Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Using reformulation to teach writing

By Thomas Hammond, Harvard University, USA

I have had good results at a range of proficiency levels using reformulation. It's very simple: figure out as best you can what learners are trying to say, then, rather than picking it apart, write it the way you would have written it. No need to justify what's right or wrong, better or worse.

Learners seem very motivated to compare the two versions. Some have told me that they feel privileged to see their own ideas transformed by a more experienced hand. "It looks like fire-crackers popping in my mind because I am thinking: Oh, I was wondering about my phrase there. Now I see the way to say this. It's really useful for me."

I've heard teachers say that reformulation is too labor-intensive and/or time-consuming to be practical in most teaching situations. But I find it takes not much more time than giving thoughtful and tactful feedback.

I've also heard teachers say, "Yeah, but then what happens to revision? Don't the students just copy word for word?" The answer is -- sometimes they do. And what a great way to improve their writing.

However, it's not uncommon that I misconstrue what a learner meant to say, and, and I've been surprised at the lengthy clarifications, complete with examples, they sometimes offer so that I can get it right the next time.

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