Teaching Tips

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Setting Achievable Goals for our EFL Writing Class

“Scaffolding” describes a performance enhancement procedure which can make teaching composition meaningful and support learners.

However, despite teachers’ and students’ good efforts, EFL composition writing still remains a very demanding task which more often than not surrounds a great deal of disappointment and frustration.

The crucial question “Is there anything else to be done?” is often repeated.

As an EFL teacher, I have found myself in this unpleasant position many times. I keep wondering though, whether my expectations from my students (especially these of lower levels) are realistic or not!

Why don’t we take a second to think of the cognitive profile of a “very good’ student in our EFL composition class?

To start with, we should realize what elements effective EFL composition writers consist of.

They are the ones who combine a great variety of presupposed knowledge which Hyland (2003, p. 27) divides into “content knowledge” (knowledge of the topic), “system knowledge” (knowledge of syntax and vocabulary – spelling and meaning), “process knowledge” (knowledge of planning and organization of writing) and “genre knowledge” (knowledge of the genre and its principles).

The communicative purpose of the text and the information students intend to convey as well as other relevant texts form another kind of knowledge (“context knowledge”) (ibid.).

Consequently, a student who is not good enough at any of these aspects of writing inevitably faces difficulties in composition.

Vasiliki Lismani Efl Teacher, Bed., Ma (Special Education)

I assume that it has already been clear that composition writing is a multi – disciplinary, multi- tasking procedure.

L2 students are assessed for the production of texts that ‘their previous learning experiences may not have adequately prepared” (Hyland, 2003, p. 40).

This is particularly true for younger students and for students of lower levels alike, who, for example, are asked to write formal application letters or e-mails but they rarely write ones in their native language.

Cultural issues are also stated to interfere into students’ piece of writing in a decisive way (Hyland, 2003; Al – Khatib, 2001 in Rivers, 2011) and quite often EFL writing contains errors due to different “cultural thought patterns” (ibid) between native (L1) language and L2.

At this point, I would like to focus on what I referred to as “system knowledge”. A general demand to an EFL class is to have pupils being able to think and express themselves in English effectively while being in the process of learning the language which is actually something very demanding and challenging (Villalobos, 2011).

Unlike to L1 (native language) writing, students of EFL are taught new grammatical structures and, almost simultaneously, are asked to create productive writing exploiting the newly acquired knowledge.

“Largely because of this developmental aspect of language learning, research frequently finds texts written by L2 students to be less effective than those of native English – speaking peers” (Silva, 1997 in Hyland, 2003, p. 34).

In other words, EFL learners have difficulties with their productive writing tasks because they do not have the time to assimilate the new knowledge and put it in their writing in a way that would convey their ideas effectively (ibid). Obviously, L2 learners differentiate “not only in the speed of acquisition but also in their ultimate level of achievement” (Ellis, 2006, p. 525).

To deal with the obstacles derived from the inadequate assimilation of “system knowledge”, students confront to their mother tongue translating directly from L1 into L2 and adopting syntax patterns/structures of the Greek language to their English texts.

Thus, they resort to a familiar means of expression to draw assistance for their writing tasks. Unfortunately, this does not always help either and teachers often comment negatively on mother tongue interference to their students compositions. In this case, the phrase “it’s Greek to me!” is not always metaphorical!

The reason is that students tend to translate their Greek thought into English without adapting their expression to the principles of the English language because they have not assimilated these principles yet.

This results in reoccurring mistakes which are mostly expected to be made by most of our Greek students.

For example, some of the most common mistakes include the correct use of Present Perfect Simple (because for some of its uses either Past or Present tense is equivalent in Greek) and the word order in a sentence (subject – verb – object – adverbs) since Greek syntax is much more flexible than English. Consequently, a vicious circle of mistakes is unavoidable.

In a nutshell, the key to my argument is that we should start setting more achievable goals to our students according to their EFL acquisition level.

To put it differently, the fact that they have been taught all past tenses and practiced their use in “fill in the gaps with the verb in the correct form” exercises, do not necessarily mean that all of them are able to use these tenses in a text where they have to prove their knowledge on a number of different aspects of the language.

Otherwise, our students will keep on using their native language as a helping hand and we will experience more frustration dealing with them.

Ellis, R. (2006). Individual Differences in Second Language Learning In: Davies, A., Elder, C. (eds) (2006) The Handbook of Applied Linguistics. Blackwell Publishing.
Hyland, K. (2003). Second Language Writing (online). Cambridge Language Education. Available via Google Books.
Rivers, D. (2011). A short review of three articles concerning the teaching of L2 writing across cultural contexts. Available at: www.developingteachers.com.
Villalobos, N. (2011). How can we help our students think in English? Available via NNEST Interest Section Blog