This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Member of APIBA - LICEO CULTURAL BRITANICO – Buenos Aires How can information technologies help our students develop effective writing strategies? In this demonstration, we discuss several computer-based activities tried with teen and adult EFL learners and reflect on how computers can be used throughout the writing process (attending to fluency as well as accuracy) to favour the development of writing skills. Suggestions for ways in which to adapt the activities presented to classes without access to some of these tools will also be made.
♦ Introduction Why do our learners hardly find it easy to write in the EFL lesson? It seems teachers are to blame: “by teaching skills out of context and focussing on written language as an end in itself, we made the task harder, impossible for some children.” (Goodman 1986 p.24). Hoping to avoid that beaten track, I set out to help my EFL learners appreciate that writing is a process in which meaning comes first. I insisted that “Not even the best writers get it right the first time” (Belisle 1996 p.2). I thought I encouraged them to think about what they wanted to say, explore genre and take risks. Yet, I had to admit I was far from achieving my aim. When asked, my students pinpointed a number of objections to account for their rejection of writing: • “I never write to anyone in real life. How can I think of writing to someone who is not a teacher?” • “I’m not familiar with such a genre. Examples in our coursebook are not clear/enough.” • “I don’t know what to say about this topic. I have little imagination. ” • “I can’t pay attention to ideas and be tidy / organized at the same time.” • “I always make so many mistakes... I just hate it!” • “Re-writing takes too long. I don’t feel like going through the whole piece again.” • “This is all pretending. Only the teacher will ever read what I write.”
I decided to try some activities using a number of computer tools (namely word processors, e-mails and the Worldwide Web), hoping these would enable my EFL learners to deal with the writing process more effectively. My purpose now is to share some of the activities tried, so that other teachers can consider their application to their own teaching-learning environments. All the tasks proposed in the present paper have actually been carried out with volunteers in my classrooms (totalling fourteen teens and adults ranging from low intermediate to pre-Cambridge FCE). Finally, I will suggest a few alternatives which do not require the use of computers by all parties in a course, so that classes without access to some of these tools can still benefit from this approach to writing.
♦ “But I never write!”
Was it so? Did my students never write in real life? I found most of them used e-mails frequently, either to ask for information or keep in touch with friends. Yet, they were reluctant to see this as “writing”, which, to them, was just an artificial task restricted to the EFL classroom. Could e-mails get them to write to anyone but “a teacher hunting for mistakes”? I decided to e-mail my class regularly, either with greetings (e.g. at Easter and on their birthdays) or messages (e.g. reminders of dates or assignments). Often, students wrote me back! When a new student joined in, I asked somebody in the group to e-mail them a welcome message. After a while, a few students started sending their own messages to the group, dealing with all sorts of topics - from further discussion of course issues to jokes. I now understood that “collaboration via e-mail was a viable way to keep group interaction and build community on the Internet” (Burke 1997 p.9). Perhaps we had found a way to use writing for genuine communication in the EFL lesson? Through the process of sending e-mail back and forth to one another, students started a natural flow of authentic, fluent writing. As the example in Figure 1 (on the following page) shows, they were no longer worried about being accurate. It was interesting to notice that “when students
communicate with each other using e-mail, their audience tend to focus almost entirely on the message itself and much less on the form, grammar, spelling, mechanics, etc.” (Belisle 1996 p.2). It was now clear to me that computer-mediated communication increases opportunities for interaction among learners and thus creates further opportunities for language learning. I definitely wanted to
Figure 1: spontaneous e-mailing between two students
♦ Dealing with problems in content and style Especially in the case of students preparing for international examinations or studying ESP, lack of familiarity with certain genres (e.g. film reviews, articles, reports) may pose a very serious problem1. At other times (and particularly often in the case of teenagers), the students’ limited knowledge of the world severely reduces their chances of finding something to say about certain
See Bowers 1995 for a most interesting report on how the Web was exploited by a group of Mexican biologists to improve their academic writing.
topics (e.g. taking a course abroad, different lifestyles). Could IT help my class overcome these problems? I felt my learners could profit from learning to exploit the WWW (a few had never got on the Web, none of them had ever thought it might help them become better EFL writers). This virtually endless library could certainly provide us with samples of almost any kind of text as well as ideas to get started. Figure 2 shows an activity my class used when learning to write film reviews. While focussing on planning content, my students got extensive exposure to the appropriate style and layout, read more film reviews I could ever have dreamt of asking them to and picked up phrases they needed.
