Helping students write

Written by: Rossen Stoitchkov, University of Sofia

The paper will address the issue of students’ motivation for writing and facilitation of the process of writing as well as some modes of positive feedback, which will help students gain confidence in their writing assignments. It will also look at ways of teaching students structures, patterns and collocation through reformulation techniques that will boost their fluency in writing. The nature of teacher responses to student writing will also be dealt with and some good practices will be shared as to how to promote successful writing that will improve students’ writing proficiency to the point where they are able to produce it with minimal errors and maximum clarity by modelling native-like fluency.

Most teachers would agree that the majority of students don’t like writing very much. At least this is an observation I would confirm as only 30 per cent of my students hand in their compositions for me to mark them. The rest of them either put off writing until the last minute, or they never set out to complete a writing assignment. The trouble is further exacerbated in many classrooms where writing is mainly relegated to a homework activity. Why is writing for most students such a daunting task? What makes it so unpopular?

One reason for writing to be postponed or avoided altogether may be that most students find it frustrating because it seems unnatural to them. Speaking, on the contrary, is accepted as quite natural. Speech takes place very quickly. Words are spoken and soon lost forever. Writing does not flow smoothly. We write a few lines roughly, reread them, then write down one of the lines smoothly, constantly checking for correctness.

Compared with speech, effective writing requires a number of things: a high degree of organization in the development of information, ideas or arguments; a high degree of accuracy so that there is no ambiguity of meaning; the use of complex grammatical devices for focus and emphasis; and a careful choice of vocabulary, grammatical patterns, and sentence structures to create a style which is appropriate to the subject matter and the eventual readers.

It is these demands which present particular problems to learners of English as a foreign language. Even those who are proficient writers in their first language have to acquire a wide language base from which to make appropriate choices. They may also find that confusing differences exist between the conventions of writing in Bulgarian and English. For example, the level of formality or patterns of presenting information may differ, or the accepted method of setting out arguments in discursive writing may vary.

The purpose of this paper is to look at writers and writing in the English language classroom and to offer suggestions for helping students overcome the difficulties they experience in developing clear, effective writing in English.

There are many reasons for finding writing difficult, but probably a fundamental one is lack of confidence and feeling that you don’t have anything to say. Every new piece of writing seems to be a new challenge. If students are able to accept this they might find it easier to cope. It is quite natural to feel rather “blocked” when you first approach a writing assignment. If you try to accept yourself as a writer and acknowledge that getting started is a common problem, writing shouldn’t seem to be such a daunting task.

What can we do to make writing more likable and less avoided? In order to help students to do well in writing tasks, it is essential to first understand them and the writing process. Writing must be taught and learned. The ability to write well is not a naturally acquired skill; it is usually learned or culturally transmitted as a set of practices in formal instructional settings. Writing skills must be practised and learned through experience. It is the act of composing that can create problems for students. It requires conscious effort and practice in composing, developing and analyzing ideas. The culture-specific nature of schemata – the mental structures representing our knowledge of things, events, and situations, can lead to difficulties when students write texts in a second language. Any appropriate teaching must take into consideration the influence from the educational, social, and cultural experiences that students have in their native language. These include textual issues, such as rhetorical and cultural preferences for organizing information and structuring arguments, knowledge of appropriate genres and distinct cultural and instructional socialization.

Writing should not be viewed only as an individually-oriented, inner-directed cognitive process, but as much as an acquired response to the discourse conventions within particular communities; knowledge of the textual conventions, expectations, and formulaic expressions particular to the discourse. By guiding students toward an awareness of how an audience will interpret their work, students will learn to write with a feel for the intended reader.

Most of the writing we do in real life is done with a reader in mind. Knowledge of the reader provides the writer with a context, without which it is difficult to know what or how to write. For example, if you ask students to write a description of a town, they need to know why and who for. Does the activity require the kind of description to be found in a visitor’s guide, a geography textbook, or a letter to a friend? Each of these might need different content for the description, order it in a certain way, and be written in a formal or informal style. In other words, the selection of content and style depends on a sense of audience. One of the teacher’s task is to create contexts and real or imagined audiences for writing. When setting writing activities, teachers need to vary the audience, identify who the readers are to be, and try to make every piece of writing fulfill some kind of communicative purpose, either real or simulated. When students understand the context, they are much more likely to write effectively and appropriately.

