Τρίτη, 18 Σεπτεμβρίου 2007

Teaching writing to students

Eirini-Myrsini Papani

Writing emerged as a mental need of the human beings for self-expression and as an aid to keep it in the memory of the potential readers. Therefore, it goes beyond the boundaries of a single encoding activity and the visual demonstration of symbols, and takes on several, multiple cultural and sociolinguistic roles.

However, writing is not a natural activity, and, therefore, has always to be taught. Especially, when dealing with a foreign language the learning process becomes even more complicated and teaching must be as much effective as possible.

Until recently, traditional, restrictive approaches to writing, asphyxiatingly insisting on structural and formal correctness, convicted the novice writers to lack fresh, spontaneous texts. As Zamel (1976:29) puts it, according to these ‘text-based’ approaches “ exercises and drills on structures and forms will improve the students’ ability to compose”. If this is the case, then how can be explained the fact that students who have mastered structures are unable to compose meaningful texts, violating the readers’ expectations? Is it because of the dearth of ideas or because of ineffective teaching?

Nowadays, the swing has been in the other direction and radical changes of attitudes towards writing have taken place, as a result of researches and observations of learners’ writing performance. So, two new approaches have emerged; the ‘writer-based’, which “focuses on the writer and describes writing in terms of the cognitive processes used to create texts” and the ‘reader-based’, which “emphasizes the role that the readers play in writing, adding a social dimension to the skill”(Hyland, 2002:5).

In the light of the above, the purpose of this paper is to reflect on the theory and application of criteria for the teaching of the writing skill. At first, a teaching situation is described and evaluated (with references to the coursebook situation) and some recommendations are tried for the improvement of the teaching of writing by making use of specific criteria. A description of an original writing lesson (lasting one teaching hour) follows and justification is provided for the choices of the teacher, as far as input, activities and methodology are concerned. The paper ends with the evaluation of the specific lesson and the drawing of conclusions.

1. Description of the teaching situation

1.1 Students’ and teacher’s profile

The teaching situation described here takes place in Grade 6 of a state primary school in Mandra of West Attica. The 11-12 aged students are 20 in number-12 girls and 8 boys- and are all Greeks except 3 Albanians. Luckily, the number of the students, as well as the seating arrangement-there are 5 blocks of two desks put together in each, where 4 students are seated-are ideal for group activities. All learners are monolingual, except for the Albanians who are bilingual. It is difficult to say which is the Albanians’ L1 and which the L2, as the L1/L2 dichotomy is problematic and fails to describe the sociocultural reality (Sifakis, 2004). English is taught as a foreign language, so, according to Kachru’s categorization, the teaching situation belongs to the expanding circle, i.e the periphery (Kachru, 1985 cited in Sifakis, 2004 ).

All the students have been learning English at the state school since Grade 4, but it is a mixed ability class with competence levels ranging from elementary to pre-intermediate, since some of them are taught English at private English schools, too, while others are not.

At the beginning of the school year, students were given a needs analysis questionnaire. According to some of the results, they were found to be motivated and willing to learn the language. They seem to know, at least most of them, the purpose of studying English and prefer working in groups rather than alone. They enjoy the lessons more, if supplementary materials and aids are used in the classroom (photos, videos, DVDs, CDs, etc).

As far as the skill of writing is concerned, remarkable is the fact that the learners who tend to be rather introvert, consider writing as even the most effective learning mode of all, while the extrovert students seem to prefer the speaking tasks and the interpersonal, face-to-face communication.

1.2 Curriculum and coursebook situation

English in Grade 6, according to the curriculum, is taught 3 hours per week-each teaching hour lasting 45′. The material used is Funway 3 (textbook and workbook).

1.3 Postulation of criteria for effective teaching of writing

Before the teacher enters the classroom, it is necessary to have already crystallized some criteria for the effective writing activities and the successful methods for teaching the skill.

Since the specific teacher is not going to follow a single approach of the previously mentioned in the introduction, but a synthesis of those features that she considers more useful for her students, the criteria have emerged from all three approaches. What she believes is that the learners’ free expression of ideas, uncovered through correct, meaningful language and considering social parameters and readers’ expectations must be every teacher’s ambition.

