these reasons and write a paragraph about it, using the vocabulary as appropriate.
As an optional final activity, the students design their own anti- smoking poster and present it to another pair or to the class.
Click here for the lesson plan and student’s worksheet.
Raise awareness of the many reasons not to smoke, or to give up smoking.
Extend students’ vocabulary to talk about health risks and other issues connected with smoking. E.g. bad breath, anxiety, blood pressure.
Develop students’ writing skills through writing a paragraph (using vocabulary) about one negative aspect of smoking.
Encourage peer feedback and correction on writing.
As an optional final task, develop students’ oral fluency as well as their ability to work together to design a poster and present it to their peers
Marking written work can be incredibly time-consuming, and it’s disheartening when you see the students glance quickly at your detailed comments and put the piece of writing away in their bags never to be looked at again.
So, what can be done to a) reduce your workload as a teacher and b) encourage students to actually learn something from your feedback*?
We all know that it’s important to get students to take responsibility for their own work and many teachers use a correction code to encourage students to self-correct. This can be useful, but you still need to be selective. Too many corrections/comments can lead to the student feeling overwhelmed and demotivated, and/or the student not knowing which of these areas are high priorities.
Choose one or two areas with the whole class that you will focus on for this set of written work only. For example, if it is an opinion essay, you might choose to focus on text organisation. Or you could choose a grammatical area, such as articles, that the whole class finds difficult. Instead of the teacher choosing these areas, you could negotiate them with the class before they start or after they have written the work but before they have handed it in.
Ask students to individually select two areas they want you to focus on as you mark their work. They could either write these at the bottom of their work, or highlight sections that they don’t feel as confident about.
Focus on just one or two (anonymous) pieces of work that you look at with the whole class. Take it in turns so that everyone has this opportunity. Especially with a monolingual group, it is likely that many of the issues will be the same for most students.
Just correct one paragraph of each student’s work. Then ask them to self-correct anything similar in the rest of the piece.
Of course, with all these approaches it is important that the students understand that not highlighting something doesn’t automatically mean that it is correct, but that you are being selective.
Set aside time for students to respond to and act on your feedback
In the UK this has the lovely acronym DIRT (directed improvement and reflection time). If we don’t want our carefully thought through feedback to be ignored, DIRT is vital. However, it is unlikely in most contexts that you will have sufficient class time for students to sit and re-draft the whole pieces of work in class. Again, be selective.
So, if you have just marked one paragraph, students could work on that one paragraph in class, and then look at the rest at home. Or, if you have just marked errors with articles, you could write a selection of errors on the board for the class to correct, and then ask students to correct just one paragraph of their own work in class. Or if they have asked you about a particular section, give them time to work on rewriting that section in class, in response to your feedback.
Once students are familiar with the DIRT technique, you can write DIRT activities on the bottom of their written work. For example, ‘Find at least three sentences where you have used ‘and’ and ‘but’ and change them to use more complex linkers’ or ‘rewrite paragraph 3 and make sure that the tenses are used correctly.’
Extensive feedback that students do nothing with is, quite frankly, a complete waste of everyone’s time, so why not experiment with some of these ideas?
*Of course, feedback is not only about pointing out what could be better, and it is also important to point out what went well.
You can find another post on written feedback here:
A free downloadable lesson, based around a Russian advertising video for shampoo. Despite what is aims to sell, the video is actually quite inspiring, with the story of a girl who succeeds against the odds through pure grit and determination. Students start by watching the video and trying to guess what it is trying to advertise (so don’t tell them!). They then try to reconstruct the story in pairs, watching the video again to check their ideas. The lesson then goes on to focus on a range of linkers used to give reasons or results, make contrasts and show when something happened. Students then work with some vocabulary to describe personality, and then put it all together by writing the story of the video, using the linkers and the vocabulary where appropriate. Finally, there are some quotes about success for them to discuss.
In a previous post I took a look at some ideas for using a genre approach to help students with IELTS writing, Task 1. In this post, I’d like to look at some ideas for Task 2, the essay. This is obviously equally applicable to anyone with students who need to write semi-academic opinion essays.
Taking a genre approach means looking at the key features of a particular genre, and helping to raise students’ awareness of these features, and thus their ability to reproduce them.
