How to teach writing skills to ESL and EFL students

How to teach writing?

One of the headaches that the teachers of English in EFL and ESL classrooms face is how to teach writing. It is one of the skills that require from the students not only to be equipped with the necessary skills but also to be motivated. For most people writing is a painful process. It necessitates a training and patience.

This article is an attempt to cover the knowledge required in how to teach writing.

What is writing?

Before dealing with how to teach writing, let’s first see what is meant by ‘writing’. In this article, writing is seen as :

a purposeful human activity whereby the writer intends to communicate content – represented with conventional signs and symbols – to an audience (i.e. reader).

In the above definition five elements are of paramount importance:

  1. The writer (who)
  2. The content (what)
  3. The purpose (why)
  4. The audience (for whom)
  5. The medium (signs and symbols)

In addition to the above elements, writing involves many processes, including, the generation and organization of ideas, drafting, revising and editing.

Writing as a communicative skill

Writing is a skill that is highly required nowadays. Written communication, for example, is the most common form of business communication. Emails and formal letters fulfill conversational-like purposes that the students have to master if they were to integrate today’s job market.

Writing serves not only communicative purposes in professional activities but also in social ones. In our every day lives, we write or reply to invitation letters, thank-you letters, text messages, etc. Even journals carry a social communicative load. Journal writers try to communicate their thoughts and feelings to themselves.

As a communicative skill, sometimes we initiate the need to write. Other times, we respond to someone else’s initiation. When you write an invitation letter, you are the initiators of the conversation. Replying to the invitation, by accepting or declining it, is the response to the initiator.

Writing vs speaking

Compared to the speaking skill, writing is more regulated. First, speech is often spontaneous and generally unplanned. Speakers have support from interlocutors to convey the message. That is, while you speak, the immediate audiences contribute to the conversation by nodding, interrupting, questioning and commenting to keep the conversation going. Speech is also characterized by repetition, pauses, hesitations, para-language features (gestures, facial expressions,…), and fillers (uhuh, ummm..). By contrast, writing has more standard forms of grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. It is generally planned and can be subject to modification through editing and revision before an audience reads it. In addition to that, writing does not tolerate repetition and if there is a response to a written message, it is generally delayed. Last but not least, writers use a lot of cohesive devices (e.g. however, in addition, in conclusion, etc.) that contribute to the overall coherence of the text.

What we usually write?

If you list all the things you have written during the past week, you will probably end up with a list that may include:

  • Shopping lists
  • Names
  • Phone numbers
  • Emails
  • Letters
  • Text messages
  • Notes
  • Presentations
  • Articles
  • Reports
  • Curriculum Vitae

These forms of writing which we also call genres, serve to express different purposes.

Why do we write?

Different forms of writing serve different kinds of purposes. The above pieces of writing are all done with different intents in mind:

  • Lists as reminders:
    We write lists to remind ourselves of important information.
    (shopping lists, names, phone numbers…)
  • Writing as a learning tool:
    Sometimes we write to organize and facilitate learning:
    (note taking, copying…)
  • Conversational-like writing
    Other times, the purpose of writing is to get or communicate a piece of information
    (emails, letters, text messages…)
  • Writing for introspection and self-development:
    In some cases, writing is a means for introspection.
    (journals, diaries…)
  • Writing as a means of reasoning:
    Writing can be also a means to proceed by reasoning, making a point, convincing, arguing…
    (discursive writing)

Functional categories

When talking about the purpose of writing, we are in fact implying that writing has a functional role. This may include

  • Sequencing
  • Comparing and contrasting
  • Talking about cause and effect
  • Describing
  • Defining
  • Expressing an opinion
  • Arguing
  • Persuading

Knowing how to teach writing, entails making the learners aware of the different modes of writing, that is, the purpose of their written text and the functional role that it plays in the communicative act (e.g. arguing, persuading, describing,etc.)

How to teach writing in EFL and ESL classrooms

How to teach writing presupposes some prerequisites. Teachers of English should be aware of not only the theoretical underpinnings of the writing tasks but also the practical procedures that contribute to the success of the writing lesson. In the following section, we will have a look at:

  • The basic knowledge that learners should develop in the writing lesson.
  • The different types of writing activities.
  • Writing as a tool for learning.
  • Writing as a major syllabus component.
  • Teaching writing as a product, as a process, and as a genre.

