How to Teach Writing

Writing in a foreign language can be a pain, yet there are people such as Joseph Conrad and Isak Dinesen who have become great writers and contributed to the literature of their adopted language. This summer I met Stephanie Benson, who came to France from England in her early twenties and has published several detective stories which she wrote in French. How are such people able to master the difficult skill of writing in a language which is not their mother tongue? How is it possible to teach students to write well in a second language?

The examples I have given are people who read, who read for pleasure and who read a great deal. By reading intensively, their minds acquired the grammatical structure of the language. All gifted writers are enthusiastic, voracious readers. This is as just as true of second language acquisition. Self-selected voluntary reading will always be the best way to improve writing skills.

But, you say, my students, whether or not they are readers, have to pass a written exam. How can I help them? When teaching in the lycée, I discovered that I had the reputation among my legacy colleagues of doing a good job of preparing my students for writing tests. This surprised me at first, since I concentrated on oral work more than on writing. So I asked myself what I was doing that was working.

First of all, I did Fluency Writing. Just getting students into the habit of getting words on paper was a big step forward. When they were told that what counted was the number of words rather than the quality, something rather amazing happened. When they stopped worrying about making mistakes, their subconscious took over and started giving them entire phrases to put down. Coming from their subconscious, these phrases were modelled on what they had heard and read. Guess what! Their subconscious was far more grammatical than their conscious minds. In short, once they stopped worrying about making mistakes, they made far fewer mistakes. I had my students do their fluency writing in a notebook, so we could see the progression. It was immediately visible that they were able to write longer and longer texts in the same time, but also their texts were of better quality, more interesting and more grammatically correct. I’ve described Fluency Writing in another post on this blog.

Secondly, my students were preparing for the Baccalaureate exam which required them to write an essay, from 200 to 350 words long. As preparation, I gave them a typical subject and had them do their first draft in class with dictionaries and with me strolling around and helping anyone who asked for help. (I firmly believe that a student always remembers the answer to their own question. We should create as many situations as possible for students to ask questions, knowing that they will remember our answers.) At the end of the hour, I collected their “first drafts”. They were graded only on length. Every student who had written the required number of words had 10/10 points. If they had only written half as many words, they had 5 points. I read their papers, but the only feedback I gave was to underline in GREEN everything that was grammatically acceptable. My colleagues considered undertaking a double correction heroic, but in my first years as a teacher I had seen how little attention students paid to the comments and coded correction marks I had spent many hours on. I spent far more time deciding what to mark and what comments to make than they did reading them. Basically, students want to know what is right and what is wrong. An older and wiser woman, I did this very quickly with a green pen. Why didn’t I use the sacred red pen? Because student minds retain things that are underlined in red. They retain them …. and reproduce them. Haven’t you ever wondered why students keep making the same mistakes over and over? The mistakes that you have been so carefully underlining in red?

When I gave the papers back, students had one week to rewrite them. When I collected them for the second time, I then read them for quality of expression, using the rubric that was given to us by tne Ministry of Education for correcting the Baccalaureate. I printed the rubric and attached it to each paper, so students would understand how I had arrived at a grade, using 20 as a top score. I “edited” the remaining grammatical mistakes, showing them what would have been acceptable, but my comments were all about content, never form.

I remain convinced that my “double correction” went faster than the ordinary system of only seeing the paper once and laboriously correcting and signalling every mistake. My first correction, with the green pen, went very fast because I was merely skimming through, underlining everythng that was acceptable. The second correction went relatively fast too, because most of the errors had been corrected, so I could concentrate on meaning. I required students to return the original draft with the second version, a clean copy. I never allowed them to hand in the first draft with corrections written in the margin. I wanted the “Second Draft” to be a document that was presentable, something they could be proud of. And it was often enlightening to see how they had corrected what was not underlined in green in the original.

This system gave my students confidence and helped them to improve their writing skills. Knowing that the errors in the original draft would not be penalizing seemed to give them liberty to concentrate on meaning and organization, making their papers far more interesting to read.

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