Writing: a neglected skill in ELT?

Take the first EFL coursebook you can reach. Pick up a random unit. Find the writing task of the unit.

Now, where is it placed within the unit?

If this was a bet I would surely go for the last page.

I feel that writing is always the last thing in a unit! Is that true?

If it is, what [insert your adverb of frequency] happens is:

  • There’s not enough time to cover it.
  • It’s assigned as homework – which means students have little guidance while doing it, and receive feedback on product rather than on process.
  • Everyone’s fed up with four lessons on the same topic and then you skip writing.
  • Amid all there is to learn, teacher and/or students think writing is not so important.
  • The writing task of coursebooks are lame.
  • Students say: I’m not creative!
  • And a thousand other excuses.

These are all poor excuses and a real negligence on everyone’s part in my opinion. Writing is very important and should not be treated as an isolated skill, nor as the last skill or the homework skill. You do improve many other skills through writing, unlike some people may think.

Also, learners’ writings are one of the best raw materials any teacher can have. With half a page by each learner you’ll find material to work for a whole week on grammatical accuracy, vocabulary range, word choice, clarity and tone, coherence and cohesion, and what have you.

So, take the time and prepare a great lesson whose core is writing, and I bet everyone will enjoy it.  Here are some ideas I’ve tried:

  • Start a new unit from the last page! – It can work amazingly. For some reasons, it still believed that if you do all the grammar and vocabulary by using reading, listening and speaking activities, in the end of the unit by following a simple prompt the students will write a text using all the grammar and vocabulary seen in the unit naturally. Well, at least this is the impression coursebooks give.  Yeh, right… — So turn it on its head, and start from the writing. See what learners can produce and there you’ll find the real gaps they need to fill.
  • Write a cover letter. This is a great exercise even for those who are not job seekers. The main point is being able to write about yourself; to sell yourself without looking like a boastful beggar; believe me, it’s a very hard task. The framework I give students to use here is CAR (context-action-result), in which they write about their competencies using evidence from real experience.
  • If you have computers available, set up a private chat room using http://tinychat.com/ – Pose a question and let everyone chat for 3-5 minutes. After that, go back and review it. Highlight interesting sentences, take a look at abbreviations, netspeak, mistakes and slips, typos, etc.
  • Design, write, and improve a couple of Power Point slides. This is a killer, everyone enjoys it. Find a slide that’s poorly designed (very easy) with wordy sentences and a dozen bullet points and make it better.
  • Practice writing headlines – Particularly useful for Business English students who still title a report: Report. Remind them there’s no book titled book and not a newspaper article titled newspaper article. Being able to give a clear message of what the text below can tell you is a bonus to everyone.

Just a few ideas to try and place writing on the priority list of TEFL.

And a gentle reminder: don’t wait until coursebooks change, change it yourself.

Writing rules!

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19 Responses to Writing: a neglected skill in ELT?

  1. phil wade says:

    Well done Willy. I love writing but it’s rarely covered enough while in EAP books it can be rather dull.

    Creative writing is a great subject to teach while essay/thesis writing can also be interesting too. I definitely think more should be covered in classes but there’s always the ‘marking time/money’ issue. At one place I used to get about 120 essays a week to mark. Eventually we made a system of ‘5 from each class’ per week but some teachers even got marking assistants to do it. Strangely enough, this is also happening in English unis on some MA courses so it may be an expanding development.

    Thanks again for a great post.

    Phil

    • Hi Phil

      Yes, I know, marking is painful issue.
      Writing being neglected in the syllabus and also being the main form of evaluation (what a contradiction) in some cases makes it some sort of a ‘formal’ identity, one that needs to be evaluated. What I have in mind, with the benefit of teaching small groups, is that I take writing a bit more like speaking, that is, I don’t correct and grade every single thing and instead give a lot of attention to meaning making from both ends (writer and reader). Also, since I have the flexibility sometimes to dedicate a whole lesson to writing, I can monitor as students write and offer guidance while the process is going on, so that the product is better and hence less demanding in terms of marking.
      But again, I teach small groups so I can do it easily. I would like to know how to make it work with large groups.

      thanks for dropping by.

      • phil wade says:

        Sounds great Willy. To solve my own marking problem I started doing similar things by working on planning, structure and language, working in groups with me helping out. I like to turn the EFL exam schemes in guidelines for writing ie students plan their essays under Organisation, Lexical Resource, Grammatical Range etc. A great plan makes writing easy and with 10,000 word dissertations and mindboggling Computer Engineering research papers working on the basics helps. I also like the Viva Voce idea where students summarise their paper and defend it. This also gives them ideas for 2nd/3rd drafts.

