Wednesday, 26 September 2012

An UP- beat Writing Class

My class and I were in the process of filing back into class after coffee break when I announced that we’d be doing some writing in the second half of the lesson. I am aware that we’ve neglected writing these past few weeks, and I am keen to integrate this skill into our lessons on a regular basis. What’s more, as many of my learners exhibit the “spiky profiles” so common in ESOL, it seems sensible to tackle the writing skill head on. 

However, my announcement met with groans all round. A few expressed a sudden desire to go home, while others just looked mutely miserable. Their reaction did not dishearten me. I have been teaching writing in the ESOL class for several years, and I am used to learners' initial reluctance.  Yet, my experience has also taught me how this initial attitude towards writing can change when learners realise they are not being "tested" or expected to produce a perfect first draft.
What We Did

This lesson was diagnostic, and when I set out I had no definite idea of what area of writing I would be focusing on. However, I did have two clear aims:

  • To make a diagnosis of learners’ writing needs based on a longer piece of free writing.
  • To show learners that writing need not be a lonely and stressful activity 

We watched a short clip from the animated Pixar film: Up. This clip has no dialogue at all, and once learners realised this they visibly relaxed!

  • After watching the film, we brainstormed some of the vocabulary the learners thought they might need if they wanted to retell this story. We came up with: to save money, to break a leg, to fall in love, to be in love, to get married as well as adjectives such as caring, adventurous etc.
  • I gave learners fifteen minutes to write the story of what they had just seen. Everyone had to write, but I encouraged groups to confer and share ideas.
  • After fifteen minutes, some looked as if they might be about to run out of steam. I collected in a few pieces, and quickly skimmed them, looking to see if I could find a common writing need. This was easy enough. Below is a fairly representative writing sample:

 They got married in a church.  They fixed their house. They lost a baby and were very sad. They start saving money for them holidays, but it wasn't good adea cos was always something happen to them and they had to spend their money for this problem. The old lady got sick and died. 

This short sample shows a common problem in learners' writing: that of coherence. Quite often, I have found, learners produce pieces of writing in which the sentences are grammatically correct when viewed in isolation but just don’t “hang together” very well. (Raimes, 1983 p.56)

After typing this sample onto the interactive whiteboard, I read it aloud. I told learners I was confused. Who were "they?" When did "they" get married? When and why did they fix their house? The learners were easily able to answer these questions, and working together we produced the piece of writing shown below. I highlighted the time expressions and linking device, to further raise learners' awareness.

A long time ago, two young people got married in a beautiful church. They had a lovely wedding and most people were very happy. After their wedding they were still very happy, and they renovated their house. It was the house of their dreams.

One morning in their favourite place, they were looking at the sky and they decided to have a lot of babies. After trying very hard, the doctor told them the bad news: they couldn’t have children.
For a long time they were very sad, but they realised that their lives had to continue. The husband showed his wife her old adventure book, and they decided to save money for an adventure. But they had a lot of problems. First, the car broke down. After that, the house was damaged in a storm.  Then the husband broke his leg. They spent their money on fixing these problems. 
They got older and older, and they never got close to their dream. At last, the husband bought tickets for their dream trip.

Finally, the old lady got sick. Sadly, she died, and they never went on their journey.

I photocopied and distributed our revised version of the story, so that learners could compare this version to their original at home. We will do more work on cohesive links and writing in next Tuesday's class. This short film activity was a very good starting point, and will hopefully have gone some way to banishing learners' writing reluctance!

Further Reading 

White, R and Arndt V, 1997 Process Writing, Longman
Raimes, A.  1983 Techniques in Teaching Writing, Oxford University Press

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