Have you ever asked your students how they feel about writing? Have you ever received responses such as ‘Writing is difficult’ or ‘Writing is boring”? In my experience, such responses are quite common and they got me thinking about why students might feel this way.
Text By Maria Stefanidou, EFL Teacher, BA, CELTA, Delta
Indeed, the ability to write in a second/foreign language is one of the most challenging skills that students need to develop and, of course, they might find certain topics not particularly interesting. However, it might be more than just that; it might well be that the teaching practices we adopt fail to generate interest or engage students actively with the writing tasks we ask them to perform.
One way to reflect on our instruction practices is to look at them in relation to four parameters (Calfoglou (2004/2019:153) associated with teaching of writing, namely
-the amount of guidance and control of expression,
-the finality of the writing product,
-the amount and nature of contextualization,
-the form, nature and amount of teacher intervention
The amount of guidance and control of expression
The first parameter concerns the freedom allowed to the learner in writing. Oftentimes, in a writing lesson, students are presented with a model text in their coursebooks, which is often expected to be more or less slavishly imitated, not only in terms of linguistic forms, but also in terms of macrostructure or even content since they are often asked to include particular ideas/points in their written output.
In such a ‘text-oriented’ approach, where accuracy is given priority over content (Hyland, 2009), learners are treated as passive users of the language, deprived of any opportunity to express their ideas and thoughts. How stimulating could such a practice be? How interested might student writers feel if their ideas are not given value, especially when it comes to learners whose level of linguistic competence is sufficiently advanced? It is little wonder they find writing boring…
The finality of the writing product
The second parameter is related to how much revision occurs during writing composition (Calfoglou, 2004/2019). There is no doubt that most of the teachers prompt their students to proofread their writing before they hand it in. However, it is questionable whether the students really know what they should be focusing on while revisiting their drafts. And it is even more questionable whether they revisit their drafts at all.
As a matter of fact, students often treat their first drafts as final, rather than as subject to revision, not necessarily because of boredom, but because of lack of awareness of what the writing process involves; students might not be aware of how writers behave and they may have the impression that good writers know exactly what they are going to write about and that they get everything right the first time they do it. But, of course, this is not the case and it is our responsibility to impart that knowledge to our students (Zamel, 1982: 205).
Writing is a non-linear and generative process during which writers create meaning by producing, reformulating and refining ideas (Zamel, 1982:195); it entails several stages of thinking, jotting down ideas, rethinking, rewriting, deleting some of the initial ideas and/or adding new ones.
All this going back and forth involved in the creation of a text indicates the recursive nature of writing composition and we, as teachers, need to provide our students with opportunities to experience that in class. We need to allow them room and time to write and rewrite in class. Not only will this help learners realize that a strong piece of writing takes several drafts, but it will also prevent students from experiencing cognitive overload when various features of composing are being attended to simultaneously (Zamel, 1982: 205).
It is true that this idea of recursiveness and multiple drafting in class requires ample time, which, unfortunately, teachers often do not have. As a result, they often treat students’ written assignments as final – one-off – products. It is little wonder learners feel writing is difficult …
The amount and nature of contextualization
The amount and nature of contextualization relates to whether the writing task is treated within a context and to what extent (Calfoglou, 2004/2019). Written texts cannot be considered autonomous; they constitute writers’ responses to particular social situations in which people use language to communicate ideas and achieve purposes (Hyland, 2009: 11). Therefore, it is essential to ensure that learners have an understanding of the reason they are writing, the context within which the text will be read and by whom (Hyland, 2004: 24).
It is true that, in most coursebooks, in the instructions of most writing tasks, some elements of context are provided, albeit superficially, and usually the audience is specified. For example, learners might be asked to imagine a particular situation and a person they should write to. But how interesting or meaningful could this be? Who would be really interested to write an email to an imaginary friend or cousin when they know that the only person to read their work would be their teacher, who probably will give a mark or provide a “Well done” comment on their overall performance? It is little wonder they feel writing is boring…
The form, nature, and amount of teacher intervention
The fourth parameter has to do with the way in which the writing instructor intervenes by providing feedback on students’ written output (Calfoglou, 2004/2019). Teachers might decide to give feedback in the form of ‘overt error correction’ or they might choose to provide indirect error feedback by indicating the location of errors and prompting students to correct them (Lee, 1997: 466).
Another important question to consider with regard to feedback is whether it will be provided after the students have written their texts or while they are composing them.
In the former case, the teacher provides comments on a written draft. Such ‘text-based’ feedback, albeit valuable, has crucial limitations since all the information regarding the difficulties experienced by students while composing a text is lost after it is handed in; therefore it is not representative of all the challenges someone had to face while writing (Frankenberg-Garcia, 1999: 101).
On the other hand, in the latter case, the teacher provides real-time feedback on the queries that emerge during the process of composition. In other words, the teacher acts as a facilitator responding to learners’ questions and providing ‘pre-text’ feedback before any draft is completed. (Frankenberg-Garcia, 1999: 102). Although such feedback provision is undoubtedly time-consuming, perhaps it is worth the effort since students would be supported and thus the process of writing would feel less difficult.
Feedback, however, might also come in the form of comments provided by students, as a “vibrant alternative” to teacher-driven comments (Georgountzou & Calfoglou, 2019: 212). Peer feedback provision, as a response to fellow-writers output, not only foregrounds students’ role in the classroom but also requires learners to become ‘readers’ in a writing lesson. This, in turn, strengthens the idea of context, builds on the notion of ‘audience’, and provides a realistic purpose (Calfoglou, 2014/2019: 232), thereby transforming the writing lesson into an interesting and engaging process, where students are actively involved in the creation of their written texts.
It is true that the suggestions made in this article may not be the answer in every teaching context or every learning situation. However, the questions raised are meant to encourage critical reflection on our teaching practices and, hopefully, generate ideas on how writing tasks can become more engaging, manageable, and meaningful for our students.
Calfoglou, C. (2004/2019). The teaching of Literacy. Updated by Calfoglou, C., Karagianni, E., Hatzitheodorou, A-M., Liontou, T & Stathopoulou, M. Patras: Hellenic Open University
Frankenberg-Garcia, A. (1999). ‘Providing student writers with pre-text feedback’. ELT Journal, 53/2: 100-106.
Georgountzou, A. & Calfoglou, C. (2019). ‘Peer feedback processes in Distance Education: the giver-receiver experience’. Research Papers in Language Teaching and Learning, 10/1: 210-237.
Hyland, K. (2009). Teaching and Researching Writing. Harlow: Person Education Limited.
Hyland, K. (2004). Second Language Writing. NY: Cambridge University Press.
Lee, I. ( 1997), ‘ESL learner’s performance in error correction in writing: some implications for teaching’. System, 25/4: 465-477.
Zamel, V. (1982). ‘Writing: The process of Discovering Meaning’. TESOL Quarterly, 16/2: 195-209.