Apprenticeship models (Crème and Lea, 2003) of teaching writing, developed out of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theories of language and literacy, are becoming more common these days. Essentially, it is mostly proficient students who are also fairly skilled writers, who can benefit most from this approach. They start with what they already know and can do, but their learning is extended into what Vygotsky termed the “zone of proximal development” through strategic instruction, collaborative construction of opportunities and active participation. (Moll, 1990:23) Apprenticeship models enable students to use the new language as a tool in the process of becoming self-regulatory. Cumming (1989) suggests that in order to foster students’ writing expertise, “students should be supported by a scaffold of prompts and explanations, by extensive modeling, by in-process support, and by reflection that connects strategic effort to outcomes”. (Cumming,1995:42) Drawing on and revising student knowledge of genres, reflecting on strategies for approaching a variety of writing tasks, and cultivating a metalanguage for discussing texts are important components of such socio-literate methods.

The apprenticeship model is a knowledge-transforming model in itself and not a knowledge-telling one. (Flower and Hayes, 1981)It involves setting goals that are to be achieved through the composing process and the purposeful achievement of those goals. By incorporating pre-writing activities such as collaborative brainstorming, choice of personally meaningful topics, drafting, revising and editing, multiple drafts and peer-group editing, the instruction takes into consideration what writers do as they write. Attention to the writing process stresses more of a workshop approach to teaching, which fosters classroom interaction, and engages students in analyzing and commenting on a variety of texts. Such an approach can give students a general feel for the structure of the assignment they are writing, which involves creating and building your own structure and moulding your knowledge to the task.

Using “building blocks” is a metaphorical way of thinking about writing. As a student approaches each new assignment he or she is an “apprentice” while his or her teacher is an “experienced builder”. The teacher will be able to tell the student where he or she went wrong with their writing after the finished structure is completed. At this stage, the student may feel like an “apprentice” who has to acquire a number of “crafting skills” e.g. getting the grammar right; having a range of vocabulary; punctuating meaningfully; spelling accurately; using a range of sentence structures; linking ideas and information across sentences to develop a topic; developing and organizing the content clearly and convincingly. Yet he or she is in charge of the building. As a writer he or she has to be able to identify the building blocks, the different parts of the assignment. Whatever the assignment the student will be putting together all the components into a structured coherent whole. He or she will be the one to have to make choices about the sources he or she will be drawing from, what to put in and what to leave out, and what are the most important points to make.

Anderson (1985) distinguishes three stages of language production:

Construction – planning what you are going to write by brainstorming i.e. setting goals and searching memory for information;

Transformation – applying language rules to transform intended meanings into the form of the message when composing or revising i.e. using production systems to generate language in phrases or constituents;

Execution – the physical process of producing the text.

Cognitive modeling (Cumming, 1995) is an important prerequisite for successful writing and an integral part of the teaching of writing. It refers to the first stage of the process of language production as defined by Anderson above. The benefits of cognitive modeling lie at the hidden potential of demonstrating the strategies experienced writers use when planning, making decisions, and revising texts. It requires that teachers make explicit use of thinking or procedural facilitation prompts.

Students may be able to communicate more effectively if they are exposed to models of not only standard essays, but also a variety of genres, including flyers, magazine articles, letters, and so forth. By examining a variety of written texts, students’ awareness can be raised with regard to the way words, structures, and genre contribute to purposeful writing. Also, they can be made aware of different types of textual organization, which can in turn affect their second language composing processes. (Raimes, 1985)

Models can also be used for text analysis, which can help students see how particular grammatical features function in authentic discourse contexts. Models can seem fairly formulaic as in the knowledge-telling model of the five-paragraph essay. (Flower and Hayes, 1981) Students need to be aware of a variety of forms that serve the writer’s purpose.

I have tried out some of these insights with Intermediate students. The coursebook I have been teaching for the past few years is New Headway Intermediate (the revised version). Unit 4 provides some quite stimulating writing opportunities. On page 108 students are given a model of a four-paragraph essay where the pros and cons of being a child are discussed. Students have to study the sample essay analytically paying particular attention to the textual organization with all the linking devices and referential ties that ensure text coherence and a logical flow of ideas. They are expected to be able to pick up the use of rhetorical and cohesive devices like: In my opinion…; One advantage is that…’ Another point is that…; Moreover,…; For instance,…; All things considered,…; In fact,…; In conclusion,…; Finally,… etc.

Furthermore, students are shown how to go about generating ideas drawing on their general knowledge and experience. Then they are invited to write a “for and against” essay on the following subjects: Getting Older; Having a University Degree or Having Children While Young, the latter being their favorite topic as I have collected lots of compositions on this subject.

