Of the four language skills - reading, writing, speaking and listening – writing can feel like the most difficult skill to teach. Building writing practice into classroom time doesn’t always feel like a dynamic way to use student-teacher time, but we have a few tips for TEFL teachers to improve their approach, and their students’ skills, when it comes to teaching writing in the classroom.
There are two approaches in standard TEFL methodology. The first is called the process approach, and the second the product approach. You don’t have to stick to one approach – they can be combined for excellent results.
With the process approach, the goal is for students to be aware of who is going to be reading their text, and what their reader’s needs and expectations will be. They build up this knowledge through peer feedback and group discussion. If, for example, students have to write a letter of complaint, as the teacher you get them to write a first draft, and then get feedback from classmates on tone, register, clarity. They can then redraft according to that feedback, several times, until they achieve the perfect letter.
The process approach not only improves writing skills but also provides a great opportunity for student task collaboration. It makes for a productive and dynamic lesson with lots of speaking, and it helps to build autonomous learning.
Students are given a model of a text and then they emulate that model. For example, if they are writing a letter of complaint, you could give them several examples of letters and then look at the fixed expressions used in those models.
Certain text types lend themselves better to process and to product. For example, an email requesting information is very formulaic. Business English lends itself to product approaches when it comes to writing. One interesting activity is chain writing – a student writes an email, the next writes a response, the next writes a response to the response and so on, with the teacher highlighting useful language and fixed expressions used in emails.
These approaches can definitely be used together, as two different stages of the writing process. This combination is especially useful for FCE and CAE preparation classes when it comes to essay writing. For example, students could brainstorm the elements of a good essay, come up with arguments as a group and decide what elements should be included in the essay (process approach). The teacher can then provide a model essay (product approach) and students can pick out useful language, linkers, discourse markers etc to use in their own essays.
When students are having difficulty with writing, try to pinpoint where the struggle is coming from. Do they lack vocabulary? You can focus on synonyms and getting them to use an online thesaurus when paraphrasing texts. Do they have difficulty summarising? Get them to summarise an example text and then compare it with the original. Do they struggle with register? Use the process approach for instant feedback from their classmates. If you have a long term student who really struggles with writing, you could set them up with a teacher-learner correspondence thread, like a diary, or letters – but only if you’re up for marking it!
If you are giving corrections, use a correction code, eg. Sp for a spelling mistake, Wo for incorrect word order. When students have to correct their own mistakes they retain the correction much better!
Using students’ written work, pick out incorrect sentences to compile into a worksheet. Students bid for the sentences and then correct them themselves. It’s motivating for students as they recognise their own sentences. If they manage to correct the phrases without errors they “win” the sentence. The winner is the person with most sentences at the end of the activity.
Create a Whatsapp group with your students and have the first ten minutes of the class only in written form. You can start off by asking how their weekends went, and the students need to write effective, concise responses to you and to each other. This is great for practising writing at speed, as a very dynamic activity students don’t take time to ponder. You can then export the conversation and analyse it in class.
Get students to review their favourite/most disappointing restaurant in Barcelona on Tripadvisor. This is a great classroom activity because it has a real life purpose. The feeling that their writing is really being read by people is highly motivational for students.
What methods do you use for teaching writing in class?