The importance of practising essential writing skills for EAL learners
As an adult or as a student, becoming competent in a language means being able to listen and understand, to speak and make meaning while using it to read and write. Elly Tobin reflects on implications for those learning in a range of subjects using English, as a second language.
It is important to distinguish between second language acquisition for its own sake and the perhaps more demanding need for an EAL learner to become competent in English because it is the language of instruction in an international school.
The assumption is sometimes made that writing and reading should be delayed until some degree of speaking and listening has been achieved. Some schools even separate the four skills out into different classes, with one teacher focusing on reading, another on writing and another on speaking and listening.
Experience shows, however, that it is significantly more effective if all four skills are taught together from the very beginning. This is more natural as language develops globally, with development in each skill impacting progress in the others. It is of course also easier, in terms of planning lessons, for teachers to have a complete overview of the progress of EAL students.
Practicing and honing authentic writing skills
Improvement requires practice, and writing is a skill that we do not practice often enough in the classroom with any students. When a coach wants a sports team to succeed, team members practice the essential skills constantly, developing competencies day after day. Similarly, imagine a piano teacher simply discussing performance with a young musician but not demanding a set time each day to practice.
How strange that as teachers we sometimes forget that to be better writers students also need to practice daily. This is not to suggest that we ask students to produce more writing at length but rather that every lesson involves some time when students are expected to put down their thoughts, ideas or understanding in writing.
In every class students need to articulate their thoughts in writing if they are to become the effective writers of English that will determine their academic success. One of the best mathematics teachers I have had the pleasure of working with had his students stop every now and then during his classes to write down in words how they had just solved a mathematical problem and then share what they had written with a neighbour. What a wonderful way of embedding mathematical learning and at the same time practicing the skill of explaining things in a written form.
Native English speakers need to practice writing as well, but for the EAL student it is particularly important in helping develop confidence and the use of correct grammatical form. Even beginners in English can write if the writing task is authentic and has meaning for the them. Teachers sometimes shy away from setting ‘real’ writing tasks for EAL learners and are more comfortable with comprehension exercise that seem to indicate understanding of a text.
Students can appear to do well in comprehension tests but in reality they are simply able to create fragmented language which has little or no meaning for them. Answers to comprehension questions often follow a formulaic pattern that allows easy predictions of answers, but does not indicate any true grasp of meaning. Teachers can therefore be confused by a student’s success in comprehension exercises yet weakness in spontaneous writing at all other levels.
Similarly, copying sentences neatly and accurate off the whiteboard or from a text does not translate into effective use of the same words.
Quick writing tasks
Fast or quick writes are useful at the start of a lesson to begin discussions and also at the end of lessons or project to check for understanding. A fast or quick write, neither collected nor corrected, ensures that all students in the room are focused on the topic in hand.
These should be short 3-4 minutes of focussed writing linked to the topic being taught. The topic is set by the teacher and everyone in the class writes on the same topic. Sharing the ideas generated in these short writing exercise in groups of three to four can often lead to rich discussions and a powerful springboard to learning for the group.
Teachers need to write too.
As teachers we explain readily what the writing task is and even give clear instructions as to how to do it, but how often do we also participate in the writing of the set task and then share our own writing? It can be a powerful learning tool when the teachers share their own writing with students. Students pick up tips and techniques from their teacher and are often inspired to write more. Developing our own skills and confidence as writers is also important for us as teachers if we are to be able to progress the skills of our students.
Just as speaking, listening and reading are important in learners’ development, so being able to write well in English in the international school environment is essential if an EAL student is to develop socially, personally, practically and academically. Ensuring that the development of writing skills is an important part of all instruction goes a long way to increasing the success rates of our EAL students throughout their school experience.
Elly Tobin OBE
Awarded an OBE in the 2019 New Year Honours List for services to education and young people, Elly was formerly the Principal of Joseph Chamberlain College. Now working full-time with Consilium, Elly is also Director of the College for International Citizenship, a prestigious pre-university summer school for international students held annually in Birmingham.
Feature Image: Free-Photos – Pixabay
Other Images: Free-Photos – OpenClipart-Vectors & KELLEPICS – Pixabay