Through this paper, I will trace the journey of a teacher educator’s experiments with authentic materials to teach writing as a process. In the first part of the paper, I will discuss two approaches to teaching writing. In the second part of the paper, I will explore the classroom process of genre based approach to teaching writing, using authentic materials.
Teaching Writing: As a Product or Process?
In middle school classrooms, even today writing is taught as a product and not as a process. What is a process based approach to writing? How is genre study through authentic literature an important principle of this approach? How does one teach writing as a process? Why should we teach writing as a process?
Let us look at the following two classroom vignettes to understand these concepts:
I had known Vidya since a long time. She taught in a small private school in Kasauli. She once invited me to her Friday afternoon writing class in which she had asked children to write a letter of complaint. The students were busy writing when I entered. The class was silent, heads bent over notebooks and pencils scratching on paper. Vidya sat at her desk, assessing the previous week’s test. I asked her what she had done before the students started writing. She said,
Ma’am I wrote a letter on the board and ask them to copy it. This is the sample I have given. They usually memorize it and change the relevant details. I will assess them on this work, so they are so quiet, otherwise they are very naughty.
Later, Vidya collected the notebooks and checked them with the children lining up at her desk. She pointed out the spelling mistakes and problems with the layout and returned their notebooks. I asked her what her next step would be. She said that next they would write other types of letters. She would give one more of this type of letter for homework.
Moving on to Daniel’s classroom in a State Board School in Sirohi, I saw something different happening. He invited me to spend a week in his class. The students were writing about their dreams; just writing, without bothering about language, layouts, correctness, etc. What form their writing would take was to be decided by them whenever they felt ready. In the previous class, Daniel had selected a set of poems on dreams, just for fun. The children had read them, enjoyed them, recited them and discussed and analysed them.
The next day was completely devoted to closely examining some genres of writing. Daniel and the children put up diary entries, letters and advertisements. Children moved around, read them, and discussed them with each other. They had a worksheet to note down relevant points. Later, they compared and analysed them in groups. Daniel had given them a worksheet for textual analysis of different genres. The worksheet contained the following elements: Examine the different kinds of words used by the writer, what are the different kinds of sentences being used, how is the writing structured? I was amazed that the students produced fairly good insights regarding textual differences within genres. The next step was to discuss the intention of the writer and the awareness of the audience regarding each of the genres. For instance, diary entry is a conversation with the self, while a letter is about communicating with clarity. The following day, each student wrote independently, not worrying about formats and layouts, just putting down thoughts. Then, they shared their writings, pairing up with anyone they liked. The write-ups were discussed, and rewritten, two heads bending on one. Daniel walked around the class and sat with the groups, especially those groups that raised a flag asking for his help. How did Daniel help? He did not use a red pen, he did not correct; rather he made suggestions, pointed out the relevant points on the different write-ups on the walls, pulled out earlier work by the same child and showed her how she had now changed, and finally, set goals for change. This went on for two days.
How are these Two Classrooms Different?
Vidya followed a product approach to teaching writing. She gave a model and asked students to keep close to it. She placed a great deal of emphasis on formats, layouts, correctness and spelling.
Figure 1. Product approach
Daniel on the other hand, followed a process approach to teaching writing. His main objective was to help each student to develop a distinctive voice and his/her own writing style. He inspired the students by giving them opportunities for multiple ways of writing. He built confidence by encouraging peer feedback. He encouraged the students to analyse genres, he gave them worksheets for analysis and they did the analysis themselves. He gave them several opportunities to share their insights. Thus they did not copy but reconstructed the process that happened in the mind of the writer and constructed a new work based on that. Figure 2 illustrates the approach that Daniel followed.
An Illustration of Classroom Processes to Demonstrate a Genre Based Process Approach to Writing Using Authentic Materials
A process approach looks at writing as a continuous process. The writer is a creative person whose voice is very important. The cognitive process that happens while writing is more important than spellings, layouts and standards of correctness. Sharing and support throughout the writing process builds language capability. The process gives multiple opportunities to revise and non-threatening expert scaffolding builds the confidence of the writer. The analysis of different genres is an intellectual exercise which builds both cognitive and literary skills. (Hyland, 2007)
In the product approach, memorizing and reproducing a model only satisfies the current need of the writer. The writer is not involved, he/she does not enjoy the writing process and more importantly the write-up is not in his/her own distinctive voice. (British Council, 2016) In order to develop this distinctive voice, the writer needs to write without the strangle hold of being corrected and watched, experiment with words, make mistakes, receive feedback and have multiple opportunities for refining his/her work. This writing process called the CODER has been depicted by Flower and Hayes (1981) as follows.
