Different approaches to writing: some course content and reflections.

In my previous post I introduced the writing course that I’m teaching for this year’s winter camp, and outlined some of the principles that underpin it, such as experiential learning, a genre approach and an attempt to examine each student’s English systematically through the lens of their writing errors. This post starts to examine how this is working out in practice by sharing some of the course content from this week and some of my thoughts on it.

Those of you up on your deductive science may have noticed that week one’s reflections seem to have got lost in space. Well, week one largely featured introductions and my explaining the principles of the course. This wasn’t a great success, as it led to me talking a lot to/at the students. It came from a good and bad place. Good in the sense that I wanted to make sure that students’ expectations and mine were more or less matched, and bad in the sense that my anal-retentive side came out in the planning stages and organized all of the writing stages into neat little one week parcels. Next time I’m just going to get on with it (as I’m doing quite successfully in other areas of this course) and explain as we go along.

Week two’s doings make for much more interesting reflection, so that’s what the bulk of this post will focus on. Each week focuses on one piece of my writing in which I try to include certain generic, structural and linguistic features. Conversely, I also try to write it fairly naturally in order that other features that I wouldn’t consider consciously can emerge in the piece, meaning that we get some less taught features like the role of pronouns in rhetoric. This week’s piece, an explanatory, how-to piece, emerged like this:

How To Speak English More Naturally.

Having expressed doubts about the five-paragraph essay last week, I naturally went ahead and wrote a five paragraph essay as a model for this week. Why? Mostly because it’s an easy format to write, copy and explain and makes a good starting point for students new to organizing a piece. I’m going to try to push beyond this a little as we go through the course, and also be flexible with students who want to adapt it a little. Also, my objection was more to the piecemeal approach to teaching that starts by writing thesis statements, moves on to topic sentences and finishes by, in my experience, boring the living crap out of everybody present rather than to the essay format itself.

Having hopefully defended myself to the baying mob (myself), here’s roughly what the instructions for week 2 looked like..

  • Monday – Read the piece, discuss in peer groups and feedback to class on topic, audience, structure and role of each paragraph,  and introduction techniques. Write a short journal entry about perceived characteristics of the genre. Then in groups discuss ideas for your own article, how you might introduce it, and how you might explain it. Create a paragraph plan for homework.
  • Tuesday – Present your plan to peer group and get feedback. Write a journal entry based on this. Then discuss with your peer groups linguistic/grammatical features of the piece for organization, cohesion and linking ideas, and finally those used in establishing the style of the piece. Journal again and add ideas for language you can use to your plan.
  • Wednesday – Start to write first draft. During the class, have a five minute consultation with the teacher about your plan and any writing. For homework, write a journal entry processing this feedback and applying it to your writing and yourself as a writer.
  • Thursday – Present your writing so far to peer group. Guided peer feedback and journalling. Finish final draft with opportunities for further teacher feedback.
  • Friday – Peer and teacher proofreading of first drafts. Write final draft, using writing tools (corpus, thesaurus, learner dictionary) to fix errors. Catalog errors on a Google sheet for whole class reflection. Reflect on how to eliminate errors and learn new language skills based on errors made.

It’s worth pointing out that this is a lot to get through in a week. At this stage it feels like I might be spending a bit too much time journalling and not enough time on the errors, which I’d pinpointed as an important source of learning. However, the journalling might well prove to be an important part of information processing- sadly I don’t really know because I haven’t had a chance to look at them yet because they’re always in use! This concerns me as I wonder exactly how effectively they are being used, especially if I’m not reading them. It would be totally understandable in an intensive program if the part that the teacher doesn’t read got neglected. Still, the balance of activities is something that I want to play with and get feedback on.

