Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Writing Revolution

Just a short post about a fascinating article called The Writing Revolution. In short, it describes the successful attempt by a New York head teacher to improve grades in a failing school, by focusing on the reasons why students were so poor at writing and more or less forcing teachers to actually research their own learners' work, then come up with solutions.
It turns out that one of the key components of poor writing was, surprise surprise, poor literacy and poor understanding of features such as conjunctions and complex sentence structures. The school devised a regime where literacy skills were taught across the board, not just in English classes, with the outcome that learners were not just successful, they were more motivated overall.
So why write about this? Well, I could immediately see implications for my ESOL learners, and the way in which features such as conjunctions are taught. If you've ever picked up a bog-standard TEFL textbook, you'll probably know that basic things like 'and' 'so' and 'but' are dealt with in a relatively perfunctory style, and that more complex phrases such as 'even if', 'provided that', or 'rather than' don't make much of an appearance until Upper-Intermediate textbooks hove into view.
What if this is the wrong approach? I know from experience that the students who are most likely to go on to become really fluent users know how to handle relatively complex sentence structure, even from a quite low level of English, but that we shy away from teaching it as being 'too difficult'. Perhaps we should be encouraging students to actively engage with sentence complexity - after all, this is precisely what they would encounter in English out in The Wild, as it were. And in fact, by exposing them to these structures, we don't just help them with their writing, but also with dealing with texts - and we know from research that those who read more become more fluent. By teaching the different ways sentences can be constructed, we open the door to reading in English and thereby to greater confidence with handling the language overall.
It's also possibly a way to help students from certain cultural backgrounds with different literary structures and traditions to engage with the way that the English mind conducts arguments, debate etc.
Well, that's my take on it anyway. I'm going to have a little stab at it with some Entry 3 (pre-int to int) students and see what happens.

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