A Journal of Teaching English Language and Literature

ISSN Print : 2229-6557, Online: 2394-9244

Teaching Writing to Second/Foreign Language Learners: Writing Skills, Learners’ Problems and How to Deal With Them

S.C. Sood

Introduction

We can look at teaching-learning of second language (L2) writing under two broad headings—one, learning to write, and two writing to communicate. Learning to write involves learning early writing skills. Writing to communicate requires going beyond mechanical copying or early writing skills. It requires learners to use the target language to think and to write something on their own so as to communicate with the readers who may be absent. In this paper, I will focus on writing to communicate.

Writing to communicate poses problems not only for second/foreign language (SL/FL) learners but also for first language (L1) learners, because writing to communicate is both a language and a writing problem (Myles, 2002). Widdowson (1984) also points out that the difficulty in writing to communicate is not in the linguistic medium only, but in the communicative mode as well. Written communication, he observes, is an interactive process of negotiation. It is interactive in that there is constant interaction between the writer and the reader but, unlike face-to-face interaction, this interaction in writing is conducted by the writer himself by enacting the roles of both participants—the writer as well as the reader. This poses a great problem for learners, both in SL/FL learning situations and also in L1 learning classrooms.  Hence the aim of the teacher is to teach both writing skills and language proficiency.

Let us first look at what experienced teachers think these writing skills are. Next, we will try to highlight learners’ problems as identified by teachers of writing and also what needs to be learnt/taught. I will then point out the different approaches/methods of teaching writing and how these are practised. By presenting the topic succinctly for the benefit of a non-specialist classroom teacher, I hope to be able to help L2/FL teachers teach writing effectively at different levels in their classrooms. 

Effective Writing Skills

Effective writing skills and some of the approaches to teaching these skills and strategies were described by this writer (Fortell, 11, May 2007) and Khurana(2013) - and I briefly mention them here once again even at the cost of some repetition as these are relevant to the topic and also because little more has been said on the subject since.

Experienced teachers and L2 writing skills testers such as Cambridge IELTS cite two main areas for teaching, testing and evaluating writing both with regard to writing skills and improving L2 proficiency. These areas are: (1) Writing task-related skills, and (2) writing language-related skills. These also help us to work out learners’ problems in these areas.  Literature on the subject has given us different methods and approaches on how to teach writing skills in FL/L2 context. All these have been covered in some detail in both the articles referred to earlier.

To briefly recall what we said: task related skills involve task completion, task format, and tone and style. They also require the writer to organize the task in the format appropriate for task completion using suitable linkers, backward and forward references, and adequate paragraphing to show logical development of ideas.

In other words, task completion requires learners to make the purpose of writing clear, to use relevant and adequate ideas, to use appropriate text type and in the case of letters, appropriate tone and style as required by the relationship between the addresser and the addressee. It also requires awareness of different text types, text organization and rhetorical structures.  Relevant and adequate ideas would require knowledge of the topic as well as background knowledge to complete the task. The different text types include paragraphs, essays, letters, notices, memorandums, proposals, reports, articles, research papers, and so on. Different kinds of text organizations refers to descriptive, narrative, argumentative and expository texts. Again, these texts can be structured in different rhetorical structures such as classification or listing type, problem to solution type, advantages-disadvantages type, comparison/contrast type and so on. An expert writer has the ability to communicate effectively using these different types of written texts. The job of the teacher is to help his/her learners attain this ability.

Language related skills require the learners to show language proficiency; but what exactly do we mean by language proficiency. Language proficiency refers to the use of words and expressions appropriate to the given task; an awareness of word formation, style and collocation in the selection and use of words and expressions; accuracy of spellings; the ability to use a wide variety of grammatically correct sentence structures as density of errors in this area makes communication difficult; and use of important punctuation marks to make meaning clear.

The above two articles (by Sood and Khurana) also deal with learners’ problems in these two areas (writing task-related area, and writing language-related area) such as inadequate and irrelevant ideas; misunderstanding of the topic; partial task completion; lop-sided task development. The articles also describe learners’ problems in language areas – both vocabulary and grammar. Among other reasons, these could be attributed to a lack of time, slow writing speed, anxiety and fear and lack of motivation. However, besides these, socio-cultural factors can also be the cause.  All these factors have to be kept in mind by teachers when teaching and testing writing skills. Format, text organization, rhetorical organizations, and tone and style have to be taught. Tone and styles is particularly problematic for FL/SL learners, where not much is taught about distinction between formal and informal varieties of English.

