March 2013
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INTEREST AND AUTONOMY IN EFL WRITING CLASSROOMS
Melanie Rockenhaus, Scuola Normale Superiore, Pisa, Italy

Learning to write competently is one of the most difficult tasks for foreign language learners to master and for their teachers to foster. Some of the challenges faced by student EFL writers include their personal first language (L1) writing background and current English language proficiency, their knowledge of and motivation around the topic and their skills in planning, drafting and revising their own writing (Harmer, 2004; Hyland, 2002). These multifaceted and complex challenges may overwhelm EFL learners, who can easily become frustrated both by the difficulty of the tasks and by their perceived lack of autonomous progress. They may likewise be bored by topics they perceive as repetitive or meaningless. Teachers may feel discouraged by their inability to help learners become more independent (Hess, 2001). It is important, however, for EFL students to understand that writing in English will be vital for them both academically and professionally and that learning to do it well is worth the trouble. There are a number of practical classroom activities that support learners and instructors alike during this long-term process of learning to write well in English. These activities can be grouped into two large categories: making content interesting and training students to become autonomous in planning, drafting, and revising their writing. This short article explains and exemplifies a few real-world examples from both categories of activities that EFL instructors can use to help students learn to write in university and professional contexts.

Making Writing Interesting

Practical suggestions for making the content of writing projects more interesting for students range from completing dictated sentences or topics from a hat, to describing pictures or objects, to reacting to music (Harmer, 2004). Whereas Harmer (2004) limits his use of music to having learners describe the story a composer is telling or evoking, Duran and Smith (2012) go further, using music to help student writers understand by analogy how important structure is to writing. Learners listen to three different pieces and react briefly to each in writing. The first piece is nonmelodic, the second simply melodic, and the third both melodic and orchestral. Duran and Smith report that by the end of this activity, students understand that musical melody and orchestral arrangement are analogous to structure and exemplification in writing and thus write with greater precision. Suggestions for larger classes include using email, chat rooms or blogs, a classroom wall newspaper or writing in groups (Hess, 2001). Harmer also advocates for more realism in practice exam writing tasks for EFL students, as do Chojnacka and Salski (2011). These latter chose to have EFL students in Poland write Urgent Action Letters for Amnesty International, and report enthusiastic student response.

In my own EFL classes, I have used many of these suggestions to augment student interest in writing. Controlled tasks such as dictation, dictation completion, and describing objects are very helpful at lower levels, where students must necessarily learn vocabulary and the basic morphology of sentences in English. Writing in a foreign language is very challenging but extremely gratifying and stimulating for EFL students at this level, and these controlled tasks provide them with a place to spread their wings safely. Writing in small groups, instead, can be usefully employed to help intermediate-level EFL students learn from each other while coming to terms with common structures of the English paragraph. For example, I often set a topic, and each student in a group of three or four is responsible for his or her part of a paragraph: introductory topic sentence, informational center with supporting details, concluding sentence. Students then have to work in their groups to combine these sentences and adjust them into a coherent whole. The necessary negotiation and collaborative work it takes to adapt their individual parts into a logical paragraph helps students understand what is expected of them when they have to write alone. Finally, students regularly correspond with me by email, which gives these EFL students real-life practice in how to address, request, inform, and take written leave of a professor in English. For almost all of them, it is the first time they have had to write an authentic email to a professor in English; in EFL contexts correspondence is often held in the local language. My students have told me that it is daunting but well worth the trouble, because writing polite emails or blog or wiki posts in English will continue to be an integral part of their university and professional lives.

Material from students’ lives can be used to create authentic topics for essays, and I regularly do this with my intermediate to advanced groups and in particular with my exam preparation classes. These topics include opinion pieces about temporary campus art installations or local current events, about the perceived value of their future university degree compared to that of another university, and about local or national political and cultural figures. If the instructor takes care to mimic the wording of the tasks and the grading rubric of the external language exam the students will sit, such as the IELTS, these tasks can provide useful exam writing experience. At the same time, student EFL writers preparing for exams truly enjoy these activities, as they report that exam writing preparation topics can often seem repetitive and unrealistic. Students have also written action letters, in our case to both the Italian prime minister and the president of the United States, urging these leaders to take action on whatever issue the student writer deemed most important. These letters have proven to be very engaging for EFL students, and even if no response was ever received from the leaders involved, the letters were subsequently published on the English language area of our university website. Much to the students’ gratification, the letters received widespread attention from students and faculty, as well as the compliments of our university president.

Training EFL Students in Autonomy in Writing

All writers need to plan, draft, and revise their writing, and EFL writers need to be taught these abilities explicitly then encouraged to use them autonomously (Hyland, 2002). Each of these skills will be considered separately below, along with activities to encourage their autonomous use in the EFL classroom.

Looking first at planning, both Hess (2001) and Harmer (2004) offer a number of practical suggestions students can use, such as taking notes, discussing in groups, mind mapping, brainstorming, and outlining. I often work on the first two of these together, explaining to students that research and note taking followed by peer discussion is a regular part of all academic and professional work. The only caveat for this activity is to limit student recourse to Internet sources alone. To do this, I introduce these planning techniques around topics like those mentioned above, related to students’ personal lives or action requests to leaders. A topic is assigned for homework, students arrive with their research notes, and small-group discussions takes place. Note-taking skills are further reinforced by reserving the right to assign group spokespersons on the spot when each group presents a summary of the discussion to the class. Student engagement with these activities is routinely very high, which encourage students to develop their independent note-taking and idea-swapping skills.

