October 2020
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DYNAMIC AND COLLABORATIVE WRITING: MAKING THE ACADEMIC WRITING PROCESS FRIENDLY

Beatriz Erazo, San Pablo Bolivian Catholic University, Bolivia

Some teachers face anxiety and frustration when their EFL/ESL students work on academic writing projects (Gugin, 2014) and fail to produce appropriate paragraphs or essays—imagine what students feel. This feeling is noticeable when students come from educational backgrounds where academic writing is not appropriately taught in their first language (L1). The situation gets worse when English becomes their third language.

Years ago, I taught advanced courses at a binational center, an autonomous institution that offers English instruction while promoting cultural exchange between Bolivia and the United States. Most of my students passed their final exams, even though their writing performance was poor. I had to accept that following the traditional style of writing academic essays (explaining the process, providing examples, and writing several drafts) was unproductive. The students did not know how to use this process effectively, and their essays did not have good quality.

Students needed to learn how to navigate through the different stages of academic writing successfully. Moving from a traditional approach, which focuses on the product, to a process approach (Giridharan & Robson, 2011) is believed to help students to "engage…in the process of writing" (p. 580) by allowing them to work on each stage of the process while getting "feedback for continuous improvement" (p. 580). When students focus on the process, they can find their voice and "become more self-directed" (Giridharan & Robson, 2011, p. 580). Emphasizing the process over the product helps students see this process as a creative activity. It also promotes a feeling of owning the final product, which reduces the levels of frustration that I somewhat perceived in my students' past writing projects. Furthermore, the process approach represents an adequate scaffolding tool.

As described by Akella (2010), the experiential learning cycle has four stages: "concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation" (p. 101); learners have to follow that sequence when entering at any point in the cycle. Based on that principle, I developed a writing project, divided into various stages, named "a thread project." This "thread project" should happen in different sessions as part of the regular classes for 3–7 days (maybe more), depending on the students' needs and level, and the writing genre. Each stage would happen in a different session (a different day, as part of their regular class). Students would first write and subsequently learn about the theory behind the process.

This thread project presents a variation to the academic writing process, including a freewriting stage combined with collaborative work principles. Freewriting helps students improve their writing fluency (Hwang, 2010), which, in my opinion, provides students with confidence as accuracy is revised later in the process.

Laal and Ghodsi (2012) have compiled various authors' opinions regarding the benefits of collaborative learning. According to them, "Student-centered instruction increases students' self-esteem; cooperation reduces anxiety…collaborating learning promotes critical thinking skills and involves students actively in the learning process" (p. 487). They also list other positive aspects, such as providing students with training opportunities to develop "the social skills needed to work cooperatively" while developing "social interaction skills" (p. 488). Therefore, this is an opportunity for students to focus on academic writing while practicing listening, speaking, and reading.

To explain this thread project, I will use writing a fable as an example. The project follows these steps:

Stage 1: Working in groups, students should read and analyze traditional fables, connecting this practice to what they learned in their L1 (activating students' schemata). They should also identify the title, characters, place, time, and moral of each fable. To scaffold this knowledge, students will read or watch videos about modern fables. In the meantime, the teacher encourages critical analysis of the fables, their storyline, and morals.

Stage 2: In new groups of three or four members, students discuss a fable they would create. They first decide on a topic, title, characters, time, and place. All of the team members must agree on these features. As homework, students should draw (not print) something representing everything they have agreed on regarding their fable.

Stage 3: In the next session or next class, to refresh their memories, students describe their assigned drawings to their teammates and make sure they are talking about the elements they decided on. The objective is to reinforce the ideas regarding topic, title, characters, time, and place. Later on, individually, using sticky notes or small pieces of paper, they write as many ideas as possible to write their fable. As a team, they put all their ideas together, keeping the most useful ones, deleting or adding others. They decide on the chronological order of events while moving the sticky notes. To finish the session, students copy their outline and, and as an assignment, they have to improve it.

