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Plain Sailing: Motivating Young Learners to Write

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“Today, we are going to do some writing.”

There is an inevitable groan that follows this statement. Heads drop. Complaints are muttered. Pencils that were on the desk a few moments ago suddenly disappear or need sharpening. The lesson either hits a lull or gets off to a painfully slow start.

There is something about writing that doesn’t appeal to the majority of young learners. Some might say it is all about their addiction to modern technology – “they don’t want to write because they spend too much time typing short messages and texts on their electronic gadgets” is a typical complaint. Others add that it is all to do with short attention spans brought about by 2 minute YouTube videos and quick fire computer games. Some sepia-tinged elders may suggest that less time writing at a younger age compared to the ‘old days’ mean kids’ motor skills are not sufficiently developed, thus making writing physically difficult. Some may say it’s all of the above…
However, it is this blogger’s belief that such adverse reactions to the prospect of writing often come about due to how written activities are done in class rather than any general dislike of the act of holding a pen or pencil. A whole period of class time devoted to writing in a specific style using rigidly-structured outlines, pre-selected vocabulary and a recently covered grammar-point squashed in at the expense of all else doesn’t help. Neither does getting the written work back a short time later covered in the teacher’s scrawlings, highlighting every grammar mistake, misspelling and misuse of a word.

In this post, I will share a few things I do (or encourage my students to do) to ensure that writing is not a slow slog through a murky swamp but rather plain sailing across a perfectly still stretch of sea.

Take their minds off the ‘writing’ part

A kind of obvious place to start is to avoid the whole “let’s do some writing” announcement that is sometimes made during the lesson. This may take the form of the teacher saying it, or the banner on the relevant coursebook page saying it, or the sub-heading on a worksheet saying it but the fact is if our students often have a negative attitude towards writing, such broadcasting is merely going to set an undesired tone for the rest of the lesson. Especially with new classes, I always try to ensure that writing activities are not standalone ‘write for most of the lesson’ affairs. Instead, I aim to make writing an integrated part of a lesson including building/extending familiarity with the topic, engaging in discussion, exchanging ideas and collaborating, drafting, revising, and giving and receiving feedback. Our primary focus is on the topic and analysing the task. We use all of our language skills at some point in the lesson so that they often start writing without actually realising that is what they are doing. ☺

Stimulate their interest

A key to achieving the above is to ensure that students are interested in the task at hand. We may feel at times that our hands are tied in this respect by the constraints of the coursebook or the curriculum we have to follow but there is always a way to personalise an activity. Take, for example, a classic writing activity like a postcard from a holiday destination. I would start by asking students where they had been recently on holiday or where they would like to go in the next school break. We would then brainstorm different kinds of holiday and places to stay before talking about activities, dining and transport. I would then encourage them to use the information they had just shared when planning and drafting their composition. With younger learners whose language level is often more basic, I would ask them to draw their ideas and elicit the language they need to talk about their ideas from there, all to ensure that they feel a personal interest in the topic at hand.

Give them some choice.

Having tried to personalise the initial stages of the lesson as much as possible, it seems only fair to give the students some choice in how the approach the task. I have used various coursebooks over the years and several of them have encouraged students to plan and structure their writing in a specific manner. Some, conversely, have directed students to take a different approach each time. However, one common trait they share is that there is always a pre-determined target structure attached to the task that is expected to be used accurately. Of course, such guidelines are planned carefully as part of a whole unit of study but I have often found them restrictive. Some of my learners prefer to plan with spider diagrams, others prefer brief notes, and others prefer sketches and so on. I encourage them to get their ideas out in whatever way appeals to them.

I also bend the rules a bit (or sometimes a lot!) when it comes to ‘structured writing’ with a set number, style and order of sentences or paragraphs. As a teacher, I feel these ‘rules’ often lead to unnatural sounding compositions and many of my students feel obstructed by them. By giving them less emphasis, I can ensure that my students can express themselves more clearly when it is time to write.

As for the ‘target language’, I usually remove the target and let the students make their own choices. If they are describing their home, for example, I will happily let them write ‘my house has got three bedrooms’ if that is what comes naturally even if then instructions are telling them to use ‘there is/are’. I will, however, encourage diversity in language use so the paragraph is not a list of ‘has got’ or ‘there is/are’ sentences, which helps the students produce something that has a more natural feel to it.

Hear their voice

And then we come to the monitoring and feedback given during and post writing. As the students carefully considers what they want to say and how to say it, the teacher comes along as says “he live in San Francisco? You mean ‘lives’” causing the student to forget what they were writing about and start focusing on their grammar. Of course, ensuring accurate use of language is important but I believe that can be left for a little later. First and foremost, I strive to respond to what the student is actually trying to say. “Oh? Your uncle lives in San Francisco? What does he do there?” is an example of where I might start. This serves a dual purpose – it shows the student that I am actually reading what they have written and I’m not merely calling them up on their grammar, and talking like this or posing a question via written feedback helps encourage them to think of more information and more details that they can add to their composition for more depth.

Create chances to collaborate

I think many students especially don’t like the solitary nature of writing quietly, perhaps holding back from requesting help for fear that they will break the silence with an admission of not knowing where to start. Therefore, I make sure the lesson in structured so that they have chances to collaborate in the pre-writing and planning stage, while writing, or when giving post-writing feedback. When planning, exchanging ideas and making suggestions to each other helps them develop their individual plans. While writing, students can help each other when they are struggling to find the right word or construct a valid sentence. Post writing, a different pair of eyes can spot errors or information that is unclear. This kind of peer collaboration and feedback can be invaluable in ensuring a better piece of writing and avoiding any feeling of isolation or helplessness.

Establish a routine of revising and redrafting

So when the writing part is done, what next? I have already alluded to offering content-driven feedback and encouraging peer feedback and correction but I sometimes reach a sticking point here. Having just written something, my students are often not very keen to write it again, taking into account the feedback and correction activities. In these situations, it is important to break things up. Unless the writing task was a short one, I usually avoid asking for an immediate rewrite. Instead, I may set this as a homework task or return to it the next lesson.
Something that seems to work well with my 5th graders in encouraging redrafting is to ask them to go home and type their revised version up on the computer. The idea of drafting by hand in class, getting feedback and correcting, and then making a new draft in a new format makes sense to them more than just ‘write it all out again’. There is also the option to easily share the work on our class blog or make small edits if there are still things to improve.
Perhaps most importantly, I bring in the idea of redrafting and revising early in the year. They soon get used to the idea that they will write things twice rather than more groans when there is a one-off redrafting activity in the book.

And last but by no means least…

…and perhaps most importantly, try the tasks you set for your students sometimes! If your students complain that a word limit is too high or too low or the time is not enough, give it a go yourself. This was a real eye-opener for me the first time I did it. My students had to write a letter addressing three different questions in 30-35 words. I tried it and found it very hard to keep inside the word limit. That helped me realise the demands writing places on my students and I think they also appreciated seeing their teacher make an effort to view things from their perspective as well.