According to Chaiklin and Lave (1996), to participate in activities is to engage in learning. So, the postulation of the criteria will begin from the writing activities:

1) First of all, they must respond to the specific instructional context. This means that except from being of the right level of difficulty and thus manageable, except from being interesting and consequently motivating, they must also take into account the age of the students, their first language, their sociocultural background and experiences. It is important that the topics of the tasks are quite familiar to them.

2) Group or pair work are once again mentioned as a basic criterion for the successful activities, as peer involvement motivates learners and promotes an affective climate in classroom.

3) The activities must be authentic and contextualized. Authentic and clearly stated purposes of writing and real or, at least, simulated audiences help learners realize what they should write, why, who the reader will be and with what expectations, according the context and the sociocultural background. As Mckay(2002:53) correctly observes, “it is often missed that it is people, not codes that understand one another”.

4) Learners must be provided with a variety of activities, demanding a huge repertoire of different genders and writing styles. Practice has to be given in writing, for example, a friendly letter to a discursive essay.

5) Free expression loses from its power, if too many lexico-grammatical errors exist. This does not mean that the activities must insist on the avoidance of these mistakes, but some practice must be given on microstructures, too. Discourse and metadiscourse structures, cohesion and coherence are characteristics of a well-written text.

Successful activities do not guarantee the effectiveness of the teaching process, if the teacher does not use the appropriate methods and techniques. So some criteria must be postulated for this area, too.

1) It is necessary to be realized that writing is a non-linear, recursive, cognitive process, “whereby writers discover and reformulate their ideas as they attempt to approximate meaning”(Zamel, 1983:165). So, planning, drafting and redrafting, editing, refining content and form, organization of thoughts and flow of information are processes that must be taught. As suggested in Allright et all (1988), the focus is on the discussion of the changes that may need to be made, rather than the end-product itself, while Jacobs (1986:282) also claims: “students should become aware that while writing, new ideas can emerge and old ones can grow, change and sometimes be discarded”.

2) As it becomes clear from the above criterion, feedback should be provided by both the peers and the teacher.

3) The third criterion has to do with the correctness of the texts. One way of avoiding the ‘over-correction’ problem is for teachers to tell their students that for a particular piece of work they are only going to correct mistakes of punctuation, or spelling, etc. This has the advantage that makes students concentrate on that particular aspect.

1.4 Critical view on the writing activities of the coursebook

Having defined the criteria for effective teaching of writing, it would be useful to examine the activities of the coursebook, to see if they are in accordance with them, or remedial action needs to be taken.

First of all, it must be noted that few writing activities are contained in the textbook itself, which concentrates on reading, listening and speaking. Only the projects of almost each unit are devoted to writing (see Appendix I, pages 22-25). However, writing is not neglected, as the relevant activities are included in the workbook (see Appendix I, pages 11 -25 ). What can be concluded is that the topics of the tasks are relevant to students’ interests and appropriate for their age and level (eg. pets, school, family, friends, etc). Many genders and writing styles are required; friendly letters, narratives, descriptions, reports, advertisements, etc., and most of the activities are based on texts that learners have previously read. Moreover, they seem to ask for macrostructure as well as microstructure elements.

However, the majority of the activities are not based on group or pair work and are not sufficiently authentic and contextualized. So, the students may wonder why to write, who the reader will be and with what expectations and, thus, may feel confused or demotivated (see, for example, Appendix I, pages13, 15).

1.5 Modification of teacher’s approach to the teaching of writing

It is this lack of authenticity that will make the teacher intervene, in order to adapt the activities and her own approach to teaching writing, in order to be in accordance with the criteria set in 1.3.

Some of the activities seem rather controlled, since many instructions are provided to the students (see, for example Appendix I, pages 13 and 15 ). Things can become much better, though, if the directions are given by the learners themselves, through brainstorming.

Moreover, although it is, undoubtedly, more convenient for the teacher to let students work alone and silently, this tactic has to be changed. Extensive practice must be given on planning, drafting and redrafting, on editing and refining, and, of course, the teacher must be always present giving advice, feedback and coordinating discussions about the organization and the presentation of the texts, without imposing her ideas as the most appropriate.

Another dangerous tactic, is the way the texts are corrected. The overcorrection of structures and forms discourages the novice writers, who just put their corrected writing away and never look at it again. Things, however, would be different, if the students themselves participated in the process of correctness in special conferences.

The above mentioned are just a hint for the modification of practices that the specific teacher must go through, and are the result of self-evaluation.

