Basic, Important, But Tricky Topics in TEFL Grammar and Usage (2016 Edition)
by Coleen Monroe-Knight, M.A. Linguistics (UCL)
<–That is the very first time I’ve used my master’s letters! Wheeeee!
In this series for new TEFL teachers abroad who have no previous experience with prescriptive grammar and usage other than that time in Language Arts class in 1997:
How to do an Open Door class and not lose your mind
Classroom Management For Newbs
Today’s topic: Teaching Writing
In my summer course on writing last year, I described the written word thus:
Writing is the only way we can communicate directly with both our ancestors and our descendants.
I do believe that’s true. Chinese students were very open to the idea, to be honest. They can read some of the earliest writing on the planet, with ease, due to the fact that they read both traditional and simplified Chinese characters. Through writing, one can hear the voice of someone who’s been dead for more than five hundred years. Through writing, it might be possible to have someone hear your own voice in another five hundred.
All that gloriousness aside, teaching writing is hard. It can be tedious, embarrassing, confusing, or downright angering for all involved if it’s done incorrectly. The worst course I took in college was an upper-level essay writing class. Three hours on Wednesdays, from 3-6pm. We spent more than three months beating Oedipus Rex to death, writing exactly one complete essay in that time. Someone started bringing a flask eventually. It didn’t help, but we liked to think the Jack Daniels would numb us to the sheer pointlessness of a class we all needed to graduate.
As a teacher, I never want to inflict that level of bullshit on my students.
In five years of teaching, I have gleaned certain tactics for teaching writing. This is simply an overview, but for a new TEFL/ESL teacher there are about five things you really need to keep in mind. Firstly:
Make it fun.
Students learning about how to write a news article? Have them draw situations from a hat with ridiculous ideas to incorporate. Play a story game where they can only read one sentence at a time and then have to make a short story out of it. Create inkblots with paints and have them write a stream of consciousness about what they see.
Give them space.
Teenagers, surprisingly, don’t like to feel on the spot or exposed. If you have them write a journal, be clear about whether you will be reading it or not. Tell them in advance about whether you will be doing peer-editing. Anonymise the drafts and let them have the opportunity to out themselves as the author if they so choose. Writing practice is writing practice, and just encouraging them to make it a habit without constant teacher checking can work really well at that age.
Emphasise the Process
In my high-level classes, we write an essay every week. Every week. Every. Week.
As much as that horrible writing class in college was a pain in the arse, I can never unlearn the various steps by steps that our instructor insisted upon. This can be very difficult, if you’ve got exactly one hour per week with your students and they have 11 million hours of homework to complete each week. Find ways to give them the time to complete a full draft IN CLASS. If you assign it as homework, they simply won’t do it.
Remember that you are one of many teachers that your students see every week, and that most of the time additional English classes are not a priority compared to state testing. Be consistent, and make it so that a student who misses class can come into the process at any point.
Organisation > Style (At Least At First)
Learn what style is most important for the tests your students are likely to take (i.e. TOEFL, Cambridge, etc.) and focus on helping students remember the formula for the type of essay that they need to write. Work hard on thesis statements! I describe them as a type of map for writing, which lays out the three arguments which will be supported in the body paragraphs. I draw an ‘Essay Candy’ on the board, with an inverted pyramid for the Introduction, a rectangle for the Body, and a triangle for the Conclusion.
Put a timer for two minutes on, and tell the students to make a basic plan for their writing during that time. They should make brief notes including their opinion (if needed), and a couple basic arguments. You can turn this into a game, too. Make sure that they understand that answering the prompt is most important!
For some students, sentence structure is the most important thing. Work hard on incorporating activities with unscrambling and making paragraphs, building into the essay structure.
Make Students Edit
As much as possible, make students edit. Make them edit fake essays that you wrote on the same topic, pretending that it is from a student in the class. Make them edit alone. Make them edit in groups. Make a game out of correcting sentences on the board from their own essays/stories. Give rewards for catching mistakes in your own writing.
This should be something that you do every time you see them. Make it a routine. One thing that worked quite well is to make the students write one thing they will change from last week’s writing at the top of the page, before beginning their new writing for the week. This helps to prevent you writing, “Commas are not full stops!” fifteen weeks in a row on their paper, only to see:
I like eating ice cream, it is nice, i like it,
For the sixteenth time. Thereby saving you from stabbing yourself in the eye with your marking pen.
This is an overview. Teaching writing takes much of the same in terms of getting good at it. Practice a lot. Do it all the time. Make yourself write more, as you make your students do so. This year in China I had my own language notebook where I would write the same essays as my students in Italian, French, or Spanish.
“It’s only fair,” I’d say to them.
You will, if you are consistent, see improvements in your students’ writing. It takes time, but it is the most important academic skill you could impart to them.
How you do teach writing in ESL? What problems have you encountered?