Writing in a second language can be very challenging for learners. If not appropriately oriented by their textbooks and teachers, writing tasks may be very intimidating and, as a consequence, can demotivate students as they go through writing assignments.
Because it lacks possibilities for turn taking to negotiate meaning, as well as immediate contextualisation, ‘many students are afraid of writing since it seems so much more permanent than speaking and because the others might judge their skills or lack of them’ (World Learning, 2018a: 5).
Usually left aside in favor of speaking and listening skills, writing is often taken for granted and writing tasks are generally proposed as individual activities, considered boring by some students, who affirm they do not know how to write or how to put their thoughts on paper. And teachers, in turn, struggle with the piles of compositions they have to correct.
EFL textbooks tend to be very general, for they are used by a great number of learners from different countries and cultures. For that reason, it may seem ‘safer’ to approach writing as a product. If only the final product is considered in a writing task, the teacher tends to take the role of an error hunter every time he/she corrects the students’ texts.
The teacher – the facilitator in the process of learning – is the one responsible for detecting students’ needs and doing his/her best to cater to them. The more confident students feel to express themselves in writing, the more prepared they will be to use a variety of genres in the future.
The use of writing skills has become more frequent with the increase in technology. Learners want to develop their writing skills and teachers can take advantage of this enthusiasm by acquainting themselves with technology and using it to comment on their students’ writing tasks.
Guidance and advice are crucial to the development of writing skills, so the more interactive the feedback is, the more successful the learning process will be. It is up to the teacher to make informed decisions on how to prepare the students for the great challenge of communicating in writing, taking into account the characteristics and interaction each gender demands.
Approaches to writing
There are two ways of approaching writing: as a product and as a process. The first approach focuses on the final product and follows four stages: model the text, controlled practice, organising ideas, final product (Zakimi, 2018) [see Figure 1].
Figure 1: States of product writing (Zakime, 2018)
The second approach considers the teacher’s support through students’ reviews of their writing pieces. The students should work through three stages: prewriting, drafting, revising. The first stage guides students on their thoughts about the topic and generating ideas; the second deals with the actual writing of the piece; and the third is about rethinking or re-seeing your text, thinking of it as a work in progress. In this phase, editing and proofreading are encouraged (Smalley et al, 2001).
I believe product writing can be very dangerous, for it may cause the teacher to go over compositions in a mechanical way, sometimes crossing out words and replacing them with ‘the correct’ ones as if they were the only option. Doing that may drive teachers to treat their students’ writing tasks as if they were their own. They may end up reading the texts as if they were reading their own drafts, using discourse marks they know. And what about the students, the ones who will have their work returned?
Most students do not have any motivation to read the piece again, for it has already been ‘corrected’. To rewrite it would only be to produce a copy of a text changed by the teacher. The opportunity of reflecting on their work is lost.
I believe that process writing is the best option for second or foreign language learners. ‘Multiple drafts are extremely helpful to hone the skill of writing. Rewriting may not be common to your students’ experience, so making each draft focus on a different element is an advantage to keep interest and also make sure that multiple elements of writing are addressed’ (World Learning, 2018b: 7).
The teacher’s role when giving feedback
The feedback given to our students is very important for the development of their writing competence and the teacher is the facilitator in this process. I agree with O’Muircheartaight (1993) when he claims that the teacher should play the roles of a ‘Reader’, a ‘Writing Teacher’, and a ‘Language Expert’.
The teacher as a ‘Reader’ interacts with their students’ written production, and expresses his/her opinion regarding the students’ ideas. Comments such as I’ve seen that film as well and I didn’t like it either, or something that makes the student feel he/she is interacting with the readers helps build his/her confidence – it makes them feel some connection to the reader.
The ‘Writing Teacher’ helps with the student’s writing competence, going through the text as a whole (from text organisation to grammar structure), while the ‘Language Expert’ analyses the traditional spelling and grammar errors, not relating to the text as a whole, but pointing out the student’s language errors.
