Chapter 8 : Writing

Chapter 8


The nature of the writing skill

When we write, unlike when we talk, we are engaged in an activity which is usually at the same time both private and public. It is private because the act of composition is by its nature solitary, but it is public in that most writing is intended for an audience, often one which is extremely difficult to define. The act of writing differs from that of talking in that it is less spontaneous and more permanent, and the resources which are available for communication are fewer because we cannot—as we do in conversation— interact with the listeners and adapt as we go along. For this reason the conventions of writing tend to be less flexible than those of conversation, and the language which is used tends to be standardised. If the goal of the English teacher is to enable students to produce fluent, accurate and appropriate written English, there are a number of aspects which need to be considered. These are:

1    Mechanical problems with the script of English;

2    Problems of accuracy of English grammar and lexis;

3    Problems of relating the style of writing to the demands of a particular situation;

4    Problems of developing ease and comfort in expressing what needs to be said.

In this chapter the last three areas will be discussed. The first area is only of importance when students are moving from a language which uses another form of script, and teaching English script is a specialised skill. The book list at the end of the chapter includes a book which gives advice on this aspect of teaching writing.

Although the teaching of the script can be easily separated from the other aspects of writing, there are a number of fundamentally similar aspects which all teachers of English need to take into account. Students need to be able to copy confidently and accurately, and to observe a number of conventions on (for example) paragraphing and punctuation. However, it is easy to include work on these areas in the course of developing work related to the other areas mentioned.

A great deal of the writing that occurs in the foreign language classroom is not primarily concerned so much with developing writing skills as with reinforcing the teaching of particular structures. This very often consists of copying down sentences in order to establish patterns which have just been orally presented. While such an activity may have a general teaching purpose, it is distinct in intention from work which is aimed at teaching students to write effectively in English, and it is with this last activity that we shall be concerned in this chapter.

A writing programme

Ideally, there should be a programme to develop writing skills which works all the way through the educational system. Such a programme would list the main types of writing which it felt students should be able to master by the end of their education, and would offer guidelines to teachers on ways of achieving success with each of these. It is fairly easy to draft the main points which would need to be included in such a programme, but too little is known about exactly how human beings learn to write effectively to be able to relate these points to a satisfactory learning theory. None the less, it is possible to structure the development of writing skills in the foreign language situation, and there are a number of strong reasons for this being desirable.

The strongest reason is that writing is—to the practised user—an extremely fluent and easy activity for at least part of the time, but very often foreign learners can only be fluent at the expense of accuracy. At the same time, as the conventions of writing are more restricting than those of speech—we are less tolerant of deviation—the need for the writer to be accurate is very great. In fact, any teacher who has had to try and assess the ‘free’ writing of inexperienced foreign learners of English will appreciate the need for some kind of controlled or guided writing, at least at the early stages.

It seems convenient, then, to structure a writing course through three main stages. These will be: (i) controlled writing, (ii) guided writing, and (iii) free writing. These terms have been fairly loosely used in the past, and the first two are often used as if they are interchangeable. However, it seems sensible to distinguish between writing exercises in which the final product is linguistically determined by the teacher or materials writer, and exercises in which the final content is determined. Thus a paragraph with blanks to be filled may be a legitimate early part of a writing programme, and can be considered a controlled composition, as is one in which, for example, picture prompts, or memory of a model presented by the teacher, leads to the students reproducing more or less exactly the same final product as each other. On the other hand a composition in which the teacher provides the situation and helps the class to prepare the written work, either through written or oral assistance, is a guided composition, because each piece of work is different in the language used, even if the content and organisation are basically the same throughout the class. A free composition usually means a composition in which only the title is provided, and everything else is done by the student.

After these distinctions have been made though, two points need to be stressed. The first is that they represent three points on a cline, a sliding scale. As a class becomes more confident in working with controlled composition exercises, more and more alternative possibilities become available in the choice of language, and the exercises tend to become more and more guided. At the other end of the scale, no composition in school is likely to be truly free, for the very act of a teacher in proposing the writing, let alone suggesting one or more topics, ‘guides’ the pupils, while any kind of preliminary discussion by the teacher establishes the ‘guiding’ principle very clearly. The other point to be made is that the movement from controlled to free is not necessarily a movement from easy to difficult. Indeed, some situational compositions in which writing has to be adapted to a particular style, using specific information provided, may be more difficult than most free topics. At the same time, a great deal of real life writing is of the guided type. Whenever a journalist reports a speech, or a student writes an essay in an academic subject at university, or a secretary writes minutes of a committee meeting, a guided composition is being produced, for a conventional version of a restricted range of material is being manufactured.

