Writing, unlike speaking, is not an ability we acquire naturally, even in our first language - it has to be taught. Unless L2 learners are explicitly taught how to write in the new language, their writing skills are likely to get left behind as their speaking progresses. But teaching writing is not just about grammar, spelling, or the mechanics of the Roman alphabet. Learners also need to be aware of and use the conventions of the genre in the new language.
What is genre?
A genre can be anything from a menu to a wedding invitation, from a newspaper article to an estate agent's description of a house. Pieces of writing of the same genre share some features, in terms of layout, level of formality, and language. These features are more fixed in formal genre, for example letters of complaint and essays, than in more 'creative' writing, such as poems or descriptions. The more formal genre often feature in exams, and may also be relevant to learners' present or future 'real-world' needs, such as university study or business. However, genre vary considerably between cultures, and even adult learners familiar with a range of genre in their L1 need to learn to use the conventions of those genre in English.
Stages of a writing lesson
I don't necessarily include all these stages in every writing lesson, and the emphasis given to each stage may differ according to the genre of the writing and / or the time available. Learners work in pairs or groups as much as possible, to share ideas and knowledge, and because this provides a good opportunity for practicing the speaking, listening and reading skills.
This is the often the first stage of a process approach to writing. Even when producing a piece of writing of a highly conventional genre, such as a letter of complaint, using learners' own ideas can make the writing more memorable and meaningful.
Before writing a letter of complaint, learners think about a situation when they have complained about faulty goods or bad service (or have felt like complaining), and tell a partner.
As the first stage of preparing to write an essay, I give learners the essay title and pieces of scrap paper. They have 3 minutes to work alone, writing one idea on each piece of paper, before comparing in groups. Each group can then present their 3 best ideas to the class. It doesn't matter if the ideas aren't used in the final piece of writing, the important thing is to break through the barrier of ' I can't think of anything to write.'
This is another stage taken from a process approach, and it involves thinking about which of the many ideas generated are the most important or relevant, and perhaps taking a particular point of view.
As part of the essay-writing process, students in groups put the ideas generated in the previous stage onto a 'mind map'. The teacher then draws a mind-map on the board, using ideas from the different groups. At this stage he / she can also feed in some useful collocations - this gives the learners the tools to better express their own ideas.
I tell my students to write individually for about 10 minutes, without stopping and without worrying about grammar or punctuation. If they don't know a particular word, they write it in their L1. This often helps learners to further develop some of the ideas used during the 'Generating ideas' stage. Learners then compare together what they have written, and use a dictionary, the teacher or each other to find in English any words or phrases they wrote in their L1.
Focus on a model text
Once the students have generated their own ideas, and thought about which are the most important or relevant, I try to give them the tools to express those ideas in the most appropriate way. The examination of model texts is often prominent in product or genre approaches to writing, and will help raise learners' awareness of the conventions of typical texts of different genres in English.
I give learners in groups several examples of a genre, and they use a genre analysis form to identify the features and language they have in common. This raises their awareness of the features of the genre and gives them some language 'chunks' they can use in their own writing.
Learners identify the function of different paragraphs in a piece of writing. For example, in a job application letter, the functions of the paragraphs might be something like;
reason for writing
how I found out about the job
relevant experience, skills and abilities
closing paragraph asking for an interview
Learners are given an essay with the topic sentences taken out, and put them back in the right place. This raises their awareness of the organization of the essay and the importance of topic sentences.
Once learners have seen how the ideas are organized in typical examples of the genre, they can go about organizing their own ideas in a similar way.
Students in groups draft a plan of their work, including how many paragraphs and the main points of each paragraph. These can then be pinned up around the room for comment and comparison.
When preparing to write an essay, students group some of ideas produced earlier into main and supporting statements.
In a pure process approach, the writer goes through several drafts before producing a final version. In practical terms, and as part of a general English course, this is not always possible. Nevertheless, it may be helpful to let students know beforehand if you are going to ask them to write a second draft. Those with access to a word processor can then use it, to facilitate the redrafting process. The writing itself can be done alone, at home or in class, or collaboratively in pairs or groups.
