Sunday, July 26, 2015

Writing is not your Sunday clothes

The importance of writing in an English language course should be obvious, but someone has asked, so here we go.

In an ongoing course, writing is a way for learners to try out new language and push boundaries in the privacy of paper-mediated student-teacher interaction. The written word allows for a depth of argumentation and intellectual speculation that is, to say the least, rare in the realm of spoken language. For some struggling adults, it provides a way to confirm that they can actually articulate more ambitious meaning than they can get across orally. (This automatically widens the scope of topics fit for discussion, if you take the trouble of recycling students' writing efforts into oral activities.) More learned methodologists might probably argue that writing skills eventually transfer to spontaneous speaking: I don't know about that, but it certainly sounds attractive, not to mention sensible. If none of the above is convincing enough, just be reminded that there is no literacy in the absence of writing, and no way to gain independence or to truly appropriate the language in the absence of literacy. And then there's the real world – for those who like it.

Up until the 1980s, it was the age of telephone. Everything was negotiated through remote speaking. Holding a handset between your chin and shoulder was the height of glamour, Cristina Alberó style. Then something changed. I remember that back in the mid-to-late 1990s, I used to find myself repeatedly having the same conversation with taxi drivers: don't worry if your child spends too much time on the Internet: 90% of it is made up of written text anyway – they will be more literate than you are. Although we no longer have an overwhelmingly text-based world wide web, it remains true that individual expression through the written word has acquired a relevance to everyday life it has never had before. Text messages. WhatsApp. Text chat. Twitter. Composing messages on all these takes up considerable time in most people's everyday lives. (Even Facebook, while too media-rich, includes a fair share of written text, but Facebook is evil anyway.) And finally, the preferred contact method for the educated individual: email. To my dismay, my teenage students don't use it: I sincerely hope they will have no option but to adopt it once they reach college. Of course video chat and VoIP are also well-established, but I guess this is mostly between intimates (newspaper comments and fan forums, both of them platforms for communication among strangers, are likely to stay text-based for some time to come).

This is where you object that Twitter is not comparable to the kind of writing we do in class. Agreed. Nor is it email. Maybe. But the kind of work we do around our classroom products may transfer well to the challenges of writing in the workplace. Whether intellectually-inclined or not, it is a fact that our learners will need a job to support themselves one day. And with the age of telephone gone, most business negotiations are conducted via email. (There is the occasional conference call, but this requires a scheduling effort not always desirable.) I have spent entire 60-minute one-on-one sessions working on a single, sensitive email with my in-company students both here and in Chile. This typically means moving blocks of text around, making sentences simpler, removing superfluous stuff, with not a single word added by myself. You should see their faces when they see what editing can do to their own words. As I like to put it to them, a written text is an artifact optimised for the reader's use.

At least equally importantly, aspiring to a University education without writing skills is unthinkable in the English-speaking world. And why should we assume that because our students are learning English in a language institute (as opposed to some elitist bilingual school) they won't one day want to pursue postgraduate studies abroad?

I see it every day with my IELTS trainees: bright (often sweep-you-off-the-ground bright) scientists who were never given a chance by their universities to learn how to organise a written text reasonably well. Not that they can't do it with a little guidance. But why add all that stress at such an unfortunate time? They have enough going on in their lives, what with application forms and visa arrangements. All right, it's not everyone that goes on to become part of Academia. But there's no good reason for us to fail those who will – especially if they care enough to work their way through the entire not-so-recreational Cambridge English suite.

Time for a little soul-searching. Back in the day when I was preparing CPE (over twenty years ago), I kept bitchin' and moanin' about writing tasks. My main concern was that I felt I was being made to pose as an expert on topics I had no real knowledge of – I also developed a strong distaste for ecology, as I felt it was constantly being rammed down our throats. If they arise, these concerns can be addressed in class. And to tell the truth, looking back I now realise that CPE writing practice came to be an essential part of my academic setup.

What all this boils down to is that if you are teaching English and you are not teaching writing, you're cheating. Of course, 'teaching writing' means different things to different people. I myself like to think I'm the reactive kind: that is to say, the kind that waits and sees what they (yes, I still use they) come up with, then builds on that. In other words, to me it's mostly about feedback.

And there's a couple of things to be said about feedback. First and foremost, give credit for what's good (and will be valued come the day of the exam if that's the case – a simple 'this' appropriately used to refer to an entire previous stretch of discourse is a good example of what might deserve a wholehearted 'yes!') as often as you point out what's wrong: positive feedback will give students something to build on. I use traffic light codes: green, yellow and orange highlighter. Yes, I never thought I'd go that childish at this ripe age, but there you go. If on top of that (I'm talking exam preparation here) you give separate feedback for each of the assessment criteria (Content, Organisation and so on) they will see a pattern emerge over time. They may find they are consistently strong on, say, Lexical resource (some people just have a way of getting and using vocabulary the right way), which will give them confidence, but realise they need to keep an eye on possible problems at the sentence level because they are a bit sloppy with relative clauses or tend to omit subjects after conjuctions (all of them mistakes –and this is crucial– they can train themselves to spot and fix on their own). Just an example.

Then there's what us teachers are most prone to forget: if it's not broken, don't try to fix it. When a student produces a perfectly context-appropriate stretch of text (ok, sentence), it is not a good idea to suggest a more complex version (which may incidentally distort the meaning and make wrong what was right to begin with) in the hope that examiners will prefer it. You could even say this is an ethical matter, one of respect for the student's efforts. And while I'm a committed non-behaviourist, I'll be darned if I don't think students whose teachers systematically find fault in good sentences end up losing confidence to the point that they no longer know what's right and what's wrong. (There is such a thing as having too many options for your own good, or for your intellectual maturity – an undesirable side-effect of our 'rewriting' exercises.) I find that what learners often need is guidance on how to make their sentences simpler. This is often achieved through omitting or splitting, and as I said before, there's a name for that. It's called editing. So, more editing, which will make room for more ideas in word-count-limited tasks, thus boosting students' performance in terms of Content (not to mention clarity and the effect on the reader), and less correcting.

One last thing: if you want to write better, bloody read.