        I do these things with groups upto 35 and it’s useful having these ‘writing circles’ who work together.For homework 1 can write the 1st draft, another proofread, another do the 2nd draft etc.Probably with a Wiki.

        Like you say, having it orally-based helps you help them build their work from the ground up and something as simple as “work in a group, brainstorm the content, plan 5 paragraphs, decide on supporting info, 10 words, 5 structures, linkers and tenses” will produce a very structured plan that students can give to someone else to write or mark.

        I always hammer away that ” a good plan=a good paper”.Well, in theory.

  2. Richard says:

    I like the start with the last page idea and love your ‘gentle reminder’! I also think it’s sometimes possible to have the students create texts based on those available in the book. So instead of reading the text, they write it for themselves first and then compare it with what was in the book, discussing the structure, vocabulary, language and whether their text is more interesting – it often is!

    • Good idea, Richard!
      I can remember I did it once. The unit was on villains and evil fiction characters, the only problem was that the ones described in the textbook were all old western icons, so not only the Asian students didn’t know about them (or were interested in) but also the European ones didn’t know much because, well, the characters were old and out of fashion. So I asked them first to write about a villain of their choice and culture, and then we compared vocabulary to describe evil things using the textbook. Quite good.
      Thanks for the reminder, I’ll do it more often.

  3. Bren Brennan Bren Brennan says:

    Willy,
    I like this idea of totally flipping the class/textbook/teacher’s brain 🙂

    As you say, writing tasks are typically given as homework, as Ts believe that the class is for oral production. So that Ss are given the opportunity for speaking practice after your suggested writing class, they could do a follow-up speaking activity using MAILVU http://mailvu.com/

    It’s an excellent, simple video email tool where Ss can record a spoken homework.
    I got the idea from Russell Stannard @russell1955. He explains this ‘video as spoken homework’ point here in Video 7: Using MAILVU in connected classes http://bit.ly/mi1AfF

  4. Roy Bicknell says:

    Hi Willy,

    Some nice ideas there! I would agree that writing sometimes gets a rough deal. But often enough I get students who feel that more should be done in session. Their own experience is that teachers tend to shy away from writing tasks for a number of reasons.

    I try to get students more interested by first introducing a game element. Scrambling texts or deliberating misformulating text and having the students in teams reconstruct is fun and often an eye-opener for them. After that they’re hooked and we can start to address all those writing issues.

    Keep up the good work,
    Roy

  5. Excellent point and ideas, Willy. I agree wholeheartedly: writing very often is a highly neglected skill in ELT (but in some contexts it’s overdone and badly done).

    You won’t often see me plug coursebooks these days, but I was (and am) very happy with one strand of coursebooks I wrote for tweens and teens, where writing took centre stage and the other macro skills integrated and flowed out of it:

    http://www.boostskillsseries.com/writing/writing.php

    Having used this in several classroom contexts, I have to say it worked really well and it was great to be able to put writing at the heart of things for a while.

    Cheers,

    – Jason

    • hi Jason,

      I couldn’t take the unit walk-through on the Boost website, maybe it’s not ready for Chrome, I don’t know. Also, the sample unit pdf I downloaded doesn’t want to open. Not my lucky day, I’ll try again later from another machine.

      You mention that in this series writing takes a center stage. Do you know of a series for adult learners in which a similar approach is taken? Also, let me take the opportunity to ask you, since you’re a course writer, if is there any commonly agreed rationale for writing being put in the last page of each unit?

      • Hi Willy,

        Just with regards to that last question (and yes, actually done it as part of other skill strands where reading, speaking or listening took centre stage first and then writing formed that follow up on the last page as a ‘skills integration’ element), the general rationale appears to be that writing is hard for EFL learners if they haven’t already explored ideas and language using other skills first, and/or haven’t been given a reading passage as a ‘model’ to emulate.

        I don’t wholly agree with that rationale (hence the delight at being able to feature writing centre stage in its own dedicated strand) and like you, I think writing earlier can actually go a long way to ‘priming’ for things like speaking, or ‘noticing’ when reading a text as a follow up.

        However, it’s generally one of those industry givens to which coursebook writers are usually made subject to as part of their writing brief…

  6. Luke Meddings says:

    Great post, Willy, totally agree and I might only add that fragments of writing can be as revealing as longer texts. Asking people to note down answers demystifies the act of writing and reveals very much the same as their spoken output. Finally, with the gap between speaking and writing narrowing daily as we write more with our fingertips or (as I am now) narrowing daily, there is much to observe in txtspk that is of interest..

