Saturday, 2 December 2017

Strategies for developing writing skills in the pupil-centred classroom - Indonesia 2017

This is the first of the two workshops I gave in Jakarta and Surabaya as keynote speaker for Cambridge University Press. All the materials shown come from Cambridge Global English, Stage 7, ©CUP. 


Writing is becoming an increasingly important skill in today’s world. Teenagers use the written word in their own language to communicate in both social and academic contexts, and many of them will need to develop good writing skills in English too. 

In terms of skills, producing a coherent, fluent, extended piece of writing is probably the most difficult thing to do in a language, even in the first language. It is something most native speakers never master, otherwise the world would be overpopulated by famous writers, and for second and foreign language learners it can be a daunting task.

Added to the inherent difficulty of the skill itself is the added ‘bonus’ of age. Most adolescents find it boring or believe they just can’t write anything decent. So, what can we do to help our students develop writing skills in a creative way?

Writing in any language is so much easier if you have something to say. When it comes to getting our teens writing, that means helping them to think of ideas and shape these ideas into a plan before they begin writing.

Give them a good reason
Writing is a chore. It’s hard work, it’s a skill that must be honed through practice. But why would they put in the hard work? What’s their motivation?

You’ll need to convey the importance of good writing skills. It is essential for them to know how to communicate, not only in speaking, but in writing. And you must make it clear that sending a text message in English does not constitute good writing. Writing is a skill that will prove to be tremendously helpful in the future and they must understand that.

Schedule regular writing assignments
Teachers often also prioritize the other skills above writing. It is harder to teach and more time-consuming to correct. Make sure you schedule regular writing assignments or the materials you use include them. Students will soon learn to expect them and will be less reluctant to complete them.

Guide them
Simply saying, “Write a story of 100 words” won’t suffice. The extent of your guidance should be proportional to your students’ level. The lower the level, the greater the guidance. As they advance in their English studies they will need less and less guidance, till one day they become more independent writers.

Use peer correction/editing
In some levels you may choose to have students correct each other’s writing assignments. This way, they will learn from each other’s mistakes. Go around the classroom, supervise and answer questions.

Give them the option to revise their work
Did someone misinterpret the task? Did a student make too many mistakes? Ask them to revise their work and give them the chance to submit it again. Make sure they understand this is not punishment for turning in poor quality work, but rather a chance to learn from mistakes and make improvements on their writing.

Make it a positive experience
Try to offer two pieces of praise for every negative point. By mentioning the things they did right, no matter how small they may seem, you’ll be letting them know they’re on the right path. Pure criticism and a paper full of red marks will not encourage them to continue practising!

Some strategies to make writing more interactive

Group-brainstorming on a given topic.  

Collaborative writing: students work together to write a previously agreed text.

Whole class text construction and composing on the blackboard.

Writing workshop or in-class writing: students consult each other and co-construct texts while the teacher moves around listening to their comments, providing feedback or answering questions. The teacher keeps track of their progress and works out a record of most frequent questions, doubts and inaccuracies for a future 'error analysis session'.

Group research on a text topic: students divide out the responsibility for different aspects of the information-gathering stage on a certain topic. They then pool their results and work together to plan a text, which may be collective or individual.

Specification of an audience and purpose of a text by making the situation 'real':
e.g. exchanging e-mail messages with other English-speaking students, producing a class newspaper.

Activities for developing writing skills

Building vocabulary

Many times I have heard students complain that they lack the necessary vocabulary to write, be it a story, a description or an essay. It may be all right while they follow the step-by-step guidance provided by the teacher or the coursebook, but what if they have to do a writing task by themselves, particularly of the narrative or descriptive kind?

Students seem to operate on a very limited vocabulary repertoire. While their passive vocabulary may be quite extensive, their active vocabulary is often very limited and they end up using the same words again and again:

People always walk or run
Girls are pretty or not pretty, sometimes they can even be beautiful!
Something they like is nice, if they don’t it is not nice. And you do things slowly or quickly. And that’s it! What follows is a sample of activities that can be used to help them build up their active vocabulary.

