WRITING (by Peter Watkins

Things we need to know, things we thought we knew, things we tend to forget and things to think about.
Writing in the English language teaching classroom has two purposes. First, writing is an important way of communicating. Learners may want, or need, to learn to write letters, emails, reports and so on. Second, it is a means of consolidating other learning: a written practice exercise provides a permanent record that can be taken away by the learner.

There are certain skills which will be important in writing most types of text. Learners will need to spell with reasonable accuracy. They will need to construct sentences in a way which allows them to be readily understood, and link sentences together. They may need to use devices that indicate attitude (surprisingly, to be honest) and those that act as “signposts” to other parts of the text (in addition to, finally). Teachers may also want to devote some time to helping learners use such things as computer spelling and grammar checks effectively. Learners also need to become familiar with the different types of language associated with different types of text. There are huge differences between an academic essay and an email to a friend in terms of vocabulary and grammar choices, layout, conventions observed and so on. Learners need to become familiar with the expectations associated with the types of text they want to write. With regard to writing as a means of consolidating other learning, teachers may also want to provide some written practice of new language. In addition, they can help learners by giving them time to copy new vocabulary and grammar from the board, and checking that they are making effective and accurate notes during a lesson.

Here are some of the essential reasons why learners may need to learn how to write. 1. As we have seen, writing is an important means of communication, and therefore an important skill to master. 2. Writing can consolidate other language learning. Learners have time to think and may therefore be able to use recently learned vocabulary and grammar in a way they would not be able to when speaking. Also, many people feel they can remember things better after they have written them down. 3. Writing is a relatively straightforward way of practising and using language outside the classroom because learners can do it without other people being available. 4. A writing phase in a lesson can provide a change of pace, and can sometimes help when teaching a class which is otherwise difficult to control. 5. Learning to write may fulfil professional needs. Learners may have to write business letters, emails or reports in English. 6. Many exams demand writing skills.

Why not?
Teachers and learners sometimes raise a number of objections to writing lessons. 1. “It’s a waste of classroom time.” This may be true if too much time is devoted to individuals working on their won. However, classroom time can be used to think of ideas, to look at the language that


be required for a particular piece of writing and even to draw up a plan. The actual writing can sometimes be done at home.

2. “Learners find it boring.” Writing need not be boring. Learners can collaborate, discuss what they want to say and how to say it, and use writing to exchange information and ideas. 3. “Learners find it demotivating” Writing takes a lot of effort. If learners are insufficiently prepared for a writing task and then do it poorly, they will become demotivated. Teachers need to prepare learners thoroughly for writing tasks so that they are done effectively.

It is easy to think of writing as what ends up on the piece of paper – the product. However, teachers can probably help learners most by encouraging them to think of writing as a series of stages – a process. First, the teacher needs to create an audience, because we write differently according to who will read our writing, and learners need to know the tone they should aim for. After that, the process the learners go through may be something like this: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. Think of ideas – this can easily be achieved through brainstorming sessions. Organise the ideas into a logical sequence – create a plan. Turn the ideas and notes into prose – write a first draft. Edit the first draft – reorganise and correct where necessary. Write a final draft.

The teacher could collect first drafts and give guidance at this point. Feedback on written work is essential to helping learners improve. Many teachers like to use a simple correction code (G = grammar problem, Sp = spelling error, WW = wrong word, and so on) because learners can then be involved in correcting their own errors. Remember, in a classroom situation there is on reason why all of these stages cannot be done by learners working in pairs or small groups – all making suggestions, all checking work and all taking turns to write.

And, finally …
One of my favourite writing activities is to brainstorm ideas for a particular piece of writing. Learners then work in groups of three to write a text on large pieces of paper. I circulate and help as necessary. The finished writing is displayed around the room. All the learners then circulate and read the other texts, writing questions on them where they are not sure of meaning or where they want more information, indicating where they think an error may have been made and so on. The work is returned to the creators, who report back on the comments made and can ask me if they want clarification of any language issues. The papers are collected once more and each individual writes a final draft for homework.
Peter Watkins is a lecturer in EFL at the University of Portsmouth, UK. He has worked as a teacher and teacher trainer both in the UK and abroad. Peter.Watkins@port.ac.uk
Article published in ENGLISH TEACHING professional, Issue 30, January 2004. www.etprofessional.com