None the less, it is useful in discussing the development of writing skills to think in terms of these three levels. Generally, the controlled stage concerns itself with the production of accurate language in context, the guided stage with the organisation of material which is given, and the free stage with the production by the student of both content and language.

Goals of the writing programme

In most language teaching courses, the language is taught sentence pattern by sentence pattern, with vocabulary being fitted in according to the situations used to illustrate the sentence patterns being presented. Even in courses designed on different lines, there is a tendency for language to be presented as a number of separate items, related to situation or communicative act. And when writing is used to reinforce work which has been initially presented, it often reinforces either at the direct sentence level, or in relation to dialogues or situations which are not those usually expressed through writing. It is the responsibility of the writing programme particularly to train students to produce sequences of sentences which express their meaning most effectively. Since, both when we speak and when we write, we work not through isolated sentences but through blocks of sentences, this should be a more natural activity than using exercises which consist of lists of sentences without any context whatsoever. None the less, the ability to put sentences together effectively needs systematic encouragement, and sometimes explicit teaching, and part of the work in a writing course involves teaching students to be sensitive to the rules of discourse in English.

Connected with the problem of discourse is that of functional style, or ‘register’. When we use written language, we obey certain conventions which are appropriate to the particular purpose we have in mind. Sometimes this is a matter of layout, as in writing a business letter, or of organisation, as in minutes of a meeting, but sometimes it is a much more subtle process of recognising the level of formality of certain combinations of utterance, or of appreciating what would sound bizarre or inappropriate— for any reason whatsoever—to a native speaker. Clearly it is not possible to teach explicitly everything a writer needs to know about English, but fortunately for teachers the learning of language takes place to a great extent unconsciously. A successful writing course must select the conventions and styles which are most likely to be useful to the students, but a great deal of the sensitivity which the students need in the use of language will develop unconsciously from spin-off from their reading and talking in the rest of the English course, so writing cannot be seen as something completely separated from the other activities.

If we define the main aims of the writing course as developing appropriate ranges of style coherently and easily used, teachers may well feel that the traditional concerns of spelling and basic grammatical errors are being neglected. In fact, while these are of some significance, and should be corrected by students as they learn to write good English, correction of these alone will not ensure that satisfactory English writing results. We would expect a good writing course to help students to correct their mistakes, but natural writing does not result primarily from exercises in avoiding mistakes, so we need to fit help with correction into a framework of more positive development of writing skills.

A basic methodology for written work

In writing, as in other aspects of language teaching, the questions for the teacher to ask himself are: Is the task appropriate for the needs of the students? Is the task within the reach of the students? Is it only just within their reach, so that they will be really challenged as they try to complete it? And will they find it enjoyable? In this section ways of dealing with the answers to the second and third questions will be explored. If the teacher is sympathetic and enthusiastic, and the first three questions can be answered with ‘Yes’, the last should follow.

In dealing with written work, there are a number of ways in which the teacher can bring the task to the level of his class. Basically, this means making the exact solutions to the writing problem more and more explicit the lower down the educational system we go. The teacher can grade the task in the following ways:

1    He can limit the length of the written material to be produced.

2    He can increase the amount of class preparation for the task.

3    He can provide guidance on the final form of the written work, for example with picture prompts, or word prompts, or memory prompts as a result of the oral preparation.

4    He can encourage students to collaborate in the actual process of writing.

5    He can allow cross-checking between the draft stage and the writing of the final product.

6    He can limit the complexity of the writing task itself.

7    He can demand that the task be completed either slowly or quickly.

Any combination of these methods can be used to bring the task to the level of the class.

These strategies provide the teacher with ways of organising his work in the class, but what should be the basis for the development? It is in fact possible to construct a very detailed specification of stages in composition work, which advances from what is really only a copying exercise to become gradually freer and freer until advanced writing of a situationalised or free kind has been developed. To illustrate this principle, consider the gradual advance in the following three stages: 

Stage 5  

(shown to the class)

(read to the class) 

Father has just come home from work. He has bought a copy of the Evening News. Mother has just begun sewing John’s shirt. John has just returned from a game of football. Mary has started her homework. Father has recently bought a new radio. They have not turned it on because Mary is studying. When Mother has finished sewing John’s shirt she will cook supper. Mary will help her to prepare the supper. She will clean up when they have finished eating.