2. Presentation of an original writing lesson

2.1 Description-Rationale of the specific lesson

What happens the moment the teacher is called to proceed into the practice and the implementation of the theoretical background? Will she be able to interweave theory with practice and really go on the adaptation of the problematic areas of her approach to teaching? The description of the following original lesson will shed some light on the issue.

As it was previously mentioned, the teacher considers it as much more useful to follow a synthesis of the three writing approaches, namely the text-based, the writer-based and the reader-based. Discourse and metadiscourse, cohesion and coherence, the freedom of the writer for self-expression and the need for taking into account the expectations of the potential reader, are the areas where emphasis must be given.

In the light of the above, the steps of the lesson follow a cognitive, recursive process, instead of a linear one (see Appendix II and III, pages25-31) During brainstorming, learners exchange ideas and make suggestions, practicing the skill of speaking and listening, and developing communication strategies. They, also, get practice in quickwriting, the usefulness of which is much emphasized by Jacobs (1986). What follows is the structuring of students’ ideas. The teacher facilitates the process of structuring by asking learners to think on the following questions: a) Who am I addressing? ,b) Why am I communicating? , c) What have I to say? , d) How should I express myself? Then a first draft is tried. Learners read their drafts in the classroom and discuss the changes, that may need to be done. A second draft is written, but, because of lack of time, the editing of the final text will be done at home.

One of teacher’s main concern is to provide contextualized and authentic activities. So, she provides students with a list with the names, the sex, the age and the hobbies of some British students, who wish to have penfriends from Greece. Each learner is called to chose someone from the list and write a friendly letter, introducing him/herself. The purpose of writing is clear and real and the reader and his/her broader sociocultural background already known. What should be added here, is that students have taken practice on talking about themselves in the previous lesson, so an additional language chart is not necessary to be provided in their tasksheets.

Group work is not included, but whole-classroom discussions are also quite beneficial, especially when feedback is given by the students themselves.

While the main concern during the writing lesson is the generation of ideas, the organization and the flow of the information and the appropriate writing style for the specific gender, learners are called to edit the text at home and, using a grammar book or/and a dictionary, to focus on structures and forms, too.

2.2 Evaluation

Since this writing lesson is not already taught and, thus, the effects of the specific choices and practices on learners’performance are not yet visible, no valid evaluation can be tried. The only thing that the teacher can probably imagine, is that the students will find the topic motivating, as it is according to their age, interests and needs. Moreover, it seems to correspond to many of the predefined criteria for the effective teaching of writing.


The mental activities our novice, young writers go through in order to construct proper and meaningful written texts, are all part of an ongoing learning experience. Really good writers do not ignore the stream of their ideas and their intrinsic need for self-expression, because they just focus on forms and, undoubtedly, a good writer also does not risk losing the power of these ideas, because of structural and formal errors. Most importantly, students must realize that writing does not mean to put symbols on a page. It means, to use Kern’s words, “to interpret the world”(Kern, 2000:16).


1) Allright, R. L., Woodley, M-P & Allright, J.M. (1988) ‘Investigating reformulation as a practical strategy for the teaching of academic writing’. Applied Linguistics, 9:236-256.

2) Chaiklin, S. and Lave, J. (eds) (1996) Understanding practice: perspectives on activity and context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

3) Hyland, K. (2002) Teaching and Researching Writing. Essex: Pearson Education.

4) Jacobs, G. (1986) ‘Qickwriting: a technique for intention in writing’. ELT Journal, vol. 40/4: 282-290.

5) Kachru, B. (1985) Standards, Codifications, and sociolinguistic realism: The English Language in the outer circle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

6) Kern, R. (2000) Literacy and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

7) Mckay, S. L. (2002) Teaching English as an international language: rethinking goals and approaches. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

8) Sifakis, N., Georgountzou, A., Hill, M. (2004) Language Learning Skills and Materials. vol. 1. Patras: Hellenic Open University.

9) Zamel, V. (1976) ‘Teaching composition in the ESL classroom: What we can learn from research in the teaching of English’. TESOL Quarterly, 10 (1): 67-76. [Reprinted in T. Silva & P.K Matsuda (eds) (2001) Landmark Essays on ESL Writing. NJ: Laurence Erlbaum, 27-35].

10) Zamel, V. (1983) ‘The composing processes of advanced ESL students: six case-studies. TESOL Quarterly, 17:87-165

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