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The neglected skill

April 02, 2009

Hello again,

Writing: how much time do you devote to teaching it? What priority does it have in your school? My guess is that it comes bottom of your list of teaching priorities. And there are understandable reasons for this: it is considered ...

... a secondary skill. As teachers we want our students first to able to speak and understand others. In some ways we see reading and writing as enabling skills rather than frontline objectives. Reading moves up the list because it provides all kinds of stimuli for speaking and is the main means of presenting grammar explanations and exercises. But writing: apart from slavishly responding to grammar or comprehension questions, our students keep it at arm’s length.

Increasingly I feel that we are wrong to neglect writing skills. Today’s learners are likely to need English to study at an English-speaking university or to conduct international business or professional life. For such purposes an ability to write within a wide range of appropriate styles is crucial. I believe that to give learners a proper foundation for solid writing skills these need to be integrated into their learning from the beginning. I would advocate nowadays that every lesson should include a writing focus.

By this, I don’t mean that students should write answers to comprehension questions or complete grammar tasks (although these may be part of the learning process). I mean that every lesson should contain a focus on writing for its own sake. Even if this is just a fragment, e.g. how to write your name and address for beginners. I think we need to nurture the writing skill alongside the other skills and give it due weight.

If we do not we merely perpetuate the difficulties that students, whose oral and aural skills may be excellent, have in being unable to write an academic essay, an appropriate e-mail, a letter in business, a report etc. The gap between writing and other skills in almost all learners I meet is enormous. In my editing capacity I wade through academic articles that clearly represent much hard research work but that are totally inadequate as pieces of writing.

Over my next few posts I will try to suggest some ways of helping students improve their writing skills.

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  1. Tabinda Khan Says:

    Dear Writer:

    I cent percent agree with you on that. I am currently teaching adult ESL civics and citizenship classes. These students have very limited English proficiency level in all sections of English. First class I observed them, and at the end of their class I took sometime explaining why writing is very important especially for the ESL students. For example, if you are unable or shy speaking English, then writing is the best medium to get your ideas/thoughts across. In a public space where there accent is not understood, they can ask for a pen and paper and write it for them to clarify what they are asking for. My students agreed with me.
    I bought some notebooks and in my next class, I wrote a few topics on board like "My country", "My friend", "My ESL class" and asked them to choose any one they like. If they don't like any one of these topics, then they are free to write about some thing else. The main objective is to help them write.
    As you suggested in your article, just one-two sentences are enough. I write comments on their writing and they look forward to reading them. I dedicate first 15 minutes to writing in my class. I think small motivational speeches help students to value writing.

    Thanks for the wonderful article, and take care.

    Tabinda Khan.

  1. Kashif Says:

    Hi Brenda,

    You are on the spot in this regard. I 'm not a native English speaker and picked up most of my English by speaking and reading. Now when I 'm quite comfortable communicating with native speakers, I realize that learning to write English was the most neglected thing I did during my learning phase, and it has hindered my professional growth.

    Thank you for sharing such useful and valuable information.

    Kashif Farhat

  1. Darin Zaki Says:

    I am graduated student of forieng languages and translation in Eygpt 2008,i dont have experience of teaching ESL but i have the skills of communicating with people in both languages(Arabic and English)and the ability to teach the adults and children,hope you can accept me to work as a teacher and give me the chance to have an experience.

  1. Bob Toomey Says:


    I may be jaded or way off base, but here in China I have an absolute opinion that the Chinese need to learn to speak first. From what I have seen in the sixteen years I have been in China, no one speaks, understands, writes, or reads English correctly. when I think about native speakers learning their languages, everyone learns to speak first, then understand, and both of these come years before anyone teaches them to read or write. Some how, clearly, most ESL teachers seem to have neglected the normal progression of language learning. I have taught people speaking for years, and I have tried on a couple of occassions to teach writing to the Chinese. The same errors keep occurring and no real improvement gets made. It wears me down, so I focus on what seems to be essential that speaking and understanding must become fluent before any learner tries writing.

