Eleven activities for writing skills development


by George Lampropoulos

Producing a written text, whether in an exam context or not, is a task which requires a good command of written language as well as the presence of skills specific to writing (including, for example, the ability to organise ideas coherently or to follow the conventions of the genre). In an exam preparation context, things are a bit more demanding since there is a time and word limit.

The main reason why writing is different from, and perhaps more demanding than, spoken production is that there is no feedback or interaction during the writing process so we have to rely exclusively on our choices of sentences and words to make sure that the right message is put across: we produce a text which needs to be understood by a reader who is not present or, in some cases, a reader who is not even known to us.

Students therefore have to be taught how to produce written texts representative of different genres in such a way as to make sure that the message is put across correctly and appropriately. We cannot assume that if a learner can convey a message in the spoken medium they can do so in writing as well. The process that most teachers, as well as published teaching materials, follow when teaching writing, can be divided into the following stages:

Stage I: Generation of ideas

This first stage includes the generation of ideas on which the students will base their own text. You should get the learners to think about what to include in the text, i.e. what kind of information the topic requires as well as how much information is required. Ask students to read the rubric carefully and think of the target audience, the style and the actual genre they will have to produce. Here are some sample activities that could serve these purposes:

Activity 1 – focus on understanding the topic, genre and target audience (Level C1-C2)

You have been asked to write a report for your boss regarding an event that your company organised. You have to use at least 4 of the figures/percentages given in the data. Think about this topic and decide if the following statements are True or False:

  • The report is about everyday events at work.
  • The language you use should be conversational.
  • You should not use more than 4 percentages.
  • Your text should include 3 paragraphs, i.e. introduction, main body, conclusion.
  • You must not use subheadings for the paragraphs.

Activity 2 – focus on ideas (Level A2)

You have been asked to write a letter to a friend describing your room. In pairs, make a list of as many different things as you can that you can find in a house, for example fridge, sofa, television, computer….

Which of these things does each of you have in your rooms? Tell your partner which of these things you have in your room, what they look like and where are they.

For example, I have a computer in my room. It is white and it is on my desk.

Stage II: Working with a model

This stage involves giving students a model text followed by a set of activities. The text should be one that could presumably have been produced by a learner and the activities should focus on different aspects of writing such as the generic structure, the language and register used, the purpose and the target reader as well as the cohesive devices used and the way the text is organised. Below you have two activities that can be used in this stage:

Activity 3 – focus on the language used (Level B2)

Read the short extract below taken from a letter of a student to his/her teacher. The students were asked to explain which aspects of the English language they find most difficult and to say what they think the teacher should do to help them overcome these difficulties.

Some of the words and phrases the student has used are not appropriate: they are too formal or too conversational. Work in pairs: underline the words and phrases that are not appropriate and suggest ways of changing them.

Dear Mrs Jones

I am writing to tell you what you wanted. Well, I think for the first question you asked me about your class I think that grammar is the most difficult part. I don’t like it and I find it hard. Explain it better all the next times so that all students understand what you say. Now, you asked about suggestions. I don’t understand what do you want? I cannot make suggestions because I am a student and you are the teacher so it is your job to find the solutions.

Activity 4 – focus on task achievement (Level B2-C1)

Your friend has been asked to do the following task. “Write an article about the positive and negative aspects of mobile phones. In what ways can we limit the problems of using mobile phones? The article will be published in a scientific journal.” Read what he/she has written and answer the following questions:

  • Has your friend covered all content points?
  • Has he/she used the correct format and layout?

Dear Editor

I am writing to you to tell you about the good and bad points of mobile phones.

First of all, mobile phones are very useful because you can reach anyone you want especially when you are in an emergency. Moreover, you can keep in touch with your friends very easily because they can call you anytime and ask you where you are. The only problem is that you need to charge your phone all the time because if your battery dies out, nobody will know where you are. Also, mobile phones allow you to do things that in the past you only did them at home. For example, with the new phones you can now access the internet even while you are walking on the street!

I couldn’t live without a mobile phone!

