One of the challenges faced by elementary school teachers is to teach students writing skill. Although writing skill has been the core component in Malaysian standardised examination for many years, many teachers find it difficult to teach students how to write well.
Here are five scenarios I’ve observed so far as to why writing skill can be a difficult skill to teach,
1. The teacher has been appointed to take over the class (of students) which was previously taught by another (not so efficient) teacher. Now, the earlier teacher is pressured to produce miracles (excellent results) within specific time frame.
2. The teacher is caught up in a dilemma between teaching the curriculum and teaching students to answer the test well.
3. The teacher lacks the pedagogy skills of how to carry out an effective writing lesson. Usually, they teach the way they were taught.
4. The teacher is not an English major, hence lacks the content knowledge to teach the language well.
5. The teacher thinks that he has done the teaching, but students still cannot complete the writing task. Hence, blaming on them for the lack of abilities to understand the lesson well.
These are just some of the common scenarios on why teaching writing can be difficult for language teachers. Which of the above scenario sounds familiar to you?
Yet, I am there not to judge how well they teach. I am well aware that criticising and making judgment about how they teach will not help them or me in any way. I am there to help them, to offer them help and solutions as to how and what they can do. This is what I tell them.
1. Stop putting the blame on the teacher and the students
It is easy to simply blame others for what they have previously done because we think that they are the main cause of problem. It is even easier to do nothing at all after blaming them because we think that they should the one held responsible for it.
But, it takes courage and commitment to say ‘Let bygones be bygones’. From now on, because I am given this task of teaching them English, I will do in my best abilities to educate them, to teach them, to bring the best out of them, and to make a difference in their lives.
Once the mentality is adjusted, the whole mind, attitude and behaviour will follow. And we can move on to Step 2.
2. Understanding the students’ level of proficiency
This is by far the most challenging skill faced by many teachers I’ve coached. I say it is a skill because it is something that can be developed over time, it is something that can be learned and made perfect when they keep practising it.
Effective student learning takes place when the teacher understands their students – this includes their proficiency level. The mistake made by many is the teacher teach, bringing all sorts of wonderful teaching aids, describing, explaining the lesson content, doing all the things he thinks it’s right to find out that his students could not write at the end of the lesson. This is a typical complain we hear teachers saying, ‘I teach them many times already, but they still cannot do it.’ ‘My kids are really weak. I have taught them the same thing for a week and they still could not understand’.
One way to understand students’ level of proficiency is to start off by talking about common things around the content. While it helps to get the student’s attention, what we are doing is actually trying to find out what is it that they already know (their prior knowledge) and what is it that they don’t know. This allows us to think of how to simplify the content of the new lesson or to make it more challenging. Teaching in the 21st century doesn’t happen in vacuum – as if we are pouring new information or knowledge into their brain, expecting them to understand with what we have taught. Teaching requires making connection to what they know, linking the new piece of information to what they have learned before, making the new knowledge meaningful to them. Only then, we can see that students listen to what we have to say and are able to do what we ask them to do.
3. Understanding how English is learned
For students to write well, there are many prerequisites to be mastered. First, students need to understand the syntax of the language – how English is structured. Failing to do this means you have been wasting your time teaching them writing sentences because they are merely copying. Second, students need to be exposed to a lot of reading – begin by reading simple sentences, slowly leading to simple stories with simple words. We need to understand that writing is an output of language. For students to write well, we’ve got to make sure that they have sufficient input – which is reading. Can we truly say that students can write well without reading? So, reading provides students with the necessary vocabularies and words and understanding of language syntax to carry out good writings.
Yet, we have to understand that the writing process involves a series of stages. Before students can write a story (as the ultimate goal), they need to master writing sentences well. Before they can write a sentence, they need to know how to phrases well. And finally, before they know how to write a phrase, they need to know how to write words correctly. This means the writing process involves students mastering word level -> phrase level -> sentence level -> paragraph level. There is no secret passage to good writing. Students have to move from up the pyramid from the bottom. This clears up many teachers’ minds and frustrations when I scaffold to them why their students have difficulties writing sentences.