I usually have an open class discussion trying to urge my students to think about the problem in question and to freely express their opinions. Then I get them to write a list of pros and cons, which in this case might look like this:

Having Children While Young

Advantages Disadvantages
  • you start thinking like an adult and become more mature;
  • childbearing is easier;
  • mums have more energy and can stand all the sleepless nights;
  • smaller age gap between parents and children;
  • children give a meaning to one’s life;
  • you can have grandchildren while you are still quite active
  • you can’t go out with friends very often;
  • it can put a mother’s career on hold;
  • more responsibilities than pleasures;
  • you will have to lose most of the freedoms you have previously enjoyed;
  • childbearing always involves risk;
  • it is difficult for a young mum to pursue her studies;
  • fewer pastimes;
  • sometimes women have to fight depression after childbirth

It would be great if students were encouraged to research a topic and look for input. Here is an article out of The Telegraph that I came across while searching relevant information on the Internet, which is a good source for students to draw on in order to write their essay. See Appendix D.

It is very important at this stage to pre-teach the requisite vocabulary and collocations so that the students can have some key topic-related vocabulary and phrases at their disposal to help them express their ideas. Such key vocabulary may include the following words and expressions:

Verb and Complement Collocations Noun Phrases/Compound Nouns
have a baby/child having children
give birth to a baby/child/son/daughter childbearing/childbirth
bring up/rear/raise/care for/look after a child upbringing/child rearing/raising a child
feed a child child feeding
take responsibility for a child

adversely affect a relationship

eliminate one’s libido

take your anger out on your partner

affect one’s performance (referring to working mums)

contribute to society

grow up to be an honest person/lead a life of crime etc.

strain/exhaustion/ sleep deprivation/lack of sleep (while caring for a baby)

greater financial security (when having children at a later age)

energy levels (referring to mums)

parents-to-be etc.

Note that most of the phrases in the chart above have been taken from the article in Appendix D. Obviously, students can research a topic looking for input, including appropriate vocabulary and phraseology.

Language teachers need to know that while teaching we are dealing with thinking in a second language. If we succeed in getting our students to think in English, we have certainly taught them something. When we write, we are thinking about editing and generating ideas at a time. This involves two conflicting processes: creating and destroying. Dealing with a chaos of thoughts in our minds is a hard job. However, if we are able to put them down on paper before they are lost, we can express them in a more orderly manner later, which is a feasible task. A person writing is like a “mental juggler”. (Raimes, 1985:34) Students need to learn to turn off the editor while writing and generate ideas without destroying them before they are able to get them down on paper. They can turn on the editor after all their ideas are safely down on paper. Freewriting is the key. Students feel relaxed and there is no frustration about writing. The goal of freewriting is generating as much material as possible in 10-20 minutes. According to Elbow (1981) in order for this to work one must observe the following list of don’ts:

  1. Don’t stop to think about mistakes.
  2. Don’t stop to check spelling.
  3. Don’t stop to think about grammar.
  4. Don’t stop to cross out or read what you have written.

The benefit of freewriting is in the assumption that if you are not stopping for anything, then there isn’t sufficient time to translate from the mother-tongue into the second language.

I believe that if we do our best to get our students to freewrite, we will have won most of the battle over frustration. Perhaps then students will be more eager to write. What I appreciate most about freewriting is that it forces students to think in English. See Appendix C for samples of freewriting. Students were asked to write as much text as they could in 15 minutes.

We need to teach students to sit down and write uninhibitedly, not looking back, not organizing, and not stopping for anything. If they stop, the devil of the editor sneaks in the back door and the writing loses its coherence thus destroying the writing process.

Another way of changing negative attitudes toward writing is to teach students that writing is a way of learning apart from being a skill. When we think about skill, ideas of good and bad, and success and failure spring to mind. Learning, on the other hand, is something everyone can attain.

For Raimes (1985) the teaching of writing should stress the students’ ideas and how they express these ideas rather than stressing grammar. If a student’s essay is free of grammatical mistakes, and has superb organization, that doesn’t make it a good essay. It could be that the student is merely “parroting” information. As the author points out – “writing is a learning process in which writing finds its own meaning; truth and meaning cannot exist apart from language”. (Raimes, 1985:83)

Assigning a topic is only a small part of the teacher’s job. We shouldn’t assign topics and leave students fend for themselves. We need to help students learn how to achieve their goals. According to Raimes “giving an assignment involves more than selecting a topic for the students to write on. It means giving the suggestions as to how to go about writing it”. (Raimes, 1985:85) Sometimes teachers fail to give their students a goal. They only give an assignment and the result is a dead and lifeless piece of writing written to the teacher. It should be the teacher’s duty to create a specific audience for the students to write to so that the writing can be goal-oriented. Writing that has no goal usually lacks what Elbow (1981) call “real voice”. Therefore, systematically encouraging learners to reflect on what they want to write and then helping them to make an appropriate choice of language forms has pedagogic value.

