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There are different views on teaching writing among teachers from various contexts and schools.
Let's look at some common beliefs and discuss them together. Perhaps this article will change your mind about how to teach writing lessons.
What do we teach when we teach writing?
Writing in the classroom is only good for exam preparation training — because students need to have a real exam-style experience in order to be better prepared for a real exam session.
This is true — students must have timed writing practice when they prepare for exams. Does it mean that writing practice can be neglected or always set up as homework when students are not preparing for exams?
What makes teachers think so? When we teach speaking lessons, we don't ask students to speak at home. There are obvious reasons for that — speaking requires a partner, it happens in real time and there is spontaneity in speaking.
It is also important for the teacher to monitor the speaking practice in order to provide support when/if necessary, and provide students with feedback on how they coped with the task as well as the language they used (praise for using good language, and correct mistakes).
Unlike speaking, writing is different in many cases. It is not spontaneous, the reader can read it after a while — no need to respond to it immediately.
Writing is an individual process — one does it at their own pace and their own way, it does not require a partner in the process.
For these reasons some teachers think that writing in the classroom is a waste of time. Why would I spend half of my lesson on something students can do at home? It is better to practice speaking, or practice the new grammar and vocabulary we are learning.
Which sounds like a good point unless you consider how writing should be taught (and is usually taught in popular coursebooks).
Students are never told to write a piece of writing without any input (if you do it — you are not teaching, you are testing students' writing skills).
In a writing lesson, students learn how to write by:
In product writing lessons students analyze a model text and notice the features in it. Students learn some of the features listed above to be able to produce better pieces of writing (better structured, more coherent, with clearly written ideas, etc).
If writing is not done in a lesson, it means that students will have a break between the lesson with the clarification of the necessary features of a text and the actual writing. It is unlikely that all the learners start writing right after the lesson is over. It is more realistic that they remember about the writing task when they prepare for the next lesson and do their homework. Which is often done the day before.
How much of what has been analyzed and clarified in a lesson will be remembered after a break? A diligent student will go through the lesson in a coursebook, read the model again, look at their notes, and reconstruct some of the things that were mentioned in the lesson. Some of them will inevitably be forgotten.
When students produce in a lesson, what has been discussed is still fresh in their memory, and they will use the new knowledge at their best.
Writing in a lesson helps students stay concentrated and not get distracted, and it will also help deal with the problem when some students ignore writing tasks at home and make excuses for not having written their letter of complaint.
Some teachers think that writing in a lesson is usually associated with anything but fun. They believe that if students change the environment, their writing will become more interesting.
We can start looking at this problem from a different point of view. What if students lack ideas and are unlikely to produce their pieces of writing on their own at home? In a lesson, the teacher can support such learners in a different way.
For example, they can ask students to brainstorm ideas in groups, or provide prompts students can use if they have no ideas.
Writing in a lesson does not kill creativity. Instead, it provides a different range of freedom depending on the genre and learners' abilities and needs.
If students need more support, they are unlikely to be creative, and will rely on a model text and prompts a lot.
If the learners are more independent, the teacher can adjust the lesson and avoid the unnecessary clarification. Instead, they can stimulate the learners' creativity. A process-based writing approach in this case is a good solution.
Writing in a lesson does not limit creativity. Writing at home, on the other hand, limits the support the teacher can provide.
Turn your writing taks into fun activitites
Another belief is that each learner has their own pace when writing. If they all write in class simultaneously, they will all finish at different times. Fast finishers will be bored, while slower and weaker students will feel a lot of teacher and peer pressure, so it's sensible to let them write as long as they need at home.
Which is partially true. Writing is individual, and everyone does it at their own pace. Still, the teacher can engage fast finishers with an extra task (for example, ask learners to replace simple words with more sophisticated ones, or use a checklist to self-assess, etc.).
If a learner is really slow and there is no point in engaging the whole class to let them have enough time to complete the task, the teacher can vary their assignment as well (for example, they can finish the task at home, or write only 2-3 paragraphs instead of 5, etc).
It is unrealistic to expect all the learners to finish writing at the same time. We can, however, provide them with the right task, that mentions the minimum number of sentences they need to produce, and the time limit they have.
It will stimulate weaker/slower learners to reach the limit, but it will not stop stronger/faster learners to produce more.
Many teachers look at writing in class as a waste of time, since they believe when students write, they cannot help them anyway, because they will only check their works later, after class.
Writing can be and must be monitored. When students are writing in a face-to-face lesson, the teacher must browse and discreetly glance at what students are writing, and their progress.
They can spot if someone is struggling, or is stuck, or is doing something wrong. The teacher can support or correct while students are writing (as long as it is really necessary — it is not a good idea to distract students for no good reason).
The same is possible online (and it's even easier to monitor students' writing online) — if the teacher sets up the task in a monitorable handout (for example, in Google Docs) — it is possible to read what students are producing live without any pressure on them, and help/correct when necessary.
Tips to assess students' writing effectively!
Moreover, when the teacher monitors writing in class, and provides students with feedback on task (for example, students read each other's advertisements of a campsite in pairs and decide if they would spend time there, and what makes this advert attractive for a potential camper), and feedback on language (by doing delayed error correction — asking learners to correct some relevant mistakes they noticed in students; writing, and praises them for some good use of language), this feedback is the most effective, because students have just completed the task.
If the teacher collects the writing and checks it in a week, how many of the learners will really be interested in anything but their mark?
Will they really pay attention to the teacher's comments and corrections? That is not very likely.
Wring in class is a very good practice worth trying if you haven't done it before. And if any of your beliefs about writing in class and at home have changed, please let us know in your comments.
All the students can't finish their writing task at the same time.
Writing in the class can't solve the problem of the students who ignore their writing hometask.
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