Stage 4: Students explain the improved versions of their outlines, and the team puts all of them together, giving reasons for the changes they made and creating a final, definitive version of their outline. They divide it into three or four parts, depending on the number of members in each team, and decide who will write what. After studying their part of the outline, the students have 5 minutes to write without stopping or making any corrections. They should focus on writing and covering the outline information, and not on grammar or vocabulary. They may use their L1 if needed. Their assignment for the next session is to correct their piece using the corresponding rubric.

Stage 5: The team now has a peer review activity. Using the same rubric, students work on their classmates' writing pieces, focusing on accuracy, vocabulary, and mechanics. They also have to make sure that each piece follows the outline. For the next session, students improve their pieces based on the feedback received by their peers.

Stage 6: Each team puts all their pieces together, adding the title and the moral. They should work on making it a cohesive, easy-to-read piece. They prepare a copy for the teacher to edit. The teacher decides if the group needs to write one or two more drafts.

Stage 7: Once the teacher has provided appropriate feedback, students are ready to publish their work. This could be by creating a poster containing their drawings, sticky notes, drafts, and the final piece. They could also use Padlet, an online tool, to publish their fable, uploading pictures of the elements they created.

The teacher and students read the fables and vote for their favorite ones. Afterward, students reflect on the process, describing it step-by-step. The teacher explains what academic writing process is (i.e., brainstorming, outlining, writing, editing, and publishing). The students identify which activities belong to each part of the process and share their experiences.

To complete the experiential cycle, the teacher and students should reflect on the process. The students comment on their feelings, what they liked the most, what they have learned, and suggestions on how to improve the process. The following writing projects may follow the same guideline with variations depending on the learning objectives. Accordingly, it is advisable that at first, students work on paragraphs and simple narrations to focus on learning the writing process stages. Afterward, they can move on to descriptions, argumentations, and other more complex genres.

From this experience, students learned some other lessons, including committing to the team, working on self- and peer correction, and listening actively. There are advantages to teachers as well. They are able to promote autonomy, encourage creativity, have fun, and get fewer writing assignments to correct—a great advantage when they have more than 50 students in their class.

Teachers may devote either the entire class period or only the last 20–30 minutes to work on this project. It can also easily be adapted to an online environment using different technological tools. Teachers may use, for example, Zoom for the discussion sessions or text messaging apps to decide on the topic, setting, and plot of the fable. Students may work on Jamboard to brainstorm and outline their ideas, and Google Docs to compose drafts. The teacher can provide feedback during each stage. Students may work in smaller groups until they finally do it individually.

From my perspective and the opinions of some of my students, other advantages may arise from this project, including working in a friendly environment, strengthening friendship among students, and reducing anxiety and frustration.

I would like to conclude with the words of one of my students, who generously permitted me to cite her words:

It is really nice to see (and feel) how everyone is working as a team, listening to the opinions of their classmates, their stories, and their feelings. Something that I really like is when we correct each other, not with the intention of making someone feel bad, it is just for improving together. It feels very good! I like group work!

References

Akella, D. (2010). Learning together: Kolb's experiential theory and its application. Journal of Management & Organization, 16(1), 100–112.

Giridharan, B., & Robson, A. (2011). Identifying gaps in academic writing of ESL students. In Enhancing Learning: Teaching and learning conference 2011 proceedings. Enhancing Learning: Teaching and Learning Conference 2011, Curtin University Sarawak.

Gugin, D. (2014). A paragraph-first approach to the teaching of academic writing. English Teaching Forum, 52(3), 24–29.

Hwang, J. (2010). A case study of the influence of freewriting on writing fluency and confidence of EFL college-level students. Second Language Studies, 28(2), 97–134.

Laal, M., & Ghodsi, S. M. (2012). Benefits of collaborative learning. Procedia-social and behavioral sciences, 31, 486–490.


Beatriz Erazo works at San Pablo Bolivian Catholic University as a professor of English, and at Mayor de San Andres University where she teaches applied linguistics. Her interests involve encouraging motivation, reflective learning-teaching, and critical thinking within the experiential learning framework.
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