The teacher’s job is to help L2/FL learners to think of ideas on the topic and teach them how these ideas can be presented using appropriate language to show logical development. Highlighting the importance of L2 writing to motivate learners and creating an anxiety-free environment would further facilitate learning.

Let us now look at two practices that I have found useful in FL/L2 teaching context; the first is a variant of the process approach and the second is genre-based language teaching. In the first, I will study how a four-skill integrated approach to language teaching is implemented in two stages. I hope that others may also want to give it a try.      

Stage 1 (Pre-writing activities)

  • The teacher displays the topic on which students are expected to write, making sure that the topic is stated as precisely as possible to avoid any ambiguity.  
  • S/he asks the students to first attempt the topic individually and put down in their notebooks as many ideas as they can think of on the given topic.
  • The students are advised to put down their ideas in “notes” form and not in full sentences. They are also told that they do not have to worry about the order of their ideas at this stage.
  • In the next step, learners are given relevant ideas on the given topic through listening, and reading activities. They are allowed to browse on the internet, and/or visit a library to use materials from books, journals, newspapers, and so on. The purpose is to get them to brainstorm, invoke their background knowledge, or give them enough and relevant ideas on the topic. Incidentally, this pre-writing activity also helps remove their linguistic difficulties, if any. 

Once the students have gathered their ideas, they are divided into pairs or groups and asked to share the ideas with their peers. For this, the teacher follows the steps given in stage II.

Stage II:  Group Work (While-writing activities)

  • The class is now divided into groups as convenient. 
  • Each group is advised to select a group leader and a secretary/reporter.
  • Next they are advised to share and discuss their ideas within their group and finalize their main points on the topic. It is the duty of the group leader to give an opportunity to all the members of the group to participate in this activity. One of the members or the reporter can draw up a list of all the ideas that the group finally decides to include. Further steps for each group involve:

i)   Re-ordering ideas: Decide the order in which the group would like to present their ideas keeping in mind the audience and the purpose of writing. The ideas taken down in note form can now be rearranged in the order decided.

ii)  Expanding ideas: Expand on these ideas by using the various options available and prepare a first draft. 

iii)  Seeking comments: Exchange the draft with other groups to get their views and comments.

iv) Editing and finalizing the draft: In light of the comments and feedback received, revise the first draft adding, deleting, modifying and rearranging ideas if necessary. At this stage, the group must pay attention to editing (attending to vocabulary, spellings, sentence structure, grammar and mechanics of writing).

v)  Handing in the composition:  The write-up is now ready to be handed in to the teacher.

The Role of the Teacher

Throughout this writing process, the teacher plays a complex role. He/she has to create in the classroom conditions conducive to learning, act as manager of the learning process, guide and even participate by moving from group to group prompting and helping learners move in the right direction.

The teacher must change group formation if he/she finds that the same set of students is always getting together in the same group. In such situations, if left to themselves, students tend to form groups on the basis of friendship, ability level, gender, and so on. It is therefore desirable to move away from this tendency and use the resource of the brilliant students in the class to lead the less intelligent ones, and thus also help students to mix with each other in the class. The teacher has to be careful and see that

  • No student dominates the group, and also no one hides himself/herself  behind the group activity;
  • All students are given a chance to participate in the group activity;
  • The group arrives at decisions through discussion;
  • The group conducts its discussion in the target language though some use of L1 may be accepted initially;

-  The noise level is kept as low as possible so that other groups and classes are not disturbed.

Writing teachers agree that intervention during the writing process—thinking, taking down ideas, arranging ideas and making drafts—helps student writers to improve their writing skills. Moreover, competence in the composing process is more important than linguistic competence. Grammatical errors, it is true, are much less disturbing to content than the perceived lack of maturity of thought and of rhetorical style

Stage III (Post-writing activities)     

Some teachers believe that once student groups have produced compositions using the process approach, these pieces can be put up on the board or the walls for other groups to read. But I firmly believe that the compositions produced by the student groups may have some problems here and there, and may need to be further remedied by the teacher’s intervention. Reading, discussing and analyzing these pieces of compositions produced by each group can be a good method of providing feedback and teaching writing to learners as shown by Khurana (2013).