(given to the class)

1        Where has Father just come from?

2        What has he bought?

3        What has Mother just begun?

4        Where has John just returned from?

5        What has Mary started?

6        What has Father recently bought?

7        Why have they not turned it on?

8        What will Mother do when she has finished sewing?

9        Who will help her to prepare the supper?

10    What will Mary do when they have finished eating?

Stage 6. Rajabu’s journey

(given to the class and then taken away) Read the following.

After the train had stopped, Rajabu woke up. He was lying on the seat in an empty compartment. He had fallen asleep twenty minutes before, and now he was feeling very stiff. He stretched himself and then he realised that he had been asleep. His heart began beating very fast, for he suddenly felt frightened. While he was asleep, he had forgotten why he had come in this train.

After a second he remembered everything. He remembered that the train was going to Mwanza, and that a man in red trousers had been in his compartment. The thought of the man in red trousers made Rajabu look round quickly, for there was no one else in the compartment now and Rajabu was all alone.

Then Rajabu remembered his box of clothes which had been under the seat. He poked under the seat quickly, but the box had gone. Rajabu now felt terrified, for he had just bought those clothes and they were all new. He went to the window and then looked out. In the distance he saw the man with red trousers running along the road from the station. He was carrying Rajabu’s box. The man had taken the box and got out of the train while Rajabu was asleep. Rajabu opened the door, but he couldn’t get out because the train was already moving.

The man in red trousers had got away with all Rajabu’s new clothes!

(given to the class)

Answer the following questions. By answering the questions, you will find that you are re-telling the story you have just read. Do not start each answer on a new line, but write continuously, like an ordinary composition. If two questions are together on the same line, try to join your two (or more) answers into one sentence.

Paragraph 1:

When did Rajabu wake up?

What was he lying on? In an empty what?

What had happened twenty minutes before? How was he feeling now?

What did he do? Then what did he realise?

What did his heart begin doing? Why?

While he was asleep, what had he forgotten?

Paragraph 2:

After a second what happened?

What did he remember (a) about the train, and (b) about a man in red trousers?

What made Rajabu look round quickly? Was there anyone else in the compartment now? Who was all alone?

Paragraph 3:  

Then what did Rajabu remember? Where had it been?

What did he do quickly? What had happened?

What did Rajabu feel now? Why?

Where did he go? Then where did he look?

Whom did he see in the distance? What was he doing? Where? What was he carrying?

What had the man done (two things) while Rajabu was asleep?

What did Rajabu do? Why couldn’t he get out? Who had got away with all Rajabu’s new clothes?

Stage 7

(read to the class)

(to the teacher only. Read the following passage to your class, slowly, several times. The pupils do not see this passage. Then give out the questions below, in written form. The groups do the composition orally. Finally, pupils write.)

About thirty years ago a scientist noticed the following facts about yellow-fever. In the jungles of South America, blue mosquitoes live in the tree-tops. Monkeys also live in the same place. These monkeys suffer from yellow-fever. The scientists therefore discovered that blue mosquitoes cause yellow-fever. In the jungles the disease passes from the monkey to the mosquito. Then it passes from the mosquito back to the monkey.

Man also catches the disease if he goes into the jungle. This often happens when men cut down the trees. They disturb the mosquitoes and the mosquitoes begin to bite the men. Then the men return to the city. Now men pass yellow-fever into the city mosquito. The city mosquito passes it to other men. In this way yellow-fever passes from the monkeys into the population of the city.

(given to the class)

(to the pupil: Answer the following questions to make a composition similar to the one you have just heard read to you. Divide your composition into paragraphs. Each question should be answered with one sentence.)

When did a scientist notice the following facts about yellowfever?

In the jungles of South America, where do blue mosquitoes live?

What animals also live in the same place?

From what disease do they suffer?

What did the scientists therefore discover?

In the jungles the disease passes from which animal to which insect?

Then what happens?

What happens if man goes into the jungle?

This often happens when men do what?

What do they disturb, and what begins to bite the men?

Then where do the men go?

Now what do men pass into the city mosquito?

To whom does the city mosquito pass it?

In this way what passes from the monkeys into the population of the city?

In the first of these there are three sources of control used; first the picture, then the student’s memory of the passage, and finally the questions which are given to the pupils to read, the answers to which enable the original passage to be reconstructed. In this exercise a paragraph is provided which is in part a description of the situation in the picture, and which is at approximately the appropriate level syntactically for the class. Students therefore are being asked to respond to a picture and describe it, to remember a piece of consecutive prose, and to answer questions orally in their preparation.

