Of the four skills taught in the EFL classroom, writing was probably the one I most neglected. For years I loved the idea of teaching writing, but there seemed to be so many obstacles. I resigned myself to waiting until the day some director of studies would hand me my first specialist writing course, and hoped in the meantime that my students wouldn’t notice the suspicious absence of writing from my weekly offerings.
Course book writing activities never seemed to work for me. It didn’t matter how well the activity was presented, I would always end up with a group of learners chewing their pencils, rolling their eyes and sighing conspicuously. Writing lessons would be hastily cobbled into speaking activities, and I would resolve not to try again until I was sure the learners had forgotten their previous underwhelming experience doing writing with me. I seemed to be up against a number of factors I had no control over:
So what changed? Observing my own children learn has had a surprising influence on the way I teach adults. They taught me something which is so fundamental that I don’t see how I could have missed it, namely that when learning cognitive and communicative skills, progress in one area benefits all the others. The application of this to the EFL classroom is that becoming a better writer will also make you a better speaker, reader and listener. My lack of success teaching writing was largely due to my tendency to separate writing from all the other skills. I needed to approach writing in a much more holistic way.
I have Mario Rinvolucri to thank for an activity, which launched me into teaching writing holistically. I was amazed the first time I tried it to observe a group of (adult, upper intermediate/B2) learners sit down for about an hour, and happily write 300-word texts that were genuinely interesting to read. The key was in the preparation:
1. In the first class I explain that in the following session we will be working on fluency in writing. They need to choose a topic to write about such as:
- a childhood memory
- an interesting story I have been told (true or fiction)
- an exciting experience I had recently (e.g. while on holiday) etc.
The activity works better if learners choose a subject that is not well known to their classmates
This goes a long way to addressing the problem of writers’ block.
3. Once they have a strong mental picture of the story they will be writing, I ask them to write 8-10 comprehension-type questions about the plot. They then exchange their questions with a classmate, who reads them and seeks to write answers to them based on what he imagines to be the content of his classmate’s story. At this stage look for fluency over accuracy. The teacher should supply language as necessary, but not correct unless asked to. This has multiple benefits: apart from preparing better written fluency through prior practice in useful language structures, crafting questions also enables focus on the overall flow of the text, and exercising the reading skill may supply useful vocabulary.
4. The next activity absolves the communicative teacher from his guilt over having a silent classroom: learners swap their answers to the questions with their partners. More reading, usually a few laughs, and then lots of speaking practice as learners correct their partner’s answers or confirm them as they narrate to them the story that they will be writing about. This enables them to practice the flow of the story in preparation for writing, and further anchors the different elements in the memory.
This way, when the actual writing activity begins, learners have 3 documents to support them: the mind-map, the list of “comprehension questions” and their partner’s written answers to the questions. Generally I have found that by this time the writing just flows, learners are satisfied with their work, and you end up with a large corpus of written work to serve as a base for all kinds of follow-up activities.
The whole activity usually takes about 1 ¾ to 2 hours, which can be divided between two sessions.
This illustrates the combination of reading, writing, listening and speaking holistically in a meaningful activity that, while specifically intended to improve written fluency, gives learners the opportunity to practice all the skills simultaneously. And not only that, it’s fun.