Some of us write articles or work on blogs, forums and websites. A few write stories and poems - but very few. All of these writing tasks have a communicative purpose and a target audience. In the English language classroom, however, writing often lacks this. Why? There are lots of reasons, as there are lots of ways to make the writing we do with learners more communicative.
- Why writing is difficult to teach
- Some solutions
- Ideas for communicative writing tasks
Why writing is difficult to teach
By its nature, writing is often a solo activity, done silently, involving physical effort and taking a lot of time. This may not make it attractive to learners or teachers as a classroom activity. In addition to this, writing is difficult, even in L1. There are linguistic, psychological and cognitive problems involved, making teaching it and learning it a considerable challenge. It is also important to remember that many people never write anything of any length in their daily lives, or anything using paper and a pen, or without using a spellchecker. But this is often what we ask them to do in English.
Responding appropriately to writing that learners give us is time-consuming and taxing, whether we are addressing errors or the content. We often have to work as hard as our learners have done. Our response is also often dictated by our concern with sub-skills and so correction is often at this level rather than at that of communicative competence. This is aggravated by the fact that it is not easy to evaluate this competence, especially formally - as can be seen in the complexity of the speaking criteria for exams such as IELTS and Cambridge Main Suite. In addition, it is important to recognize that learners are equally concerned about correctness in writing at a sub-level, in areas such as spelling and punctuation. This is especially true when compared to speaking. This inhibits communication.
The kinds of tasks we set learners may not be motivating, relevant or indeed very communicative. Writing is rarely incorporated into a lesson, ending up relegated to homework - which reduces the possibilities to be communicative. We need to give learners tasks that are intellectually satisfying, especially when writing. Adult learners become aware of their limitations very quickly when they try to express complex ideas on paper. As a final note coursebooks don't necessarily always help us develop writing. We need materials that provide relevant, real and communicative practice. This is rare.
We need to make a distinction between writing to learn (other things, like structures, spelling and vocabulary) and learning to write. If we understand this distinction and make sure our learners do too then the communicative purpose of writing will be clearer.
We need to work hard on developing ways of responding to the content of what our learners write - the message - and not just the level of language. If we can do this effectively, then our learners will make more effort to communicate when they write for us. This can support an emphasis on the importance of writing for a real audience, but we do also need to find real audiences for learner writing. This could include ourselves if we can respond as readers, other learners and groups, and public forums such as blogs, websites and letter pages.
We need to find ways to integrate writing with other skills and activities, giving it more relevance and importance - and also making it more interesting. We need to use meaningful, realistic and relevant writing tasks, based on our learners' needs and interests. We may need to design individual tasks based on what individual learners need to write. In addition we should talk about writing with our learners, how we write well, why we write and for who, and what makes it difficult. Learner training like this can provide valuable support and motivation.
Finally, we need to evaluate the impact on our learners' written English when most of our focus on writing is as homework. Are we supporting them as well as we could as they tackle the difficulties we discussed above?
Ideas for communicative writing tasks
- Find ways to publish learners' writing, on websites like Storybird
- They can also publish in blogs, in newspapers, and on posters. Get learners to create individual and group profiles on social utility sites such as Facebook. Publish a class magazine of previous writing work.
- Encourage learners to write with a clear purpose and for a clear audience, for example in letters to newspapers, pen friends, to teachers and other students.
- Find challenging and rewarding tasks which can support a variety of learning aims and integrate other skills and language systems, such as summarising, project work, translation, writing up notes from interviews, and preparing a briefing or talk.
- Use relevant and realistic tasks such as writing notes, recipes, e-mails, filling in forms and preparing signs for the class.
- Respond to the content of the work that your learners give you as well as correcting the errors they make, by adding your own comments to their homework or establishing a dialogue through e-mail and learner diaries.
- Make writing easier and more fun by doing group writing activities and group correction and editing of work. Process writing includes elements of this.
- Support writing with reading. This not only helps learners develop the sub-skills they need but also helps them understand that good writing is a powerful and important communication tool.
Writing has been described as the Cinderella of the four skills - neglected, forgotten and left behind - and with good reason. We don't do enough writing with our learners, we do the wrong kinds, we forget what it is for, we forget we are readers. If by doing this we neglect its communicative essence in our classes, then we are depriving learners of one of the richest, most rewarding and most powerful forms of human communication.
Ellis and Sinclair, Learning How to Learn, CUP, 1989
White, Rand and Arndt, Process Writing, Longman, 1991
Byrne, Teaching Writing Skills, Pearson, 1988
Diffley and Lapp, Responding to student writing: teacher feedback for extensive revision, TESOL Chicage (1988)
Zamel, Recent research in writing pedagogy, TESOL Quarterly 21(4), 1987
Nunan, Language Teaching Methodology - A Textbook for Teachers, Prentice Hall, 1991
Paul Kaye, Materials Writer, Bolivia
wonderful ideas. I teach english and I really find it difficult to teach writing. Now I have some very practical solutions. I will use the group writing activities because I think that students learn more and without pressure from each-other than from the teacher. also I liked a lot the idea to give realistic tasks. thank you
Hi, edushi! Teaching Writing seemed me difficult too. Once I asked help for solution from an American volunteer. She clarified me that in writing students may feel more comfortable starting with oral and group activities before moving on to personal writing assignments. Teacher should remember to tie stories to student's lives and experience. These mostly work for advanced students. Likely students will need to start with the building blocks of writing and creativity
Hi TE Editor and everyone,
Thank you, TE Editor, for the interesting article about writing. It will help me improve and brush up my implementing this skill activity with my students.
