How Can We Teach Writing Effectively
to Greek ESL Students?
by Ioanna Michalakelli
The present article focuses on writing, a skill which has not been accorded the attention it deserves. A first observation that could be made is that even though this skill is essential for all the students, it is frequently considered to be less significant than the skills of reading and speaking.
In the beginning, a definition of writing will be attempted and a rather useful distinction between writing as a channel and writing as a goal will be drawn. Afterwards, the principles for the development of students’ writing skills will be cited and the aims of writing activities will be analysed.
1. What do we mean by “Writing Skills”?
According to Hudelson (1988), the development of students’ writing skills could be defined as “the creation of original text using the individual’s intellectual and linguistic resources, rather than copying someone else’s text, using a prepared list of words to create sentences or stories, filling in the blanks, or practising handwriting”.
This kind of writing is deemed as significant as the other skills as it is always used to assess students both in formal and informal tests. Besides, learning to produce real-life written texts involves learning to consider the reader’s needs which, in turn, enables students to develop their communicative skills.
Before citing the principles for the effective teaching of writing skills, it is worth drawing a rather useful distinction between writing as a channel and writing as a goal.
2. Writing as a Channel vs. Writing as a Goal
According to Wingard (1981: 140), writing can be considered as a channel or as a goal of language learning. In the first case, students write to learn the language, that is, they use writing alongside listening, speaking and reading “in the process of learning important elements of the language and developing command of the language”.
In the second case, students learn to write; therefore, writing as a goal basically focuses on “the development of writing skills to fulfil such purposes as note-taking, summarising, narrating, reporting and replying required for various real-life situations” (Wingard, 1981: 140).
3. Principles for the development of Writing Skills
A first observation that could be made concerning the teaching of writing skills is that, unlike speaking, writing is not an innate skill or capacity; it is a technology that has to be learned. Understanding what is involved in producing a text will undoubtedly provide invaluable information for teaching writing in the classroom.
According to Flower and Hayes (1980, cited in Grabe and Kaplan, 1996: 92), the composing processes of a writer are divided into three components: the composing processor, the task environment and the writer’s long-term memory. The writing process model elaborated by Flower and Hayes, which appears below, views writing as a recursive process that requires planning, organizing, editing, evaluating and so on.
Flower and Hayes’ suggestions have been embraced by Bowen (2004) who asseverates that “focusing on the process of writing and introducing skills such as generating ideas (brainstorming the topic for relevant vocabulary), structuring information, drafting and redrafting, reformulating and reviewing can make writing a communicative and not a silent, solitary activity seen as a waste of valuable classroom time”.
This is something that is frequently neglected in the classroom, as students in many cases are asked to write a final draft of their work right from the beginning. It is also essential that teachers construct real-life, purposeful writing activities since students “develop as writers when they use writing to carry out activities that are meaningful to them” (Hudelson, 1988).
Furthermore, certain kinds of knowledge are required in order to be able to write: knowledge of language, knowledge of topic, knowledge of audience, as well as stored writing plans. Knowledge of audience is of paramount importance as it enables students to produce reader-orientated, communicative texts.
Besides, stimuli should be provided in order to activate students’ prior knowledge of certain topics and the relevant schemata, the “abstract structures representing concepts stored in memory” (Williams and Moran, 1989: 217). Pertaining to the way of providing feedback to students’ writing, teachers should “respond as genuine and interested readers rather than as judges and evaluators. They should try to respond not so much to student writing but to student writers” (Zamel, 1985: 97).
O’Brien (2000- Unit 2, Ch. 4, p. 40) sets out four principles which should govern the teaching of writing: First of all, teachers should be aware of the difficulties involved in writing and should take account of them in their teaching and in their assessment of students’ work.
Secondly, teachers should expose their students to various models of the text-types they want them to write so as to facilitate the writing process. Furthermore, a third principle might be the careful selection of text-types for both reading and writing, always taking into account that students can usually read language that is more advanced than the language that they can produce.
Last but not least, teachers should bear in mind that unless the production of whole texts is encouraged, the teacher will not have the opportunity to teach all the important features that help to make the text coherent.
4. The Aims of Writing Activities
As far as the aims of writing activities are concerned, a first observation that could be made is that the writing activities should basically aim at engaging students in a dynamic, interactive process which reinforces “an awareness of audience, purpose and intentionality” (Massi, 2001) by constructing real-life, meaningful activities.
