Below are some extracts from my talk for TESOL France/CUP last Saturday, as my slides were really minimal I thought this would be more useful. Still in bed recovering from the bronchitis so apologies for lack of proof-reading, proper conclusion etc.. A big thank you to Bethany Cagnol and Terry Elliot and all those of you who attended and gave me support.
In my experience the whole process of working with formal written language is one of fine-tuning as opposed to actually teaching.I don’t really believe that one can teach writing skills in the same manner as one can deductively teach a grammar point.
Writing is such a unique expression of the self and while we can make people aware of register, range of lexical terms, the use and effects of stylistic devices, rhetorical devices and conventions of the given field, it is unsustainable to actually make someone write a certain way. I believe this is true of creative writing and formal writing alike.
What a person writes, especially in a second language, has to belong to them. Only then will they use it again and again and only then will their vocabulary grow and flourish. Writing exercises where there is a structural reproduction of the text is, in my opinion, unsustainable when it comes to learning.
An example of this is, you give a student a text and tell them “here’s an abstract for a TESOL France workshop on formal writing skills for scientists, now use it to write an abstract for a similar workshop for mathematicians”. What does the learner-writer do? They tweak some of the content words and come up with a new text and (successfully) meet this goal. This task type can be found in many textbooks, in education as a whole even beyond the ELT domain.
I don’t think this works because students forget content that is irrelevant. Content that is irrelevant rarely leaves the four walls of the classroom. Relevance is not however a by-product of something being interesting. Relevance is a direct benefit of investment in an activity. And this is what the teaching and learning of formal writing needs more of, genuine learner investment.
Often, as you all know, when it comes to dealing with a part of a language course as “dry” as formal writing there is this pressure to make it interesting for a student, thematically interesting. A fun topic that will engage the learner, attract their attention, create focus and once the content flows the language learning will follow suit. Now I have absolutely nothing against this but in making that thematic choice we automatically go down a certain path that will remain structured by those thematic choices. When the time and need arises to move the course in a more structural direction such as working on formal writing skills it becomes a difficult moment to steer. Students react with “well why do we have to do this? that was so much more fun” and we teachers are forced into the position of “yes, well it’s boring but we have to”, whether or not we believe this. I taught teenagers for a long time and have parroted these conversations myself.
Investment is getting the learner-writer to be conscious of what goes on in their head, the process of writing as opposed to worrying about producing a text of x-number of words. That’s one of the things I like very much about Tamzen’s book (Cambridge English for Scientists) is that it supports this process very nicely. Based on my experience, the writing process unfolds on two levels, an awareness of what happens in the writer’s head, so scaffolding the thinking process and putting it down on paper, so co-creating effective markers to map out this thinking process.
Five aspects of the teaching of formal writing that I find particularly important are register- which has to be formal, simple and above all appropriate. The lexis- which is somewhere between thought and textbook, textbooks can often be very instructional and imitating that is what I find learners do very naturally and it is not always appropriate. Style- academic writing is not like journalistic writing and journalistic writing is often the source of written English that our students are most exposed to and there are so many positive things that can be extracted from the English of journalism, in terms of clarity, concision and the framing of ideas but academic writing is not sensational, it is attention-grabbing in a very different way to a news article. I also find that an awareness of rhetorical structures as a whole as opposed to the repetition of stock phrases is a useful thing. There are the usual stages of a presentation available on so many sources in print and online, “here’s how you introduce your first point, next point, signposting and so forth and yes, raising awareness of stock phrases is incredibly useful but I often find that the metalanguage of rhetorical structures to be equally useful. Working explicitly with rhetorical structures basically involves understanding “what” is communicated and “how” it is communicated, so simple things like what a counterpoint does, how we can play with sonic devices like alliteration and the individual power these various concepts carry. How foreshadowing is different to alluding, for instance. I have really benefitted from no longer shying away from metalanguage when it comes to things like this. Finally, there the domain-specific conventions, this is often where the student has to play an important role in researching and contributing to the course content.
(At this point I cited some of the communication that was recently posted on a forum for academic writing that I am a part of and have no permission to cite in print so I am cutting out a big chunk of my talk here, a lot of it was centered around the difference between people who write academically who have English as their mother tongues and those for whom it is a second or foreign language)
The theorising and analyses around Native Speaker – Non-Native Speaker segregation is not something I wish to go into much detail on. The fact that it is repeatedly mentioned in the posts I verbally cited and obsessed about in general does raise the notion that people who have to write in English believe, quite firmly, that there is a “stock” vocabulary out there that some have access to and others don’t. And this I think is a very useful issue for a teacher.
This a direct way we can access the learner-writer’s perception of ease in a language. We can work out with our students, what that stock vocabulary for any given context is, how they can build it with the resources that are accessible to them and a level that is suited to them. And the stock is very important, it is the basis from which all writing flows. So how do we prepare the stock? We can feed it, with something like Cambridge’s Academic Vocabulary is an excellent resource and there’s a real place for it on any writing course. We can open up the stock, by placing a different lens on access to formal register, using online open courseware sources. We can also challenge the stock in a highly scaffolded manner, using transcripts of spoken’s language and getting students to turn them into formal written equivalents. And again, focusing on this stock and not the goal of the 250-word assignment can take us a step closer to a better engagement with the process of formal writing.