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Teaching English: Second Language Writing

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Table of contents

  1. Teaching Listening
  2. Providing practice in planning
    Interactive Approach
    The Social Constructionist View

How do writers write? How do their ideas seem to get generated? What happens to these ideas after they are recorded? To what extent do these writers attend to the development and clarification of these ideas? To what extent and at what point during the process do they deal with more mechanical matters?

A number of findings emerged: Planning was not a single phase but a thinking activity to which writers returned again and again during composing.

These writers had individual strategies for “getting into” writing. Some wrote notes, lists, or diagrams, and all of the students spent a good deal of time thinking at the outset, but two of the best writers wrote nothing down until they started the essay.

The writing process was recursive and generative, with students re-reading their work, assessing it, reacting, and moving on. There was an interesting distinction between the poorer writers who seemed to focus on re-reading only smaller chunks of discourse and better writers who sometimes re-read whole paragraphs.

Revising took place throughout the process and generally involved considerable changes: for example, composing something new, deleting sentences, and shifting paragraphs around and sometimes eliminating them.

All of the writers paid attention to surface-level features but the better writers dealt with these at the end of the process. It was the poorer writers who spent time throughout the process changing words and phrases.

Linguistic problems seemed to concern the writers least. The better writers used strategies such as leaving a blank or writing down a word in their first language in order not to be distracted as they developed ideas.

Once ideas had been written down and developed, the writers began to edit for surface- level features such as accuracy in grammar, word choice, spelling and punctuation.

These findings have been supported by many other studies- such as the one of Raimes, who supported Zamel’s (1983) observations on the role of language in the composing process. She suggested that with students who exhibit lack of competence in writing, poor composing competence could be a greater factor in this than poor language competence. She used think- aloud protocols to investigate the writing process and made the following comment on experienced writers:

“They consider purpose and audience. They consult their own background knowledge. They let ideas incubate. They plan as they write, they read back over what they have written. Contrary to what many textbooks advice, writers do not follow a neat sequence of planning, organizing, writing and then revising. For while writer’s product – the finished essay, a story or novel- is presented in lines, the process that produces is not linear at all.”

Teaching Listening

Students can improve their listening skills – and gain valuable language input – through a combination of extensive and intensive listening material and procedures. Listening of both kinds is especially important since it provides the perfect opportunity to hear voices other than the teacher’s, enables students to acquire good speaking habits as a result of the spoken English they absorb, and helps to improve their own pronunciation.

The issues that arise for teachers from insights into what makes a successful writer are whether we can teach strategies for planning, revising, editing, and help students develop a sense of audience.

Process approach tries to provide useful support for student writers. The nature of the support will depend on the kind of learners, for example, their age, background and needs for writing in English. It could be argued that adult learners should already have developed effective writing strategies in their first language.

However, it may well be the case that students have not received the necessary support in their first language and will benefit from a process approach in the English language classroom, whatever their age. Therefore, the principle aim of the process approach is to help students to gain greater control over the cognitive strategies involved in composing. This suggests a number of principles for the teacher to incorporate into the teaching of writing.

One of the hardest tasks in writing is getting started. Even the most fluent writers in their own language need time to generate ideas and to plan what they are going to write about. Students are no different. If we are going to ask them to write anything more substantial than instant writing, we have to give them the opportunities to think. This is especially true for more formal tasks such as narrative writing, offering opposing views on a topic, report writing, formal letters, the design of publicity material such as advertisements and posters. In academic writing, when tutors set assignments, a first step in pedagogy could be to encourage students to work in pairs and arrive at an understanding of the task by questioning and clarifying the meaning of key expressions and selecting the information needed to fulfill the task. Collaboration makes generating ideas more enjoyable and productive.

In the general EFL (English as a Foreign Language) classroom, when tasks are set for practice purposes, the teacher has the responsibility of helping students get their ideas together. White and Arndt (1991) make a useful distinction between guided techniques in which questions are used, and unguided techniques in which students generate ideas by themselves.

Both guided and unguided techniques demonstrate the help that teachers can give as students think out a topic, discover a purpose, and decide on a perspective in the early stages of writing. Notice that these activities show how writing can be stimulated by students working interactively. Such interaction has the value of providing student writers with an audience on whom to test out the selection of content. However, we need to keep in mind the solitary nature of most writing and move students gradually towards the independent position of a writer engaged in real writing tasks.