Useful headings to consider are:
Content or communicative purpose- Layout- Organisation- Grammatical structures- Lexis/formulae
Broadly speaking, all the tasks in IELTS Part 2 have the same communicative purpose- to express your opinions on a topic of general interest. The layout will also be the same, with an introduction, paragraphs for each key idea and a conclusion.
However, the organisation will vary depending on the specific type of question. It’s really worth familiarising your students with the different types of question and how to approach them.
There are essentially three different types of questions in IELTS
1 Presenting your argument: Often phrased ‘To what extent do you agree or disagree.’
2 Balanced argument: Often phrased ‘Some people think…Others think…Discuss both these views and give your own opinion.’ Or ‘Discuss the advantages and disadvantages….and give your own opinion’
3 Problem/cause and solution: Phrasing varies, but could be ‘What do you think are the causes of these problems and what measure could be taken to solve them?’
Each of these should probably be organised slightly differently. In the first type, I’d suggest a good way of organising it could be:
State your opinion
A paragraph for each main point you want to make.
For the second type, you need to be less upfront about your opinion, so:
Arguments in favour
Arguments against (or vice versa)
And for problem/solution:
Conclusion: summary of the situation and your opinion.
Students need to be very confident about these different types and how to organise them so, rather than writing lots of essays, at least to start with, I’d suggest looking at lots of questions (and model answers).
Some possible activities once students are familiar with the three main types:
1. Look at IELTS questions (there are lots of past questions, or close facsimiles, online) and decide if they are type 1,2 or 3.
2. Take an IELTS question that is a particular type and ask students to rewrite it to make it another type.
3. Give students a model answer, and ask them to guess what the original question was.
4. Give out a model answer and get students to identify the different sections.
5. Cut up a model answer and get students to put the paragraphs in the right order (obviously this works on discourse skills as well)
6. Rewrite a model answer so that there is no paragraphing and ask them to divide it into paragraphs.
7. Rewrite a model answer so that the organisation doesn’t flow anymore, and ask students to identify the problem with it.
8. Ask students to pick out the key idea in each paragraph of a model answer.
In some of these activities we started to look at the internal organisation of the paragraphs by getting students to pick out the key idea. One way of helping students to organise a paragraph is by looking at topic sentences. These are a bit of a blunt tool, because in reality, it isn’t always as simple as any rules we can give them. However, while it may be oversimplified, the recipe of topic sentence, supporting ideas and examples isn’t a bad start for many students.
You can practice this by:
Getting students to identify the topic sentence, sporting ideas and examples in a model answer.
Giving them the topic sentences for each paragraph and asking them to add supporting ideas and examples.
Removing the topic sentences from a model answer, and asking them to write what they think they were from looking at the further ideas and examples.
As with the post on IELTS Task 1, it’s worth putting in some specific practice on writing a good introduction. Careful analysis of the question will help, as we’ve seen, with organising the essay, but it should also help students to know how to start their essay.
Let’s take an example from IELTS Foundation. A good place to start is always by getting students to underline the key words:
‘People will never be willing to make the dramatic lifestyle changes needed to control climate change. For this reason, governments must force people to do so.’
To what extent do you agree or disagree?
A good introduction should explain what they understand by the question, and might give a little background information. So identifying the key words will help with pulling out what the main idea is.
Then you could ask students to choose the best introduction from a selection. Here are the choices from IELTS Foundation:
1 I think that it is very important that we should all look after our planet. After all, it is the only one we have. There are lots of small actions that we can all take such as switching off computers and televisions, rather than leaving them on standby or walking short distances rather than going in the car.
2 Nowadays, most people are aware of the threat of climate change and are willing to make small changes to the way they live. However, for the majority of people this does not include such things as giving up their car or giving up flying abroad.
3 Governments must force people to make changes or the problem of climate change will never be solved. If necessary, people who continue to pollute the planet should be sent to prison.
[The answer is 2, because it simply summarises the background situation, and students could then go on to discuss if and whether people should be forced to do these things]
Variations on this activity could include:
1 Giving a question and asking students to just write an introduction as a warmer or change of pace activity.
2 Asking students to compare these introductions in small groups and choose the best one, or make changes together to improve what they have written.
Most students seem to feel that the best way to prepare for IELTS writing is to write lots and lots of essays. However, very often there is no significant improvement from one essay to the next. Students also get very caught up in the accuracy of the language being used, when there are still some serious structural defects. Language is very important as well, and I think there’s another post in that, but getting the structure right can also make a huge difference.