Figure 2: a computer-based activity
♦ “Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes!”
Although I tried to persuade my students that effective “writing involves braining storming, taking notes, preparing outlines, first drafts, revising, editing, and final drafts” (Belisle 1996; my italics), they kept seeing their writing as a finished product. I then tried to encourage them to use a word processor, on the assumption that “electronic blips on the screen are perceived to be more changeable, more ephemeral, and less indelible than traditional pen and pencil writing. (With) computer-generated writing ... their writing becomes less static and ‘final’ since it's perceived as more changeable, and thus the students learn to perceive it as a process.” (Belisle 1996). A second advantage to writing with the aid of word processors was soon evident: since this software provides the opportunity to activate spelling and grammar checkers, it became much easier for learners to self-edit their first drafts. Spelling and capitalization mistakes virtually disappeared from drafts presented for revision. Grammar errors (less sensitive to computer generated feedback) were reduced. Furthermore, as the grammar checker also objects to long sentences, working with a word processor led students to realize that English writing is characterized by its simplicity and brevity. This realization contrasted drastically with their culturally determined bias for lengthy prose2. Since these documents had been generated in electronic form, it seemed just natural to edit them online. At this stage, colour coding and footnotes (see Figure 3 on the following page) enabled me to elicit self-correction and make conferencing a reality without invading the writer’s “world” 3. For students, receiving an electronically marked document eased the editing process, as they were able to correct their first drafts directly on the screen. When marking final drafts, instead, I preferred to take full advantage of the “mark-ups” feature available in word processors. This allowed me to suggest changes clearly and enabled students to
See Bowers 1995 for a further discussion of this issue. Holmes 1996 presents a similar system which can also be used by classes working with monochrome monitors.
choose between seeing their original version, an edited (clean) version or both at the same time either on the screen or in print.
Figure 3: online editing
♦ “I can’t be tidy!”
Difficulties concerning legibility and layout were also easily faced by using word processors. The same tool made it easier for learners to aim at authenticity as regards format. Figure 4 (on the following page) shows what one of the film reviews finally looked like. I realised we had found a way to ensure a realistic layout we could hardly expect if using paper and pen.
Figure 4: the final product
♦ “Who will read my pieces?” A final advantage of having generated documents in electronic form was that it turned out to be really easy to share finished products, either by e-mailing the group or publishing on the Web itself (several sites make it possible for students to publish their work).
♦ Conclusion Having undergone such an experience, I am convinced that IT must be integrated into the EFL writing lesson in as many ways as possible to favour learners’ appreciation of the communicative value of written discourse.
Most students found it rewarding to integrate information technologies into the writing process. Those who regularly made use of the tools discussed did actually become more effective writers. Beyond language learning, a number of other abilities which are key qualifications in today’s society (such as computer skills) were promoted through the use of the activities described.
♦ “But I haven’t got access to a computer!”
Teachers without access to a computer themselves, or working with classes where only a few students can get on the WWW are bound to find David Linder’s ideas (1999) inspiring. Those working at educational settings where no computers are available, on the other hand, can still benefit from introducing e-mail writing into their lessons (Hughes 2001).
References Belisle, Ron (1996) E-mail Activities in the ESL Writing Class in The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. II, No. 12, December 1996, http://iteslj.org/Articles/Belisle-E-mail.html Bowers, Roy (1995). “A Computer-Mediated Scientific Writing Program” in The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. I, No. 3, March 1995, http://www.kyoto-su.ac.jp/information/tesl-ej/ej03/a3.html Burke, A. Nadine (1997). “Collaboration = Community (In Online Courses)” Delta College, University Center, MI http://leahi.kcc.hawaii.edu/org/tcc_conf97/pres/burke.html Gitsaki, Christina & Taylor, Richard (2000). Internet English; Oxford University Press. Goodman, Ken (1986). What’s whole in whole language? Scholastic. Holmes, Martin (1996). “Marking Student Work on the Computer” in The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. II, No. 9, September 1996, http://iteslj.org/Articles/Holmes-ComputerMarking/ Hughes, John (2001). RU Tching eEnglish 2? in English Teaching Professional Issue 20 July 2001 Linder, Daniel (1999). You haven’t got a computer? Then why not try this Internet project? in Modern English Teacher Vol. 8, No. 4, October 1999