Overt classroom teaching through modeling is only one part of the teaching process; providing students with feedback on their writing is the other. The effectiveness of feedback may depend on the level of students’ motivation, their current level, their cognitive style, the clarity of the feedback given, the way the feedback is used, and the attitudes of students toward their teacher and the class.

We must respond to writing in such a way so that students can make modifications with confidence and competence. Ideally, learners should be encouraged to analyze and evaluate feedback themselves in order for it to be truly effective. Teacher commentary, student reactions to commentary, and student revisions interact with each other in a formidable way. How teachers intervene in writing, and how students react to the feedback influences the composing process. Should we urge our students to pay little attention to correctness, at least until a first draft has been written?

Process models of teaching writing allow students time to reflect and seek input as they reshape their plans, ideas and language. The focus should be on idea development, clarity, and coherence before identification and grammar correction. Instruction and response serve to motivate revisions, encourage learning, induce problem-solving and critical thinking, in addition to further writing practice.

We need to help students look at their writing critically. Feedback should involve problem-solving and engage students in the process of error correction rather than simply providing corrections for them. One way to achieve this is through writing conferences. It would be far more rewarding if we could meet individually with students and discuss the weak and strong points of their essays rather than marking compositions all up in red pen and handing them back. Many times the teacher will have to suggest different ways of wording a sentence. Students have to use feedback as a tool to improve their writing. There is a way we can help our students take feedback more seriously and that is through the conference. The teacher can explain the remarks that were put on the paper carefully and effectively in the writing conference. During the conference the teacher needs to praise good parts of an essay, as well as point out weaknesses.

Realistically, in many teaching situations individual conferences are simply not possible due to time and space constraints. At any rate, feedback should be approached with patience and care on the part of the teacher. However, if you teach a class of 8-10 students, as it is often the case at the Sofia University Language Department, such an enterprise seems to be completely affordable.

Grammar and content feedback, whether given separately or together, positively affect writing. It is essential to focus on the structural aspects so that the writing closer resembles target language discourse. A combination of process instruction and attention to language development is the best choice. Attention to errors “provides the negative evidence students often need to reject or modify their hypotheses about how the target language is formed or functions’. (Larsen-Freeman, 1991:29) Students normally attend to and appreciate their teachers’ pointing out grammar problems. Grammatical feedback seems to have more effect on error correction than content feedback has on the improvement of content.

Cumming (1995) suggests that student self-evaluation should be the optimal mode of assessment. Self-evaluation can be encouraged in student portfolios, self-review checklists, and teacher and peer responses. In addition, verbalizing the writing process step-by-step can be effective, as it affords both students and teachers the opportunity to consider writing dialogically. The author refers to self-assessment as a component of one-to-one tutoring sessions, which he suggests are “more conducive environments for the textual, cognitive, and social dimensions of error identification to be integrated with individual students’ composing processes and their immediate concerns about language, ideas, and texts” (Cumming, 1995:39) Again, this is a time-consuming procedure but it is all right with smaller classes. Of course, the teacher should be ready to devote some time to such tutoring sessions if he or she really wants to boost the students’ writing competence in particular and their language proficiency in general.

Feedback gives the students direction in their revision. It helps them make decisions on the kinds of changes that must be made in order for their compositions to really work. With new concepts in teaching composition emerging, new attitudes to teacher responses to student writing have been generated. No doubt, one of the most important criteria in ensuring effective writing among students is the quality of feedback given to them.  If we aim at really effective feedback, we must go beyond the traditional emphasis on the correction of grammar, sentence development, spelling, punctuation marks and other concerns of form. We must deepen the interaction between teacher and student. It is such interaction that ultimately stimulates the students to discover, develop, and expand their ideas in writing. Teacher feedback must help the students make their meaning clear. This requires conversing with them, motivating them to see that the success of their written work largely depends on how they respond to the multiple demands that their decisions about their writing assignments elicit from them. To assist them, the students must get comments that challenge their thoughts. Sometimes, teachers should even recommend ideas to be incorporated in their compositions. I myself do it all the time.

Research has shown that students will improve their written performance if teachers shift their concern for errors on the written product to concern for the evaluation and reformulation of ideas in their texts. (Flower and Hayes, 1981) Teacher comments should be formative, the type that promotes learning. The responses that a teacher gives to student composition must encourage them to find new ways of elaborating their thoughts. Although praise can and must be given when appropriate, the teacher’s support must be extended by showing to the students how or why something they wrote in not working in their essays. Such a view stems from a major premise – feedback on writing would be more productive if it were conversational. Conversing with students will stimulate their minds to rethink and reconstruct their thoughts. Such feedback will provide them with a direction on how to revise their work to deepen their meaning.

It is my observation that the majority of students find conversational comments most useful in helping them improve their writing. However, it is necessary that teachers build a trusting relationship with their students. They have to explain their rationale behind their evaluation of students’ written work to the students.

