Students need to improve their writing because it is one of the important language skills and also because learning to write well helps students with other skills: grammar, vocabulary, and reading. In an ideal class, there will be enough time to practice writing as a skill and also to use writing to help students integrate other skills, for example by writing responses to things they have read or heard.
Although writing is important, it’s also difficult to teach. The best way to teach writing is to have students frequently write about many topics and to have the teacher provide feedback on this writing. But this takes a very large amount of time. In Nepal, where many teachers see more than one hundred and fifty different students each day, spending just one minute on each student’s compositions would mean two and a half extra hours of work each day. Because it is so time-consuming to give students feedback on their compositions, most teachers have to do less work on writing than they know is necessary. Perhaps they don’t assign writing as often as they know they should or perhaps they don’t give as much or as frequent feedback on students’ writing as they would like.
At the heart of the problems of teaching writing are issues of time management. How much time should we use for writing in class? How can we find more efficient ways to give students feedback on their writings? How can we encourage students to spend more time on writing homework?
First, we need to understand that there are several ways to give feedback. Of course, we want to give individualized feedback to each student, but this is generally not possible in every class. If we only use this type of individualized feedback, we will find that we can comment only occasionally. It is possible to give students feedback that is effective without always being individualized. Many of the mistakes that our students made are due to the role of their first language (their L1). This means that many students make the same kinds of errors, whether these be spelling, grammar, vocabulary, or sentence structure. It is not a practical use of the teacher’s time to correct, individually, each of the mistakes. It is far better to select some of the common errors that students are making and to offer a correction to the class as a whole. This saves the teacher a great deal of time. It also helps students focus on the most important errors they need. If we mark all the mistakes they’ve made, they don’t know which are more important and which less important, but if we select, each day, a small number—perhaps five or ten—of the most common and important mistakes that our students are making, and then if we share them, perhaps by writing on the board, then this helps our students concentrate on areas where improvement is most needed.
Second, we need to realize that students learn best not when we provide them with the corrections but rather when we indicate where the mistakes are and have them work—both individually and in small groups—to find the corrections.
Third, we can sometimes use new technology like messenger apps (WhatsApp, Viber, Facebook chat) to share materials with students.
Of course, we don’t have to use methods that just show students their errors. We can also use a method that shows students several correct ways to write compositions. Here’s one effective method to do that. We can give students a topic to write about, and they can produce their own compositions, which they will give us. We then read these and write our own composition on this same topic, and we share this with the students. Actually, because our students are almost always at very different levels, it is better if we write at least two or three compositions on the assigned topic, but produce these compositions at different levels so that they can be useful for a wide range of students in our class.
For example, if the topic is “The Olympics”, we can assign this and have students write. Then, after they’ve written their essays, we can share our own compositions about the Olympics.
Olympics – Beginning
I like the Olympics. The Olympics happen every four years. There are many sports in the Olympics. I like sports. I like to watch swimming, volleyball, running, and basketball. I also like to play sports. This year, the Olympics are in Brazil. I will watch the Olympics with my friends and family.
Olympics – Intermediate
I love the Olympics games. The Olympics are held every four years, and this year, they will be in Brazil. Because I like almost all sports, I like to watch the Olympics on television. My favorite sports are wrestling, boxing, taekwando, judo, and gymnastics. Every day this August during the Olympics, I will get together with my friends and family to watch the Olympics. We’ll have a lot of fun.
Olympics – High Intermediate
This year I’m excited because the Olympics games, which take place every four years, are going to be held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. I’m a big fan of all kinds of sports, especially track and field, weight lifting, badminton, and the marathon. I’ll be sure to catch every broadcast of the Olympics this August. When my favorite athletes win, I’ll cheer and be happy. But when they lose, I’ll feel sad and hope they do better next time.
How can we share these texts? We can write them on the board. We can write them on large sheets of paper. Either way, students can then copy these model essays in their books and use them to improve their writing.
If some or all of our students have mobile phones, we can also share our compositions with them by BlueTooth, ShareIt, or by messenger apps. Even if students cannot use their mobile phones in class, we can still use this method. We can make a group in WhatsApp, Viber, or Facebook, and copy and paste our compositions there and then send these to the group. Students can then see these essays. For students who don’t have mobile phones, they can read the compositions on the mobile phones of their parents or friends. This can be one way to share texts more easily than writing them on the board in class.
(*William Wol is currently an English Language Fellow at the Aga Khan Humanities Project in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. He’s also been a Fellow in Vietnam and Bangladesh and a Specialist in Nepal. He has more than 25 years of TESOL experience.)
(If teachers would like to cooperate with me on this, they can email me with topics, and I can write about them in 3 levels (beginning, intermediate, and high intermediate), and share these with teachers, who can then share them with their students. Please feel free to write me at firstname.lastname@example.org)