Manners of walking

Ask students how many words they know that describe different manners of walking. They will probably come up with run, walk, jump and very little else.
Write a few verbs on the board and ask the students to mimic them if they know the meaning. If they don’t, mimic and encourage them to produce a simple definition in English they can remember easily, like:

Stagger: walk like someone who drank a lot

For revision, give students blank cards and ask them to work in groups. One group should work with verbs of movement, another with adjectives that describe character.  Have them write a set of definitions and the set of words on separate cards. Have the groups exchange the cards and ask them to match the pairs.

This activity can be done with other lexical sets, for example sounds made with the nose and the mouth, ways of speaking, etc.

Using pictures

 Ask students to look for pictures or photographs of people in magazines, newspapers, the web, etc. and write a vivid description of this person, invent a personality from how they react to the photo, describe how the person moves, feels, their character, etc. They can also invent the life history of this person. This can be done as a writing workshop in class.

In groups, they read each other’s description comparing them to the actual picture and help each other improve the texts. Then they exchange descriptions and pictures with another group, read the texts and try to match them to the corresponding pictures.

Beautiful sounds 

Words have meanings but when you read a text aloud, they also have sound. It’s sometimes difficult to concentrate on the sounds of words without thinking about their meaning. You can do this as a game to explain what the rhythm of a text is and how the choice of words can affect this rhythm.

Provide a list of words and ask the students to say them aloud and choose three or four they like the sound of most. Then, ask them to write six words that they think sound beautiful. Allow them to use dictionaries. As a class ask them to share their words with their classmates. As a follow up, they can write a short story or a poem using their words.

Describing places 

To excite students’ imaginations when writing a narrative that requires description, you can try modelling the narrative as if you were telling the story and eliciting enriching elements from them.

Suppose they have to write a story about what happened to them one evening when their car broke down in the middle of nowhere. You may begin like this:

‘One day, you were driving along a deserted country road. The sun was beginning to set and the sky was …….
What colour was it? Red, yes red but was it just red? Bright red ... and yellow that’s it. There was no traffic and the nearest village was ….
Where was the village? Near? Far away? How far was it?
Suddenly the car began to slow down and eventually it stopped. You tried to switch on the engine again but nothing happened. How did you feel?

You can build the story together by encouraging them to add interesting details and helping them with new vocabulary. It is a good idea to write the contributions on the board classifying words into categories, e.g. verbs, adjectives and nouns. Afterwards, you can ask the students to write their version of the story in groups.

Using comic strips to create stories.

You can use comic strips or sequences of pictures as input for a story. You do the activity orally as a class to elicit vocabulary and then learners write the story in pairs or groups. They can add more details to personalise their story or write a totally different story. 

CHAIN STORIES are a suitable task for introducing children to the world of story writing. The procedure is very simple. 

Ø  set the stage: pre-select a theme ( mystery, fable, soap opera )
Ø  set up the authoring teams ( groups of 3 )
Ø  everyone writes part A ( the beginning of the story ), and gives it to another person in the group
Ø  everyone writes part B ( the middle of the story ) and gives it to the third person in the group.
Ø  the last person writes part C ( the end of the story )
Ø  children can illustrate the story


Ø  students can work alone or in small groups
Ø  each student/group receives a folder containing a set of pictures. A story must be created using at least 5 of those pictures ( characters can be melded- all the young boys in the set are John, even if they have different faces )

Picture pack

Collect a large number of pictures from different sources. Display them on your table and ask students to work in pairs. Each group choose one picture. Give some time for them to prepare to discuss the picture.

Provide a number of sentence starters to help them.

This is the picture I chose.
I chose it because …
It reminds me of …
I especially like ….
You can see …
It makes me think of ….
I’m not sure ….
I don’t know ….
I’d like to know ….

Students put pictures together with another pair and try to find a connection between the two. They can look for some more that will help them develop their point. They write the story and tell it to the class. The class may add details or try to find more connections with their own pictures.