    I understand your intentions and I think that you may have a point about teaching them simple writing to start with. I don't disagree with that, but I simply don't stress it.

    As I have seen no writing by any mainland Chinese to be perfect, or even good, and I haven't met anyone in my sixteen years who speaks English correctly. That's quite a statement, I know, but I am a professional teacher with two teaching credentials and a Master's degree, along with thirty-six years of teaching English.

    If I have ruffled anyone's feathers, I apologize.
    I can back up my statements if anyone would care to come to Beijing and talk with me. I can show you writings and have to talk with any number of students with whom you may wish to talk.

    China needs professional teacher who are native speakers of English with teaching credentials, not TESL certification. Also, they need to talk with me about the problems of the Chinese learners of English. There are hundreds.


  1. Elizbeth Says:


    You apparantly are interfacing with individuals on the lowest rung of English learning in China. Not a bad thing but quite limited and therefore not a position from which to speak about ALL Chinese speakers/writers of English My husband is a journalist, born in Tangshan, Hebei Province and is currently covering international events in Boao, Hainan. His English is quite impressive as well as that of the various business leaders and government leaders we have met(some of whom have studied at Cambridge, Harvard, MIT, etc.)

    How's your Chinese, Bob? Is it perfect...even after 16 years? I seriously doubt it.

  1. David Nunn Says:


    Two points re ESL students outside of the elite few institutions. One, many older people, particularly in Asia in my experience, understand English grammar almost perfectly, read fluently but are unable to hold a simple conversation. They were taught by teachers who themselves were unable to speak English & it's only the most recent couple of generations that have learnt to speak at all well. Two, many students, even at university level, have difficulty writing well in their native languages. The emphasis in academic writing is more on recycling information than in expressing their own thoughts & opinions.

    Writing is an important skill & we should be able to teach students to write a memo or an email. However when, as is often the case, we have to prioritise, speaking must come before writing. That's my opinion based on meeting many people who have studied ESL from primary school through university & are unable to communicate except at the most rudimentary level.


  1. phyuwah Says:

    Dear author,
    In my point of view,we should let the students read book to inprove their writing skill.
    As you know , writing is from reading so , most of the students have to read a lot.
    But , some are very good at thinking . That's why, they can build their idea by writing what ever they want.
    But , some are very poor in thinking who do need to read to get advance writing.
    Therefore, we should let our student read books and write what they like at first.
    It would be the best way to start for using their idea and knowledge what they read and what they heard.
    That's all what my comments are.
    Phyu Wah

  1. Swee Yin Says:

    I've been teaching English for the past thirty years in an upper secondary school and I must admit that I find it very tiresome to mark writing assignments. Of course the writing component is important in any language learning and teaching situation but without proper drilling of simple sentence structures and grammar skills it would be futile to ask them to write on a certain topic as they would be be making mistakes right through. Normally, I would write EIEL meaning "errors in every line" after reading their first paragraph.
    While writing is important for language learning, I would make sure that students have a good grounding in grammar and vocabulary first. This would come through reading and comprehension. Reading provides the basis for fluency, sentence structures and vocabulary.

  1. Abhilasha Says:

    I couldnt agree more with you Brenda. I am from India and am teaching english to high schools students and spoken english to the whole school. Though in our country Medium of instruction in all central board school is English, yet it is observed over the years that writing is dying a slow death. blame it on the internet or the SMS culture. our students increasingly are observed using slangs and short form of expressions. it is very difficult to get a good composition out of them. A lot also is because students these days are not reading so much . Academic pressure along with co curricular activities leave very little time. but all in all I would want my students to be able to be fond of reading as well as writing.

