The Whole Process – Top tips for improving students’ written work
Writing is a key language skill for our students. So why is it so often left to the end of the unit? How can we make sure it is part of skills development and not just a way to test language? In this month’s post, we share our top tips for focusing on the whole process of writing in the ELT classroom.
It is a classic ELT classroom scenario – towards the end of a unit, language students are given a written task. It will be one that relates to the topic, possibly in response to the main reading text, and encouraging use of the vocabulary and grammatical structure(s) covered in the previous lessons.
Some class time will be allotted for revision of target language, analysis of the task, and planning with the students either writing in class or as a homework task. There may then be teacher feedback, peer feedback, or a combination of the two, and then we move onto the next unit and repeat.
While this does give some structure to the lessons, it is also potentially full of missed opportunities for learning and development. The task is often (in my view mistakenly) used as a kind of exit test, focusing on successful application of target language more than the skill of writing. Feedback as a result often focuses on accuracy of grammar and vocabulary.
However, there is much more to writing than that – conventions of the text type, appropriate register of language, expressing ideas in a clear but engaging manner, paragraph structure, and more. Too much to focus on in one lesson? Probably. But not too much to focus on across a unit of study, so here are my top tips for encouraging deeper engagement in the writing process beyond the language content.
1. Bring the writing task forward
As outlined above, writing tasks often appear at the end of coursebook units, but why not bring them forward? By introducing a writing task earlier in the unit, we can create time and space for students to plan, draft and revise. We can also use the task to gauge knowledge of content and/or grammar and adapt our teaching accordingly. Here are some ways I bring the writing forward:
- Diagnostic writing: Early in the unit (or sometimes even before), set the task as a free writing activity with a set time limit. See what your students produce, focus on the target vocabulary and grammar structures and how well they already know them. Look at the format and style they have written in and what that reveals about their genre awareness. Take this information and use it to inform your teaching – if they have shown pre-existing knowledge of the themed vocabulary, we can spend more time on the grammar. If they are using a variety of structures well, we can spend more time focusing on the format and structure of the task.
- Identifying gaps: I’m sure you are used to KWL (Know – Want to Know – Learned) charts for approaching topics. Bringing the writing task forward allows for a similar process. I present my students with the task and we analyse it using a chart (see below). This gets them thinking about what they need to find out and/or work on in order to complete the task successfully (i.e. the gaps in their knowledge, their familiarity with the text type, and their awareness of/confidence with the target language) and helps generate a checklist for use in the planning and review stages.
(Writing Task) What do I already know / What can I already do? What do I need to find out / work on to complete this task? Have I included this in my writing task? Content Style Language
- Continuous planning: When introducing the writing task earlier, and analysing the task as outline above, we also introduce a purpose and a focus to our lessons. Any focus on target language can be presented with the final task in mind. Engagement with reading material and other information sources in the unit can be linked to the writing topic and text type. The questions raised and gaps identified can be incorporated into end of lesson reviews and we can approach the writing task later in the unit with a useful collection of notes and reflections that can easily be adapted into a plan.
Finally, these activities can be referred back to once the final writing task is done. If you have done the diagnostic writing task, it provides a useful reference point to compare with the final version and make the learning that has taken place apparent. If you have done the initial analysis, students can reflect on how well they have filled those gaps and what they still need to work on.
2. Use a variety of sample texts
Sample texts are a potential gold mine for teachers and students in terms of providing model answers to reference our work against. However, there can also be issues with these. In my experience, model answers are either perfect pieces that easily earn top marks, or they are riddled with ‘errors’ usually related to the target language of the unit and designed to be used as an error correction activity.
Perfect responses are useful as model examples but they can also be over-used with students simply copying the style and changing some of the content. The poor responses usually draw a few laughs but, as I alluded to above, are often thinly disguised error correction activities focusing on the target language.
It is important, therefore, to present students with a variety of sample texts – some that are top grade responses, some that are not so good, but also some that are average. These average texts are useful as they more closely represent what the majority of the students are likely to produce and are thus more relevant in terms of mistakes to avoid and features to retain.
I regularly use these ‘average texts’ (sourced from sample assessment materials or from anonymous past and present student work) for ‘live marking’ sessions during which I will mark the writing while commenting on why I am giving a particular score. This worked particularly well during recent remote learning periods as I displayed the text on screen and used annotation tools to highlight what earned marks and what didn’t.
And whether we use an average or perfect sample, or a reading text from the book in a similar genre, I always advise my students to be on the look out for an idea to ‘steal’. It might be a particular phrase, a contrastive marker, or a rhetorical question to make an effective conclusion, but it should be something my students can incorporate into their own written work.
3. Drafting and peer feedback
A key part of the process of writing is to get my students used to the stages of planning, drafting, and revising with regular feedback cycles added in. Most of my students at the start of a new academic year will expect that they will write, I will mark and correct, and then we will move on. Some of them may be used to self or peer feedback but the idea of drafting and revising is often met with resistance or confusion.
I find it is helpful to make expectations clear from the start. With the very first writing assignment, I will emphasise the process I expect the students to go through. The feedback and reflective activities we engage in help them see how their writing has progressed during the unit or across the term. I also use that main student motivator – marks. I will show the marks the draft earned and the marks the final piece earned so (as long as they have made an effort to improve their work) they can see the difference.
We will often set a deadline part way through the unit for a first draft or a detailed plan. We will then engage in a round of peer feedback so students can share ideas and clarify any points that are unclear to their classmates. We then identify areas to work on and how to improve them.
I will then give teacher feedback on a revised version (encouraging my students to make a new copy of their draft rather than overwrite it) before …
4. Final submission
By following the ideas outlined above, the final piece submitted to me usually reflects not only the content and language learned during the unit but also the progress the student has made. They have reflection points to look back on and earlier versions of their assignment to make their progress clear. And, perhaps most importantly of all, they have had the opportunity to display much more than their understanding of the target language – they have had the opportunity to demonstrate their learning and progress as well.
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