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Seminar Packs

Basic Writing Skills

Jeff Mohamed

International House World Organisation


Jeff Mohamed
IH London
To remind teachers of the need to improve students' accuracy in writing.
To encourage teachers to pay more attention to the accuracy of their board-work and
their students' written work.
To encourage teachers to make use of activities which aim specifically to develop
certain sub-skills of writing.
60 minutes.
The seminar is suitable for use with most EFL teachers, regardless of their
qualifications or experience.
Contents of Seminar Pack.

Foreword : Why this pack has been produced
Sheet A : A possible seminar format
Sheet B : Notes for the seminar-giver's introduction
Sheet C : A sample of a student's written work
(for analysis in groups)
Sheet D : Notes on the sample of written work
(for use in feedback on group-work)
Sheet E: Notes on ways to improve students' accuracy in writing
Sheet F: Hand-out on activities which develop some sub-skills of writing
(to be used for brainstorming ideas).


Visiting IH schools over a number of years, I have often been struck by the low
standard of students' written work compared to that of their oral production. Even
more worrying has been the fact that teachers have frequently been unaware of or
unconcerned by their students' problems in this area.

It seems to me that this situation has arisen mainly because of historical factors. IH
teaching has always placed great emphasis on the need to teach students to speak,
because oral production has been an area of weakness in language teaching in state
schools and because our approach has its roots in behaviourist psychology and
audiolingual teaching.

Our behaviourist / audiolingual roots have caused us, perhaps unconsciously, to
assume that language is speech and that writing is a comparatively simple skill which
students (at least from European backgrounds) will acquire effortlessly as their
spoken skills develop. It is no doubt significant in this respect that the "language
analysis" sessions on RSA teacher-training courses are devoted to analysis of
structure and phonology, and that they appear generally to ignore areas such as
punctuation and spelling.

The present situation is probably also due in part to the fact that many EFL teachers
themselves have problems with spelling and punctuation.
Of course, it is true that many of our students come to us primarily to learn how to
speak and how to comprehend spoken English. However, this does not mean that they
have no interest in learning how to write. Most students want to be able to write at
least reasonably accurately and effectively, and students who wish eventually to pass
FCE absolutely need to be able to do so.

The present seminar does not aim to outline a comprehensive approach to the writing
skill. Anyone who wishes to integrate such an approach into their teaching should
consult one of the many books now available on the subject. My aim here has been
merely to remind teachers of painless and economical ways in which they can help
their students to develop some of the most basic sub-skills of writing, such as
punctuation and spelling.
Jeff Mohamed


A Possible Seminar Format

1. Seminar-giver introduces the seminar 10 minutes

2. Error analysis (in pairs or small groups)
of a piece of writing by a student 15 minutes

3. Feedback on results of groupwork 10 minutes

4. Seminar-giver outlines ways in which students
can be helped towards greater accuracy in writing 10 minutes

5. Participants brainstorm ideas to add
to those on the hand-out:
"Activities for Practising Writing Sub-Skills" 12 minutes

6. Participants individually decide on one or two
specific steps they are going to take in their classes 3 minutes

Notes for Seminar-Giver's Introduction
Writing is given little attention in most EFL classes : most students know Roman
script and therefore are presumed to know how to write; a hangover from
audiolingual emphasis on oral language. Most writing done by students is as
record or consolidation of oral language, not as practice of writing skill in its
own right. The need for the teaching of writing is clear when sub-skills and pre-
requisites of writing are considered.
Even at a basic level of writing students need :
LINGUISTIC RESOURCES : structures, functional exponents, lexis etc.
These are a pre-requisite rather than a guarantee of good writing. Other resources are
needed (see below). Also, students need a better grasp and wider range of linguistic
resources for writing than for speaking : writing involves a tighter range of
conventions (e.g. more consistent style); errors in writing are more obvious;
ambiguities in writing cannot be clarified as easily or promptly (as immediate
feedback cannot usually take place); lack of variety of structure/lexis is more obvious
and less acceptable in written language.
GRAPHOLOGICAL RESOURCES : script, punctuation, spelling, layout.
Letters are formed differently in different languages using the roman script. The use
of commas, full-stops, capital letters etc. varies enormously even between languages
in Western Europe. English spelling is extremely complex, as we all know. However,
it is rule-based rather than arbitrary; students need to learn these rules. The use of e.g.
indents can be important in certain types of writing (e.g. letters).
NB Abbreviations such as NB/e.g./i.e./etc. are also very useful in writing; they are not
at all universal.
As well as the essentially sentence-based skills outlined above, effective writing
involves text-based skills:
RHETORICAL RESOURCES : paragraphing; logical/grammatical/lexical cohesive
devices (e.g. conjunctions / defining and non-defining clauses, and pronouns /
synonyms and near-synonyms).
The use of cohesive devices is essential if students are to write with fluidity and style,
rather than merely to write a succession of sentences. This is a particularly important
area because :
lack of cohesive devices leads to staccato, monotonous writing with un-
acceptable repetition of e.g. "and", "but", "then";
oral practice tends to be largely at or below sentence-level; students rarely
practise / become adept in the use of cohesive devices in speech.
The following sample of a student's written work shows some of the problems
which even orally competent students have with (even quite basic) writing.