Peer evaluation of writing helps learners to become aware of an audience other then the teacher. If students are to write a second draft, I ask other learners to comment on what they liked / didn't like about the piece of work, or what they found unclear, so that these comments can be incorporated into the second draft. The teacher can also respond at this stage by commenting on the content and the organization of ideas, without yet giving a grade or correcting details of grammar and spelling.
Re-viewing When writing a final draft, students should be encouraged to check the details of grammar and spelling, which may have taken a back seat to ideas and organization in the previous stages. Instead of correcting writing myself, I use codes to help students correct their own writing and learn from their mistakes.
By going through some or all of these stages, learners use their own ideas to produce a piece of writing that uses the conventions of a genre appropriately and in so doing, they are asked to think about the audience's expectations of a piece of writing of a particular genre, and the impact of their writing on the reader.
The status of writing within language teaching and applied linguistics has risen considerably in the last 30 years. The idea that writing is simply ?speech written down? and therefore not worthy of serious attention has been replaced by a much more complex view of the nature of writing with the growth of composition studies and the field of second language writing. In the seventies learning to write in a second language was mainly seen to involve developing linguistic and lexical knowledge as well as familiarity with the syntactic patterns and cohesive devices that form the building blocks of texts (Hyland, in press). Learning to write involved imitating and manipulating models provided by the teacher and was closely linked to learning grammar. The sequence of activities in a writing lesson typically involved:
Familiarization: learners study grammar and vocabulary, usually through a text
Controlled writing: learners manipulate fixed patterns, often from
Guided writing: learners imitate model texts
Free writing: learners use the patterns they have developed to write a letter, paragraph etc
Activities based on controlled composition predominated during this period that sought to prevent errors and develop correct writing habits. One of my earliest efforts at textbook writing, Guided Writing Through Pictures, was firmly rooted in this tradition.
Later the focus in teaching writing shifted to the paragraph-pattern approach with a focus on the use of topic sentences, supporting sentences, and transitions and practice with different functional patterns such as narration, description, comparisoncontrast and exposition. It became apparent that good writing involved more that the ability to write grammatically correct sentences. Sentences need to be cohesive and the whole text needed to be coherent. And the field of contrastive rhetoric examined different conception of coherence across cultures. The study of model texts was central with the paragraph-pattern approach. Students would study the features of a model text and then write their own paragraphs following the model.
In the 1990s Process writing introduced a new dimension into the teaching of writing with an emphasis on the writer and the strategies used to produce a piece of writing. Writing is viewed as ?a complex, recursive and creative process that is very similar in its general outlines for first and second language writers: learning to write requires the development of an efficient and effective composing process (Silva and Matsuda, 2002, 261). The composing processes employed by writers were explored as well as the different strategies employed by proficient and less proficient writers. Drawing from the work of first language composition theory and practice, ESL students were soon being taught such processes as planning, drafting, revising and editing and how to give peer feedback.
More recently second language writing instruction in some parts of the world has been influenced by a genre approach. This looks at the ways in which language is used for particular purposes in particular contexts, i.e. the use of different genres of writing. Writing is seen as involving a complex web or relations between writer, reader, and text. Drawing on the work of Halliday, Martin, Swales and others, the genre approach seeks to address not only the needs of ESL writers to compose texts for particular readers but also examines how texts actually work. Discourse communities such as business executives, applied linguists, technicians, and advertising copywriters possess a shared understanding of the texts they use and create and expectations as to the formal and functional features of such texts. Genre
theory has generated a great deal of research into different types of written genre, including both general types of writing (e.g. narrative, descriptive, and argumentative writing), as well as different text types (e.g. research reports, business letters, essay examinations, technical reports). According to Hyland, contemporary views of L2 writing see writing as involving composing skills and knowledge about texts, contexts, and readers. Writers not only need realistic strategies for drafting and revising but also a clear understanding of genre to be able to structure their writing experienced according to the demands and constraints of particular contexts.