In a previous post, I looked at how a genre approach could help students who need to produce a specific type of writing. IELTS is a perfect example of this, and in this post, and the next one, I want to look in more detail at ideas for helping students to become familiar with the genres required for the IELTS Writing Test.
At first, the IELTS Writing Test (whether as a teacher or student) can seem rather intimidating. Many people are not particularly familiar with the kinds of texts required, and students are penalised for not producing exactly the right kind of text.
However, as a teacher of General English we ask our students to produce many different genres. For example:
Thank you letter
Letter of complaint
Email to a friend
Letter of application
In contrast, IELTS requires much less:
Part 1: Describing data
Graphs and charts
Part 2: Essay
In addition, although I have separated out the different kinds of tasks in each part of the Writing Test, they do in fact have a lot in common. Learning what the features are of these different genres is quite manageable and, while it won’t solve problems like not having an opinion on the topic in Part 2, it will go a long way towards helping students produce a decent answer.
The features of a particular genre can be grouped under the following headings:
Content or communicative purpose
So, looking at the most typical IELTS Task, describing a graph, chart or table, we could say:
Summarise information (not to give your opinion about it)
Should use paragraphs
About 150 words
Introduction which rewords the rubric to summarise what is shown.
Identifying key features- not every little detail
Logical grouping of information
Comparing and contrasting
Describing changes over time
Rise, fall, plummet etc.
Once you’ve identified the key features, you can start to devise activities to work on each of them.
Rewording the rubric
This comes under organisation, so we aren’t starting at the top, but it is the first thing the student needs to be able to do. Students who ‘lift’ phrases from the rubric will be penalised, so it needs to become second nature to paraphrase.
You can start by doing this together on the board, eliciting different words and phrases for the underlined sections. For example:
‘The table below gives information about changes in modes of travel in England between 1985 and 2000’
Don’t forget that you can change the sentence structure too, so ‘changes’ could become ‘how…have changed’. This is particularly useful if students can’t think of a synonym. Once students have got the idea, and a few useful phrases up their sleeves, this can become a regular warmer, with a competition to see how many appropriate paraphrases they can produce in a time limit. E.g.
The table illustrates how methods of transport in England changed between 1985 and 2000.
In this table we can see the changes in how people in England travelled between the years 1985 and 2000.
This table shows changes in modes of transport in England over a 15 year period, from 1985- 2000.
Summarising information/identifying key features
This is probably the biggest challenge of Part 1, and it takes lots of practice. Depending on their educational background, students may not be very used to interpreting graphs and charts, so you need to try and familiarise them with how they work. A good way to do this is to start off by getting students to make their own, based on information about themselves or the class. In this way they will really understand the data, making it easier for them to identify the most important features.
Next, you could try giving students model answers without the graph or table, and ask them to draw it based on the answer. They can then compare it with the original.
There is usually some kind of contrast in these types of questions-e.g. some sales fell while others grew, so train your students to look for similarities and differences, and any particularly striking contrasts.
One way to practise this is to take a kind of jigsaw approach. Divide students into pairs and ask A to look for similarities between the pieces of data and B to look for differences. They can then share information and decide together on the most relevant pieces of information to include.
Giving a clear overview
This is related to identifying key information, but requires students to summarise the main point(s). It is really important that they are able to do this, though it doesn’t really matter if they give the overview at the beginning, as part of the introduction, or at the end, as a conclusion.
Show students a chart of graph with three possible overviews and ask them to decide which one is best, and why. As they become more familiar with this task, they can write their own choice of three and swap with other students to decide on the best overviews.
Using paragraphs/logical grouping
Once students have identified the key features, they need to decide how to group them. There are different ways of doing this, depending on the information. For example, they might choose to organise it from smallest to biggest (though still not describing every little detail), or first look at similarities and then differences.
Again, model answers can be very helpful. Try asking students to decide how they would organise their answer to a question, and then compare their ideas with the model answer.
Students are very often asked to compare and contrast in these tasks, so a good grasp of the kind of language they need to do this is really helpful. ( Incidentally, it’s also really useful for the other IELTS tests, especially Speaking) This can be achieved through work on formulae (e.g. In contrast, we can see that..) , comparative and superlative structures and linkers such as whereas, while, however.
They might also be used to describe changes over time, which also involves comparing and contrasting, but will need more complex use of tenses (not just present simple).
