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Further thoughts on the writing process

April 16, 2009

Hello again,

In two earlier posts I have argued that writing is a neglected skill in ELT and that we need to pay more attention to it, incorporating a writing slot in every lesson. However, one of the difficulties with teaching writing lies...

... in pacing what students do.

With speaking we try to encourage learners to take the plunge as soon as possible. We often tolerate a range of errors so long as students are successfully getting their message across. Indeed we want students to experiment and learn from their own mistakes. But if we encourage free writing too soon, learners can become discouraged. A page of writing that is covered with notes and corrections can deter students from further attempts. So I think we need to take much longer over teaching the writing process before we ask students to produce unguided writing of their own.

I have already suggested how simple transfer of information can be a useful writing exercise. But the mechanics of writing can best be taught by focus on the specific writing technique we are concerned with. Thus if we are teaching conjunctions, a sample text to read followed by a gap-filling exercise is more helpful than a plunge directly into free writing. If we are teaching how to sequence information logically, then jumbled sentences and paragraphs to sort out are a useful means of preparation. If register is the issue, then an exercise that asks them to select the better of two possible answers will fit the bill.

I also believe that it is impossible to develop good writing skills without a strong reading background. Now of course reading is much emphasised in ELT. However, how often do we look at the structure of the texts? Mostly we concentrate on meaning. Yet if we have a text to work on, it is wasted opportunity not to look at its structure as well. A few questions that home in on how the text was constructed can help learners understand the more about the writing process. Such questions as: how does the writer make the transition from one paragraph to the next/how does the writer express disagreement or agreement with a point of view/ which words in the text show us the register the writer is using…?

Now I am not claiming to be saying anything new. I am simply arguing that we have neglected teaching students how to write in favour of the other language skills. If we encourage good writing habits from the beginning, I believe we can enhance students’ abilities and competence so that they are better equipped for their future tasks, whether studying or at work. Ultimately they need to develop awareness of how to prepare for writing: identifying their topic, awareness of their readers, information gathering. Then they need drafting skills: notes, logical sequencing. Then, having written a first draft, they need editing skills. For some online ideas to help with writing, try searching One Stop English .

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  1. Rod Spence Says:

    Dear Brenda,
    I have almost completed a basic internet course to teach ESL.

    Thank you for this article and the included information and comments. I look forward to further editions.


    Rod Spence

  1. robert tansey Says:

    Those are some excellent and practical thoughts on the writing process. I have had students hungry for this, (spanish speakers from Mexico eager to improve writing skills in order to upgrade employment levels) and have been unsure on approaching it. Thanks again for some good thoughts to get me thinking about it again.

  1. Kenneth Casper Says:

    I believe that writing is on an equal level of importance with speaking and reading. The trouble lies in letting writing become a silent activity. A student should never write a piece without reading it aloud before making corrections. The idea that every sentence must be according to the grammar book tells an untruth about language, and especially the English language. Grammar is an expression of personality, which in most cases is a fragmented expression. When we forget this, our writing becomes dead and uninteresting. The main thing is for our audience to know what we are doing and not that the language is absolutely according to the written rules. Language rules are there to help us and not to dictate to us. The idea that one can give a student a series of disconnected sentences and say make these into grammatically correct statements is missing the point that every sentence must be within the context of an idea. When one puts too much emphasis on correct grammar in writing, one either makes a person fear using the language or turns the person off to the usage of a language.

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