My own experience with student-teacher conferencing matches what most composition experts assert about the value of conversational comments – it is a way for the student to view writing as a means of learning. (Flower and Hayes, 1981; Frodesen and Holton, 2003) Furthermore, teachers need to continually examine their commenting behavior. We need to find alternatives and adjust our traditional way of giving feedback to them. We also need to learn to respond in a manner that will reflect to the students the notion that writing is a tool of learning and that we are trying to lead them into rethinking their written assignments as an integral part of the process of composition. Positive response behavior involves skill and training. There is a variety of techniques of telling students how they can make their writing better.

I have come to understand that indirect feedback is more useful than direct correction. Written feedback has also been found to be effective when it is coupled with student-teacher conferencing. (Frodesen and Holton, 2003) Students sometimes find making sense of written feedback problematic. Conferencing allows both students and teachers an opportunity to identify the causes of the problems and to develop strategies for improvement. They willingly take part in such conferences and find it more effective than written comments. Also, they often insist on some kind of feedback to do with the content of their writings involving  the ideas they have set about to share.

It is advisable that a dialogue is initiated between student and teacher in order to give a clearer understanding of how the assignment should be conceived and executed. The comments teachers use, can be further developed in individual conferences. Apart from using conferences to determine if students understand and are making use of feedback, teachers can also use them to explain their comments and corrections. Such conferences are an excellent time for teachers and students to ask direct questions to each other and clarify any misunderstandings.

Sometimes it is too complicated to try to change or underline bits of what the student has written. In such cases I like to provide a correct and more natural way of writing what I think the student wanted to write, and ask if this is what he or she meant.  I often feel that I have to rephrase a sentence or completely reshuffle a paragraph. This gives the student a clear model of one way of saying it. It also encourages the student to try again to explain to me what he or she did want to write. Students like this type of correction because it concentrates on what they want to say, not on grammatical detail. Such a method of feedback is known as reformulation. I believe that it has a great potential for raising students’ awareness in terms of natural, native-like usage.

The notion of reformulation grew out of work in error analysis in the late 1970s. Levenston (1978) traces it to Pit Corder’s (1971) definition of a “reconstructed sentence”. This sentence is “what a native speaker of the target language would have said to express that meaning in that context”. (Levenston, 1978:55)

Levenston felt that to make a composition more “native-like”, it would take a process better described as reformulation to take into account rhetorical factors other than grammaticalness. To a great extent, the whole composition might have to be rewritten. Cohen (1987) also explains that the reformulator should “rewrite the paper so as to preserve as many of the writer’s ideas as possible, while expressing them in his or her own words so as to make the piece sound native-like”. (Cohen, 1987:4)

Obviously, rewriting every single composition of every student in a class is too time-consuming to be practical. It would indeed make us slaves to loads of compositions. Nevertheless, if teaching is your calling and students’ learning is your goal, or better still, if your students are customers that need to be catered for, then it is a feasible task.

I personally find reformulation quite rewarding. It enables the learner to compare his or her text with the reformulated version and note differences. However, I have found out that such feedback works especially well with strong students. They find it both challenging and stimulating. The success of this technique is due to the student’s ability to reflect on the differences between the two texts and they usually improve in exactly those areas where they were able to pick up certain turns of speech. They are capable of reflecting on the differences and attempt to incorporate their observations into subsequent written assignments. On the other hand, weak students seem to be overwhelmed by the comparison activity and need assistance with this analytic task. By confronting the learner with the mismatch between flawed and model performance we could create favorable conditions and appropriate context for language points we have still not set out to teach and which could have been spoiled if we had attempted to give extensive explicit explanation for them. For illustration of reformulation see Appendix A.

I always try to get students to incorporate my suggestions for reformulation into the flow of their intended meaning. After I have reformulated and typed the compositions I give them out to the class at random. Everyone is reading good English undistracted by errors. No one is embarrassed by errors or by a low level of grammatical proficiency. Students who are otherwise too shy to show their essays in class often feel proud of their writing. The others can discuss content, but no one is going to argue about small points of grammar.

I urge students to comment on what works in each essay or what strikes them as good or interesting about it. I tell them that we are together to learn about what works. We do not need to study what doesn’t work, which is obvious anyway. The compositions circulate throughout the class. After the papers have circulated, the whole class talks about what they have read. Everyone has something to say, to make comments. Everyone knows which essays are the best. They don’t have to be told. If anything is said at all, it will be positive. They don’t have to worry about a humiliating comment being made about their work in public. Students are very interested to read each other’s work and to evaluate it for quality as well as meaning. They learn a lot about writing from each other through these readings. If there is a little competitive edge to improve the next essay, so much the better. It comes through the group dynamic, not through comparing.