Try using model answers for students to find examples of comparing and contrasting (or any other suitable language focus). Then ask them to look back at a Part 1 task they have written and ask them to improve it by adding similar language.
Essentially, this approach involves breaking down the component parts of the IELTS genres and practising them separately, rather than simply writing practice paper after practice paper. Of course, you can then put it all together and do some practice papers as well.
In my next post, I’ll look at some more ideas for developing familiarity with the features of Part 2 type writing tasks.
I have called this post responding to writing, rather than error correction on writing, as I believe that there is a lot more to responding to written work than simply correcting errors.
To begin with, it is very important to respond to the content of the writing as well as the form. Otherwise we risk being like this teacher:
By Jon Marks, as featured in ETp
When we assess a piece of writing there are various questions we could ask:
Is the content interesting and/or appropriate to the task?
Is there a clear sense of audience (who the writer is writing to or for) and is this reflected in the language chosen?
Are the ideas well organised? Is there a sense of ‘flow’?
Does the writer use paragraphs and connectives well to help get their message across?
Does the writer use a good range of vocabulary in an appropriate and flexible way?
Can the writer structure sentences accurately, and with variety and flexibility?
Is spelling and punctuation accurate, adding to clarity?
It is, I think, important that we look at the questions further up the list, as well as picking out discrete errors with word choice, agreement, spelling and so on. Equally, it is important that learners are thinking about all of these areas as they write and rewrite.
Yet most feedback from teachers still tends to focus on error correction. Why? Could it be that it is actually a lot easier for teachers to give feedback in this way?
When students give peer feedback on each other’s work there is also a strong tendency to concentrate on discrete items, such as grammar and spelling, rather than looking at the whole. I suspect that this is both because it is easier, and because this is what has been modelled time and time again by teachers.
In fact, some would argue that focusing on these discrete items (by teachers or students) is not only just part of the whole picture, but may even be pretty much a waste of time. Truscott famously argued that ‘grammar correction has no place in writing courses and should be abandoned’
Of course, other academics, such as Ferris (2006) disagree, but it is true to say that no-one (as far as I know) has yet come up with any hard evidence that grammar correction makes any dramatic difference. This post by Jeff McQuillan, on The Backseat Linguist reviews several studies which purported to show the positive impact of correction and concludes that, considering the huge amount of time and effort expended, the difference made was not really very significant. McQuillan also cites a study showing (no surprise here) that extensive reading had a much more noticeable beneficial effect.
Personally, I don’t think there is anything wrong with using a correction code to mark work from time to time. It can be a helpful way of focusing on accuracy, and perhaps has the added benefit of encouraging learners to proof-read their work more carefully.
However, I also think it shouldn’t become the default position when responding to students’ work.
In some very interesting comments on my post about process writing, Simon Marshall and Brian Morrison (@ButeBob) make alternative suggestions:
Using the Microsoft comments function to rewrite a small section of the text in a more fluent and/or appropriate way.
Focusing on what is successful about the writing- such as more complex or sophisticated language.
Pushing/encouraging students to try and make ‘safe’ language a little more sophisticated.
To these I would add:
Where possible, conferencing with students about their writing, rather than (or as well as) giving written feedback. This makes it easier (and actually less time consuming) to explain why something is wrong and what could be used instead.
If conferencing isn’t possible, try using the comments function not to reformulate, but to provide metalinguistic comments- explaining as you would face to face. You are unlikely to have time to do this in detail for all your students, but even selecting a few key aspects to comment on could be very helpful.
Reformulating (as Simon suggests), rather than correcting. As well as using the comments box, you could reformulate a certain section of each essay, such as the introduction in an IELTS Part 1 essay. Or you could choose an essay (perhaps from a previous group, and anonymous) and rewrite the whole thing, asking students to then make comparisons between the two versions.
Deciding (perhaps with the students) whether to focus on paragraphing, linking, vocabulary, grammar, accuracy, range etc, rather than trying to cover everything.
Correcting grammar mistakes or using a correction code, but choosing to focus on just ONE area (such as articles). This should help to make the point more salient, and thus students should notice and retain more.
Using models to help students learn about the different features of different genres, so that they can start to use them themselves (this fits in with McQuillan’s point about extensive reading)
And finally, bear in mind that in all likelihood, different approaches and methods will suit different learners, so it may be a good idea to provide a variety of ways of responding and correcting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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:
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.
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.
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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