Levels of writing

Learners should be trained to develop different language subskills. The knowledge that they should develop range from handwriting skills and mechanics to the ability to produce a coherent writing. Other types of knowledge include vocabulary, grammar, and paragraph structure. The use of cohesive devices (e.g. however, nevertheless, but, etc.) are also of paramount importance for good writers.

Levels of writing (how to teach writing)

figure 1: Levels of writing (how to teach writing)

Writing activities

Writing tasks can be represented in a continuum that ranges from controlled activities to freer ones.

How to teach writing (activities)
Controlled writingCopyingFilling the blanksParallel writingCreative writingFree Writing

The writing task in the classroom can be also seen either as a learning tool (i.e. writing for learning) or as representing one of the main syllabus components (i.e. writing for writing) (Harmer, 2004).

Writing for learning

Writing for learning concerns those activities that necessitate the involvement of the students in some form of writing:

  • Grammar: providing examples of the target structures, gap filling, transformation exercises…
  • Reading: answering the comprehension questions, summarizing…
  • Speaking: preparing a conversation before an oral performance, jotting down ideas for subsequent discussion about a topic…

All the above activities are not part of a self-contained writing lesson. Writing in these activities is just a by-product of the work on other language components.

Writing for writing

Writing for writing refers to the writing lesson as a major syllabus strand. It is a self-contained writing lesson that aims at developing the writing skill.

There are three approaches to teaching writing:

  1. Writing as a product.
  2. Writing as a process.
  3. Genre writing.

Product writing

The product writing approach refers to a writing procedure with an end product in mind. In this approach, the students are encouraged to mimic a model text. Analysis of the model text focuses on the linguistic features (e.g. prepositions, tense, adverbs…). Attention is paid to the accuracy of the students’ productions and the teacher is concerned with where the students end not how they get there.

Here are the main features of this approach:

  • The teacher provides a model text.
  • Analysis of the linguistic features of the model text.
  • The students are encouraged to mimic the model text.
  • The writing is done with an end product in mind.
  • The teacher evaluates the students on the final product they have handed in.
  • Focus is on form and accuracy

This approach is criticized for not paying attention to the processes involved in writing. The writing process involves far more than just producing an accurate piece of writing. Hence the development of a new approach that caters to the pitfalls of the product approach.

Process writing

As its name implies, process writing focuses on the process a writer goes through before producing a piece of writing:

“…process writing in the classroom may be construed as a program of instruction which provides the students with a series of planned learning experiences to help them understand the nature of writing at every point.”
Anthony Sewo, 2002, p.315

In this approach, the learners are encouraged to go through different stages before producing their final version. Generally speaking, four stages are identified in this process:

  1. Planning
  2. Drafting
  3. Revising
  4. Editing

Planning

At the pre-writing stage, the learners are encouraged to gather as much information about the topic as possible through activities such as:

  • brainstorming
  • quick write
  • answers to questions
  • discussions

After generating enough ideas about the topic, the learners sort and organize them into an outline, preferably a visual diagram.

Drafting

Drafting is the first attempt at writing. When the learners have gathered enough ideas about the topic they start writing the first draft paying attention to the following points:

  • At this stage, focus is on the fluency of writing;
  • The learners should not be preoccupied too much with accuracy;
  • While drafting, the audience should be taken into consideration because having the audience in mind gives direction to the writing.

There might be some kind of response to the students’ drafts either from other peers or from the teacher. This can be in the form of quick oral or written initial reaction to the draft.

Revising

Revising is not merely checking for language errors. It is rather a look at the overall content and organization of ideas. Using the feedback from their peers or from the teacher, the learners check whether their writing communicates meaning effectively to the intended audience. For example, some ideas may be discarded while others may be improved. The structure of paragraphs might also be affected during revision and the overall organization may be refined to convey coherent content.

Editing

Once the learners have finished revising, they start tidying up their drafts. This can be done by the learners themselves (i.e. self-editing) or with the help of their peers (i.e. peer editing). The focus is on elements like:

  • diction (choice of words)
  • grammar (tense, sentence structure, prepositions…)
  • mechanics (punctuation, punctuation)

A checklist may be provided to this effect:

  • Is the choice of vocabulary items appropriate?
  • Are the verbs in the correct tense?
  • Are the verb correctly formed?
  • Have you checked the subject-verb agreement?
  • Have you used correct sentence structures?
  • Are the prepositions correctly used?
  • Have you checked the use of articles?