The majority of the students like the method very much and feel that they are learning from it. Their enthusiasm creates conditions for learning. Students appreciate the prompt and detailed feedback obtained through reformulation, and the method provides them with frequent contextual opportunities to recognize the syntax most troublesome to each individual. The object of the reformulation feedback is not to teach students editing, but to promote learning by providing contextual opportunities to repeat correct use of structures. The repeated reformulations lend themselves to grammar consciousness-raising and therefore indirectly to the ability to edit.

While new insights into composing processes are important, we also know that grammar is important. Learners seem to focus best on grammar when it relates to their communicative needs and experiences. We can’t ignore grammar. Learning the syntax and vocabulary of the new language is basic to our students’ ability to write. How to increase vocabulary and learn the syntax of the new language as they learn to write in it? We have to develop many ways of doing so. Second language learning is as much a process as writing is a process, and among our students writing is firmly embedded in the matrix of second language learning.

As a matter of fact, language transfer is an important cognitive factor related to error. Students use their native language when they are generating ideas and attending to details. The more content-rich and creative the text, the greater the possibility for errors at the morphosyntactic level. These kinds of errors are especially common among students who have a lot of ideas, but not enough language to express what they want to say in a comprehensible way. Errors can help us identify the cognitive strategies that the learner is using to process information. According to Ellis  “it is through analyzing learner errors that we elevate the status of errors from undesirability to that of a guide to the inner working of the language learning process.” (Ellis, 1985:53)

Bulgarian-speaking writers must undergo the task of cognitively exchanging the style of the Bulgarian language for that of English. Those who have difficulty writing in their native language may not have a repertoire of strategies to help them in their second language writing development. If learners perceive writing tasks to be useless, they may approach them in a careless manner. Without some way to generate meaning out of their own experience, students often produce stultifying texts in response to the directions imposed upon them by their textbooks. Students should be introduced to invention techniques to help them discover and engage in a topic. Rather than being expected to turn in a finished product right away, students should be asked for multiple drafts. They should be taught that rewriting and revision are integral to writing, and that editing is an ongoing, multi-level process, not merely a hasty check for correct grammar.

I find that a lot of students lack habits of observation, critical thought, or substance to express. Figuring out what to say is not so much a problem as how to say it in English. We have to incorporate the insights of the process approach into our teaching while still addressing the need to teach our students syntactic features of English which come automatically to native speakers.

Students normally do well learning the common words of English very thoroughly, because they carry the main patterns of the language. The patterns have to be rather precisely described in order to avoid confusions, and then are capable of being rather precisely used. Despite this, many learners avoid the common words as much as possible, and especially where they make up the idiomatic phrases. Instead of using them, they rely on larger, rarer, and clumsier words which make their language sound stilted and awkward. Learners will have to be able to produce with confidence much more idiomatic English, with less effort involved. For examples see Appendix B.

It is rare for a piece of writing not to have several parts which are good, correct, interesting, and deserving positive response. These must be acknowledged. Students must get to know what is good as well as what is “wrong”. There is much to be said about interesting work containing mistakes, rather than “perfect” but dull, safe writing. This also needs to be encouraged. I tend to favor interesting writing, which often “hides” mistakes. Should we praise accurate work or interesting, creative work?

If something is worth writing well, it is worth writing more than once. I mean the teacher should make it clear to the students that it is very unusual for a writer simply to write something once and accept that first draft as the finished product. The first draft is written in order to be improved. First we must ask students to write texts that are worth writing and we must help them to get used to the idea of the first writing being a draft for improvement. In this way, we can create a situation in which our marking becomes a helpful part of the writing process. The chance to compare first and second draft can help both student and teacher.

If learners can feel their own emotions being expressed in a language, this will build a relationship with the language which will help them learn it. The wish to experiment is a good sign in a learner and should be encouraged. It shows an interest in the language and an enjoyment of it, which will lead to learning.

We should be helping students to see their English as something which is developing and getting more and more useful. They should feel that they are making the right sort of progress. We should try to make correction part of the teaching and learning process, not something for learning to fight against. The desire to express oneself, to experiment, and to communicate are more important to language learning than being absolutely correct.

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  • Levenston, E.A. ((1978): Error Analysis of Free Composition: The Theory and The Practice. Journal of Applied Linguistics, 4, (1), 1-11.
  • Liz and John Soars (2003): New Headway – Intermediate. The New Edition. Oxford University Press.
  • Raimes, A. (1985): what Unskilled ESL Students Do as They Write?: A Classroom Study of Composing. TESOL Quarterly, 19 (2), 229-258.
  • Moll, L.C. (1990): Vygotsky and Education: Instructional Implications and Applications of Sociohistorical Psychology. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Appendix A.

