Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Balancing writing fluency and accuracy

By Jennifer Wallace - Anhui University of Technology, China

I spend a lot of time on brainstorming, collecting ideas, planning and organising ideas to form a whole - something they seemed to have had no training in at all. But it's something you have to teach native English speakers, as well - the organising and structure is usually their weakest area too.

Sometimes students will produce a lot of sterotyped, standard, 'Party line' ideas and responses on any topic, which I didn't discourage - I'm sure in their exams they'd get good marks for those sorts of things. But I also encouraged them to bring in their personal, individual ideas and experiences, which they get quite good at doing, often mixing the two very nicely. At times I gave titles and made them write plans and marked the plans and we then never wrote the compositions.

I only did compositions when they'd get to grips with the new experience of actually thinking and planning before writing. It was an uphill struggle for some, but they learnt well from each other, as well as me.

We did lots of whole class work on the blackboard, with me doing the final stage of pulling it all together, so each time they got to witness, by my thinking out loud, the sort of mental processes you go through.

I found it profitable to emphasise accuracy in grammar over adventurousness -- the idea of using as simple sentences as possible seemed novel, but it did improve the accuracy, producing greater intelligibility. Those who are genuinely able to manipulate more complex structures will use them anyway.

It was also a new idea to see this as an opportunity to work consciouslyabout displaying lexical knowledge - but using vocabulary appropriately. And it was a brand new idea to write and re-write! Every so often I corrected a composition in great detail, all and every error, returned it, and then demanded a perfect rewrite, grading according to the number of errors - zero errors for A, 2 errors gets a B, 3 or 4 errors gets a C. This was the first time they'd really got to grips with worrying about that degree of accuracy. Getting A was possible with nothing but care (I'd sorted out all the errors), and obviously rewarding!

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