I hope that my article will be published. If you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact me, of course, on my mobile phone that you will find on top of this letter.

Thanks.

STAGE III: Guided reproduction

After the previous stage has been completed you could ask students to start producing parts of the text focusing again on one aspect. In this stage students will still need a lot of support and guidance; an example of a guided reproduction task would be to ask students to rewrite sentences using specific words and/or expressions found in the text or to change a few details in a paragraph to produce a parallel text. Here are some more ideas:

Activity 5 – focus on style and organisation (Level A1)

Read the short text below. Correct the text so that it looks like a letter. Do not correct grammar or vocabulary mistakes.

Hello!

Mrs Jones! How are you? All ok? I hope your family is ok, too.

I am writing to apply for the job of the shop assistant.

I saw it in the school magazine.

I like this job.

I have many good characteristics:

  1. I am kind
  2. I am honest
  3. I never lie

Please tell me if you need me.

Yours sincerely

George

Activity 6 – focus on content and coherence (Level B1)

Your friend has written about the things he does every morning but he has put them in the wrong order. Read the sentences below and put them in the right order.

  • My mum waits with me for the school bus.
  • When I wake up I go to the bathroom and wash my face.
  • After that I go to my room to get dressed.
  • Every morning my mum wakes me up.
  • Then I brush my teeth and go to the kitchen to drink milk.
  • Then I put the books in my bag and go out to wait for the school bus.

Stage IV: Production of text

In this stage students should be asked to produce their own text with limited support on the part of the teacher. This can be done initially in class where you could make sure that the students understand the topic, have something to write and get the chance to work o planning. In most cases, the students will complete their draft at home, due to time constraints. In the following lesson, they will (hopefully!) hand in their draft so that they can get some feedback and, if necessary, rewrite (parts of) their text. To help students produce their own texts, you can use activities like the ones below:

Activity 7 – focus on language (Any level)

Read your topic carefully. Then spend 1 minute and write down as many words/phrases you can think of related to your topic. Then compare with your partner.

Activity 8 – focus on content (Level B1+)

Read your topic carefully. Make a plan before you start writing in which you say:

  • how many paragraphs there will be
  • what ideas you will include in each paragraph

Then give your plan to your partner. Your partner will make any changes he/she thinks are necessary. You will need to do the same for his/her plan.

Stage V: Evaluation

In this final stage you will need to provide feedback on all relevant aspects of the writing skill such as organisation, accuracy and range of grammar and vocabulary, punctuation, spelling, use of linking words and expressions, level of formality etc. The feedback should be clear and it can include the use of a code to indicate what types of mistakes there are. You should then ask students to work on their own or their partners’ errors and produce a second draft. You may need to provide feedback on more than one draft before the student produces his/her final text. Below there are three activities that you could use in this stage:

Activity 9 – focus on grammar and vocabulary (Level B1 and above)

Read your partner’s text. Using the correction code provided, correct all the grammar and vocabulary errors your partner has made.

Gr Grammar

Voc Vocabulary

Pr Preposition

S Style

Sp Spelling

Org Organisation

? Not clear

Activity 10 – focus on content (Any Level)

For this activity, the teacher should first read all scripts and put a question mark in the margin whenever a student has not expressed themselves clearly and/or accurately. Then students are asked to work in pairs and given the following instruction:

Read your partner’s text. When you see ?, ask him/her questions to try and understand what he/she means. Then suggest ways of rewriting the sentences so that the message is clear.

Activity 11 – focus on self-evaluation (Level B1 and above)

Read your partner’s text. Underline any errors you find. Then hand the underlined text to your teacher. Then compare the errors you have found with the ones your teacher has.

  1. #1 by kylie on April 8, 2011 - 12:11 pm

    Thanks so much for posting this! There are a lot of really solid, helpful tips in this post. Thanks!

  2. #2 by Ann on April 12, 2011 - 5:01 pm

    Just posted a link to this on the TeachingEnglish facebook page http://www.facebook.com/TeachingEnglish.BritishCouncil if you’d like to check for comments.

    Please feel free to post there when you have anything you’d like to share.

    Best,

    Ann

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