Thursday, July 04, 2013

Motivating GE Students to Write: an #AusELT chat summary 6 June 2013

Photo credit: Denise Krebs

The topic chosen for the #AusELT chat on 6 June 2013 was Motivating GE Students to Write.

@Eslkazzyb suggested the topic on the #AusELT Facebook group and the discussion started there - demonstrating the wonderful cross-platform nature of our 'community'!  I've incorporated some of the comments made on FB into the chat summary as it really is the same conversation.

What is General English (GE)?
I think I may have been the only one in the conversation who wasn't sure what was meant by GE, even when I was told it was 'General English'.  It seems to be a term used in ELICOS for classes focused on English for General communication purposes, using a grammar-based syllabus, integrated skills, familiar topics, appeals to range of visa types and students.  @Penultimate_K mentioned that "It's what they do when they aren't doing IELTS" making me think that it is anything that isn't a specialised English class, that is English for academic, business, etc.

See the English Australia FAQs page for a more detailed explanation of ELCOS and GE.

How does writing fit into this picture?  What is the problem?

One of the problems seems to be the concept of 'general', as @jo_cummins put it "Often they don't like the whole concept of 'general' - which is why we call it 'IE' = intensive English."

The problem seems to be a mix of...

Learner needs and preferences:
GE students have different needs and expectations, and within a class these will differ.
Writing doesn't seem to fit in for some students depending on their needs/goals. Some students really can't see the point of improving their written English skills.

I find that many students don't like doing writing in class and would often rather just spend the whole lesson speaking and discussing, but they recognise that they need to work on writing and are quite motivated.

@Romi_el felt that the student’s disinterest might coms from the fact that GE writing covers a broad array of English topics and is often not seen as focused on specific topics? IELTS students on the other hand take it seriously perhaps due to the extra focused and limited styles of writing that IELTS students are required to perfect for the test? While GE students have no clear goal other than what they have in the course book (more on coursebooks below).
  • Writing may seem more formal: essay, reports etc and not everyday writing like emails, texts etc.
  • And in a class you'll have some who need to write reports at work & others that short informal texts is enough
  • Student preference for speaking 
  • Lots of obvious models for speaking English (in film, TV, music) fewer for writing
    Students who don't think they need writing skills in English - chefs, tradies, etc!
    @TomTesol recipes, job aps, cover letters...?
  • Plus the perception that time is being 'wasted' and that writing can be 'done at home' (also for teachers?)
Coursebooks and Teachers
I've grouped these together, as it seemed that the issues we're intertwined in most teachers' minds.

A few teachers felt that the coursebooks were part of the problem, in not having much writing focus or tagging writing on at end of unit as 'extension' or similar where it is easy to ignore.

Someone even suggested that a key problem with most GE coursebooks is often that NONE of the macro skills are addressed in a substantial way - something for a future #AusELT chat perhaps?

@SophiaKhan4 summed it up nicely with this tweet: "That's the issue with grammar-based coursebooks, the natural communicative purpose of a genre is lacking". (More on this later). For many teachers, writing doesn't really seem to fit in - greater emphasis on grammar and speaking. Even in a grammar-based curriculum, it seems to me that the grammar still has to be in a context, and isn't that where the writing fits in?  But @ElkySmith felt that for many teachers, it's where the speaking fits in ;-)

Often the tasks provided in coursebooks fail because the context can be non-Australian and if teacher just does them for the sake of time and often tends to be writing for reinforcement rather than any communicative purpose.
Many teachers and students seem to see writing as a 'passive' (silent) skill rather than a productive, communicative one, and/or that it is boring and should only be set as homework if at all. 
This silence could be a key: heads down work can sometimes be scary for teachers - they're not sure if they're being useful so prefer to get students talking! And also in GE, maybe a silent class is viewed as not good, while a communicative (noisy) class is great.

Crowded syllabus - more integration?
Perhaps the problem is that we're trying to fit too much in - into a crowded syllabus?  Is it unnecessarily crowded, or just not focussing on students' needs?  A well integrated syllabus: achieving communicative purposes with a range of skills; and covering a genre in all macroskills, might alleviate the problem.

Error correction and Feedback
There was a significant sub-theme running through the chat on handling correction of errors and feedback to students.
A big difference in motivation can be whether the teacher uses a correction key or corrects the work for them...students being put off writing because of the way it is often assessed (red ink, errors indicated)  (@Penultimate_K)
One thread concerned some form of peer or whole class correction. Since students seem to find errors in their peer's writing but not in their own, that could be a good place to start and this could be done as class activity, perhaps using @forstersensei's suggestion of a  'grass skirts' activity... and instead of Qs, put student errors for them to correct.