I'm now pointing out one useful idea - among the many others which are also helpful: writing with a reader in mind. In the tests I set I could ask them to write the usual short story I include as one question, bearing in mind they're writing that short story to be published in Facebook and that hundreds of teens their age could read the tales. All of this, of course, as something imaginary: they're writing to me.
Or even I could try to encourage them to write the story by trying to write something really interesting and entertaining for me when I've got to correct the pile of test papers, so as to alleviate that charge of correcting and marking: 'And remember to write a beautiful story or a thriller which might provide a bit of relaxing to me when correcting your exams, your tests.' All of this with some nuance of humour or a smile.
Best wishes for all TE team
Fernando M D G
Wonderful ideas. I am also English language teacher and I have difficulties with this area. My students also are scared of writing. whenever I give them a task to write their face change as if they saw ghosts. Some of them like writing a lot but majority not. I liked the idea of pen friends and letters to other students and teacher, project work, writing up notes from interviews and preparing briefing and talk. Actually this year I did co- teaching with American teacher. We taught them how to write the letter then they began to write letter and we send them to American students. They were so excited that they will get answers from them, but unfortunately we never get answers. I should try to do it next year. This will be attractive way of learning writing for them. Thank you for your great ideas.
"We need to use meaningful, realistic and relevant writing tasks, based on our learners' needs and interests. "
I've just sat down to brainstorm what topics I could use for writing activities with my private Business English students. I'm amazed at how many relevant ideas I've managed to come up with in a very short time, and how easy it was, once you start focusing on Writing for the purpose of communication. For example, one of my clients is going to Peru for a holiday in a week, and what we'll do this week is practise writing emails to her son and his wife, who doesn't speak Latvian.
It seems so straightforward to use this authentic situation to practice writing in English now, that I can't believe it hasn't crossed my mind before. Rather, I was avoiding making students write at all costs, considering that they dislike it. I even recall feeling somewhat guilty whenever I chose to assign writing, because of my own reluctance to spend my own time reading and correcting the boring, irrelevant pieces of text that my students dreaded to write in the first place.
Another example of making, or rather failing to make, the task relevant occurred to me a week or two ago. We were discussing the topic of Changes with my group-students, and having covered the tenses, the basic writing structure and the linking words, I assigned homework: Write a short text about any change in your life.
What I had in mind was to have them share a personal story, however big or small, to introduce peer correction, have a short discussion. I hoped this activity would make them feel more comfortable with each other and improve group dynamics.
Suddenly, one of the students mentioned that she didn't want to share any of her personal info. I answered that she could still describe a minor change. I was surprised the following week, when she showed me a completely fictional.... and a rather shallow story. I wish I could make the task more relevant by e.g. setting the right genre/format (email your best friend/ex-colleague/old schoolmate you ran into last week etc), so that she wouldn't feel like she has to write only because "my teacher said so".
Thank you for pointing out that Writing has to be as "Learner Centred" as everything else in class.
thanks, nice article. I'm so glad to write, even a few times I can write a research champion of my campus, but I write in my language of Indonesia. I find it difficult to write in English, especially grammar problems
Writing - one of the cinderellas of the skills, very nice, informative, and cognitive approach towards writing, keep it up
What a refreshing take on the task - and pleasure - of writing. Too many who teach get so caught up in the letter of the law, so to speak, they barely notice or encourage the spirit of the author and the quality of the author's ideas. After all, it is the ideas in the writing that are the most important, writing is just a vehicle to convey those ideas to others.<p>
I'm not suggesting the rules aren't important, but that ideas should be considered at least as equal partners.
Thank you for all these good tips.
As some colleagues had said teaching "writing tasks" in class is something difficult. However, the aim is to motivate our students in doing so.
Cheers once again for your wonderful ideas.
I love reading this article.
Hello! I have recently read this article here in class and I have found it very interesting. In the first place, I think that it is true that writing can boring and not interested for some students. That is why, it is crucial important to consider students's need as well as interests. As teacher we need to make writing activities as communicative and relevant as possible. In this way, we will be able to engage students in the tasks. What is more, the solutions given above are good since we have to provide students with real audience so as to give them authentic material and after that, learners can use it in their daily lives. Last but not least, the ideas for communicative taks seem to be motivated as well as engaged. I am thinking of taking these ideas for my practicum. Thanks for the information!
Glad that you found it useful and hope that you and your students enjoy trying out these ideas!
Well, I think that this article explains clearly the importance of writing tasks. I would like to add that writing tasks stimulates students creativity and independence. It is useful to foster imagination and self-confidence. Apart from that, students develop criteria and also they recognize different structures of texts.
Thank you for everything!
Glad that you found it interesting!
Can't agree more 👌👌