How can we turn our EFL learners into skillful writers? How can they effectively communicate in the TL through the written word? Here are 7 points to consider when preparing writing tasks for the language classroom.
We first of all need to keep in mind that some of our learners may already be quite skillful when it comes to producing written works in their L1. They may, however, find difficulties expressing themselves through writing in the TL. This may occur due to many reasons: the writing task may be too complicated, the topic may not be relevant to them or of the appropriate level or they may lack the adequate knowledge of lexis and grammar in order to effectively express themselves in the foreign language. Some students may also not be familiar with certain writing genres and the structure that underlies them. Keeping all of this in mind, we need to focus on adequately preparing our learners before any writing assignment.
- Focus on the different genres
Our main focus should be to first teach the process of writing and then focus on the product. To become effective and successful writers in the TL, our learners need to receive adequate training in the different forms of writing that they may encounter not only in their language exams, but also in real life situations.
It is important to introduce them to a variety of writing genres (business/personal letters, magazine/newspaper articles, online articles) as well as their different types of register (formal/informal) through a sufficient amount of TL input. We must make sure we use authentic materials and language at this point and that our learners have received the adequate training and practice before having to produce a similar piece of writing.
2. Fluency -Complexity- Accuracy
How can our students become better writers? Vocabulary use, the richness of lexis, the structure and organization of the written work and its accuracy in terms of language and content are all important points to pay attention to. In order to help our learners improve their writing skills, we must train them to notice all of these and to effectively incorporate them in their writing.
3. Pre-teaching vocabulary- Activating schemata
We need to make sure our learners have the adequate knowledge of lexis related to the topic they will be focusing on. Pre-teaching language chunks can be very beneficial. We also need to activate our learners’ relevant background knowledge on the subject they will be working on through some discussion and brainstorming during the lead-in stage. By using a variety of stimuli to trigger their imagination, we arise their interest, we make them eager to participate in the lesson and pave the way for a smooth transition to the writing task.
We should remember, at this point, the importance of integrating skills and the benefits of extensive reading in particular. It is through reading that they receive the lexical input they need. Moreover, they improve their spelling and begin to notice grammar structures in the TL. With writing, part of this input will gradually switch from passive knowledge to active use of lexis and grammar.
4. Task authenticity (Interesting topics – Active participation)
The topics our students will be focusing on need to be both interesting and relevant to their level and needs. Tasks can include guided writing or free writing depending on the overall aim of the lesson. Authenticity in the topics chosen is also important. Nobody wants to write about something they are not interested in. We need to keep our learners motivated by giving them a reason to express themselves in writing.
At the same time we must make sure that our students are actively involved in the learning process. We can have them select from a variety of topics and work with the one they prefer the most or even suggest topics on their own. Writing as a collaborative activity should also be cultivated. STT (student talking time) and motivation levels are increased as students get to exchange opinions and ideas and learn from one another.
5. Correcting written work
Our decisions on error correction will primarily depend on our students’ level, on the overall aim of the writing task and on the amount of practice our learners have had on the specific type of writing.
Marks should mainly reflect the language, the content and the structure of the ss’ work as well as the overall presentation, its coherence (organization of ideas/relevance/repetition), its cohesion (use of discourse markers), the richness of lexis and the correct use of grammar. Micro-skills such as spelling, punctuation and correct letter formation (orthography) should also be considered.
Below you can find a brief checklist with the basic points to focus on when correcting your students’ writing:
How much should the teacher correct?
Sometimes it may seem difficult for us teachers to mark our ss’ written work because we may feel the urge to correct all of their mistakes, especially the ones related to spelling and grammar. Over-marking though may lead to a major drawback in our learners’ progress as it could demotivate them.
We must therefore focus only on the most important mistakes, the ones that hinder communication. Mistakes based on grammatical phenomena we haven’t taught them yet should not be corrected (or even if we do, it is better to not let such mistakes affect the overall mark).
6. Positive feedback
It is important to emphasize to our learners that making mistakes is part of the learning process. They should not feel discouraged by their tutor’s corrections. Positive feedback plays a very important role here. By praising their efforts we keep their motivation levels up and encourage them to become even better writers in the TL.
It is important to remember that giving hints and comments instead of direct corrections is very helpful in our learners’ development. Whenever possible (depending on our learners’ needs) we could just make some comments to help them self-correct (ex. “check the tense” instead of simply writing the correct answer). We must involve them in this process by having them discover the errors themselves and re-write the composition incorporating the corrections they have made. We need to teach our learners to view editing and rewriting as normal practice. To increase their motivation and their willingness to write a second draft, it is important to make clear that marks will be given to the corrected drafts, therefore increasing their chances to get better grades.
Peer correction should also be encouraged and should become a habit. Through this active involvement and the ‘teacher-role’ they adopt, our ss learn to notice irregularities in structural/grammatical patterns in the TL and learn from each other’s mistakes.
7. The teacher’s role
The teacher is mainly a facilitator in the writing lesson, providing support, guidance and the necessary input and practice with regard to the different forms and styles of writing. We are there to provide the guidelines and the scaffolding our learners need in order to become efficient and successful writers in the target language, in order to effectively get their message across, to overcome their fear of producing written work in a language other than their mother tongue, to turn their input into intake, their passive vocabulary into active and to continuously improve their grammar and lexis.