Essay Reformulation.

Intermediate Student. Original essay. The lines to be reformulated are in bold.

Having Children While Young

At the beginning I always thought that the right age for to have a child is between 27 and 33 years old. But now I changed my opinion. I think that is better to have a child while you’re young. I know that this has both pros and cons. Why I think so?

For me the most important pros to have child while you’re young is the chance to make your career after then. I think if you give birth to a child before to graduate your higher education you have bigger opportunity to develop in your profession. When you begin a job and work a few years you get into the swing of the work and if then you become pregnant this to be stop your career.

Another point is that while you are young you can take care of baby easier. While a person is young the things are doing easily. One advantage is that the most young people don’t go deep in things. They don’t pay attention of it and that they feel better. Of course, the very important thing is the woman is provided for.

I know that to having child while young has cons. One of them is while you look after your baby you should learn and you must go to examination. For many people that’s difficult and they don’t make a success to combine the things. But for strong and energetic people that’s not problem. I don’t speak about theme for money because it will be better to write other essay.

Finally, and the both cases to take care a child requires many effort. I think for very important the woman to be ready to be a mother no matter how old she is.

Reformulated Version.

Having Children While Young
When I was younger I thought that the right age for having children is between 27 and 33. Now I have changed my opinion. I think that it is better to start a family while you are young. I know that this has both pros and cons. You would ask me why I think so.

For me, the most important advantage of having children while young is that it gives you a chance to build your own career after child rearing is over. If you are studying for a degree and you have a baby before completing your higher education, you will get better opportunities for career growth. You start a job, and after you have worked for a few years, you become proficient. If, at that point, you get pregnant, this will put your career on hold.

Another point is that while you are young it is much easier to care for a baby. While a person is young it is always easy to do anything. However, one disadvantage is that young people often fail to see the depth of other aspects of family life. They sometimes can’t acknowledge the things that would distract them from devoting all their energy to their children’s well-being. Moreover, a mother often has to provide both for her children and herself.

I know that having children while young has cons, too. For instance, if you have a career goal that you must pursue your studies, being a young mother means that you cannot put as much time into your education, yet it is important for your career objective. A lot of people find it hard to combine the two aspects of their lives. However, as long as you can keep the two objectives in balance, it shouldn’t be a problem. I don’t want to touch on the question of money as it can be addressed in another essay.

Finally, in either case, child rearing takes a lot of effort. I believe that it is essential that a child expecting woman should be prepared to be a mother no matter how old she is.


Appendix B.

The chunks that sound awkward or clumsy are underlined. The suggested reformulations are in parentheses.

  1. Having children while young is a good idea if you realize it because in this way you have more organization and you discharge your duties
  2. In fact, you understand them better because you haven’t a big difference in age.
  3. They have to realize (acknowledge)that they have the biggest wealth in the world.
  4. You can rely on your children and if you need their cares (need being taken care of), they will look after you.
  5. If you have definite purposes… (If you have a goal in your life…)
  6. …you realize faster that you have to be responsible. (you come to grips with parental responsibilities earlier in life.)
  7. We didn’t have connection with the other world. We were cut off from the rest of the world.
  8. We had to reconcile with the thought that this night would be very cold. (We had to put up with the prospect of spending a really cold night.)
  9. In the evening we spent very funny. (we had such a fun)
  10. One colleague had a birthday. (It was one of our colleague’s birthday)
  11. It was necessary to depart at 9.00 o’clock. (We had to leave/catch a bus)
  12. The receptionist told us that all the rooms were occupied. (there were no vacancies/no rooms available)
  13. We fell into a traffic congestion. (got stuck in a traffic jam/were held up by heavy traffic)
  14. We didn’t carry any meal and any drink. (didn’t have anything to eat or drink)
  15. For happiness, my friends… (Luckily,…)
  16. I didn’t bring a screwdriver because I feared from wounding with it in case of my multitude falldowns. (for fear of getting hurt in case I fell over)
  17. You have time to realize in your job. (to fulfill yourself)
  18. They are near by understanding and concept. (They get along very well together.)
  19. Your parents might be able to look after the children when you are engaged. (…when you are busy working)
  20. All my friends have been trying to find me a hobby. (encourage me to take up a hobby/help me choose a hobby)
  21. I am very quiet, but she is a lot more unruly. (she is wild)
  22. I have good will to help him. (I don’t mind helping him.)
  23. Our block of flats is last toward mountain Vitosha. (…is at the foot of the Vitosha mountains)
  24. I don’t believe in the post-office. (the postal system)
  25. My address registration is somewhere else. (I am officially registered at a different address.)
  26. For big wonder of everybody,… (To everyone’s amazement,…)
  27. The car is bad for your health because you don’t move enough. (you don’t get enough exercise.)
  28. I stay very long time at my job. (work long hours)
  29. fell down so much snow… (it snowed heavily)
  30. The damnation was stopped. (The curse was lifted.)

