Last night I did a writing lesson, or at least a lesson working towards the production of a piece of writing. Based on a short video, students watched half, reporting to their partner what was happening, before switching roles. This was followed by a quick review of past tense structures and a writing of a report of what happened from the point of view of the protagonist. Traditionally, of course, the discussion, planning and perhaps drafting of the text might happen in class, with the the final writing taking place for homework, but for this lesson, I chose to use the allow the last twenty minutes, or thereabouts, to ask the students to produce the final written report. This was done more or less in silence.
Setting writing for homework is always problematic. For one, not every student will complete it on time, or hand it in when you want it handed in, meaning that any follow up activity is inevitably stymied. And even for those students who do hand it in straight away, you have no idea how long the students spent on the writing, nor how much help they got from online research, books, or a family member who can write well in English. So how realistic is it as a “pure” measure of their ability?
By bringing the writing into the class you can create all sorts of extra benefits. For one, the “creative” element of the writing process is reduced: students can collaborate on the development of ideas, minimising the amount of “I don’t know what to say.” You can also control the amount of support each student gets. In my lesson, for example, I allowed collaboration and phone/dictionary use all the way up to the final version, but allowed students to decide how much they wanted to collaborate. This produced some interesting results. Some pairs worked very closely, and produced very similar pieces of writing: for these students, the key value was in the collaboration and the discussion. These students received feedback from me and from each other throughout the process, but also spent rather less time on the final draft, concentrating on spelling and punctuation rather than the lexical and grammatical elements. Those pairs who only really collaborated up to the planning stage ended up spending probably about half an hour on the drafting and writing up stages, and as a result, received less peer and teacher feedback during the process. For these students, the extensive feedback will come in the next lesson, when they will get the written feedback on their work. The that lesson will take a bit of management: some students have very few errors, and will need very little time to review them, but some students will have extensive questions to ask, and may need more time to check.
The fact remains, however, that all the students spent at least 20 minutes of a lesson simply sitting and writing, and I was ok with that. The are some people who would be uncomfortable with this, and there is a belief in come parts of the ESOL teaching community that the majority of time should be spent speaking wherever possible, usually cherry picking the statement from the NRDC Effective Practice Project that “talk is work in the ESOL classroom”. Certainly an observer who had arrived some 20 minutes earlier for an observation would not have had much to observe, and may have chosen to be critical of the fact that the students weren’t engaging in speaking, and that observer and I would have wasted significant time during feedback with me justifying my decision against their prejudices.
In lesson, you see, I think it worked. The silent(ish) writing was an appropriate culmination of a lesson which centred on narrative tenses and a punctuation review, giving lots of opportunity for differentiating the process of writing as well as the evaluation and feedback on the writing. The in-class writing also allowed for a psychological closure of the topic and themes: there was little or nothing left hanging over into the next lesson, and I will have something for all students to do in terms of checking feedback in thr next lesson, rather than having to take in work,negotiate deadline extensions and so on. The task is complete, the lesson done, and the learning can be carried through into the next lesson where students are given guided feedback for self and peer correction. What could be wrong with that?