Figure 2. CODER approach
How Does the CODER Work?
To answer this question, we will look into some classroom processes that I experimented with in my workshops for middle school teachers.
From Analysis of Authentic Materials to Writing Through a Process Approach
Using Newspaper Reports and Advertisements
The process began with the reading of a small extract from a news item on the condition of student hostels. The teachers read the piece which was accompanied by a very touching picture of a student in a hostel. The participants wrote a report about the condition of student hostels. The teachers then did a role play of a press conference with the health commissioner, the hostel manager and a grieved parent. This was followed by participants editing their reports.
The next step was to provide the teachers with an advertisement of the child rights organization, CRY asking for donations. We compared how the report and the advertisement were different in terms of their structure. What was the proportion of fact and opinion in the two? The report had a structure which was as follows: What happened (fact), Where (fact), When? (fact), How (fact) ending with opinion: how can it be avoided etc. An advertisement began with an emotional appeal, a structure of opinion, and opinion ending with facts. The activity ended with a film of a very touching advertisement. After this, the writing of reports and advertisements was easy!
In their reflection and feedback sheets, the participants reflected on why they now believed that authentic materials should be used in the class room for teaching writing. They also outlined a framework for their use in the class room.
Creative Writing with Authentic Materials
The participants were given pictures from newspapers which showed people and things, not prominent figures. There were three times as many pictures as there were participants. The pictures were grouped into bunches of three and distributed among the participants. The three pictures given to each participant were as dissimilar as possible. The participants were asked to create a story using the three pictures and share it with the entire group. After the presentation, there was a discussion on the elements/structure of a story. Many of the stories written by the participants were not stories in the real sense because the element of conflict and character were missing. Some stories were copies of films which had too facile resolutions, too easy a change of heart. There was a discussion around the structure, elements and language of a story. The participants then wrote their stories once again with a lot of sharing and discussion between themselves.
Reflections of the Participants
The participants felt that authentic materials need be used for teaching writing because these materials connect with the real world. They would also help to enrich children’s vocabulary, and enhance creative writing and analytical thinking. They felt that the use of authentic materials along with the process approach creates a complete experience- entertaining and educative. Moreover, both teachers and students would benefit from it as students like interactive activities and they help build higher order thinking. They felt that the children would have an “aha” moment when they are able to decipher what they read outside and connect it to the class room. It would create a continuum of authenticity.
We culled out the following principles for teaching writing as a process using authentic materials.
- Language learning happens when there is an environment of the language around us, we are immersed in the environment of the language which is available in authentic materials around us. We however need someone to help us notice, engage us in doing things with language and also to create opportunities for using the language.
- Languages cannot be learnt by constant correction; mistakes are the stepping stones to language learning.
- We need to be given opportunities for using language while doing things in a continuum with multiple confidence building opportunities.
At the end of the workshop what really made my day was the following letter written to me by one of the participants:
I was fortunate to attend the last session on, “The Effective Use of Authentic Materials in the Classroom”. Today I taught the 7th Graders Report Writing with reference to a newspaper report. It was so effective that it did not take much time for a lengthy explanation. I read each and every line and asked them to distinguish facts and opinions. The structure of the report- introduction, content and solution part was also done in the same way as you did in the workshop. Ma’am the result is amazing. I am really grateful to you for introducing that activity. Like a student, I am eagerly awaiting the next session.
British Council. (2016). Product process writing: A comparison. Retrieved from teachingenglish.org: https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/product-process-writing-a-comparison
Flower, L., & Hayes, J. R. (1981). A cognitive process theory of writing. College Composition and Communication, 3, 365-367.
Hyland, K. (2007). Genre pedagogy: Language, literacy and L2 writing instruction. Journal of Second Language Writing, 16, 148-164.
Nivedita V Bedadur is faculty, at the University Resource Centre of Azim Premji University, Bangalore. She has 29 years of experience in English Language Teaching and teacher training in India and Nepal. She is currently designing courses for teachers and teacher educators in the area of literacy, language teaching and educational psychology.