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Teaching Writing

Good writing conveys a meaningful message and uses English well, but the message is more important than correct presentation. If you can understand the message or even part of it, your student has succeeded in communicating on paper and should be praised for that. For many adult ESL learners, writing skills will not be used much outside your class. This doesn't mean that they shouldn't be challenged to write, but you should consider their needs and balance your class time appropriately. Many adults who do not need to write will enjoy it for the purpose of sharing their thoughts and personal stories, and they appreciate a format where they can revise their work into better English than if they shared the same information orally.

Two writing strategies you may want to use in your lessons are free writing and revised writing. Free writing directs students to simply get their ideas onto paper without worrying much about grammar, spelling, or other English mechanics. In fact, the teacher can choose not to even look at free writing pieces. To practice free writing, give students 5 minutes in class to write about a certain topic, or ask them to write weekly in a journal. You can try a dialog journal where students write a journal entry and then give the journal to a partner or the teacher, who writes another entry in response. The journals may be exchanged during class, but journal writing usually is done at home. The main characteristic of free writing is that few (if any) errors are corrected by the teacher, which relieves students of the pressure to perform and allows them to express themselves more freely.

Revised writing, also called extended or process writing, is a more formal activity in which students must write a first draft, then revise and edit it to a final polished version, and often the finished product is shared publicly. You may need several class sessions to accomplish this. Begin with a pre-writing task such as free writing, brainstorming, listing, discussion of a topic, making a timeline, or making an outline. Pairs or small groups often work well for pre-writing tasks. Then give the students clear instructions and ample time to write the assignment. In a class, you can circulate from person to person asking, "Do you have any questions?" Many students will ask a question when approached but otherwise would not have raised a hand to call your attention. Make yourself available during the writing activity; don't sit at a desk working on your next lesson plan. Once a rough draft is completed, the students can hand in their papers for written comment, discuss them with you face to face, or share them with a partner, all for the purpose of receiving constructive feedback. Make sure ideas and content are addressed first; correcting the English should be secondary. Finally, ask students to rewrite the piece. They should use the feedback they received to revise and edit it into a piece they feel good about. Such finished pieces are often shared with the class or posted publicly, and depending on the assignment, you may even choose to 'publish' everyone's writing into a class booklet.

Tactful correction of student writing is essential. Written correction is potentially damaging to confidence because it's very visible and permanent on the page. Always make positive comments and respond to the content, not just the language. Focus on helping the student clarify the meaning of the writing. Especially at lower levels, choose selectively what to correct and what to ignore. Spelling should be a low priority as long as words are recognizable. To reduce ink on the page, don't correct all errors or rewrite sentences for the student. Make a mark where the error is and let the student figure out what's wrong and how to fix it. At higher levels you can tell students ahead of time exactly what kinds of errors (verbs, punctuation, spelling, word choice) you will correct and ignore other errors. If possible, in addition to any written feedback you provide, try to respond orally to your student's writing, making comments on the introduction, overall clarity, organization, and any unnecessary information.

Consider the following ideas for your writing lessons.