The field of second language writing is hence a dynamic one today and one that is generating an increasing amount of research. Hyland (in press) identifies current research interests in L2 writing according to three categories ? writers, texts, and readers, and includes the following in a list of issues in L2 writing research:
Revision strategies employed by writers
Transfer of composing strategies from L1
Students preferences for feedback
Sources of feedback students make use of
Lexical/syntactic/discoursal features of particular genres
Effectiveness of instructional strategies for genres
Readers? views of the effectiveness of texts
Strategies to help students address audiences in writing
Focus on grammar and sentence construction
Learning by imitating and practicing models
Little difference between teaching of writing and teaching of grammar
If you think taking tests is difficult then you should try writing them! Writing a good test is indeed quite a challenge and one that takes patience, experience and a degree of trial and error. There are many steps you can take to ensure that your test is more effective and that test writing becomes a learning experience.
The elements of a good test
A good test will give us a more reliable indication of our students' skills and it ensures that they don't suffer unfairly because of a poor question. How can we be sure that we have produced a good test?
One way is very simply to think about how we feel about it afterwards. Do the results reflect what we had previously thought about the skills of the students? Another simple way is to ask the students for some feedback. They will soon tell you if they felt a question was unfair or if a task type was unfamiliar.
Validity of a test
A good test also needs to be valid. It must test what it is meant to test. A listening test that has very complicated questions afterwards can be as much of a test of reading as listening. Also a test that relies on cultural knowledge cannot measure a student's ability to read and comprehend a passage.
Reliability of a test
A test should also be reliable. This means that it should produce consistent results at different times. If the test conditions stay the same, different groups of students at a particular level of ability should get the same result each time.
A writing test may not be reliable as the marking may be inconsistent and extremely subjective, especially if there are a number of different markers. Thus to try and ensure the test is more reliable it is essential to have clear descriptors of what constitutes each grade.
In an oral interview it is important to ensure that the examiner maintains the same attitude with all the candidates. The test will be less reliable if he is friendly with some candidates but stern with others. You should try to ensure that the test conditions are as consistent as possible.
The affect of tests
We must also bear in mind the affect of our tests. Has the test caused too much anxiety in the students? Are the students familiar with the test types in the exam?
If a student has never seen a cloze passage before she may not be able to write a test that reflects her true ability. The solution to this is to try and reduce the negative effects by using familiar test types and making the test as non-threatening as possible.
Other features of a good test
Other features of a good test are that there is a variety of test types and that it is as interesting as possible.
A variety of test types will ensure that the students have to stay focused and minimise the tiredness and boredom you can feel during a repetitive test.
Finding reading passages that are actually interesting to read can also help to maintain motivation during a test. A test should also be as objective as possible, providing a marking key and descriptors can help with this.
Another important feature of a good test is that it is set at an appropriate level. You can only really find this out by giving the test and studying the results. Basically if everyone gets above 90% you know it is too easy or if everyone gets less than 10% it is obviously too difficult. For tests that aren't so extreme you will need to do some analysis of your test. You can do this by analyzing the individual items for difficulty.
In order to do this mark all of the tests and divide them into three equal groups, high, middle and low.
Make a note for each item of how many candidates got the answer correct from the high and the low group (leave aside the middle group). To find the level of difficulty you need to do a quick calculation.
Take one question and add the number of students from the high group who have the correct answer to the number from the low group.
Then divide this by the total number of people from both groups (high and low). It is thought that if over 90% of candidates get the answer right it is too easy. If fewer than 30% get it right it is too difficult.
Also bear in mind that if most of the answers are in the 30's and 40's it would be best to rewrite the test. It's the same if most of the answers are in the 80's and 90's.
The final step is to reject the items that are too easy or difficult.
Conclusion Always bear in mind though that the difficulty of an item may relate to whether it has been covered in class or it may give an indication of how well it was understood. Such test analysis can give us information about how effective our teaching has been as well as actually evaluating the test. Evaluating tests carefully can ensure that the test improves after it is taken and can give us feedback on improving our test writing.
Below is a suggested procedure for writing a test.
Decide what kind of test it is going to be (achievement, proficiency)
Write a list of what the test is going to cover
Think about the length, layout and the format
Find appropriate texts
Weight the sections according to importance/time spent etc.
Write the questions
Write the instructions and examples
Decide on the marks
Make a key
Write a marking scheme for less objective questions
Pilot the test
Review and revise the test and key
After the test has been taken, analyze the results and decide what can be kept / rejected.