Process approaches to the teaching of writing

 

Teaching writing is, for both teachers and students, challenging as writing is a complex cognitive activity in its own right that incorporates linguistic, mental, cognitive and social features. Tribble (1996) states that “an ability to write appropriately and effectively is.... something which evades many of us, in our mother tongues or in any other languages that we may wish to learn.” In this article, some brief background to a process writing approach is first presented, after which a sample process writing lesson plan is supplied to elaborate how the approach works in practice.

Text by Angeliki Cheilari and David Coniam

 

Current approaches to the teaching of writing in Greece

The writing component of lessons in many Greek schools is generally a traditional ‘product-oriented’ approach (Nunan, 2003). An examination of Greek text books shows that the teaching of writing usually involves providing a model text which students then emulate in terms of content, organization, grammar structure and vocabulary use. The model texts are not authentic but provide a conveniently clear example of a specific type of text. The texts are read through, with students’ attention drawn to certain features. Students then carry out a series of controlled and gradually less-controlled exercises based on some of the language and linguistic features present in the model text, e.g., linking devices, vocabulary used, grammar phenomena etc. Students finally attempt to produce a similar text themselves, using the language and the text type conventions they have just been taught.

Such procedures echo a behavourist belief (see Pincas, 1982), with the aim of such an approach) being ‘error-free’ final products. This results in accuracy and form being a priority while content and meaning are essentially ignored. The student has a passive role, practicing merely language and form; students’ individual needs are ignored, and there is no scope for expressing their thoughts, opinions and feelings.

Criteria for writing instruction

Cognitivist approaches to writing, however, suggest that writing should be treated as a more complex and cognitive activity in which students are considered to be the ‘creators of language’ and put at the centre of the learning process (Brown, 2001). Writing therefore needs to be seen as both a physical and mental act, where, while at a basic level writing is the physical act of committing words or ideas to paper, writing also needs to be seen as the mental work of inventing ideas, thinking about how to express them, and organising them into ways clear to a reader. Such as approach stresses the creative and unpredictable nature of writing and focuses on developing the composing process of writing which includes generating ideas, planning, drafting, editing, rewriting.

Writing needs to be seen therefore as a “non-linear, exploratory, and generative process whereby writers discover and reformulate their ideas as they attempt to proximate meaning” (Zamel, 1983). Essentially this may be summarised as a “process approach”, where students engage in their writing tasks through a cyclical rather than a single-shot approach.

Since a process-oriented approach is a student-writer based approach, during process writing students need perpetually to make decisions and continuously adjust and readjust their writing in order to communicate meaning to an audience for a purpose. This means that in the process approach, writing activities need to be contextualised, with a purpose for writing and a specific audience in a communicative context.

In a process-oriented approach, an encouraging and collaborative environment can greatly contribute to student engagement in the writing process. Collaborative writing enhances both cognitive and social skills as students’ interaction and cooperation throughout the process involves sharing ideas, negotiating meaning, setting goals and making joint decisions in order to produce a text as a team (Storch, 2005).

In a process approach to writing, the teacher’s role is to facilitate the communication process (i) between participants, and (ii) between the participants and the activities and texts. A further role is to act as an independent participant, organising resources and providing feedback. Real-time feedback is key since it encourages self-regulated learning, which enables students to set goals, plan, monitor and control their cognition. Active participation in the process involves students shifting roles from ‘writers’ to ‘readers’ – and requires that they evaluate their peers, share ideas, decisions and responsibilities in a student-centred process that promotes both cognitive and social skills.

A process-oriented writing lesson

To elucidate how process writing might work in practice, a sample lesson plan (aimed at CEFR level B1, age 11 students), using the criteria presented above is shown below.

Lesson Plan: Create your Superhero

     Stages

1. Pre-Writing / Planning
(15 mins)

1.    T shows Ss students visuals of superheroes. Ss name them and, in pairs, write down any other related vocabulary and ideas.