Because students will find themselves alone in an exam room (Harmer, 2004), I dedicate class time to familiarizing students with techniques such as mind mapping, brainstorming, and outlining to train them in autonomy for this sort of planning. Once the techniques have been demonstrated, it is important to allow students sufficient practice time with each. One successful activity I use to do this is to have students divide a page into four quadrants and explain to them that they are going to use each quarter of the page for a different topic. I read out a topic and give students 60 seconds to jot down ideas using whichever technique they feel most comfortable with. At the end of the four 1-minute planning sessions, partners compare their notes on each topic. This method allows learners to not only swap their ideas and knowledge but also to compare the relative effectiveness of each technique. Students have reported to me that although they had been introduced to these planning methods during high school, they had not had much practice with them, so they were pleased with the opportunity to experiment. The activity requires very little time and can be repeated at different moments throughout the academic session to increase student preparedness in planning even in stressful exam situations.

Moving on to training students to draft autonomously, drafting is by its nature recursive (Hyland, 2002), and Harmer (2004) suggests training students to consider drafting and redrafting as a regular part of writing. To demonstrate this to students, and help them learn to draft continuously and independently, I have students draft each paragraph separately the first time they write an essay, then swap with a partner and compare, then redraft. Limited class time can be conserved by assigning the drafting and redrafting for homework, so that only the swapping and comparison are done in class. The most important warning at this stage is to monitor very carefully what is being corrected by the student writers. In my EFL classrooms, I request students write very explicit notes in the margins of their paragraphs while comparing and discussing, then I collect all papers and set a related reading assignment with questions to answer alone or in pairs. During this classroom hiatus, I very rapidly check through students’ work and comments, correcting and making notes for the students as necessary. The writing is then returned to the students, any doubts or questions are answered in class, and the redraft assigned for homework. Students are required to turn in their original paragraph with partner and teacher comments along with their redrafted paragraph, and this final redraft is marked for a small grade. In this way the EFL students have the practice they too often lack in the importance and mechanisms of drafting. In my classes, I have found that one session is sufficient, but the process could efficiently be repeated for additional writing assignments should it be needed.

The most difficult strategies to foster, instead, are those of independence in revising, and perhaps for this reason it is the area of teaching writing most commonly skimmed over in the EFL classroom (Harmer, 2004). Furthermore, there is no consensus on which type of corrective feedback is most effective in training students toward autonomy in revision. Corrective feedback can range from either direct, where the teacher directly corrects and reformulates the student error, to indirect, where the teacher uses symbols to indicate a mistake without correcting it (for a literature review, see Storch & Wigglesworth, 2010). My own classroom experimentation has led me to believe that moving from direct toward indirect corrective feedback is the best way to guide students to revise independently. Gradually providing a decreasing amount of reformulation or direct feedback, replacing it with indirect feedback, seems to provide the most satisfying and productive learning experience for students. Explaining this more explicitly, in the first assignment I offer direct comments and corrections on each student paper. These become brief marginal signals/comments on second assignments and only quick color-coded highlighting (green for grammatical errors, yellow for lexical imprecision, light blue for word order) for the third and fourth papers. Students achieving less than a passing grade on their writing assignments may rewrite for a partial increase in results, and most students are interested in trying. Because the corrective feedback becomes increasingly less direct, however, students are pushed to understand and correct their mistakes independently in order to achieve a higher mark. I have used this system for some years now, and learners report that the autonomy they were forced to achieve has given them a head start over other EFL writers during both external language exams and undergraduate and graduate courses carried out in English.

Considering that students are increasingly digital natives, teachers may want to consider giving corrective feedback using audio or video. Screen capture software such as Jing or Camtasia, or recording and editing software such as Audacity, can be used to prepare both direct and indirect feedback. Free versions of these software programs and their user manuals can be found online and are easily learned and utilized. More and more research is currently being done on the efficacy of this type of feedback in terms of student uptake and autonomy (see Mitchell, 2012); my experience so far is that it most definitely increases teacher interest during the preparation of both direct and indirect feedback while decreasing overall time spent on each student assignment.

Conclusion

Writing in English can seem to be an isolated activity requested only in language classes or on exams, but the reality is that for most learners today English will remain a regular part of their lives at university and beyond. We can help EFL students overcome their potential frustration and boredom and foster their will to constantly improve by ensuring that the content of the writing during their courses is of a nature that creates enthusiasm or at least authentic interest in the learners. We can also increase learners’ chances of continual development throughout their lives of English writing by training them in autonomy in planning, drafting, and revising their work. All of the activities outlined above contribute to help EFL students understand that writing in English is and will continue to be a necessary part of their lives while encouraging them to strive to do it well and take responsibility for their own writing improvement.

References

Chojnacka, K., & Salski, L. (2011). Authentic writing in the (foreign language) classroom—Contradictory or doable? In J. Majer & L. Salski (Eds.), FLOW: Foreign language opportunities in writing. 225-231. Lodz: Lodz University Press

Duran, P., & Smith, E. (2012, November). Writing academically for student success. Workshop presented at TESOL-Italy, 37th National Convention, Rome, Italy.

Harmer, J. (2004). How to teach writing. Harlow, England: Pearson Education.

Hess, N. (2001). Teaching large multilevel classes. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Hyland, K. (2002). Teaching and researching writing. Harlow, England: Pearson Education.

Mitchell, K. (2012). Screencast feedback on writing: Comments students can see and hear. Retrieved from https://calico.org/conference/PreviousConferences/2012NotreDame/Mitchell.pdf

Storch, N., & Wigglesworth, G. (2010). Learners’ processing, uptake, and retention of corrective feedback on writing. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 32, 303–334.


An English teacher with more than 25 years of experience, Melanie Rockenhaus is currently English language expert at the Scuola Normale Superiore, in Pisa, Italy, where she teaches English language classes for undergraduate and graduate students and prepares students for external examinations.

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