In the second exercise, pupils are asked to read the passage silently (this may be done more than once or once only, depending on the teacher’s assessment of the class’s level), and the passage is then taken away. The students then have to answer given questions from memory, but this time the answers to the questions are grouped in paragraphs and the answers may be combined together so that answers to several questions may form one sentence. Students are again remembering, but this time on the basis of their own reading, and they again have question prompts in front of them.

In the third exercise, a passage is again read to the class, and again question prompts are given, but this time there is no picture, as there was in the first example. The questions, and the techniques for answering them, are more complex than in the earlier examples. Once again a combination of memory and question prompts is used, but the demands made on the student are greater.

These exercises represent stages 5, 6, and 7 of a 35-stage course in writing, and the principles that they illustrate are applicable to any writing situation. To use this sort of exercise most fruitfully, the teacher should aim to help pupils so thoroughly that no one makes any significant mistakes in the writing. How can this be achieved?

At first the teacher may ask individual pupils to do all or part of the composition orally to show the method, and will help them until the right answer is produced. Then the whole passage may be produced orally in groups or pairs, with the pupils correcting each other until they are sure of what they have to write. Later, with similar exercises, pupils may be confident enough to write without such intensive preparation, but this should only be when the teacher knows that they will be able to produce a confident and accurate response. This means that the exercise may be written in one of four ways:

1    By the whole class, with the teacher or a pupil drafting on the blackboard.

2    In groups—each member of the group writing the agreed version, sentence by sentence.

3    In pairs, using the same method as in groups. 4 Individually, without any consultation.

But it is worth repeating that hardly any mistakes should be made in the final version, and the preparation should be thorough enough to ensure this.

When the composition has been written, the process is by no means finished. No serious writer lets his manuscript go forward without revision, and usually he asks someone else to comment on it. Commenting on his own and others’ writing should be an essential part of a student’s training—at the lowest level it will equip him for the examination situation when he has to re-read his material for errors, and it should have greater educational benefit in encouraging cooperation and openness in practical activities. Thus, if the exercises are well enough prepared to allow only a limited number of syntactic mistakes (apart from the obvious copying and spelling ones), the students can work in groups, pairs or individually to improve their work. In groups, a final version (or versions as the exercises become freer) has to be agreed upon. Pupils may start by changing books in pairs within the group, and finish by reading accepted answers around the group—while the others pounce on mistakes. In pairs, the two will examine one book at a time, and the writer will defend his answers, or adapt them if he is convinced of his mistakes. Finally, pupils may like to check each others’ books, without teacher help, separately, before the teacher looks at them. All of these activities demand that the teacher goes round the groups helping and encouraging, and of course the teacher will still have to take in written work from time to time to check through it. However, it should be very clear to pupils that the purpose of this activity, and of all the discussion, is to help them to write accurately and effectively, and not to test what they can do. If tests of written work are essential, they need to be administered quite separately from this teaching procedure.

These techniques should be varied with each exercise tried, to avoid monotony. As the class becomes confident within each stage, new exercises within the same stage may be worked on without oral preparation, or at great speed. Writing may start with groups, pairs or individuals, and at the early stages, about half an hour each might be allowed for preparation, writing and revision/correction. Certainly the exercise should be short enough to allow ample time for the revision after it is written and the preparation before.

As the exercises become less and less controlled, the nature of the revision will change, so that discussion of layout, organisation, and criteria for what is or is not appropriate subject matter becomes more important. An example of an advanced, and fairly difficult, guided composition is as follows:

Stage 34  

(given to the class)

A large new secondary school is to be built in this area. Some government officials have been considering the possibility of making this a co-educational school where both boys and girls will be educated together. Other government officers have opposed the plan.

Last week, a public debate on this subject was held in the Town Hall. Speakers for both sides presented their points of view. Below, listed in random order, are some notes on the arguments offered by both the proposers and the opposers.

Write the speech which might have been given by either the proposer or the opposer; you will need to select relevant material only. You may add examples of your own to make the points clearer.

Hobbies, e.g. drama, better with both sexes.

Education given to boys and girls should be different; different needs; girls’ subjects e.g. Health Science and Cookery not necessary for boys.

Concentration in class difficult with mixed sexes.

Competition in class between boys and girls: higher academic standards.

Living and working in same school a good preparation for marriage and future life in society.

Girls just as able as boys.

Boys hate being beaten in class by girls.

Experience in other countries: students in mixed schools— not such good results as students from single-sex schools.

School no training for life if sexes separated.

Girls: good influence on boys.

Girls as technical engineers?

Co-educational schools: boys more careful about conduct and speech.

Most girls not good at science.

Great problems of discipline.

Outside interests of boys very different from those of girls.

Recreation, sports.

