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How to approach discursive writing
Getting started, as much for people writing in their own language as for those writing in a foreign language, is one of the most difficult and inhibiting phases of the writing process. Idea generating is therefore key in facilitating the transition from thought to paper. A brainstorming activity is an effective way of getting ideas flowing.
- Assessing ideas
- A model text
- Focus on model text coherence
- Organising ideas
- Correction and reading
Brainstorming consists of group discussion. Students might discuss an idea, the answer to or reasons for a problem. In a lesson I taught recently I asked my students to brainstorm the reasons why people take drugs.
- Brainstorming involves thinking quickly and without inhibition, which can ultimately lead to an interesting piece of writing.
- The teacher should remain in the background during this phase, only supplying language support when students need it, so as not to inhibit students in the production of their ideas.
- Evaluating ideas during brainstorming can be intimidating, and can have a negative effect, limiting the creativity the process is designed to promote.
The relevance and practicality of the ideas produced during brainstorming can be assessed more objectively in the next stage, that is in encouraging students to extend their ideas into a mind map, or spidergram.
- It is in this stage that students can judge the quality and usefulness of their ideas.
- A mind map or spidergram is also an organised display of information, which can be more easily converted into a draft.
- Such graphics also make the (hierarchical) relationship of ideas more easily obvious, which will help students with the structure of their texts.
A model text
In my previous article, Process and product writing, I argued that it is possible to combine a process and product driven approach to writing. The above steps mentioned here have focussed on the varied classroom activities which promote the development of language use. It is these discussion stages, so important in helping students to decide what they want to say, that I believe to be of great importance from the 'process driven approach'. It is after these discussion stages, and the organisation of ideas in note form, that I tend to introduce a model text.
The reading of a model text, so important in a product driven approach to writing, is not so as to subjugate the students' ideas to their organisation, but so as to make students aware that there is a particular way to express their ideas. In this way students are given the form in order to enable them to adapt it to carry their own meaning. Ellis found evidence to suggest that "focusing learners' attention on forms, and the meanings they realise in the context of communicative activities, results in successful language learning."
Focus on model text coherence
Coherence refers to the logical development of ideas within a text and it is an important subskill for students to be aware of. The teacher can highlight this in various ways, by focusing on the topic and function of each paragraph for example, or by examining how the writer has chosen to order his arguments. This focus will hopefully show students that if they are to convey their message successfully, they will have to make their text 'reader friendly'.
Cohesion refers to the grammatical and lexical connections between individual clauses. The grammatical links can be classified under three broad types:
- Referents (pronouns, the article "the", demonstratives)
- Ellipsis (leaving out of words or phrases where they are unnecessary)
- Conjunction (a word which joins phrases or clauses together)
Pronouns, whether subject (he), object (him), possessive (his), relative (who), or reflexive (himself), are often underused or misused by students while performing a writing task, resulting in either confusion as to the referent or tedious repetition of a noun.
One way of raising awareness of the key function that pronouns play within a text is to ask students to circle all the pronouns, then to use arrows to connect them to their referent. This shows students that pronouns can be found by looking back or forwards in the text.
There are many other activities that can be used to focus on cohesion. For example, asking students to replace a sentence which is missing from each paragraph, or to replace the first sentence of each paragraph, matching
clauses which have been separated or gapping conjunctions which students must replace from a selection.
After raising students' awareness of the grammatical and stylistic devices employed in the model text, students should begin to organise their mind maps into a linear format, i.e., the text structure of the model text.
This provides students with an opportunity to further sift and/or logically connect their ideas, to focus them on the precise function of each paragraph, which will help to clarify their writing. They will also have to discuss the overall structure i.e., the order in which to relay their information, depending on the impact they wish to have on the reader.
All of the above activities work best if carried out in groups as groupings make the tasks livelier and more enjoyable. Moreover, if students can work together, assisting each other, then the atmosphere of the writing class may be less intimidating, and perhaps students will not be afraid of the complexity of writing tasks.
The next stage involves the learners in writing the first draft of their texts with a partner. This pair work will help students see that writing really is co-operative, a relationship between writer and reader. Usually, the writer has to imagine a reader, but co-operative writing provides each writer with a reader and makes the task more realistic and interactive.
Correction and Reading
The first draft could be corrected in a number of ways, depending on your aims. The teacher could code-correct, or simply underline errors, then help the students to reformulate their first drafts with the aid of the model text.
Once the final drafts are written, the students should then exchange their compositions so that they become readers of each other's work. This gives their texts a communicative purpose, as well as developing an awareness of the fact that a writer is always producing something to be read by someone else, rather than for the display of writing alone.
Learning to write coherently, in a way suitable to one's purpose and one's audience, is clearly a very difficult task. However, writing is a valuable skill, one which is worth all the classroom time (and more) spent on it. If we, as teachers, can present writing as a stimulating process, and engage our students in the act of creating a text, then perhaps we can help them to improve the effectiveness of their writing.
'Process Writing' by Ron White and Valerie Ardnt
'Language Teaching Methodology' by David Nunan
'Progressive Writing Skills' by Will Fowler
'Discourse Analysis for Language Teachers' by Michael McCarthy
Written by Vanessa Steele, British Council, Barcelona