  1. Runghsawmee Brinda Says:

    Hello Brenda,
    In Mauritius though English is the official language, we don't speak English at home. We speak creole, a sort of broken French.
    Our kids don't like English. They are poor in English. They are forced to learn English because they have to pass their first primary certificate and if they fail in English, the certificate is weak.
    In Mauritius, we have another type of problem. Maybe 50 percent of the population writes English well with few grammatical mistakes but only about 10% speaks English correctly, what I mean, they may speak it fluently but they don't KNOW WHERE TO PLACE THE STRESSES.We pronounce English as we pronounce French where the stress is on the last word and on the vowels.
    Only a few wealthy children learn proper spoken and written English at private and language schools by experienced, mostly native speakers.
    We have a real problem in Mauritius. If we want our children to love English, we have to do something.
    WE hope the government can help in this matter.

  1. Bob Toomey Says:

    I would like to comment a little further about teaching writing. I was a professional writing teacher in America for 22 years before coming to China. When people learn to speak English, and really learn it, I support the position that some easy writing should take place. As one's English ability developes, more difficult writing assignments can follow.

    But as I wrote in my previous writing, most people I see and teach are at the entry and beginning levels. I would be difficult at best to teach them to write, since most of them don't learn the basics anyway.

    As to Elizabeth's comments, you seem to be like a lot of other expats who are seemingly here to criticize and not keep to the point. Whether or not I speak Chinese is beside the point about teaching writing. Also, to further counter your comments, I, too, am married to a Chinese person who could probably speak and write much better than anyone you have met. Inappropriate criticisms are never helpful. If your husband speaks and writes English well, that is wonderful. If you would like, I can introduce you to several foreigners who have worked for me who speak Chinese fluently. Don't be a negative expat who criticizes. I isn't helpful.

  1. Muhammad Ishtiaq Says:

    Dear writer,
    I am not an expert but I think a language is there to speak. So, it should be the first priority of a language learner to understand and speak the target language. Of course the importance of writing cannot be ignored. As Bacon says "writing maketh an exact man", so a man cannot become an exact man unless he has mastered other three skills.

  1. Sara Ahmad Says:

    I Agree! using words, not only in speach, but in writing as well, will enable the Non-English speakers express themselves more. There should be time taken off for creative writing; this will teach the teacher about the students' culture and forces the thoughts and feelings out of the students which would enefit them later on in their day to day life...

  1. Maureen Says:

    It is fantastic that we are even discussing why people want/desire to learn English. It is obvious, from many comments, that priorities are different in learning establishments. It should not matter how a student begins and continues to learn, moreover that he/she wants to learn. We have to find their "click" whether that be in written or spoken English & we have to show them how to enjoy & live that. Many students have studied grammar, spoken English for years without realising the beauty & simplicity of our language. As students, from any age, all skills have to be encorporated, it is our responsibility in every class, that they use these, not as separate issues, but as the language as a whole, as it is, as WE accept it. That way it becomes simple and useful.

  1. Fatma Says:

    Dear Brenda,

    I wholly agree with you that writing is an essential skill to teach. I teach at the British Council in Saudi Arabia, and having taught mainly Arabic speaking students, I can say for sure that teaching them reading is, for them, more essential. They have no idea about phonics, and even doing reading to complete a grammar exercise takes them quite some time. Even simple words like 'want', 'boy', 'girl', 'snake', etc defeat them - which is to be expected with a lack of phonics skills. I feel that introducing reading to develop their love for reading is very important. Childrens stories would help them tremendously by introducing them to new vocabulary, and developing a love for the story itself. However, in such institutes, the teachers are told to complete a set curriculum in x number of days. For them to be promoted to the next level, we have to make them ready for it so they will be able to handle the next level. This unfortunately doesnt leave us much time to give attention to reading. Books like Ladybird's Peter and Jane series are excellent for starter levels. It would be great if someone could suggest how we could incorporate such reading in class with set course time.

  1. Hamed Hammad Says:

    Hi Brenda,
    Thanks for tapping on target.As for me in Egypt,Parents always focus on teaching their sons speaking fluently,even after graduation,Ss always give every attention to speaking fluently to secure ajob in any field or gulf countries,so It is amatter of needs,but English teacher can change the tradtional writing focus into a communicative one,relating it to other skills,I mean teaching them spontaneously
    best regards

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