Some suggestions:
  • using different colour pens
  • using correction codes - students can see their progression (mistakes) and this can be useful
  • encouraging rewrites
  • talking through the text - either face-to-face or via screencasts
  • focussing on specific points when giving feedback - grammar point, structure or vocabulary, whatever you think they need
It would seem that teachers need a variety of approaches and flexibility is the key:
I try to negotiate a different error correction strategy with mine... @TomTesol
... use whatever key unlocks each student! @cioccas 
So... what are the solutions?

@Eslkazzyb felt we really do our students a disservice if we do not provide enough opportunity to write. Like spoken production, written production provides an important opportunity for students to notice the gaps in their language/skill base (Swain output hypothesis). It is possible to create communicative and fun opportunities for classroom writing - we just need to be creative.

Authentic and Relevant
No surprises that the chat participants felt that writing tasks we give our students need to be authentic, have a purpose and be relevant to their interests and needs.  For example, to address the problem with coursebooks text, taking the textbook ideas 'off the page' and make them more relevant to students' lives.
@ElkySmith Authenticity, as always, is the key - perhaps why social media might be more appealing to many Ss when writing?
There were suggestions that using social media could be a way to engage students in authentic tasks, but this came with a caution that it must still have a purpose which matches students' needs, and comment that it can be hard to get students using social media for writing practice outside class.   Another suggestion was that teachers should be looking at when students do write and utilising it.

@TomTesol shared this idea combining an authentic task with social media use:
Mine are blogging to tell me what grade they deserve for the class... persuasive essay... emerged in class
which others agreed was a lovely authentic task that is very relevant for students and has a genuine communicative purpose.

Some other ideas shared:
  • Writing for note taking is effective - Purpose is there!
  • I ask them to write, What I learned today, What I liked today, What I didn't like today (GE4's) to reflect 
  • Collaborative writing
Given our classes in Australia would usually have students from different backgrounds, there is the problem of making the writing tasks relevant to all.  For example, @NailahRokic posed the question of how to get students from different backgrounds to write about wars in exams?

Technology as key?
There were a lot of ideas for motivating students shared using technology: mobile, web-based and more.

Most teachers find that their students are more motivated when using tech:
  • In my experience, set ss task to write post on social media & they do it. Give them writing task on paper, many don't
  • Now doing online writing rather than paper-based. Students enjoy adding photos/images to compositions. Students post on Facebook and comment.
  • ... Facebook statuses, tweets, anything that they might actually use to help them see a purpose
  • We definitely deal more with the screen generation than the page generation
  • Yeah, this semester finally started DOING this stuff with mine -- magic! Started with Twitter, now we're doing much larger written texts, willingly...
Though I still have many students who prefer paper to technology, perhaps because I work more with migrants and refugees, and students of all ages, 18-88!

So, what tech?
  • The technology most students have and use: eg, texting/SMS on mobile phones
  • Email
  • Social media: Twitter, Facebook
  • Blogging
  • Discussion forums
Blogging is popular:
  • … blogging in general has to be one of the most motivating writing activities, no?
@SophiaKhan4 wanted to know what works, or if students see blogging as another hoop, like journals, that can fail if not set up or maintained well. And a few shared interesting examples:
@TomTesol pointed out that his blogging students were "...the same students that started 3 months ago unable to tweet accurately in English."  Prompting @ElkySmith to wonder "Will 'can tweet accurately in English' make it into the CEFR one day? :-)"
I suspect that those teachers participating in the #AusELT chat aren't the ones who need convincing.  If teachers are going to use tech tools and social media these in class then teachers are going to have to get up to speed by using it for themselves. 
  • More teachers will have to learn how to tweet then :-)
And @forstersensei shared this link on Integrating social media in writing 

During the chat, @trylingual posted some images to help us explore some common student complaints about writing in GE:

Yes, teacher. I really want to write another postcard/CV/complaint letter.

Chat participants could empathise with students on this one,  the general feeling that these are usually presented as isolated teacher-centred tasks or pre-determined writing activities with pre-chosen text type, rather than activity that emerges from needs during the lesson. And that they are usually too sterile and pre-planned to be motivating.  Unfortunately, teaching these text-types are sometimes pre-determined by a currculum we have to assess against, but there are ways of making them more relevant - a couple of examples:

I roll my eyes at the thought of having to teach the writing of complaints letters myself, but I did have a success once when I found a weevil in my lunch one day at work.  We turned it into an authentic task and got a real result!  From comments during the chat, I think this demonstrated that to make it authentic you have take it off the page and help students see the point.  Not sure that everyone is going to find a weevil at the appropriate time though.  :-)

And with what I thought was the quote of the night: "And let's not forget how much writing is often produced in a snarky exit evaluation…" (@Penultimate_K)

@TomTesol also shared a good authentic task for writing persuasive essays, that emerged in class : ... "... blogging to tell me what grade they deserve for the class"

Teacher, I don’t how to start.
Giving them a first line helps... 