2.    Quickwriting activity: Ss in pairs think about and create their own superhero

2. Structuring Ideas / First Draft
(20 mins)

1.    Ss in pairs fill in a table to help them structure their ideas

2.    Ss read the reading input provided by the T as a source of ideas

3.    Ss in pairs write the first draft

3. Revising / Second Draft
(10 mins)

1.    Ss exchange drafts and in pairs evaluate their peers’ work based on content evaluation questions provided by the teacher

4. Editing
(15 mins)

1.    Ss in pairs edit their work based on their peers’ feedback

2.    Ss (under T’s guidance) check for form errors

 

Stage 1 Pre-Writing/Planning. The first activity is a warm-up brainstorming activity in which students are exposed to visual stimuli of superheroes. Students are first shown two pictures of superheroes. In pairs they discuss what they see – jotting down their ideas and any related vocabulary they can think of. The second activity in this stage is a ‘quickwriting’ activity where students in pairs have to think about their imaginary superhero and write down anything that comes to mind, making a list of ideas without worrying about making mistakes.

Stage 2 Structuring Ideas/First Draft. Students complete a table that helps them to structure their ideas. Students are also given a sample text (about Superman) to provide supplementary help and guidance.

Stage 3 Revising/Second Draft. Students exchange drafts and evaluate their peers’ writing based on content evaluation questions provided by the teacher.

Stage 4 Editing. In pairs, students make necessary amendments based on their peer’s evaluation and start writing their final draft. It is at this point that they start focusing on language issues such as grammar and vocabulary, as well as spelling and punctuation. The teacher acts as an organiser and facilitator throughout the lesson, helping students move from brainstorming to editing , and giving students the time needed during the different stages of the process.

Process writing in context

The writing lesson above incorporates a process-oriented approach to writing as it follows a recursive and non-linear course in which students move constantly back and forth while writing, revising and rewriting their tasks. In the writing lesson outlined above, students worked in pairs, creating their own superhero. The writing instruction gives students the freedom to use their imagination in order to create their own character, take risks and experiment, become authors, and narrate their own story to their audience.

During Pre-Writing/Planning, the brainstorming activity aims to raise schemata, activate background knowledge and prepare students cognitively for the learning process. While doing their quickwriting, students do not pay too much attention to language form or possible mistakes as the focus on content is a priority. During Pre-Writing/Planning, students need to experiment and explore ideas before embarking on their actual writing.

The reading input is provided during Structuring Ideas/First Draft after the students have started creating their own text and not at the beginning of the lesson (as tends to be the case in a product-oriented approach) since, in a process-oriented approach, reading input does not provide a model text that needs to be imitated and copied. Instead, the reading input is intended to help students become familiar with certain genres and support their writing by providing more ideas and information related to the topic.

During Revising/Second Draft stage, students need to evaluate their peers’ drafts. While teacher feedback is key here, peer feedback is also important in a process-oriented approach to writing since it promotes critical thinking and metacognitive learning processes.

Rounding off

Moving from a product- to a more process-oriented approach is not a quantum leap or something  daunting. Rather, it should be seen as engaging students cognitively and personally – very much in keeping with the tenets of a task-based approach. While it does require a teacher to loosen the reins, allowing students to be constructors of their own ideas, and to work constructively with their peers, at the end of the day, students’ motivation and interest will be enhanced through their engagement and through producing texts which have meaning for themselves.

References

Brown, D. (2001). Teaching By principles An interactive approach to language pedagogy. London: Longman.

Pincas, A. (1982). Teaching English Writing. London: Macmillan

Storch, N. (2005). Collaborative writing: Product, process, and students’ reflections. Journal of Second Language Writing 14(3): 153–173.

Tribble, C. (1996). Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Zamel, V. (1983). The composing process of advanced ESL students: Six case studies. TESOL Quarterly 17(2): 165-187.

 

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