Writing is often the last of the four major language skills to be learned after listening, speaking and reading.
The first question to ask is what kind of writing will your students be doing?
Like all language learning, practice needs to be relevant to the students. This means the writing must be both interesting and useful to them. Only you as a teacher will be the judge of this, but you need to make sure that the writing task you ask your students to do is really for them.
- Is your Business English class interested in writing a pop song? They might be; but they might find it more useful to learn the usual conventions of writing a memo.
- Do you class of 17 years old need to know how to write a CV/Résumé? They might be, but if they’re going to university next year they’re probably better off learning how to take notes from a lecture.
So try to avoid getting the class to write merely for the sake of writing. Instead, make the writing task relevant to the wider picture. For example, rather than simply ask your class of adults to write a letter of complaint you should build up to this point.
One possible scenario could be like this:
- Show a picture of a customer buying a computer from a shop and discuss this with the class.
- Do a role play between the customer and shop assistant.
- Get the class into small groups and tell them the computer they bought is faulty. Ask them to brainstorm possible responses and actions.
- Role play more scenes between the customer and a rude shop assistant.
- Get the students to write a letter of complaint to head office.
The writing is thus placed in context and becomes part of a larger process rather than an abstract task.
Where & When to Write
The next thing to think about is how you want your students to write.
In the real world writing is, mostly, an individual task thus there is a case for having it done solely as homework. Having said this, if your students are taking an exam they should have practice writing under exam conditions, that is carefully timed in a room with other students.
Likewise, if you are teaching note taking (perhaps to an EAP class) then this has to be done in class in a lecture-like situation.
Remember though, if you get your students to write for homework, then there is no problem allowing them to complete the task on a computer. Although some teachers might baulk at the use of spelling and grammar checkers, there are good arguments in favor of them helping students learn English.
Writing is more complex than speaking in that it tends to involve a wider variety of grammatical constructions and more extensive vocabulary. Whereas in speaking you might say,
I got your email yesterday.
In writing this could well be:
I received your email on Thursday 26th.
Speaking is mostly done face to face and uses body language, gestures, stress, intonation and the like to show subtle meaning. To display these nuances in writing we have to employ a greater vocabulary and deeper grammatical construction which is very important to teach these skills.
To take a simple example, if someone makes a suggestion and we say to them:
You’re being ridiculous!
We can say it with a laugh and everyone understands there is no ill intent or criticism behind it. However if we simply write those words they can easily be misinterpreted.
The following writing sub-skills need to be taught:
This involves picking out the essential points of what is being said and summarizing them. Less emphasis is placed on grammatical correctness and spelling than being able to get the gist of what is being said and writing it down. Again, emphasis is placed of function here – the reason students take notes is not to perfect grammar but to have information available to them later and this is the primary objective.
To begin with, writing will consist of simple sentence structures. The simple declarative sentence is the basis of all writing.
His name is Joe Smith.
He is a manager.
He is 40 years old.
He works for Siemens.
He wants to work for our company.
Writing is all about combining and rearranging these sentences in a meaningful way.
His name is Joe Smith and he works for Siemens where he’s a manager. He’s 40 years old and he wants to work for our company.
This leads on to full prose. Depending on the level of your class this may well be an important sub-skill needing to be taught.
In most writing situations, special emphasis needs to be placed on grammar. In correcting written work this is a priority so that the meaning is clear and unambiguous.
Style is about using the appropriate vocabulary and grammar and layout for a particular piece of writing.
- Short sentences – English these days lives on short sentences and while many languages tend to write in long, convoluted sentences, keeping English simple is to be striven for. This leads into paragraphs and again in modern English we tend to keep paragraphs of one, two or three sentences at most rather than run them on to half a page or more.
- Punctuation – this is not set in stone but you should follow current conventions.
- Layout – what is appropriate for a letter is obviously completely different than the freer layout available in, say, a poem or an email or text.
- Vocabulary – what is right for a scientific paper is not right for a thank you letter for a birthday present.
Do your students write in American English or British English or even some other variety? As long as they are consistent it doesn’t really usually matter.
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IWeb TEFL Team