This post is part II in a series of four articles about ways to supplement and expand “standard” writing activities in coursebooks. Today’s post continues on from yesterday’s article (Part I: Sharing and presenting writing), and deals with the issue of promoting and enhancing written language development.
2. Enhancing Written language development
The issue of written language development (often – somewhat incorrectly – designated as “correcting grammar”) is often a thorny one. In most teachers’ (and for that matter, many students’) minds, the only real way to ensure language development through or from written production is through overt corrections from the teacher. Other than the fact this can turn writing as a “skill” into basically a grammar development class, it is often the reason why some instructors do not want to apply writing in their classrooms. Correcting students’ grammatical errors – especially for large classes and/or as part of demanding work schedules – can make writing as a subject very de-motivating and quite stressful for classroom teachers.
What is more fascinating is that there is a sizeable body of research that has already proven that extensive and explicit corrections (on their own) very rarely have any major impact on a student’s ability to learn and remember correct usage in future writing efforts. This fact seems to have escaped most ESL writing classes and associated teaching methodology.
That said, there are ways to develop better written English accuracy through and with writing skills without pushing teachers to the ends of their sanity with mountains of essays and workbooks on their desks to check - namely through collaborative, self-reflective and discovery-based methods. The activities outlined below are oriented around these goals in particular.
2.1. Exploring Corrections
Following a writing task, and depending on the total number of students in your class, choose 1-2 key errors in each student’s written work and jot them down or type them up in a combined list (the full sentence or phrase the error occurred in). It is recommended that one of the errors have more to do with the struggle to convey meaning (i.e., the incorrect use of grammar and/or vocabulary made the student’s meaning hard – or even impossible – to understand), and the other a systematic mistake (for example, a student makes a mistake with plural noun endings, and does so in several other parts of the writing as well). At the teacher’s discretion, this list can go in order by student or be jumbled. In either case, it is highly desirable that students in the class in general do not know who made the specific errors. The errors are to be considered as “class errors” for the whole class to think about, explore and attempt to correct.
This list can be distributed to each student, or displayed on the board (or on a screen). Students can then be placed in pairs or in small groups. Their job is to go through the list and try to figure out what is wrong and how the sentences or phrases might best be corrected. Following some time to tackle the first three or four in the list, the teacher can ask for solutions and give feedback to the whole class as to whether suggested solutions are correct, and/or an actual correction. The student pairs or groups then go on to work with the next 3-4 problems.
This can be quite time consuming, but has several benefits. The students are being encouraged to actually think and figure things out on their own or with the help of classmates. The errors featured may well be errors they have made themselves or are not entirely sure about, but most importantly, language development is focusing on student-generated errors rather than textbook syllabus-based grammar – it is thus far more relevant to the students themselves. Selecting an even balance of systematic (form only) and meaning-based errors ensures a corresponding balance of attention from the students. The teacher has more opportunities to facilitate and guide the students collectively, and can feel some assurance that the class is getting plenty of practice with language correction and development without having to itemize and explicitly correct every error in each student’s production. Students can be made aware of their own errors without the potential shame of being singled out in front of the class.
Once the sentences have all been tackled, the teacher can ask the students to (1) look back over their writing work and see which of the problem sentences was present in their writing – in which case it can now be corrected by the student him/herself, then (2) go through each of the errors featured and check their own writing in general to see if they can make some new corrections of their own.
This kind of activity will not work language miracles overnight, but if applied regularly can have a major positive impact on students’ language awareness and attitude to analyzing their own and others’ writing. It is also yet another chance to integrate writing with other skills like reading, speaking and listening.
2.2. Correction Quiz Shows
This kind of correction activity is similar to 2.1 above in that a variety of errors are to be drawn from students’ actual written production. These applications, however, are generally more dynamic and fun for younger students, but do require a little more preparation and energy from the teacher!
Instead of giving out lists of errors for students to work on correcting in groups or pairs, the errors become the basis of a quiz show challenge.
The easier (in terms of preparation) version of this is to have the errors compiled in a list, and then have students line up around or throughout the classroom space. Students take turns approaching the teacher, who reads out the problematic sentence or phrase. The student has to quickly suggest a correction. If he/she gets the correction right, he or she is allocated a point and then goes to the end of the line to wait for another correction chance. The next student approaches and a new error is presented. If, however, a suggested correction is wrong, that student receives no point and goes back to the end of the line, and the problematic sentence/phrase is presented to the next student.
The other version of Correction Quiz Show involves placing the errors on individual cards. On the flip side of the card, the teacher allocates a point value based on how difficult he/she feels it will be for students to come up with an appropriate correction (for example, 1 point for easy corrections, 2 for moderate errors, 3 for difficult/challenging problems). These cards are then taped to the wall or whiteboard, writing errors facing in and point values facing out. Students, individually or in teams, then come out to the front of the class and choose a card to try and correct. The teacher flips over the selected card and reads out the problematic sentence or phrase. The student or team of students then has 30 seconds (or whichever time limit the teacher allocates) to suggest a correction. If they get the correction right, the card is taken down and handed to them, and they earn the points allocated for that correction. If they cannot correct the error, the card is flipped back over and students return to their seats until their next turn. Another student or team then approaches the quiz board. They can choose a card that has already been previously flipped over, or a new card with an unknown error to solve.
