What was the last thing you wrote? A Whatsapp message? Shopping list? Maybe an email? So why are teachers still getting students to write descriptions of picture stories to practise writing skills? Let’s look at some ways of making our writing skills lessons more useful for real life.
Most of us know lessons where students are given a series of pictures and they write the story depicted. Typically they might need to firstly put the pictures into the right order or come up with an ending which makes the activity slightly more appealing to students. but how useful is this? When was the last time you did this in real life? We can make our writing skills lessons much more interesting and relevant by providing students with the tools they need in real life. This would mean focusing on tasks such as writing emails, tweets, application forms, short messages or an Amazon review. So a lesson could go as follows:
- Students discuss the last thing they bought online and whether they were satisfied with it once it had arrived.
- Students read one positive and one negative product review, while reading the first time, they decide whether the buyer is satisfied. Second read involves picking out the words or phrases that express positive or negative feelings.
- Students focus briefly on the format of the review (catchy heading, short paragraphs).
- Students brainstorm positive/ negative adjectives which could be used in reviews.
- Teacher gives students further adjectives which the students sort into positive/ negative columns. Teacher follows up with ccqs to check students’ understanding of new lexis.
- Students write their review.
- Teacher puts reviews up around the room. Students read reviews and decide which of the products they would buy and which they wouldn’t buy.
- Students have a discussion about whether online shops are destroying city centres.
This brings me to my second bugbear with writing skills lessons. Look at point 7- why do you think I suggest this part is included? Typically, students would read their review out loud to the class or they would read their partner’s reviews without a task. Firstly, reading out loud is a definite no-no (see Getting to Grips with Reading Skills for more on this). Secondly if I read something in real life, I have a reason for reading it. So, if I read a review on Amazon, it is because I am considering buying that product so this should be replicated in the classroom and students should have a reason for reading thier partner’s review.
Looking at the break-down of the lesson we have:
- a lead-in (point 1),
- several pre-writing stages (2-5) focusing on a model, the language needed for the writing task itself as well as the format needed,
- a couple of in-writing stages (6-7) including a reason for writing and a reason for reading the other reviews. Part 6 could be extended with a quick re-write and/ or some editing work,
- a post- writing discussion (8) which would ideally be followed by some error correction.
By including and working with a couple of models, we provide learners with the building blocks they need to write their own review (focus on language, focus on format). Weaker learners can stick more closely to the model given and stronger students can be encouraged to use more complex language structures.
To sum up, a list of tips:
- Choose a real-life task.
- Include pre-writing, in-writing and post-writing activities.
- Prepare students thoroughly by working with a model.
- Make sure students have a reason for reading the model ie give them a task.
- Focus on the language as well as the format of the model.
- Students should have a reason for writing.
- Give students a reason for reading each others’ pieces of writing.
What tips would you add to this list?