There are a lot of techniques used in helping students to generate ideas. The “brainstorming technique” is an example of such possible techniques. This generates ideas through individual reflection: these are scribbled down and developed as the mind makes associations.

Providing practice in planning

Given that we know that successful writers plan their writing in very different ways. Many teachers now take the view that the best help they can give is to provide students with ideas for planning in the early stages and to let them take up those that they find individually useful and attractive. At the same time, it is essential to communicate the flexible nature of plans, which ideally should change and be adjusted as writing progresses and generates alternative ideas and structures.

There are lots of ways of helping students to organize their ideas: Through planning in groups, asking strategic questions by the teacher, organizing points in a hierarchy of importance for presentation, highlighting essential information, sequencing given information, and sorting and matching ideas. The advantage of mind maps such as “brainstorming” as a planning strategy for example, particularly for descriptions, is that all the aspects of a topic can be easily seen in relation to each other and possible links between sections of the composition suggest themselves. This can assist with advance planning of the overall text. All of these techniques give initial support for what will eventually be a process undertaken individually.

Helping student-writers to develop a sense of audience is another important task. With less mature writers, who may not have developed a sense of audience in writing in their first language, we can create audiences and build up awareness of the reader. For example, the school can provide an audience with its population of English language learners; for example, class magazines can be published for the wider school community. Within the classroom it is possible for the teacher to set up a pair work.

The ability to speak fluently presupposes not only knowledge of language features, but also the ability to process information and language ‘on the spot.

Several issues arise for any teacher trying to incorporate principles of process writing into his or her professional practice. First, teachers need to provide time for writing in the supported learning environment of the classroom. Many students will benefit from structured tasks, which teach them strategies for planning, drafting, and revision.

Many teachers would argue that setting aside the time needed for feedback, and for the revision of several drafts, is unrealistic, particularly within the constraints of school systems; and particularly where classes are large. With regard to this issue, one compromise is to spend as much time as possible in the early stages for teaching writing and then to encourage independence through out-of- class practice. If it is true that we learn to write through writing, then this suggests the more practice the better.

Therefore, the activity moves away from being just an assignment towards being a more natural exchange of ideas and reflections with the teacher and the rest of the class.

The process approach to writing is not without its critics, and the questions of time and large classes are certainly issues of implementation which any teacher needs to take into account. Another concern relates to students who are preparing for examination. The multiple- draft approach is hardly suitable for testing: a distinction needs to be made between classroom writing aimed at developing efficiency and testing, which aims at demonstrating that efficiency, and for which other strategies are needed. A serious related criticism is that the process approach does not address the realities of life for those students who are working with English writing in academic contexts, where essays have to be produced under time constraints.

The process approach aims to get to the heart of various skills that should be employed when writing.

The writing process is more complex, and the various stages of drafting, reviewing, redrafting and writing, etc., are done in a recursive way: we loop backwards and move forwards between these various stages. Thus, at the editing stage we may feel the need to go back to a pre-writing phase and think again; we may edit bits of our writing as we draft it.

Ron white and Valerie Arndt are keen to stress that “writing is re-writing that revision-seeing with new eyes- has a central role to play in the act of creating text” in their model, process writing is an interrelated set of recursive stages which include:

  • Drafting
  • Structuring (ordering information, experimenting with arrangements, etc.)
  • Reviewing (checking context, connections, assessing impact, editing).
  • Focusing (that is making sure you are getting the message across you want to get across).
  • Generating ideas and evaluation (assessing the draft and/ or subsequent drafts).

One of the disadvantages of getting students to concentrate on the process of writing is that it is time consuming: time to brainstorm ideas or collect them in some other ways; time to draft a piece of writing and then, with the teacher’s help perhaps review it and edit it in various ways before, perhaps, changing the focus, generating more ideas, re-drafting, re-editing and so on.

This cannot be done in fifteen minutes. However, the various stages may well involve discussion, research, language study, and a considerable amount of interaction between teacher and students and between students themselves so that when process writing is handled appropriately it stretches across the whole curriculum.

There are times when process writing is simply not appropriate, because either classroom time is limited, or because we want students to write quickly as part of a communication game, or when working alone, we want them to compose a letter or brief story on the spot.

