Teaching Writing: Problems Students Face

frank

Frank Bonkowski is an educational writer, English language teacher, and e-learning specialist, passionate about learning and teaching. As a lover of writing, Frank has a twofold mission: to teach English learners to write better and to train language teachers in teaching effective academic writing. He was a teacher trainer at several universities, including McGill, Concordia, and TELUQ, a center of distance education.  We are thrilled to have Frank as a member of our online course community at English Learner Portal.

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In today’s post I want to introduce you to a new three-credit graduate course in teaching writing.  I’ll give you a peek into one of the lectures in Module 1, “Problems students face in learning.”

JOIN me on June 28 for a 2-hour online writing workshop

New Online professional development course

Teaching Writing to Intermediate and Advanced English Language Learners is now available. This 3-credit graduate course is aimed at beginner and experienced English-language teachers who want to improve their knowledge and skills in teaching academic writing.

Teaching Writing, a multimedia course containing five modules, is your complete guide to teaching academic writing. Each module has a short video introduction, several recorded lectures, an accompanying tape script, a reading, an interview with a writing expert (in three of the modules), and a self-assessment exercise. To obtain university credit for the course, participants must complete five quizzes and two assignments.

A peek inside Module 1

peekinsideThe first module explores the context for teaching and learning academic writing to adolescent English language learners. Topics include some effective ways for teaching academic writing,  problems English language learners face in learning, the distinction between comprehensible input and output, and an overview of the WIDA writing rubrics with Kelly Reider. In today’s post, I want to share with you parts of Lecture 2.

Teaching Writing

Module 1: Problems student face in learning

External issues

externalissuesHow well do you know your students? Experienced teachers realize that they have to take the time to get to know their language students as human beings. I have always taken the time to relate to my students, to understand where they are coming from, to learn about their interests and hobbies, and to ask about what they are good at.

Language teachers need to understand the external and personal issues in the lives of their students, so well described in “Teaching writing to diverse populations” (Fowler). Let’s look at three external issues.

First, learning to write well is challenging cognitively and linguistically, not only for English language learners but also native speakers of English.

Second, some English language learners come from disadvantaged homes at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder. Many students work part time which cuts into their study time. In addition, some of them have learning disabilities. In the school where I teach ESL, over 10% of the students are dyslexic or have learning difficulties often related to stress.

Third, English language teachers may not be up to the task. They may lack the pedagogical knowledge as well as effective strategies and techniques to teach academic writing. They could benefit from professional development courses to upgrade their teaching skills, such as this course.

Furthermore, English language teachers may not have access to good resources. They may not know how to implement consistently academic writing into their program.

Let’s now move on to three personal issues or problems that English language learners may have (Fowler). Learners often lack the knowledge and skills to write well. Even more importantly, they may not be motivated to write well or write at all.

internalissuesPersonal issues

Knowledge problems

I teach academic writing to intermediate and advanced ESL learners. Yet many of them do not know what good writing is. They do not know how to start to write, thinking that just putting ideas on paper pell mell is good enough. They need to improve their knowledge of vocabulary—using synonyms and antonyms for example.

Moreover, students often have a poor sense of sentence structure and variety. Learners may know who the latest pop stars are, but they have limited knowledge of current events or social issues in general.

Finally, learners are not always familiar with some of the purposes of writing, such as to persuade or inform readers.

Skill problems

Let’s move on to skill problems that many English language learners face (Fowler).

A common problem I see among learners is that they are not interested in planning. They fail to plan which effectively means that they plan to fail.

Another problem is that they do not how to revise their writing. It is like pulling teeth to get them to reflect on their writing. Another issue is that they do not know how to self regulate their ideas and actions. It is a metacognitive skill that they have perhaps never been taught.

As most teachers know, learners have limited attention spans. That is not surprising. The latest research shows that the attention span of adults is only eight seconds. As I mentioned before, many learners have either visual or motor disabilities.

Motivation problems

Let’s have a brief look at some of the motivational issues that English language learners have (Fowler). For example, they have rarely been taught to develop writing goals. So they do not know how to achieve success. Some think that they fail to write well because they are not smart enough. They may have this erroneous self-belief that they can never succeed.

In addition, many learners are not very persistent in their attempts to write well. They are easily discouraged by constant failure.

What are some effective ways to teach academic writing?

lightbulbEnglish language learners need to be taught how to write effectively. They need to know how to achieve their goals within a given context. Learners need to be taught how to express themselves effectively. They need to learn how to write well-organized, clear texts.

Here are three effective strategies for teaching writing that we will explore further in later lectures (Graham, 1-2).

  • First, teachers should explicitly teach learners appropriate writing strategies. They should use effective instructional models, such as Engage-Study-Activate that we look at in lecture 2.1 (Harmer, 25-29).
  • Second, teachers should help learners develop their reading comprehension skills to become better writers. Reading can be an important tool to develop writing skills (Writing). Both reading and writing can help learners think and learn better. Teachers should show learners good texts, highlighting their outstanding features.
  • Third, students should receive regular feedback to keep track of their own success in writing. This feedback can take the form of teacher to students, students to students, and student self-reflection, using for example the Virtual Writing Tutor. More about this online tool in lecture 5.5.

Other strategies that we can mention include teaching grammar explicitly, providing challenging activities, and helping students build their vocabulary (Writing).

In Teaching by Principles, Brown recommends teachers get students to:

  • Use the practices of “good” writers, such as following an organizational plan as they write
  • Do prewriting activities, such as conducting outside research or discussing a topic or question.

In the next blog post, we will take a peek into one of the lectures in Module 2,  “What is successful language learning?”

JOIN me on June 28 for a 2-hour online writing workshop

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