Figure 2 below, shows the different steps in process writing. As it can be seen, the process is not linear; it is rather recursive.

“…many good writers employ a recursive, non-linear approach – writing of a draft may be interrupted by more planning, and revision may lead to reformulation, with a great deal of recycling to earlier stages.”

Krashen, 1984, p. 17. Cited in Anthony Sewo, 2002, p.315.

Process Writing (how to teach writing)

Figure 2: Process Writing (How to teach writing)

Genre writing

Recent studies on the genres of writing have revived interest in some features of the product approach. Genre writing is similar to the product approach in the sense that it also considers writing from a linguistic standpoint. Nevertheless, there is a major difference between the genre and product approaches. The genre approach, unlike the product approach, focuses on the social context in which writing is produced. As mentioned above, texts can be classified into different genres and are normally written for different social purposes. Consequently, each genre (e.g. email, formal letters, storytelling, etc.) has its own common conventional features and the teachers’ role is to raise the students’ awareness of these features and help them learn how to produce texts with the same features.

The conventional features of genres include things like layout, diction, style, organization, and content. If these are not analyzed and practiced by the students themselves in different examples, they will not be able to communicate their intents appropriately and their productions will undoubtedly break the expectations of the reader. Consequently, knowing how to teach writing presupposes that teachers should also focus on their students’ awareness and analysis of different genres to help them avoid producing texts that will likely cause a negative reaction.

Texts are socially constructed and follow social conventions that the students have to respect. It helps to understand the rationale behind the form of a discourse through examining not only its language but also its social context and purpose. Wedding invitations, for example, share so many characteristics that when we see an example of them, it is immediately apparent from its layout and its language.

Practically, the genre approach draws on Vygotsky’s social constructivism which considers language as a consequence of human interaction. The procedure is based on three major stages: awareness raising, appropriation, and autonomy. During the lesson, scaffolding is provided. That is, the teacher provides support for learners as they progress in their linguistic competence and become independent.

Awareness raising

The first stage consists of having the students look, for example, at text models of a specific genre. The aim is to make them aware of what constitutes that particular genre.

To that effect, different text models of the same genre are provided to the students for analysis and distinctive features should be identified.

Appropriation

At this stage, support is provided when needed while the learners practice the target genre distinctive features :

  • the linguistic properties,
  • layout
  • organization

Collaborative work may play an important role at this stage. A text may be jointly constructed by learners and teacher (Hammond, 1987).

Autonomy

At this stage, the learners are given enough time to independently construct their own texts. Guidance may be needed for students with limited control of language.

A process genre approach to teaching writing

It would be a good idea to mix the advantages of the three approaches described above.  This would lead to the adoption of an approach that would undoubtedly benefit learning. Badger and White (2000) call such an approach “process genre approach to teaching writing”. This approach recognizes:

  • The importance of the linguistic features of texts as in product writing;
  • The importance of the knowledge of the social context and purposes of texts as in genre writing;
  • The importance of the skills needed in the process of writing.

The teaching procedure would include the provision of an input (i.e. model texts)  that learners would study and analyze and the development of the learners’ skills necessary in the process of writing. Here is a typical procedure:

  • Model texts that represent specific social situations are provided for study and analysis in terms of:
    – their linguistic features.
    – their social context, that is the relationship between the writer, the purpose of the text, and the audience.
  • After raising the learners’ awareness about the model texts distinctive features, some practice would be needed.
  • A topic is provided to the students which replicates a similar social situation.
  • Learners construct their own texts through:
    – planning
    – drafting
    – revising
    – editing
  • The teacher provides support and scaffolding during the learners’ progress towards autonomy.

References

Badger, R. & White, G. (2000). A process genre approach to teaching writing. ELT Journal, Volume 54, Issue 2, 1 April 2000, Pages 153–160, https://doi.org/10.1093/elt/54.2.153

Harmer, J. (2004) How to Teach Writing, Harlow: Pearson Education.

Nation, I.S.P. Teaching ESL/EFL Reading and Writing. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge; 2008.

Seow, A. (2000) The writing process and process writing. Methodology in language teaching: an anthology of current practice / edited by Jack C. Richards and Willy A. Renandya. Pages 315-320.

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