Appendix C.

Samples of Freewriting.

Pre-Intermediate Student

Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of living in a flat/house

Living in a flat has some advantages than in a house. It’s a cheaper in flat and it is available you live close to the center of town. You can meet a lot of people when you going out or go home. But in a house you can e living in piece and quiet. You can have a yard and a garage and you can have a dinner out under the grapes.

Living in a house is expensive than in flat. You have to think about heating in the winter. However, if you live in countrysaid you can use wools to heat and it’s cheaper, but you will be far from the city.

However, I prefer to live in a house near the city, not too closer, but there must be good roads. I want to have a lot of neighbours.

Intermediate Student

Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of having a university degree

The most important thing in these days is the university degree. You have a good start in your professional way. If you have the right degree you must know what you want to do when you graduate. Other plus thing of the university degree is that you meet a lot of people with similar interests and you may change professional opinion with them.

But having a university degree takes many years. Another bad thing is learning a lot of unnecessary subjects which only fill your head with too much information. The pluses are more than minuses When you are applying for a job university degree is a big plus. It gives more business opportunities and challenges and of course well-paid job and better life for you and for your family.

Upper-Intermediate Student

Write about a modern invention and explain why you think it is very necessary to your life

I think the most important invention for my life and for lifes of other 6 bilion people on earth is the electricity. I choose it because it is the (основата) of our way of life. If there wasn’t electricity there won’t be a technical revolution and many other inventions won’t exist. I couldn’t even imagine the life without electricity but I think it will be the same as in the Dark Ages. We will use oil lamps and the work in factoryes will be very harder than now. And we couldn’t even dream about computers, cellphones and other useful things.

The electricity have many advantages. It makes our life much easyer. After the electricity was invented the mankind started a great progress. The electricity saves us time and this gives us more time for other activities which mean that it (the electricity) have influence even in culture development of humans.

Electricity in his own has no disadvantages, they are (свързани с) the way we gather it because it causes a big part of pollution on our planet. But I think…


Appendix D.

The words and expressions to be taught before writing are underlined.

Deciding to Have Children

Special Report
This article appeared in the British paper, the Telegraph on 3-13-1 By Nicole Martin staff reporter.

Having A Baby Can Ruin Your Sex Life, Marriage And Career
Having a baby wrecks couple’s relationships, hampers their sex lives and affects their work, according to a survey published today.

80% of mothers surveyed said that lack of sleep was a common cause of arguments and 60 admitted that the strain of continually waking in the middle of the night to feed their child had all but eliminated their libido. 90% of mothers over 34 said that their relationship had been adversely affected by the birth.

The study, compiled by Mother & Baby magazine, challenged the view that men had abandoned their macho attitudes and had become increasingly more willing to share the burden of caring for and raising a child. It found that two thirds of fathers did not wake up when their baby cried. One fifth admitted that they never got up to help. Women were left to cope with only four hours of sleep a night in their child’s first four months.

Almost all of the 2,000 women surveyed said that sleep deprivation had made them bad tempered, forgetful and tearful. For more than two thirds, the strain was so great that they felt unable to function properly and were more accident prone.

Exhaustion had a devastating impact on their work. The report found that 83% of mothers who had returned to employment said that sleep deprivation had affected their performance. Single mothers appeared to be more able than others to survive on a few hours of sleep, despite having to cope alone. Only 41% said it made them irritable, compared with half of all other mothers.

Dani Zur, the magazine’s editor, said the image of older, celebrity mothers effortlessly coping with the strains of motherhood was deceiving.” The trend nowadays is to have children at a later age, and although there are many positive points, such as greater financial security, older mums don’t have the same energy levels as those in their 20s.

“The fresh-faced image of famous older mums, like Madonna and Cherie Blair, doesn’t usually show the entourage of helpers that follow them around. Parents-to-be have no concept of how the lack of sleep a baby brings will devastate their lives. If you’re getting less than four hours of sleep a night, it’s going to make you bad tempered and you’ll probably take your anger out on your partner. You’ll also feel irritated with your baby and frequently tearful.”

Dean Mahoney, of the National Family and Parenting Institute, said that for the majority of parents the stresses and strains of having a baby lessened after the first 12 months. “For women especially, having a baby changes the way they think about themselves. They see themselves more as a parent than as a partner and this can have a huge impact on a relationship,” he said.

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