Writing is perhaps the most difficult and tedious areas of the communicative approach to teach for several reasons. I have sat home thinking about what tools or materials I could use to facilitate learning for a writing class. Some materials I have used were effective, while others were far too complex; but then again, what is teaching without constant reflection and modification—learning never ends! But some materials I have found valuable for the TESOL writing classroom are writing haikus, writing whole-class stories, using classical music and utilizing sections of newspapers.
Haikus are useful because they allow students to be creative and concise, yet abstract and detailed. Haikus, following the traditional 5-7-5- structure also serve as outstanding tools of reinforcing syllable counting; I have seen students sit and count how many syllables each word has and whether the lines correspond in any way with the rest. Furthermore, given the confines of haikus, students are able to share their poems aloud with the rest of the class; therefore, not only is writing taking place, but also reading, speaking and active listening. A good follow-up activity is asking the “audience” to reflect on each student’s haikus—that is, to write down their thoughts and/or reflections and to share them with the class.
Whole-class stories are most effective (or at least I find) with a mixed group of students in a small group. When I do this, I typically follow the more traditional way and often times, provide very loose guidelines for the students to follow. For example, I might ask students to write either a vocabulary word or topic/idea we have discussed so far onto a slip of paper. The slips are then put into a bag and each student picks one; if the student coincidently extracts his or hers, he or she must return it and pick another one. Then, the teacher provides the students with a few minutes to view the card and makes sure all of the students understand what is written. Next, the teacher writes a random sentence on the board to begin a story; the students subsequently generate sentences (whether they directly relate or not—remember, the purpose of this exercise is to be creative, express ideas and include a word) based upon that sentence; in some cases, teachers may choose to forego the card component and just ask students to write sentence free-style. At the end, the teacher has a volunteer read the entire paragraph and asks one student to go up to the board while the person is reading and correct any mistakes the class, as a whole, sees; here, the teacher acts as a guide as the students often argue and discuss the sentences with each other. As a follow-up, it is sometimes good to go over every sentence again and try to find the key word from each sentence that the student selected from the slips of paper. This activity is often very interactive and engaging and forces the students to be active in learning, rather than active.
Classical music is another good material/teachers aid to use for writing instruction. Although it is devoid of spoken words, classical music is a language unto itself; we, as listeners, add spoken language to it. I have often played Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and Chopin’s, “Funeral March” as well as contemporary composer Robert W. Smith as a way of teaching students how to write with prompts, rather than about them. For example, I might play Smith’s, “Great Locomotive Chase” which is a song that mimics the sound of a runaway train. In the song, one observes the instrumentation increasing and decreasing in speed, much like the velocity of a train as well as a struggle, as if the train is struggling to climb a steep hill, hauling heavy cargo behind it. The purpose of this exercise is to have students write what comes to mind when they hear this song (much like I just did); again, writing ought to be creative and this is a good exercise to assess one’s listening and writing skills. At the end of the lesson, the students share their perceptions of the music in order to incorporate a speaking component; it never ceases to amaze me when students say, “Oh, wow, I never thought of that” or “oh, I got that, too!” Thus, it also allows for revisions to take place or for students to go home and re-listen to the song at a later time in order to determine whether the same ideas come to mind or drastically different ones.
Newspapers are also valuable teaching aides, for they are so rich with potential activities for writers. One exercise that is always fun is to have students read an article (of their choice) and write a response “Letter to the editor” either giving one’s dis/approval or concerns regarding the article. Also, the teacher can have the students identify words they do not know and try to use contextual clues to obtain the definition. Moreover, I have made a great deal of use out of the advertisements found in newspapers. Just last week, in fact, I had students take a catalogue from the daily paper (whether it be Kmart, Macy’s, etc.) and asked them to bring it to class. I then had students look it over and make a list of products they were interested in purchasing for Christmas and to identify for whom the gifts would be for and why. For example, one student wrote, “The vacuum for Tom because his house is messy.” That was a silly reason, but a legitimate one, nonetheless. These newspaper exercises are good because they are engaging and forces students to pay attention to detail.
Teaching writing tips
Writing is far more than written transcriptions of ideas. It never ceases to amaze me when I ask my students to write a response to the question, “What is writing?” that so many say that it is the act of transcribing ideas onto paper. Writing is far more than this—something that all ESL (and regular teachers, for that matter) ought to keep in mind. Writing involves thinking critically, looking at the world in different ways, viewing things not for what they are, but rather for what they are not, expressing one’s views in the form of argument to persuade the reader that one’s premise leads to a conclusion worth reading. Further, writing is all around us; it is always my aim as a teacher to teach students how to read the world as a text of unto itself, waiting to be perceived, decoded and interpreted. This is often the guiding principle/philosophy of my instruction. To fulfill my objectives as a writing teacher, I often use two methods that I have found helpful: Free writing and revised writing.
Free writing refers to the act of students writing freely about what they know—writing their opinions, concerns, etc.; this os often done in a journal. I have found guided free writing to be more valuable, as it gives the students some kind of direction. For example, I might ask students to answer the question I posed earlier, “what is writing?” The purpose of this is to teach students how to present their prior knowledge and beliefs about what writing (or any topic) is. Furthermore, I have used free writing as a way of brainstorming whole-group writing activities in order for individual writing to take place. For example, I once asked the question, “What were your impressions/feelings when you first came to America?” Each student blurted out ideas as I wrote them on the board; this gave the students a direction they could follow when writing their responses. Moreover, free writing in this way promotes what I mentioned earlier: Thinking about an idea, thinking of it in the form of spoken language and then transcending that spoken language into a written form. It is important, however, to ensure students that they will not be graded per se on how they write (that is, points will not be deducted for poor grammar, etc.), but they will, nevertheless, be informally assessed on how well they present their ideas.
A second method that is very useful to students is revised writing. This is the point in which students are graded for grammar, spelling, verbal usage, vocabulary, etc. But I have found little benefit in collecting work, bringing it home with me and grading it only to give it back for students to revise again. Rather, I found much value in either peer-to-peer revision (of course this takes knowledge of both the topic and grammar for this to accurately take place), from meeting face-to-face with the students to discuss their writing or pairing students together to do mini presentations. For example, Student A reads his paper to Student B and B to A. The listener writes some notes on what was said—on components that did not make sense (these are usually writer-produced errors), and on possible follow-up questions. Then the students exchange papers to read it themselves and try to find as many errors as possible. Of course, this involves a great deal of guidance from the teacher. By extension, it is important to note that as a former writing assistant in a University’s freshman writing class, I was taught as a teacher to never hold the pen when meeting with a student face-to-face; the teacher should provide the advice (or have the student recognize what is wrong) and let the student make the corrections him or her self; I think this is good advice for ESL teachers, too. There is much to be said for students being active in the revising process of their own work.
By Robert J. Platt, M.A.