The roles mentioned above are of great importance when reading each and every piece of our students’ writing, for they are the authors and deserve feedback from their audience to make sure they are conveying their messages clearly. It is the teacher’s job to help develop students’ writing skills (with the students’ collaboration, of course) through clear and interactive feedback.
Different feedback techniques
There are many ways to give feedback on written work. These vary, because the learners, their intelligences and learning techniques also vary. There are strategies and techniques that go from purely linguistic and grammatical to interactive and dynamic. All of them are valid as long as the student’s profile is observed.
Some teachers believe that Correction Codes are a very powerful technique, because the students themselves correct their errors with the help of a code previously set by the teacher and given to them beforehand. The students write their texts, skipping every other line, leaving enough space for the teacher to underline the errors and draw the symbol that corresponds to the error made. The teacher returns the student’s text, so that he/she can rewrite it and return it to the teacher.
Check Charts and rubrics can also be very helpful. Depending on how they are designed and implemented, they can guide the student through a deeper reflection of his/her work. They can do it themselves or in the teacher’s presence. The teacher can provide the evaluation criteria (e.g. organisation, content, grammar and mechanics) and the levels of mastery (e.g., very good, good, adequate and inadequate) or the teacher can design the rubric or Check Chart with the students’ help. Getting involved in the process helps the students engage in the activity. This self-reflection, or discussion with the teacher, then results in a rewriting of the student’s work, which is then returned to the teacher.
Conferences or Video Conferences, which involve direct, face-to-face interaction, can also be a good method for giving feedback. The teacher can provide some questions for reflection, concentrating on the ideas and organisation of the text and discuss them with the student during the conference. Video conferencing is a powerful motivational tool for students, for there is this feeling of breaking the routine of the classroom. After the conference, the text can be rewritten and returned to the teacher.
Peer Reviews allow students to comment on their classmates’ written work. They can be guided by the teacher through a questionnaire, used as a basis for the comments to be made about their classmates’ texts. Students then rewrite their texts taking into consideration the comments by their classmates. Google Docs is a very interactive tool for peer reviewing. The great advantage is that the teacher is able to follow the students’ comments and intervene when necessary.
Written Commentaries involve the teacher’s reflection about the students’ written work. They should be clear and interactive. The student should feel that the teacher is really communicating with him/her and that the feedback given is about the text as a whole, mentioning structure, ideas, spelling, text organisation, etc. The teacher should remember his/her roles whenever going through their students’ texts. Google Docs and Microsoft Word (the option track changes on the Review window) are very useful tools for feedback on writing pieces. In the case of using Microsoft Word, you can return your students’ works via email.
Online quizzes approaching the most common mistakes students made in their writings are very motivational and interactive. When played in the classroom, it makes the class a lot more dynamic and students get easily engaged. They learn from each other’s mistakes without having their mistakes particularly addressed.
You can take notes of the mistakes that need special attention, the ones that you believe may interfere with communication, and change them into a multiple-choice quiz online. Google Forms, Kahoot and SurveyMonkey are good examples of sites where you can design your own quizzes for free and share them with the students.
“The feedback given to our students is very important for the development of their writing competence and the teacher is the facilitator in this process.”
A classroom experience
Being pretty resistant to using only one feedback technique, I have tested all of the feedback techniques above, always integrating two or more at a time. In a recent experience with a writing lesson, I combined some of them.
As a simulation of a writing lesson for student teachers in an EFL Teaching Programme, I approached the theme Global Warming. The first thing I did was to brainstorm it, using a word web. Then, we discussed the words they chose for the web.
After the discussion, I gave them some time to read an article on Global Warming1 and decide whether they agreed with the author or not, then write down the reasons why. Then I divided the student teachers into groups of four and asked them to discuss their opinions. After the discussion, I gave them some time for self-reflection about the group discussion and then asked them to add one more reason to their list, based on the group discussion they just had. As homework, I asked them to do some research on the theme and share their ideas with their classmates on a Google Drive file.