Both of these activities are fantastic for making error correction fun and entertaining, but they also facilitate more integration of skills and potentially more “noticing”. However, it is important to return the error correction process to the actual written production, with some sort of follow up whereby students check over their written work and attempt to make corrections based on what they have learned and can remember from the correction quiz show activity.
2.3. Language Development Diary – Basic Application
This activity turns error noticing and correction into a kind of ongoing journal exercise. Students will need an extra notebook for this purpose, or worksheets formatted and provided in advance.
As per activity 2.1/2.2 above, following submission of a writing task, highlight 1-5 errors in each student’s writing and number them. At the bottom of the page or on a note, write corrections for each error. For the purposes of this application, systematic errors are probably preferable to complicated meaning-based errors (as it can be notoriously hard to try and correct mistakes based on misunderstanding the central message involved).
Now students need to transfer these errors and corrections to their language development diaries. On one side of the page, they write down their original error. Alongside it on the other side of the page they write down the correction. They can then be asked to repeat the error and correction 1-5 times (in speaking or writing, or both). They can also be asked to memorize the correction.
This may sound like hard work for the students – and it is! – but it serves several purposes. It focuses explicit attention (and hence noticing) on the original error and how it should be applied correctly. It can be a boring activity to write out mistakes, but this in itself can provide an incentive to be more careful when applying systematic grammar in future, and actually edit work rather than toss it straight to a teacher for spoon-fed corrections the students themselves may actually be able to perform on their own. It is also generally highly effective in highlighting systematic mistakes and encouraging students to push the outer boundaries of their interlanguage a little more to ensure they grasp and get it right more often in future.
2.4. Language Development Diary – Advanced Application
This activity option is identical to 2.3 above (language development diary – basic application), but requires far more thinking and independent application from the students! Depending on the classroom set up, the teacher may allow students to help each other during this process.
Again, 1-5 errors are highlighted in the student’s written production. They could be meaning-oriented or systematic or both. However, this time the teacher does not provide an explicit correction. The student writes the error in the language development diary (as in 2.3 above), but it is now up to him or her to try and self correct the sentence or phrase and write this down alongside the original error.
This self-correction is then shown to the teacher, who will indicate if it is an appropriate correction or not. If it is correct, the student can move on to the next error to solve. If the correction is wrong, the student needs to write this out as a new error and try again to self-correct it! Basically, each learner will have 1-5 chances to self-correct their error, at the teacher’s discretion. Once the 1-5 tries are up, the teacher may provide the correction, and then it is the student’s job to go back and write the error and provided correction 1-5 more times (as per the process in the basic application described in 2.3 above). Students who manage to self-correct their own error within the 1-5 tries do not need to do this extra part.
In short, this activity rewards students who can learn to think more deeply about the language they are producing and develop the willingness and capacity to correct errors on their own. Other students may need more repetition to notice and develop deficiencies in their production, and this activity provides that opportunity to them as well. In both cases, the learners are taking independent action to improve the accuracy of their English rather than relying purely on a teacher.
In both language development diary applications, generally at no stage is the teacher having to do more work than the actual student is doing in terms of improving language ability. This can be good news for larger classrooms and managing writing classes, but overall it is good for placing some responsibility for language development and accuracy squarely at the feet of the student him/herself.
2.5. Sentence Kings/Queens for a Day
Language development activities 2.1-2.4 above have generally been oriented around working with errors – or potentially negative examples of written production. This activity works in the opposite direction and uses good written production as a positive model.
Following a writing task, instead of (or in addition to) focusing on errors, the teacher might like to list down some positive examples evident in the students’ written work. They could be examples where the student in question has managed to use some advanced or highly effective expression, or generally has produced a sentence that has a very positive impact on the reader.
These sentences are allocated as Sentence Kings or Queens. The allocation (King or Queen) could be based on the gender of the student who produced the sentence, or it could be used to characterize the positive nature of the sentence (for example, a Sentence King might be a sentence that is strong and controlling whereas a Sentence Queen is pleasant to read and has a nice impact on the reader – but beware of gender generalizations!). These sentences are listed on a wall, the whiteboard or a handout. The teacher can explain to the class why the selected sentences were effective and made a good impression.
Other students in the class could then be asked to look over their written work and see if they can change or add one of the Sentence King or Queen examples to their own writing, but this is not entirely essential (and may actually be a slightly bad idea in terms of respecting the independence of students’ writing efforts). Just highlighting, displaying and explaining the Sentence Kings/Queens will have a positive effect on the students and encourage them to notice and use similar sentences in their writing henceforth. Students who produced the Sentence Kings/Queens will know who they are and get a sense of pride and accomplishment. They are likely to remember these good sentences and try to use them again in their future writing efforts.
This kind of activity could also be expanded or adapted to include negative examples. These could be poor sentences that have weak use of vocabulary or systematic errors that the teacher feels the students should be aware of at this stage of their learning. They could be documented and labeled with titles such as Sentence Witch, Sentence Troll or Sentence Assassin, depending on the imagination of the teacher and students! It might even become a fun activity to turn Sentence Frogs into Sentence Princes, or Sentence Witches into Sentence Queens, etc.
Do you have any of your own suggestions or ideas for ways written language development can be facilitated and encouraged following a standard writing activity? Please, do post ‘em in the comments section that follows!
If you liked the activity ideas presented here, check back here next week for the next post in this series (Part III), which explores activities that make the most of the relationships between reading and writing.