    • Good reminder, Luke, that writing in the classroom also needs to be spontaneous, short and sweet. Regarding, writing with our fingertips, this is one thing I’m not so happy about in a way, I mean, not that we type a lot more, but that writing activities in the classroom and often done by handwriting, which makes them laborious to work on layout and editing skills, also to try and have some sort of authentic interaction between learners; without mentioning that calligraphy is not anyone’s forte these days, and needn’t be anyway.

  7. Luke Meddings says:

    I meant to say ‘with the gap between speaking and writing narrowing daily as we write more with our fingertips or (as I am now) \thumbs/ narrowing daily’.. but my thumbs messed up 😉

  8. Coming from someone whose side of the program focuses solely on academic reading and writing, I say a hearty ‘woohoo’ to your post, Willy. I hope it inspires more ‘flipping the unit’ and gives general EFL classes the encouragement to give writing more attention it deserves.

  9. Tara Benwell says:

    Fantastic post. I really enjoyed reading the comments too. It helps to have a teacher who is passionate about writing. Neglected skills are often the ones that teachers aren’t passionate about. I think more schools should allow teachers to team up and focus on the areas that they really enjoy.

    • Hi Tara

      I’m happy you mention team teaching. I was not always a fan of writing, or not always knew how to approach it and for sure my early students were deprived of some quality feedback on their writing. I wish I had had a mentor of some kind in this regard or maybe a teacher who could show me the tricks in exchange of some grammar awareness which I was good. So I’m totally with you when you say schools should allow teachers to do more of what they really enjoy but at the same time encouraging development of the weaker areas by team teaching.

  10. Fiona says:

    Hi Willy,

    I guess you know I’m a big, HUGE fan of writing skills stuff in the classroom, and that I’ve spent a lot of time working on this area, so though (inevitably) I agree with a lot of what you say, for once there’s something I don’t quite see eye to eye with you on: for me, the thing with coursebooks isn’t the coursebooks, exactly. I mean, coursebooks put the writing lesson at or towards the end as it’s supposed to be what the rest of the unit is leading towards, so in a Big Picture way, the underlying structure of books/units tends to be PPP (for all the blurb..) across the lessons even if not within them. You get your vocab and your grammar and your speaking and your listening… and then you’re supposed to compress all that you’ve learnt from that and chuck in some connectors in the lesson on writing skills. “Obviously” this is at the end of the lesson, as the students don’t have the language otherwise; they can’t possibly have if you haven’t covered the previous 8 pages thoroughly (NB Tongue is rammed into cheek here). Or so the argument goes.
    SO turning the unit on its head is great if you’re a dogme (or similar) type teacher like thee or me – in fact, you could teach the entire book in any page order your students want or in the order that topics and grammar points etc come up, couldn’t you? – BUT what if you’re not that sort of teacher? Or if your students don’t respond to that sort of teaching? There are a whole lot of teachers out there who need the script, and if they need the script, they need to follow through those 8 pages – possibly in any order – before they get to the writing, as the writing is the ‘Now serve the dish’ stage of the recipe, to those teachers. They can chuck the ingredients in in a number of orders, but they can only serve the dish at the end because otherwise they themselves – not the students – are lacking what they need (all plate, no food). I’m sure Simon Greenall would express this better than me, but do you know what I’m trying to say? It’s not about the books and the skills activities, to me, it’s about the teacher and how they approach what goes on in the room. It’s about who they are as a teacher and the risks they’re willing to take.
    Me, my classes focus almost totally on speaking and writing – the vocab and grammar fill the room but they come out of the speaking and writing, and the listening and reading are integral parts of the whole. But most of my teaching is dogme and my beliefs are based on a language being a system for expressing ourselves (start with the expression, work out the system rather than the reverse) – so writing has to be there – BUT if I were to use a coursebook for whatever reason, and if I were to turn the unit on its head and Do The Writing Lesson First – and bearing in mind that it’s NOT all about the teacher and some students do need that scaffolding (and have enough experience of coursebooks to know how they work), I think I’d then revisit that same lesson at the end, allow students to re-edit their work after they’ve gone through the rest of the unit, so they know more about the ingredients and processes involved, and those who didn’t have that previous knowledge when doing the last lesson first can compensate for that after they’ve overtly covered it in class.

    If we really want to break the mould and let the learners run the dynamic, why take the decision, you the teacher, to do the last thing first? Is that unilateral decision less teacher-centred than doing the last lesson last? I really seriously think it’s got more to do with making students see that we take writing skills seriously, that by writing they improve self-expression not only in L2, that the lesson isn’t just an add-on or a tedious homework chore, and so we should give them as much support as possible, as many strategies, as much language as they need (and the chance to set up their own blog, wiki, writing journal…) – whatever order the book does it in. Tools and workmen. Recipes and chefs.
    Fiona

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