10th annual Anglo conference, Montevideo, Uruguay
Process writing: Allowing students to enjoy the skill they love to hate
Process writing has always been something I've been interested in, so I was particularly interested in Alistair's workshop and in hearing about the ideas he had for encouraging students to enjoy writing, a notoriously overlooked skill in most language classrooms.
Alistair started his talk by criticising the way typical writing tasks are doled out by teachers. Apart from demotivating tasks (e.g. write an application for a job. 200 words), many students do not know how best to go about writing something like this.
After a quick warm-up literary quiz, Alistair asked the audience to do a visualisation exercise. We were asked to close our eyes and imagine ourselves in our favourite coffee shop. After being told to experience the sounds, sights and smells, in the classroom, Alistair would ask students to talk about these and he recommends writing up the words that the students come up with on the board during this exercise because it is a fabulous way of generating vocabulary that can then be used for writing.
Speed writing, another favourite activity of mine, is a very effective writing tool according to Alistair. The way he does it is to recommend students write for 3 minutes about a subject, without stopping. The idea is for the students not to worry about grammar, punctuation, etc. Then students in groups can then decide which of the texts to use to rewrite.
Alistair then introduced us to a task entitled Re-writing the writer, with some lines taken from a short story or from a novel, other lines removed and only the first line, a middle line and the last line on the handout for the students. As well as this, some words from the original text are provided to help them. The idea here is not that they reproduce the original, but that they produce an interesting piece of writing.
Speaking about the Cambridge FCE writing, Alistair asked which part of the writing (content, organisation, range-accuracy, appropriacy, target reader) is the most important one. He believes it's getting the message across that is most important.
Alistair suggests taking a piece of writing and breaking it down into small pieces as this helps students to get to know what is expected for each genre of writing. He introduced us to a genre analysis form, which had key caracteristics on it such as:-
- communicative purpose
- expected audience
- layout, overall organisation
- level of formality
- sentence structure
- specific grammatical structures
- specific vocabulary
The audience was asked to do this exercise with a job application letter and then Alistair looked at an example in the course book 'The Big Picture'
The next activity featured a number of photographs related to things mentioned in the Alanis Morissette song 'Ironic' and then another photograph visualising Alistair's 'best chat up lines' in order to encourage students to come up with similes (your hair is like..., his eyes were like..., the child sang like...)
Another idea called 'cubing' involves giving students a cube template and asking them to come up with 6 different ideas about a writing task (e.g. describing, comparing, associating, applying, analysing, arguing)
The next activity shown, Consequences, a variation on the popular game, involved a chain story starting with the line 'I closed the door and started to laugh because I realised...'
Alistair then suggested using the haiku format for promoting writing and showed us some examples.
Writing correction was the next thing Alistair looked at. He suggested minimal marking, which I am a fan of, as a strategy to help students self-correct. Rather than correct student writing, or use an elaborate system of codes to indicate errors (e.g. ww = wrong word, t=tense, etc), he suggests just circling the errors and letting the students try to work out what the mistakes are individually or in groups.