Another slight problem I encountered this week with the lowest level class (who are still at least B1 and much higher than that in terms of reading) was that they struggled to move their analysis from the level of the text in front of them to the level of the generic. However, this may just have been a case of not quite understanding the instructions. I made sure with the other two classes to make this clear, so I’m not sure whether it was the level of the class or the clearer instructions that made the difference, but something certainly did. (Update: I just did the same thing this week and it went much better, so maybe it was the instructions.) A bigger problem came with the odd student not realizing (or perhaps willfully forgetting) that the aim was a generic how-to piece. Sods law also meant that one of them couldn’t fit an interview into Wednesday’s class, so I didn’t catch it until Thursday afternoon. Again, it seems I could have been clearer in my aims, and this is also another good reason why the week 1 information dump didn’t work well, because by the time Monday came around it had all been forgotten again. Another reason to get over my love of neat week-long teaching cycles.

Aside from this I’d say that things are running fairly smoothly. Every student has managed to write upwards of two-hundred words, which is pretty impressive given that some had never written an extended piece in English before, and possibly not in Korean either. The process-based nature of the course is working really well too – presenting stages of the writing process as class activities means that there is less temptation to skip them. One of the ways I’m trying to keep students following the process is to have them write their first draft by hand, and only type it up when it comes to final drafts. While this isn’t really how people work these days, it does force them to take a proper second look at their writing and gives them another chance to improve it. I’ve been surprised at how happy students are to rewrite sections by hand too, far happier than I would be in fact. They’ve also spent a good deal of time planning, aided by this very simple but rather nifty essay mapping tool. There’s also a lot of desire to get feedback, but a willingness to find things out for oneself in this group of students. All in all, it’s been a very positive week.

To conclude, I’d like to mention one other thing that’s been a big success this week. The nature of writing class means there’s quite a lot of studious silence and scribbling of pens – an atmosphere which can sometimes feel a little intense. I’ve experimented a bit this week with playing music in class. Students can DJ themselves from their phones, or play the Britpop/Snoop Dogg/Drill ‘n’Bass lottery that is my mp3 collection. Surprisingly they’ve often opted for the latter, which has meant I’ve been able to introduce them to Nick Drake, Vampire Weekend and RJD2 over the past week, which has been a pretty cool experience all in all.

I’d made a bunch of notes about the reflective questions in my last post to write about here, but as I’m climbing towards 1,400 words I’m going to leave those for another post. I hope that in reading this you might have found a few things to steal for your own writing teaching, or something that made you think a little differently. If you did, I’d love to know what it was in the comments below.




8 responses to “Different approaches to writing: some course content and reflections.

  1. hi alex

    lots to think about here, thanks

    will you be writing up more details about how the students use the writing tools?


    • Hi Mura,

      I will try, but with the corpus we’ve only really looked at using it to find collocations so far, and uptake has been reasonably slow due to the lack of time for working with errors (something I’m in the process of fixing). If anything significant comes up I will be sure to write about it though. I wonder if you have any other tips for maximizing the usefulness of a corpus for student writers.



  2. hi again alex

    glad u found that post useful, for more corpora stuff do consider joining the G+ comm here https://plus.google.com/u/0/communities/101266284417587206243

    look fwd to reading more about your writing course adventures


  3. Pingback: Different approaches to writing: Reflecting on feedback | The Breathy Vowel

  4. Hi Alex – finally commenting on another very insightful post of yours!

    Thanks for the essay mapping tool. Pretty cool! My students will be writing outlines soon, so this actually came in at a great time. I could relate to your feeling of ‘intensity’ in that silence of a writing classroom. Although I used to play music, I am now afraid that some students might find it distracting (got that comment from a couple Ss in the past) so now I tell them that they can use headphones and listen to their own music while writing. I know I’d need that. I like the shared playlists that you mention though 🙂

    I haven’t consistently incorporated journaling in the essay writing process lately -only once did I ask students to write a letter to themselves going over their ideas for the essay (structure and content) and also what they felt insecure about or what they still wanted to do to prepare to write. Do you have some prompts to share in terms of journaling and essay writing?

    Enjoyed this post a lot! Thanks again 🙂

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