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