The following class started with a brief review of the previous one. Then I implemented a lesson on argumentative writing. As a follow-up activity, the group engaged in deciding the best title for a writing assignment based on the theme previously discussed (Global Warming). After their decision on the title, I handed out an outline (Figure 2) and gave them some time to write down their thoughts (parts 1 and 2). While the students did the exercise, I walked around the classroom and assisted the ones who needed help. As homework, the students were assigned a first draft based on the follow-up activity proposed in class to be sent via email. The comments on each writing piece were made using the option comments on the Review window of Microsoft Word and returned via email.
Figure 2: Handout (argumentative text)
The following class started with a Kahoot quiz as a warm up. I had arranged to take a medium projector to class and made sure that the institution’s Wi-Fi was working properly before the class started.
As I projected the screen, the students who were familiar with the website got very excited. I told them to grab their smartphones and download and open Kahoot’s app, then enter the Game Pin they saw on the projected screen (see Figure 3). When all the students were connected and ready to take the quiz, we started the first of 10 multiple-choice questions on the mistakes that most interfered with communication.
Figure 3: Illustration of what Kahoot looks like)
After the quiz, I paired up the students and asked them to present and discuss their first drafts with each other. I wrote some questions on the board to help them with the discussion. As homework, they were asked to reflect on their texts and rewrite them, this time reflecting on the comments we (their partner and I) have made on their first drafts, as well as editing and proofreading them. Then, each pair was supposed to share and give feedback on each other’s second drafts using Google Drive. After the peer review of their second draft, they wrote their final text.
Practice makes perfect
An interactive way of giving feedback makes the students’ work valuable and avoids it being subjected to the wisdom of the ‘Expert’ who sees and knows it all. The act of rewriting their work is a sign of interaction.
There are a handful of options for us to motivate our students to write. It is our duty to figure out the learning strategies used by our students and share a little of our experience as foreign language readers and writers.
This method of writing both inside and outside the classroom compels them to think about the work they are doing while the opportunity to work at home gives them time to reflect on their writing. Writing out a final version based on the teacher’s and peers’ comments reinforces the learning process as does discussing the pieces in the following class.
Although it can be time-consuming for the teacher, providing interactional feedback at least once a semester for each group will help students develop their writing skills.
So, why not be ‘Talent Hunters’ instead of ‘Error Hunters’? Let’s find the weak points in our students’ writing competence so that we can work on them and find their strong points to motivate them. This way we can turn writing into a communicative activity, making the student more involved in the process.
Borunda A (2019) Oceans and ice are absorbing the brunt of climate change. National Geographic [online]. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/09/ipcc-report-climate-change-affecting-ocean-ice/ (accessed 25 September 2019).
O’Muircheartaight, S. Giving Feedback on Student’s Work: seminar notes. Developing Teachers.com. Available at https://www.developingteachers.com/articles_tchtraining/seamus_wrtcorrection.htm.
Smalley RL et al (2001) Refining Composition Skills: Rhetoric And Grammar. Boston: Heinle& Heinle.
World Learning (2018a) Developing students’ academic writing skills in English. In ‘Content-based instruction’ [MOOC].
World Learning (2018b) Rubrics. In ‘Integrating Critical Thinking Skills into the Exploration of Culture in an EFL Setting’ [MOOC].
Zakime A (2018) What is Product Writing? [online] Available at: https://www.whatiselt.com/single-post/2018/06/10/What-is-Product-Writing (accessed 24 September 2019).
Glenda Demes da Cruz holds a Master’s Degree in Applied Linguistics and is a professor at UECE, a state university in Fortaleza, Brazil. Glenda has been teaching English for speakers of other languages for over 25 years and has been working with teacher education for the past 14 years. She can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org