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Writing and elementary learners
It's about leaving in the communicative element of writing. In other words, it's about how to get our elementary students motivated to write.
- Writing in class
- Authentic writing
- Characteristics of a good writing activity
- Three writing activities
Writing in class
What was the last thing you wrote? I'll repeat this question again in just a moment.
Now, what was the last thing your elementary students wrote? I think for my students it was 'read the paragraph and write a similar one about Dora'. The aim was to practise the 'present simple' for habitual actions. Actually, my students spend a lot of their 'writing time' consolidating new language they've learnt in class. These writing tasks are often mechanistic, repetitive and are usually at sentence, or at most, paragraph level. Usually they are designed to get the students to practise a particular form. And they are mostly writing it so that I can check it and correct it.
So back to that question: What was the last thing you wrote? If you're anything like me, it was probably an e-mail, a letter or a note. Whatever it was, there was a real motivation behind writing it. It was to a person, for a reason, with an expected response. All this implies energy, and even, if we're lucky, some excitement. If we look at the form-driven writing that our students do, and the communication-driven writing that we do, the difference is motivation.
Before we write in our own language we always ask ourselves the following questions:
- Who is going to read what I've written?
- What effect am I trying to achieve by writing?
- How is s/he going to respond?
These questions are quite useful ones to apply to writing activities we use in the classroom, as they keep our focus on communication, rather than manipulation of form. But the classroom is different from real life. We have to create the need to communicate if we want to bring this communicative focus to our classroom writing activities.
Characteristics of a good writing activity
I want to discuss three principles underlying successful, purposeful activities at elementary level.
It's important to create a strong, engaging context. This will generate the motivation for your students to write. In this way, teaching writing is very similar to teaching a grammar point or any 'new language'. I always ask myself the question: 'What's the context that carries the language?'
Pictures, music, dialogue, realia and story will all help to create context and motivation.
Writing is not easy. Elementary students can get discouraged if they think they have to write a lot. It's challenging, and often more interesting, to write within a time limit, or a word limit.
Creating real communicative follow-up e.g. the response, is more energising than simply correction by the teacher. In most cases I think that correction of written work can come later.
Three writing activities
Here are descriptions of three writing lessons which demonstrate these principles.
'Parents never say…'
This is a sentence-level writing task that even lower elementary level students can enjoy.
Elicit some of the rules that the students' parents impose at home. Write up a few on board, e.g. 'Come home before 9 o'clock. / Don't eat too many biscuits' etc.
Ask: 'What do parents never say?' Now read out a few possibilities, e.g. 'Please don't tidy your room,' 'Use the telephone a lot', 'Stay up very late.' Elicit a couple more ideas.
Make groups of four with a chairperson, writer, timekeeper and speaker. Each group has a large piece of paper. The group has to come up with eight sentences that parents never say and write up on paper. Give a time limit, say 10 minutes. Tell the students that there will be a vote on the best set of rules.
The chairperson sticks up the group's rules on the board/wall. The class read all the different sets of rules and vote on which is best (not their own) If correction is needed, you can leave the 'posters' up and have a group correction session.
This activity is inspired by the poem 'Top Twenty things that parents never say' by Gervase Phinn.
Make a short radio 'news item' with some shocking local news of interest to your students. For example, the news that the local sports centre is going to be knocked down. In the item the mayor/ spokesperson says that it's the only thing to be done, as a big road is going to come through town.
The idea here is to provide an engaging, realistic context for writing. Pictures of the sports hall and possibly the mayor on the board will help. The idea is to provide a real context and a real 'need' to write. It's obviously important to choose something your students will feel strongly about.
Students then work in pairs to draft a short letter or e-mail, expressing how they feel about the proposed plan. Provide challenge by giving students a strict time limit. For the students, it's clear who they are writing to and why, so the writing should be energised. Monitor and help with language, but don't worry too much about accuracy at this stage.
Pairs 'post' their letters/e-mails to the mayor. Students (now in the role of mayor) read the letters that other pairs have written, and respond as the mayor.
Letter to the principal
Write a mock letter from the principal of your school asking for ideas about how to improve the school. (It's best to ask his/her permission first.) Students then read the letter.
Students then work in pairs and come up with a list of 6 improvements. They have to draft a short letter to the principal. One possible problem about students working in pairs is that only one student is writing. Why not try clapping your hands every three minutes or so to get students to 'swap the pen.'
If you can get your principal's co-operation, s/he can read them and give some feedback to the students!
This article has addressed the issue of motivation in writing at elementary level. If we can create an engaging context for student writing, and if it is addressed to a person, for a reason, with an expected response, I believe that their writing will naturally become more communicative. The result of this desire to communicate is that students will want to be more accurate in their writing. And not just because I'm correcting it.
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
It takes one to know one by Gervase Phinn
Sue Leather, Freelance Trainer and Writer