Much of the previous criticism of the process approach has come from proponents of English for academic purposes orientation, which seems as much a reaction to the process approach as an attempt to construct a new and distinct perspective on ESL composition. One major part of this criticism is that the process approach does not adequately address some central issues in ESL writing. Reid (1984) has suggested that the approach neglects to seriously consider variations in writing processes due to the differences in individuals, writing tasks, and situations; language proficiency; level of cognitive development.

Critics also question whether the process approach realistically prepares students for academic work. According to Horowitz, the approach “creates a classroom situation that bears little resemblance to the situation in which (students’ writing) will eventually be exercised” (p.144). He goes on to suggest that a process orientation ignores certain types of important academic writing tasks( particularly essay exams) and that what he sees as two basic tenets of the process approach- “content determines form” and “good writing is involved writing”- do not necessarily hold true in many academic contexts. In essence, he asserts that the process approach overemphasizes the individual’s psychological functioning and neglects the socio-cultural context, that is, the realities of academia- that, in fact, the process approach operates in a socio-cultural vacuum.

The alternative proposed involves a primary focus on academic discourse genres and the range and nature of academic writing tasks, aimed at helping to socialize the student into the academic context and thus “ensure that student writing falls within the range of acceptable writing behaviors dictated by the academic community”. The suggested instructional methodology aims at recreating the conditions under which actual university writing tasks are done and involves the close examination and analysis of academic discourse formats and writing task specifications; the selection and intensive study of source materials appropriate for a given topic, question, or issue; the evaluation, synthesis and organization of relevant data from these sources; and the presentation of these data in acceptable academic English form.

In brief, from English for academic purposes orientation, writing is the production of prose that will be acceptable at the academic institution, and learning to write is part of becoming socialized to the academic community- finding out what is expected and trying to approximate it. The writer is pragmatic and oriented primarily towards academic success, meeting standards and requirements. The reader is a member of the hosting academic community who has well developed clear and stable views of what is appropriate. The text is more or less conventional response to a particular task type that falls into a recognizable genre. The context is, of course, the academic community and the typical tasks associated with it. While the English for academic purposes approach has gained many adherents, some perceive its emphasis on writing in various disciplines (particularly in scientific and technical fields) as questionable. The critics see a humanities-based approach with a primary focus on general principles of inquiry and rhetoric as more viable and appropriate.

Interactive Approach

Another lesser-known view is the vision of the writer as a person involved in a dialogue with his or her audience. In this approach, text is what an individual creates through a dialogue with another conversant; thus, both the writer and reader take responsibility for coherent text.

Hinds (1987) has provided some useful insights into the writer- reader relationship in various languages, suggesting metaphors for this “middle-of-the-road” view. He refers to English as a “writer-responsible” language, “since the person primarily responsible for effective communication is the writer”. However, “in Japan, perhaps in Korea and certainly in ancient China, there is a different way of looking at the communication process. In Japan, it is the responsibility of the reader to understand what the author intended to say”.

In ESL classes, then, those teachers who take an interactive view can speak of English as “writer- responsible”; student writers must make their topics, their argument, their organization and transitions clear to the reader. Specifically, the writer producing English expository prose should pre-reveal the form of the text (e.g., “the problem to be discussed in the paper…”) and the content (e.g., “…is pollution”) within the first paragraphs of their texts, provide generalizations at appropriate points in the discourse, maintain and develop topics in a manner accessible to the reader.

Other features of “writer-responsible” text include organization of the discourse in a manner familiar to the reader, appropriate use of cohesion, and direct explication of information.

The Social Constructionist View

Another role of the writer appears in the social constructionist literature. Here, the written product is considered as a social act that can take place only within and for a specific context and audience (Coe 1987). For the proponents of the social constructionist views, the language, focus, and form of a text stem from the community for which it is written.

Inspired more than twenty years ago by Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970), social constructionists have argued that “reality, knowledge, thought, facts, texts and so on are constructs generated by communities of like-minded peers”.

Thus, for social constructions, knowledge language and the nature of discourse are determined for the writer by the “discourse community” for whom the writer is producing text.

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Teaching English: Second Language Writing. (2019, April 26). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 27, 2023, from
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