Read through the piece of writing (below), which was produced by a student of good
intermediate level.
Underline each significant mistake and label it with a descriptive abbreviation (e.g.
"Sp" for a spelling-mistake).
Then list the categories of mistakes which occur in the sample (e.g. "Spelling",

The most significant errors are noted (below) on the copy of the piece of writing. Some of the more
interesting and more controversial examples have been given code numbers and are highlighted

1. street/hill
In some European languages, no initial capital letter is used for "street", "road" etc., even where they
are part of a name.
In standard scripts (as opposed to graphics in adverts etc.), it is not acceptable to mix lower case letters
(the "i" in this instance) with upper case ones. Native speakers often do so as a means of per-
sonalising their handwriting, but it would be dangerous for a student to do so e.g. in an FCE exam.
3. "7NA 1P"
The use of Continental sevens and ones is still not totally acceptable in English, although many EFL
teachers seem to favour it. It can lead to comprehension problems with some British people and
with many Americans.
4. "it I"
Clearly there should be a comma between the two clauses. Students often get confused by the fact that
adverbial clauses must be followed by commas when they come before main clauses, but that a
comma is not needed when the adverbial clause follows the main clause. Perhaps we should teach
students always to put commas between main and adverbial clauses?
5. "How"
This should be written in cursive script, not printed. She has printed other words here and there in
the letter. Perhaps she thinks that printing can be used to give emphasis, rather as italics can be
used in printed matter ?
6. "now"
This is a spelling mistake rather than a slip, as is shown by the fact it recurs later.
7. "interest."
A question mark is needed. As this student obviously has problems with punctuation, this may be more
than a slip.
8. "AKiRA"
Another example of mixing lower and upper case letters in a word.
9. "Any way"
This should be one word, of course. When used as a linker (as here), it should be separated from the
rest of the sentence by a comma, as is the case with other linkers ("however", "meanwhile",
"nevertheless" etc.).
10. "moment."
This should be a comma (see 4. above).
11. "To"
Why has she put a capital letter? She has done the same thing later, again with "to", so perhaps she is
applying some incorrect rule. Given her general problems with punctuation, one cannot assume it is
just a slip.
12. ",which"
A comma is not used before an identifying relative clause.
13. "Boy"
Another apparently arbitrary capital letter.
14. "to hear"
Presumably she assumes that a verb following "to" has to be in the infinitive form.

Teachers who are not sure of the conventions of punctuation should find it helpful to consult
sections 505-510 of Michael Swan's "Practical English Usage".

Notes on ways to improve students' accuracy in writing
The major cause of students' poor writing is poor teaching !
To improve students' writing the teacher should :
1. make students aware from the beginning that there are significant differences between written
and spoken English (e.g. use of contractions, spelling, style)
2. set a good example by ensuring that boardwork is clear and accurate (script, spelling,
punctuation, capitalisation)
3. check students written work, including work copied from board
NB Merely by doing 2. and 3., teachers should be able to obtain an immediate and marked
improvement in their students' writing. Students' problems with writing (particularly re: spelling and
punctuation) often stem from mistakes or ambiguities in boardwork.
4. help students to acquire the necessary sub-skills or resources (see Sheet F)
5. prepare written tasks with care
NB Writing skill work should be staged in the same way as is oral work, i.e. from Controlled to Freer
Practice. With tasks designed to improve specific sub-skills, it is important to pre-teach/control the
lexis/structures needed in the task and to control/supply the content; otherwise, students will focus too
much on lexis/structure/content.
6. adopt a systematic approach to correction of written work.
As with oral work, this involves deciding on the aim of the task/correction and relating the amounl/type
of correction to this aim and to the nature of the mistakes made. Of course, it is possible to correct
effectively only if the task has been properly prepared and the practice properly staged.)
NB A systematic correction approach might involve :
- when writing, students put a question mark over items they are unsure of or which they are
experimenting with (so that the teacher can correct these items in detail)
- the teacher underlines (without indicating the problem or solution) all the basic mistakes which the
students should be capable of correcting themselves
- the teacher uses a code (e.g. "SP" for "spelling mistake") to mark systematic errors and/or errors
with items recently taught and/or errors with items connected with the main aim of the writing task
- the teacher gives correction feedback to the class on errors of the types mentioned above.

Activities for Practising Some Writing Sub-Skills
The ideas below are taken from Unit 7 of the IH RSA DTP
Add to them any other
activities which you have found to be useful with students.
1. Anagrams (i.e. jumbled words).
2. Hangman.
3. Bingo (using words difficult to spell).
4. Dictations containing problem words (e.g. ones with silent letters).
5. Spelling tests.
6. Dictionary work in class (see : Use Your Dictionary).
7. Word-building exercises (suffixes, word-families etc.).
8. Brainstorming words with a particular sound.
1. Give non-punctuated dictations; students add punctuation.
2. Students have to punctuate non-punctuated texts.
LOGICAL COHESIVE DEVICES (conjunctions etc.)
1. Text with gaps for logical devices. Students fill in from list or from free choice.
2. Text made up of short sentences. Students connect them using devices from list.
3. Text including logical devices; students replace each device with another with the
same logical function.
4. Students write a paragraph from notes; they add devices from list.
1. Gap-filling exercise with pronouns removed.
2. Text with all nouns repeated; students replace with pronouns.
3. Students are given text and additional information to put into it. They must decide
whether information is vital or incidental (i.e. whether use defining or non-defining

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