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Jeremy Harmer continues his series of teacher training articles by reviewing

the teaching of writing.

Why is writing important?


As with any other language skill, there are a number of different reasons for getting
students to write in class. In the first place many students feel much more secure
when they have written new language down. The act of writing is slower and to
some extent less spontaneous than speech, so by putting new grammar and
sentences onto paper they have a chance to think about what they have been
learning. They have more time. But writing should not be seen as just a
reinforcement for spoken models of language. For many students it is a vital skill in
its own right, one that they will need if they wish to correspond with Englishspeaking colleagues and friends and/or function in a commercial and intellectual
world where English is often the international language. Furthermore, an ability to
write and understand the conventions of written English gives students a much
deeper insight into the way English is written, and hence their reading ability and
perception is greatly increased.
What is special about writing?
Just like speaking, writing has its own set of rules and principles. When do we use
commas in English? When do we need capital letters? How on earth do students
sort out the rules which govern English spelling? All these things need to be
brought to students attention, with examples and exercises to help them to be sure
that they understand the rules. In the case of students who are unaccustomed to
Roman script there will be a need to give them simple handwriting practice too.
The conventions of writing are important. For example, British writers lay out their
letters in a certain way; business letters tend to look very different from
correspondence between friends. Finally, written English differs from spoken
English in many distinctive ways. This is especially noticeable in the use of different
grammar usage and the organisation of ideas.
What different kinds of writing activity can we use?
It is important to make a difference between those activities where we study writing
and those which are designed to activate the students written knowledge and
potential.
Activities to study writing
In the first category we would put the kind of exercises which focus on the
construction of writing. So, for example, we might show students two sentences

and join them together with and or but (using commas correctly) before asking them
to do the same thing. We might ask them to read a short text and say where the
capital letters are and why. They might look at a text and be asked what he, she or
it refer to, so that they understand how we use pronouns to refer backwards and
forwards in a piece of writing. Sometimes we will demonstrate paragraph
construction (topic and exemplification sentences, for example) before getting them
to write their own paragraphs. We will get them to look at letters to identify common
layout patterns, and we should let them work with Internet E-mail messages too if
we have the facilities. At more advanced levels we will get them to analyse more
complex devices for cohesion and coherence in a text and we will have them focus
on different kinds of writing (narratives, argumentative essays, business reports) to
prepare them for trying these out for themselves.
Activities to activate writing
Exercises which encourage students to activate their written knowledge are of a
different character. Instead of getting students to think about how writing takes
place we will put them in real or imagined situations where they want or need to
write to communicate with someone else. At beginner levels we will get them to
write messages to each other or write postcards. An enduringly popular activity is to
get them to read/write agony letters to an imaginary magazine and then answer
the letters as realistically as possible. In dealing with writing activation we should
encourage students creativity. There are ways of provoking the most reluctant pupil
to try out poetry, for example, and the writing of soap opera episodes, stories,
advertisements, newspaper articles, etc. are not only motivating but also
educationally useful and creative.
When should students write?
One of the best times for students to write is when they are on their own, at home,
doing homework. At this time they will be able to think things through, working at
their own pace and in their own time. Writing is not only for students at home,
however; writing in class (where they have backup from peers and the teacher) also
has many advantages. Here, activities can be either individual (perhaps timed in
exam classes) or collaborative. Individual writing tasks change the atmosphere of
the room, quietening it down, encouraging more intense concentration. When
students are writing on their own the teacher can go round helping those who are
having difficulty. Collaborative writing is just as effective in a different way. Students
can write stories in groups, design advertisements, make up news bulletins or write
scenes to be acted out. Each student can contribute to the process; each can learn
from the others. It is especially useful if they can crowd round a computer screen
using a word processor, since changing text and making corrections is much more
immediate and interesting. Collaborative writing tasks not only encourage cooperation - which is in itself motivating - but by involving more than one student in

the task they allow individuals to benefit from the insights and enthusiasms of
others.
What happens when writing has finished?
The correction of students work is an important part of a teachers job. The majority
of homework is written and the ways we assign it, mark it and return it are of vital
importance. One of the things that irritates students most (quite rightly) is when
teachers insist on the prompt delivery of homework but then take weeks to return it.
Another thing that can be very demotivating is to get homework back completely
covered in corrections. It is important, therefore, to return students work within a
reasonable time period, and to consider carefully how you are going to deal with the
mistakes you find. Some teachers use written codes (V for vocabulary, Sp for
spelling, G for grammar, etc.). They put a small mark under the word or phrase and
then write the code letter in the margin. Students then know what to look for when
they come to re-write their material. Another option is to tell students that you are
only going to correct one particular aspect of writing (e.g. spelling, paragraph
construction or the use of verb tenses). This has the advantage of focusing their
efforts - while ensuring that their work will not be over-corrected. Some writing, of
course, shouldnt be too heavily corrected, anyway. When you encourage students
to write creatively, it is important to respond to what they write just as much as to
how they write it. Students appreciate a response to their ideas, not just their
language. When you give back written work it is important to give students time to
investigate the reasons for mistakes and, where appropriate, to re-write their work.
Key points
Make sure that:

students have a chance to study the construction and conventions of writing.


students are given chances to write creatively, thus activating their knowledge.
some writing is done as homework, some is done individually in class and some is done collaboratively.
you hand back students work as promptly as you ask them to hand it in.
you dont always correct in the same way, and that the way you correct is appropriate for the writing task.