English composition? It's all Greek to many of the learners out there...
I think one of the most challenging things about teaching writing is that, as someone who enjoys and has few inhibitions about doing a lot of writing, the writing teacher can be universes in distance from learners who have little time, patience or inclination for it. For example, being asked to write a 5-6 paragraph essay of some sort appeals to me as an opportunity. For most of the learners I have encountered over the years, it has been received like some kind of long term penal sentence (pun somewhat intended).
One of the ongoing challenges then, to me, is to think outside the box and come up with different ways to present and organise writing tasks. And by 'outside the box', I mean the rather crusty academic cardboard one that stipulates that one shall plan, draft and re-write all in one sequence until a particular topic is addressed in full and a certain kind of text has been ticked off in the preset syllabus.
I've been experimenting with this recently with VCAL learners who are preparing to enter the traditional 'hard' trades (building, plumbing, electical, automotive, etc.), and while far from being perfect in approach, I do seem to have struck upon something that is starting to yield positive results.
Some of the basic principles here were:
- No individual writing task should take more than 10-15 minutes for the average learner to complete
- The tasks should, whenever possible, relate to specific trades or trade-related activity
- Each task should represent something new (in relation to the previous couple of units)
- Certain tasks should represent a format or approach that is repeated regularly
- There should be regular use of pictorial/image-based and video input
- Whenever possible, tasks should be digital in delivery
- There should be the possibility (later) to slot the individual tasks together to create drafts for longer texts (which in turn tick off our formal VCAL Literacy outcomes)
What eventuated was a curriculum that looks somewhat like this:
To keep this simple, and for the purpose of this particular post, I'd like to focus on the aspects of this approach that build on writing short chunks which can be strung together later to create longer texts (as drafts).
Units 1, 5, 11 and 15 represent paragraph-based tasks which slot together to create a personal text (introducing oneself, talking about background, present and future). Taking this one step at a time, but not in a direct sequence of tasks, seems to help remove the potentially laborious feel from it as an overall 'longer text' task.
Units 7, 8, 12, 13, 17 and 18 feature a documentary broken into six parts. In each of these units, the students quickly summarise what they have seen and their own personal reaction to it (hence two quick paragraphs). Later, this content can be retrieved and slotted together into a six paragraph expository or report-based text, or a six paragraph personal response to the documentary (or a combination of both).
The big plus here is that the breakdown of tasks prevents boredom and removes (at least to some degree) the inhibition associated with being asked to write extensive texts right from the get-go. It also means learners often have more initial writing to choose from than they need, which creates options.
The intervening units focus on other things, mostly short (real world) text tasks in their own right, sentence-level writing skills, vocabulary building, basic grammar, or discovery/noticing tasks based on re-writing short texts in various ways.
Enagement has been high, and there has been a good task completion rate. And in the end, it is a beautiful thing to be able to show a reluctant writer that they have already essentially written a 5-6 paragraph draft, without really realising it as they went along through the syllabus.
So far, so good.
Has anyone else out there experimented with doing a writing curriculum in this sort of way? Or another way entirely?
Let's see what else we can find outside the box, shall we?