Tuesday, 22 September 2009

The long and winding road to changing the practices of EFL writing

This Chinese proverb has been on mind a lot this week in connection with trying to find ways of shifting the focus from teaching to learning and student involvement. In particular, I have been thinking about the writing skills of my EFL students.

On the whole, our students get a fair bit of writing practise, but the way it's traditionally done, is giving them essay titles to write on as homework assignments, with the excuse of an overloaded curriculum and too little time to focus on this in class. The submitted essays are then meticulously marked by the teacher and handed back with a grade, and possibly a few written comments to help the students improve. In practise, though, the next time the student writes another such homework essay, the same mistakes will usually be repeated, and repeated and repeated again, irrespective of the teachers' well-meaning comments and hours of hard work in correcting all the mistakes. Many students go through the 3 years of senior high school with hardly any improvement in their writing skills.

It's exactly the scenario that I read in Tara Seale's blog Enhanced English Teacher some time ago. She
quoted the following from Michael Degen's book Crafting Expository Argument:
Too many teachers merely assign a paper, provide little instruction over the methods for achieving expectations, and scream while grading “these terrible essays.”
Ouch! How many times have I screamed, although I should actually blame myself for neglecting the poor students by leaving them to struggle with the writing assignments alone at home. Is it any wonder that the results are the same  – again and again? Telling them and even showing them is not enough, if students are not expected to get involved in the editing process themselves.

Another problem, of course, are standardizedl, formal testing methods. We are faced with the same challenges as described in the NCTE blog by Scott Filkings:
For the foreseeable future, we’ll measure (“officially,” anyway) our students’ ability as writers with assessments that have no authentic audience and no rhetorical purpose other than to invite efficient evaluation
Many students just go through the motions of perfunctorily producing the required number of words on a given theme only to the teacher or some other evaluator - "a nameless, faceless reader" from Scott Filkings' post - just because they have to, for their course credit or diploma. How motivating is that? This system makes many of them lazy to make any effort to edit their writing. Instead, it's over and done with as quickly as possibly, just as any tedious and meaningless homework.

This week I asked one group to write a slightly longer piece of project work on one aspect of Finnish society that they could choose themselves, according to their interests. We had been reading about different social issues and learning related vocabulary, so that rather dictated the general theme. To make the assignment more authentic, their writing was to be published on the international project Ning of our school. That means, once we start getting foreign partner groups to join the Ning, there will be a real audience to read the students' writing.

We started the work in class, so the students had a chance to consult each other or me to get started. We talked long and hard about plagiarism. Sadly, the 'copy and paste' method is quite common among our students, since the net, with all its English content, is too tempting for those who tend to leave all their work to the last minute. I would like my students to learn to produce their own material in English, because it will be essential for many of them in their future careers. The older Finnish generations have never been taught this, which is why it's not uncommon at international conferences to hear Finnish professional and experts giving thoroughly boring presentations put together with the same 'this-will-do' attitude from copied and disconnected sentences and paragraphs from various net sources. No wonder the lack of marketing skills among Finns is often talked about these days! Writing to a potential audience was also discussed and how it should affect the choice of topic and point of view. In addition, I introduced them to hyperlinking, instead of the citations or footnotes of traditional writing assignments. We also talked about the use of photos to bring some life and colour to their online work, and naturally copyright came up in this connection. Last but not least, I encouraged the students to think about the project as a process, in which they could email their first drafts to me for consultation. In the end, only 8 students out of 24 made use of this. For those who did, I pointed out some recurring mistakes in their English, and also suggested how to elaborate on their chosen theme to make their writing more interesting. Finnish students tend to write in the form of lists of unrelated facts, which is a reflection of the communication style typical of Finnish. It doesn't translate very well into English, and many students need constant reminding about the importance of linking ideas together and adding illustrative examples and their own opinions and thoughts, when they write in English. Another thing I needed to spell out to them was to remember the real audience. The impersonal, rhetorical style, which they are used to when writing assignments for assignments' sake only to the teacher, is really hard to change!

If you take a look at the different blog posts on Finland on the Ning, I have a feeling it will be easy to spot the majority of those who never bothered to edit their work once, despite all the pep talks and coaching beforehand. All in all, the results were rather discouraging again. Some even resorted to almost word by word copying from Wikipedia! As far as they were concerned, my words and good intentions fell totally on deaf ears. It's beyoung my comprehension whether they are really totally dumb to think that they won't be caught, or whether they can't understand a word I say to them. Why doesn't it matter to them what they publish online for anyone to read? Why don't they want to take more pride in their work? Or is it still the old disconnect between what school expects of them and what they, themselves, find valuable and worth investing time and effort in? Obviously, there still wasn't enough student involvement for them to understand. The requirements of writing to an audience are far from self-evident and the long tradition of isolated writing for school only is surprisingly hard to break. I foolishly took it for granted that students would automatically be able to write differently to a real audience - only a few managed this.

My next move is going to be to do the whole process at school, since most of them clearly cannot be trusted to do it on their own. We started today with some peer assessment of their first drafts. They all wrote their first drafts, then exchanged papers with another student, and with the help of my guiding prompts, then wrote some comments and suggestions to each other. Let's see if there will be any change of attitude and possibly even development in their writing this way!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I know how you feel. I am a teacher of English in Denmark. I never normally write comments on the internet but this time I felt I had something to give.I feel I have found a way of improving the students written work. When I mark their written work I put an abbreviations under every mistake. I do not correct it but write for example, gr for grammar, sp for spelling,p=punctuation, t = tense, ww= wrong word, ^ for missing word, TA = try again. I write a grade and a comment, always highlighting something that they have done well. I also make a worksheet with about 14 incorrect sentences which are taken out of different students essays. I underline the mistakes. I have a section at the bottom of the worksheet with 20 incorrectly spelt words which the students have to correct. At the next lesson when I give their essays back, I give them all a worksheet to get going on. I personally give out each essay individually and comment on their essay and ask them what they think they should have written with a couple of mistakes. The most important thing is that the students have the time to correct their own essays and then the general worksheet comes afterwards. At the end of the lesson I go through the worksheet on the board. Each student gives one answer. Generally I try to check if the students personal corrections are correct. I have found that the students written English improves and they are motivated to prove to themselves that they knew what should have been written instead of the mistake they originally made. Plus the abbreviations give them a clue to what was wrong. Would be interesting to hear if you can improve your students written English with my method. Greetings sko@vucnsj.dk Sarah Wood