W is for Writing

Writing is a challenging process even at the best of times and one which can be a solitary even isolating experience when the supportive atmosphere provided by adequate teacher preparation and guidance is lacking.

With building a solid and valid foundation for teacher support in mind, we teachers should not miss the opportunity to write the same tasks we require of our students. Why? Simply to provide ourselves with the opportunity to reflect on the writing process itself and come to grips with the difficulties our student writers will face. I suppose, in essence what I’m saying is that we shouldn’t preach but practise as well not only to remind ourselves of the writer’s task and reaffirm the validity in the eyes of our students of the guidance we provide them but also to provide students with a model.

So what's next? Work with the model! There’s little or no point in presenting students with a model and hoping that the model on its own will help students improve their own writing or understanding of those key ingredients which together make writing successful.

Effective writing requires a number of things from a high degree of organisation and development to a careful choice of lexical and grammatical items. Model analysis needs to consider both.

On a textual level, students could be encouraged to identify the blocks of meaning rather than the physical boundaries of text or paragraphs. In doing so, we can then draw attention to their relative size; highlighting the importance of balance and development; and their characteristics; pointing out  where a richer range of grammar or words is used.

It is equally important to consider the words that make the sentences which then build the text. We could thus encourage students to identify those word sets that give rise to theme, the importance of repetition or replacement, collocation or ellipsis and the use and number of conjunctions.

Aiming not only to refresh our insight into the mechanisms of writing, but also to provide concrete hints and tips for students, the preparation and analysis of models is thus of some importance but does support stop there? Is support concerned only with what is done before students write? No, a good deal of support can be provided through the provision of meaningful comments.

Perhaps the greatest feeling of satisfaction that a student gets is from a well-constructed teacher comment showing that his/her work has not been treated as a potential source of error but read by an interested reader. But what constitutes a valid and reliable comment? What are its ingredients?

Borrowing illustrious labels, I would like to suggest that a successful comment addresses 4 basic principles – those of quality, quantity, clarity and relevance. Much time could be devoted to a discussion of what these encompass but briefly quality is a matter of appropriacy both in terms of word choice and message, quantity is not so much the number of words but rather the number and balance of blocks of meaning. Clarity, on other hand addresses the question and looks at task achievement whereas relevance looks at the particular piece of work as part of the student’s writing history.

Summarising the development of writing skills necessarily involves presenting students with opportunities to practice the various forms and functions of writing. Practice, however, does not make perfect if done in isolation and without the support of adequate guidance from the teacher of which the approaches suggested here a few.

Find out more  about the principles that underpin teaching at www.teachingenglish.org.uk. The Teaching English  website is a central point of reference for information about English language teaching products and services from the UK.


British Council

British Council