4. Making writing lesson fun and interesting
Students learn best when they are actively engaged in learning. Although teaching writing can be very straight forward, learning it might not be quite as straight forward.
I have collaborated with my coachee to try out Kagan Cooperative Structures in their lessons. What Kagan has to offer is simply group work activities which encourages each individual in the groups to participate in learning. Traditionally, when doing group work, there is a dominant student (often the smart one) conquering the whole discussion and problem solving. The weak students are mere spectators in the learning process. But in Kagan, every student gets the chance to participate and success is dependent on the contributions by all members in the group. You can check it out in Activities page. Some of the group work activities I have done together with them are:
4.2 All Write Round Robin
4.3 Rally Robin
4.4 Quiz-quiz Trade
4.5 Gallery Walk
4.6 Inside/Outside Circle
4.7 Mix and Match
4.9 Rally Coach
You may check them out online. I will write a post on how to use Kagan soon. But if you google and youtube ‘Kagan’, you will find more ideas there.
5. Assessing if students truly learn
No matter how well you teach, you can never know how well your students learn until you assess them. This is why assessment is so important. Assessment in writing can come in different forms. It can be as simple as filling in blanks, filling in phrases, rearrange words to form sentences, completing the sentences, writing sentences using guided words, writing sentences to form paragraphs, writing a story and ultimately writing for specific purposes.
In the standardised examination for elementary schools, students are assessed in their abilities to write sentences, to give reasoning for a choice they make, and to write a story of three to four paragraphs. Some of the common unintentional mistakes made by the teachers I coach are,
1. The teacher and students discuss the answers together. Then, students copy the sentences into their exercise books. The teacher considers this as writing skill. When asked if the students can write it independently without guidance or if students can do the same activity the next day, the answer is obvious, ‘Some (smarter ones) can, some (weaker ones) cannot.’
2. The teacher gives one-size-fits-all type of worksheet for students to do. Whether they are weak or smart, all the students do the same type of worksheet. When asked if the weak ones can do it, the answer is ‘I will give them guidance (in many cases, guidance here is straight answers)’. I use this as the reason to explain to them why the proficiency gap between the smart and the weak is getting bigger, because the weak got left behind, and the smart keep progressing (because their mental ability allows them to move on quickly).
First of all, we need to understand that many of us are teaching in mixed-ability classrooms, with some students with special needs, for example, slow learners (commonly seen). As much as teaching instructions need to cater to their level, assessment tools need to do the same too to allow them to learn and make them feel inclusive. Assessment for writing skills can be easily altered for the weaker students by simplifying the language used in the worksheets and giving them more guided answers (this is to prevent the teacher from reading the question to them and show them the answer). If other students are working on compound sentences, the weaker students can work on simple sentences. If the simple sentences are too difficult for them, they can fill in phrases. If filling in phrases is difficult for them, they can fill in simple one-word blanks.
The principle underlying my solutions is that we need differentiated assessment in the classrooms. Not every student learns at the same pace. Hence, assessment needs to follow suit. We need different sets of assessment tools designed specifically for different level of students. It is only when we create assessment that suit their abilities and their potentials, that we finally realise that they are meeting our expectations and they are feeling a sense of accomplishment and appreciation for what we have done in the classrooms.
So, there you go, the five steps to teach writing effectively. Before I end today’s blog, there is one final step I did not mention today, that is reflection – reflecting on how the lesson went and looking into what’s next. I believe reflection is more important than lesson plan because it helps us to understand our instructions as well as our students and to take actions on what to do next in our next lesson. I have written one on it and you may read it here.
Thank you for the taking the time out to read my blog. I appreciate any comment you have to say. If you are a language teacher, do share with me how you have been teaching writing.