Boys dress more smartly in mixed schools. Behave better. Administration problems; bathing, dormitories, washing clothes.

Mixed schools: much time wasted by pupils.

More interesting and varied social life of co-educational school.

Girls not interested in same hobbies as boys. Sexes develop at different speeds.

Here, the same procedure as that outlined for the earlier examples will be appropriate, but the discussion, both before and after writing, will be far more concerned with content and organisation than with basic errors—though of course by now students should have been trained to pick out most of those where they occur.

It will have been noticed that the sample compositions given in this chapter show a variety of different kinds of writing: factual as well as story-telling or narrative. If a course such as this is developed, using material from some of the textbooks which are available (and these procedures can be adapted to any teaching materials), it should cover all the main types of writing that the student may need to produce later in his career. What happens through this methodological procedure, of course, is that the student is exposed at the early stages to a variety of short passages which are coherent and which exemplify a number of types of writing. He is asked to reconstruct these passages with the help of a number of aids, and this process, both in language and in the ideas used, is made explicit through the constant discussion and checking which is carried on in the group and pair work. (That also gives a good opportunity for fluency practice in oral English, incidentally.) As he progresses through the course, the student becomes more and more able to correct himself and to evaluate what he is doing. Since the course can incorporate exercises on notetaking and reference work (as in the example above, which requires the pupil to understand note form) if these are appropriate activities, it can be turned into an effective ‘studyskills’ course for those who need such skills.

Writing and ‘creating’

One possible objection to a course such as that outlined above is that it is severely functional. While it is true that most people learn foreign languages for functional reasons, it may well be asked what role there is in EFL for a creative approach to writing.

It should be said at once that the kind of scheme outlined can be exciting, particularly when students genuinely feel that they are progressing successfully, and also that it can include imaginative story writing, both guided and free. At the same time, in the early stages, there is a tendency to emphasise accuracy at the expense of the fluency which can add genuine pleasure to the process of composition, particularly for the able student, in a foreign language. In practice, it may be sensible at the early stages to divide the aims, and to tell students that the purpose of the main writing course is to develop accuracy in the first instance, but that the teacher will be delighted to look at—for example—a diary or anything else written solely for pleasure in English. However, it is inadvisable to express willingness to ‘correct’ mistakes, otherwise the situation is back to that of approaching a random mass of errors which cannot be systematically treated, and the whole purpose of the early controlled composition work was to avoid that. At the same time the teacher should be willing to discuss the content of freely written work with the students and to encourage them in every way, but they need to be made aware that they must have an ability to do ‘normal’ writing in English before they can justify being experimental. The emphasis in this chapter has been on controlling, defining and organising the writing course. It is clearly advantageous to the teacher to know exactly what he is doing, but even more the organisation enables the student to see his own progress in terms of a scheme. This builds up his confidence, and with language teaching confidence can be enormously important.

Suggestions for further reading

Books with useful discussion of writing skills include:

L.G.Alexander, Guided Composition in English Teaching, Longman, 1971.

J.A.Bright and G.P.McGregor, Teaching English as a Second Language, Longman, 1970, chapter 4.

D.Byrne, Teaching Writing Skills, Longman, 1979.

Josie Levine, Developing Writing Skills, Association for the Education of Pupils from Overseas, 1972.

Hazel McCree, From Controlled to Creative Writing, Lagos: African Universities Press, 1969.

A.Pincas, Teaching English Writing, Macmillan, 1982.

R.White, Teaching English Writing, Heinemann, 1980.

Textbooks on composition include:

Gerald Dykstra, Richard Port, Antoinette Port, Ananse Tales, Columbia: Teachers’ College, 1968.

T.C.Jupp and John Milne, Guided Course in English Composition, Heinemann, 1968.

T.C.Jupp and John Milne, Guided Paragraph Writing, Heinemann, 1972.

Mary S.Lawrence, Writing as a Thinking Process, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1972.

D.H.Spencer, Guided Composition Exercises, Longman, 1967.

Further discussion on correction in groups will be found in:

C.J.Brumfit, ‘Correction of Written Work’, Modern English Teacher, September 1977a.

On teaching script:

J.A.Bright and R.Piggott, Handwriting, A Workbook, Cambridge University Press, 1976 (+Teacher’s Book).

Note: The 35-stage course in writing referred to on p. 126 and the ideas for exercises are based on a scheme originally developed in Tanzania by Ann Brumfit, and the exercises given are based on unpublished exercises written by Tanzanian teachers of English. The basic scheme was published in A Handbook for English Teachers, Institute of Education, University of Dar es Salaam, 1969.



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