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Suggestions for a Writing Skills Workshop Writing may be the most difficult and
Writing may be the most difficult and the most neglected of the four cardinal language skills.1 Speaking gets the most attention followed at some distance by listening, and reading. Writing, in comparison, is often ignored all together. The website www.englishclub.com calls it the 4th language skill.2 There are reasons for this. The simple fact is that most people, teachers included, never really learned how to do it and therefore are unable to pass it on. Another reason is that it is lonely, tedious work. (No teacher ever had to carry home a bag full of speaking assignments and labour into the wee hours marking them for return in the next day.) Still there are those of who continue to make the effort. What follows are a few suggestions on how to ease the burden.
Adjust your expectations; set manageable goals. I know an American English teacher here who tries to teach his first-year, Chinese university students how to write an English-language research paper. He complains to me that the students 'just can't seem manage footnotes and bibliography entries.' Right. This is not so much a shortcoming of his students (you may have guessed) but a problem with his own expectations. Before we take on the task of teaching anything, but especially teaching writing, we must examine our expectations. It is right and proper to expect quality effort and results but we must also set manageable goals. To expect too much too soon is a formula for great disappointment for teachers and students alike. If we cannot write sentences and paragraphs, we cannot write anything and that is where the focus of writing must first be placed.
Build motivation; focus on the need to know. It follows that motivation on the part of the teacher and the students is a most important part of the writing process. EFL students address the learning of English on a need-to-know basis. Classes must be small, and whenever possible the writing tasks must be of a practical nature that suits the needs of the students, i.e. r'sum's, formal letters, personal statements for university entrance, applications, etc. If the students, and indeed the teacher, can see practical results from practical tasks, motivation is bound to increase for both.
Focus activities on both the productive skills. Writing and speaking are part of the same game. I split my hour and a half classes into two parts and schedule individual conferences between classes. The first half of the class is given over to commentary on returned assignments and teaching'sentence and paragraph structure, English typography, ways to achieve emphasis in sentences, etc. I ask that students take notes. In the second half I involve students in worksheet exercises, sentences, writing tasks, paragraphs, correcting assignments, etc. I sometimes distribute assignments in class so that each student may mark and comment on another's work. I mix freely with the class and use the blackboard when necessary, and I demand commentary and the discussion of each point as we go along. Talk is part of the work of the class. I know it is working when students begin to disagree and argue in English.
Look to the product as well as the process. There is a debate currently in progress about the correct methodology for teaching writing.3 One side, the Product side, calls for a focus on the results of writing, by focusing on model texts and techniques to mimic the skills apparent in accomplished writing. Students then go away for controlled practice usually as homework. The other Process approach favours classroom activity and the writing process' brainstorming, drafting, and the like. Not surprisingly the debate reaches the point where it is determined that both Product and Process methodologies are acceptable and may be used interchangeably. Of course models are indispensable as is the practice of establishing good habits and skills. In fact there is room for both approaches in the workshop environment and they may be used interchangeably. The idea is to focus on the writing and not on the debate and take what can be used from both.
Look beyond the tasks and the topics; give your students a purpose. Finally, the tasks and writing assignments handed out by the teacher must have some goal in mind. They must be objective-oriented beyond simply an exercise in sentences or paragraphs. Penny Ur in her book Discussions that Work talks about setting a goal or an objective when organizing a discussion.4 The same applies here. Keep them busy and give them a purpose.
1. ITTT (International TEFL Teacher Training. Refers in TEFL course material to writing as the neglected productive language skill.
3. Graham Stanley, 'Approaches to Process Writing' and Vanessa Steele, 'Product and Process Writing: a comparison' www.teachingenglish.org.uk
4. Penny Ur, Discussions that Work, Cambridge University Press, 1981