What about 'Teacher, I don't know how to stop!'? :-)
   'quality not quantity'.... That's what i hammer in my Ss

And prompting what I think was @TESOLatMQ's first mention (of many) of modelling: "My life is devoted to spreading the benefits of modelling and deconstructing texts in ELT :-)) "

Teacher, writing is too hard for me 

Recognition of the vicious cycle of:  students don't like writing because it's difficult because they avoid it so they don't like it!

The feeling here was that students need good model texts, support, modelling, lots of practice, more modelling, and good feedback.  They also need to see that they are learning.

@NailahRokic also mentioned that some of her students didn't seem uninterested in writing, but she noticed how much they struggle not only with language but also in developing the topic itself. She believes that comes from the lack of reading and keeping up with the news.

“Can’t find the words he’s looking for… invents them.”
(Shared by @forstersensei)

MODELLING: The Teaching and Learning Cycle

A framework for modelling texts and supporting students in their writing 
(shared by @TESOLATMQ)

As @michaelegriffin and @TESOLatMQ reminded us, models don't have to be perfect models.   Models can be of all persuasions, so long as they’re making a point about text organisation and specific language features. Even "bad models" are good: students can find problems and ways to improve on them.

What is your fail safe writing task that always gets good writing from your students?
  • Newspaper personal ads. Use real ad costs. Nothing like $$$ to make you think about expanding/contracting the ad.
  • Students write a tweet, then a Facebook message, then a blog on same topic. Like opposite of 3-2-1 speaking activity.
  • A debate in class, then they have lots of ideas to start writing and can't say they don't have an opinion!
  • Think of two of your favourite characters from different books/films/shows and describe them meeting.
  • Students write a 'critical comment' after watching a video, foreign correspondent, TED, then try to get it published on the site.
  • Read biographies of famous people, then ask students to say what they are famous for in this class (the only one who…) .. then write their own biography.
  • Workshop different students' writing each week, help them improve, they love it
  • This one has worked a treat after an excursion: Writing a news report 

What are some common writing tasks that FAIL and how do you FIX them?
FAIL=do not motivate the students, FIX=adapt 

  • is often in theme or context.
  • tasks with a language focus rather than a communicative focus.
  • tasks with no models.
  • lack of preparation for sudents (pre writing) - their focus is on word limits etc
  • often the ones provided in coursebooks fail:
  •      when context is non-Australian
  •      if the teacher just does them for the sake of time and/or not enthusiastic about task
  •      if writing for reinforcement rather than any communicative purpose
FIXes (for many of the above):
  • make more relevant tasks; or make the task more relevant
  • personalising as much as possible to the students in front of you.
  • you write while they write. You produce the model andthey can see how close theirs matches yours.

What are the key ingredients in a GE class to motivate students to write:

Authenticity was mentioned again - both authentic purpose and authentic audience. 
What is an authentic audience?
  • A responsive one.  
  • Someone who is actually going to read the text and be interested in it (vs T who's just going to cover it in red ink!)
  • Someone who needs to read it in English for a communicative purpose
  • @jo_cummins shared her recent blog post on the importance of audience for writing:
    Is anybody out there? The importance of audience for student writing
Other ingredients:
  • Students should believe what they are doing is useful/something they want to write
  • Personal purpose, meeting student needs
  • Validity
  • Modelling, using model texts, 
  • Scaffolding
  • Constructive feedback
  • Communicative purpose

And we finished the chat with these words of wisdom:

What are your most motivating words to get GE students writing?
  • Write the kind of thing you would like to read.
  • Writing helps improve your speaking, grammar, vocabulary and reading!
  • We're born to speak and listen, not to read and write - it doesn't come naturally, even in L1 - it takes time and practice!

Using augmented-reality-based mobile learning material in EFL English composition: An exploratory case study by Pei-Hsun Emma Liu and Ming-Kuan Tsai in British Journal of Educational Technology  Vol 44 No 1 2013

Grass skirts revision race on British Council/BBC Teaching English site (recommended by @forstersensei)

Check out writing worksheets if you need ideas and activities. (recommended by @forstersensei)

Can Web 2.0 technology assist collegestudents in learning English writing? Integrating Facebook and peer assessment with blended learning by Ru-Chu Shih in Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 2011, 27(Special issue, 5), 829-845. (recommended by @forstersensei)

A framework for modelling texts andsupporting students in their writing (shared by @TESOLatMQ)

Creativities: Creative writing activities and ideas for the EFL/ESL classroom
@jo_cummins' blog (recommended by @SophiaKhan4)
Including her recent blog post on the importance of audience for writing:
Is anybody out there? The importance of audience for student writing

Developing writing skills: a news report on British Council/BBC Teaching English site
(recommended by @cioccas)

Thanks to @trylingual for excellent moderation of the chat and the terrific images.
Check out if you want to make your own motivational posters for your GE writers.

For more (and there is more!) and for sources of quotes, see the Transcript of #AusELT chat on Motivating GE students to Write and the brief discussion on the #AusELT Facebook group (scroll down to May 27 for this thread).