Genre-Based Language Teaching or Writing for Specific Purposes (Academic/Occupational/Professional)

I will now turn to what is called writing for specific purposes. The process approach to teaching writing has not been without its critics. Let us examine in brief what English for Specific Purposes—English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and genre-based writing—tells us about the process approach.

This approach criticizes the Process Approach on various counts. It is pointed out (Sylvia, 1990) that the Process Approach does not consider variations in the writing processes due to differences in individuals, writing tasks and situations; the development of schemata for academic discourse; language proficiency, level of cognitive development and insights from the study of contrastive rhetoric.  It also does not tell the learners how to structure their writing while attempting different types of text types. Furthermore, it

  • aims to prepare students for academic writing;
  • shifts the focus from the writer to the reader (who is this reader has been a topic of debate)
  • maintains that among the three possible readersi, the reader in this approach is a seasoned member of an academic discourse community;

The alternative that this approach proposes involves a focus on academic discourse genres and the range and nature of the academic writing tasks. It aims to help socializeii the students into the academic context and thus to ensure that the students’ writing falls within the range of acceptable writing behaviour, as dictated by the academic community. In other words, this method brings us back to the importance of the format, and the manner of presentation or the product of writing. Students must therefore learn how to present academic writings such as reports of surveys, book reviews, articles for journals, research proposals, research dissertations, thesis, critical articles, book reviews, research proposals and research findings. All these have a certain format, which the academic community expects the students to follow. As I have said earlier, format does not mean simply the layout, but what is called the “text type”, the use of lexis, language register, matter and manner of communication used in that text type.

The English for Academic Purposes approach emphasizes on the product or the format. Therefore, it becomes necessary for teachers to make their students familiar with and practice different text organizations and text types. This includes various forms of written tasks that students often have to perform either in their academic or in their professional lives. 

Conclusion

In my article, I have described some writing skills that L2/FL learners need to learn as also the problems that learners encounter while learning them. I have also suggested some steps that can be taken to help learners such as adopting the right approach or a combination of two or more approaches. However, approach alone cannot solve all the problems. A concerted and coordinated effort needs to be made to plan the right kind of curriculum (syllabus, teacher training, materials writing, approach and method, and testing and evaluation) keeping in mind the objectives of teaching L2/FL so that even a non-specialized teacher can teach and test writing effectively in the L2/FL context.

i  The three versions are: one, reader/audience created by the writer that conforms to the writer’s text and purposes (expressionists view); two, the prospective reader(s) and writer as interactant; and three, the expert reader, an initiated member of the discourse community.

ii  The social constructionists view writing as a social act that can take place only within and for a specific context and audience (Ann M. Johns, 1990) – an initiated member of the academic community in our case.

References

IELTS Writing Band Descriptors (Public Version).  Retrieved from https://takeielts.britishcouncil.org/sites/default/files/IELTS_task_1_Wr...

Johns, A. M. (1990).  L1 composition theories.  In Barbara Kroll (Ed.). Second language writing: Research insights for the classroom (p.24-36). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Khurana, S. (2013, July 4). Teaching business correspondence: Using learners’ response as feedback for planning re-teaching. Language and Language Teaching Journal, 1(2), p. 38-43

Myles, J.  (2002, September). Second language writing and research: The writing process and error analysis in student texts. Teaching English as a Second Language or Foreign Language, 6 (2).  Retrieved from http://tesl-ej.org/ej22/a1.html

Sood, S. C. (2007, May). Teaching business correspondence. Fortell, 11,  p. 3-6

Sylvia, T. (1990). Second language composition instruction. In Barbara Kroll (Ed.),  Second language writing: Research insights for the classroom.

Widdowson, H. G. (1984). Explorations in applied linguistics 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

 

S. C. Sood was Reader in English Dyal Singh (E) College, D.U. and UNDP Professor in Ethiopia on deputation. He is now a freelance ELT consultant.

scsood@rediffmail.com