It is indispensable to create the conditions for interaction in which meaning will be negotiated between the teacher and the students. Writing must be considered a problem-solving activity that aims at setting “the pedagogical climate for the development of the task which requires students’ active involvement” (Cabral, 2004).
Besides, learners are expected to work in tandem with each other in order to perform the writing activities assigned to them. Pair work seems to be more effective because, as Jacobs and Ball (1996:105) suggest, it enhances the opportunities for each member to participate actively in the activities and reduces the complexity of group management.
Furthermore, writing is viewed as a recursive process which requires students to plan and revise, rearrange and produce multiple drafts before the finished document is produced. The activities should basically focus on writing as a goal without repudiating the interest in grammatical accuracy.
Last but not least, it is essential that the topic selected is normally in accordance with the students’ interests and aims at activating the relevant schemata which, according to Massi (2001), will determine both the content and the form of the texts that are going to be produced.
A final observation that could be made is that the development of students’ writing skills requires the learners to be exposed to texts belonging to that particular genre. According to Cabral (2004), “through the exposure to similar texts, students can notice the specific configurations of that genre”. Besides, learners can activate their memory of previous reading experiences of texts similar to the one they are being challenged to produce.
5. How can we help our students?
A final point that should be made relates to how the teacher could help students to become effective writers. It is worth citing Ammon’s remark (1985: 82), who asserts that the success in helping students to learn to write in English as a second language hinges primarily on the use of instructional activities that are rich in opportunities for exposure to, production of, and reflection on English discourse…such activities must include frequent writing, with guidance and feedback, on topics of personal interest.
Abbott, G. and P. Wingard (eds.). (1981). The Teaching of English as an International Language. London: Collins
Ammon, P. (1985). ‘Helping Children Learn to Write In English as a Second Language: Some Observations and Some Hypotheses’ in Freedman, S. (ed.) The Acquisition of Written Language: Response and Revision, Norwood NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation
Bowen, T. (2004). ‘Writing- The Forgotten Skill’ [Online]
Available from: http://www.onestopenglish.com/News/magazine/Archive/forgotten.htm
Cabral, M. (2004). ‘Developing Task-based Writing with Adolescent EFL Students’ [Online] Available from: http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Cabal-Task-basedWriting.html [accessed 26/07/2005]
Freedman, S. (1985). The Acquisition of Written Language: Response and Revision. Norwood NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation
Grabe, W. and R. Kaplan (1996). Theory and Practice of Writing. London: Addison Wesley Longman
Hudelson, S. (1988). ‘Children’s Writing in ESL’ (ERIC Digest) [Online]
Available from: http://www.ericdigests.org/pre-9210/writing.htm [accessed 23/07/2005]
Jacobs, G. M. and J. Ball (1996). ‘An investigation of the structure of group activities in ELT coursebooks’ in ELT Journal 50/2: 99-107
Massi, M. P. (2001). ‘Interactive Writing in the EFL Class: A Repertoire of Tasks’ [Online]
Available from: http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Massi-WritingTaks.html [accessed 27/07/2005]
O’ Brien, T. (2000). The Teaching of Writing Skills in a Second/ Foreign Language. Patras: HOU
Williams, E. and C. Moran (1989). ‘Reading in a foreign language at intermediate and advanced levels with particular reference to English’ in Language Teaching 22/4: 217-228
Wingard, P. (1981). ‘Writing’ in Abbott, G. and P. Wingard (eds.) The Teaching of English as an International Language, London: Collins, pp. 139-170
Zamel, V. (1985). ‘Responding to Student Writing’ in TESOL Quarterly 19/1: 79-101
(Posting date 14 May 2007. This article first appeared in ELT News (May 2007, http://www.eltnews.gr/art_details.asp?art_id=270 ), an online publication for teachers of English as a second language in Greece, under the title "How Could We Teaching Writing Effectively?" The original title has been altered by HCS editorial staff for a world-wiide general audience.)
HCS encourages readers to view other articles and releases in our permanent, extensive archives at the URL http://www.helleniccomserve.com/contents.html, especially those by Ms. Michalakelli under the category "Vatoussa, Lesvos, Greece." For more information about author Michalakelli, see her brief biographical sketch at the URL http://www.helleniccomserve.com/michalakellijoannabio.html .
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