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From reading to writing

April 30, 2009

Hello again,
I thought I would make one final reference to ideas for helping the writing process. As some commenters have correctly pointed out, in order to be able to write students need to read lots of good models. In general...

...we tend to use texts to check and expand reading comprehension. However, I have experimented with using reading texts as a preparation for writing.

I am thinking of a small group of students I taught who were hoping to follow masters degrees in English-speaking universities. They had a good intermediate level of English but were weakest in writing. I took a text that described a funded research project in non-technical terms. I let them read it, work with each other and use dictionaries until they were happy they understood it.

Next we brainstormed the key points from the article and I wrote them on the board. Once they were collected we started to discard any unnecessary information to get down to the bare essentials: consumers want farmers to pay attention to the welfare of animals; cross-disciplinary scientists drew up a list of four principles that should guide animal welfare (nutrition, housing, health and behaviour); assessment tools were developed from those principles; farmers used the tools to assess their own animals’ welfare; results were compared across countries.

Then I asked students to return to the text and to find examples of what I considered to be key structural features: statement of the problem; background information; description of the project’s approach; supporting facts and figures; statement of outcomes; conclusions and ideas for the future.

Once they had found the examples we discussed why the order of the items was logical. Thus we moved away from purely linguistic analysis towards the thought processes that went into writing an objective piece of prose. I then asked them to look for any examples of opinions, emotions, persuasion. Not surprisingly, these elements were missing.

As they did not really have adequate material available to write similar reports of their own, I asked them to think of how the same approach could be applied to a topic of their own choice. They worked in pairs for this. Finally we agreed on the imaginary topic of the way supermarkets package goods. They proceeded from the assumption that consumers believe supermarkets use too much packaging. They then imagined a similar flow of research to the animal welfare project.

I didn’t find that the approach meant that fewer language errors occurred but I did see a much more focused approach to the sequencing of ideas and the tone of the writing.

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