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Making writing interactive

1. Collaborative writing Getting students to write together automatically means there is interaction between them. Possible problems when doing this include: the stronger or more dominant student having the pen and the others doing nothing, students doing all their speaking in L1 and only writing in English, students and groups who concentrate too much on […]

1. Collaborative writing
Getting students to write together automatically means there is interaction between them. Possible problems when doing this include: the stronger or more dominant student having the pen and the others doing nothing, students doing all their speaking in L1 and only writing in English, students and groups who concentrate too much on accuracy, and some groups taking much longer than others. Solutions include giving the pen to any students not taking part, telling them to switch who is physically writing it every paragraph or every 3 to 5 minutes, giving them an English language plan or sentence cues that the writing will be based on, and giving them a strict time limit for each stage of the writing process. Students might also complain that writing together is slower and more difficult than writing on their own. Two possible responses are to tell them that the language they learn from each other will make the extra time and effort worthwhile, or allowing them to split the work up once they have planned what they are going to write, e.g. writing alternate paragraphs.

2. Being read afterwards
Another general tip for making writing interactive is to make sure someone is reading it afterwards -and of course things that we write in real life are usually read by someone else. Telling students that their writing will be read by other students should instantly raise their motivation to write and write well, and getting them used to this will raise their interest in writing and help them to learn from reading other people’s work. Basic techniques include passing the writing to the next person or group (e.g. clockwise around the class), swapping with another person or group, picking randomly from a stack of pieces of writing, reading writing that is pinned up on the walls, or selecting from texts spread across the table. Things people can do as they read include deciding if they agree with the opinions stated, thinking about what their reaction would be if they received that letter etc, or looking for similarities and differences with their own piece of writing.

3. Reading and writing back
Perhaps the most natural thing to do once you read someone else’s writing is to write back, as we do all the time with letters, emails, instant messenger programmes and mobile phone texts. This can be made more fun by adding a game element such as people competing to make as many new appointments as they can in 15 minutes.

4. Reading and speaking- the same student
About the only time we write something which no one else will read is when it is to remind ourselves, such as a diary, a shopping list, notes in a lecture, revision notes, lesson plans, or jotting things down as someone tells you information on the phone. Writing can have the same purposes in the classroom, but we can also make these kinds of writing interactive (and therefore more fun and stimulating) by the students then taking those notes and using them in a future speaking task, e.g. preparing for an IELTS or BULATS Speaking Part Two (short presentations). This can also give students who don’t bother taking notes motivation to start doing so.

5. Reading and speaking- different students
Another kind of student speaking that can come out of writing is taking another student’s or team’s piece of writing and discussing it with your partner. Possibilities include thinking of advice you could give someone who has written an agony aunt letter, discussing which of the ideas written there are the best, and working out some missing information such as who an email is supposed to be written to.

6. Performing
One type of writing and then speaking that is used fairly often in the language classroom is students writing scripts and then performing them in front of their classmates. This is only truly interactive, however, if we make sure that the other students have a real reason to listen while that performance is going on. For example, we can ask them to listen to someone complaining and a shop assistant responding and decide which of the two people was more polite, or they can listen to a shop conversation and compete to be the first to correctly add up the total money that was spent.

7. Plan together and then write apart
Students do the planning stage together in class, and then write alone in class or for homework. Students can then read each others’ writing, judge how well it stuck to the plan, and maybe make suggestions on how to improve their partner’s version. Another way it could be read is by all the people in the class, who then have to guess which two pieces of writing were written to the same plan.

8. Write a bit and pass it on
Another way of students working together but writing apart is for one student to write a paragraph and then pass it onto another student to continue. This can also be done line by line.

9. Write it blind and pass it on
A fun (if unlike writing in real life) variation of the tip above if for students to be told what information needs to go into each paragraph or line but to fold the paper so that the next person writing can’t see what has gone before. The last person then opens the writing up and sees if it makes any sense as a whole.

10. Deliberate mistakes
Ask students to add lies, factual errors or English language errors to their writing and then tell the other students reading it to find the deliberate mistakes. This makes it more interactive and is good editing practice.

11. Grade each other
This could mean choosing a favourite piece of writing from their classmates, ranking the writing by one particular aspect (e.g. how fairly they looked at the two sides of the argument or how well they used linking words), or looking at the exam (e.g. IELTS) marking code and giving other students’ work a mark. This is a good way for students to learn to look at their own work objectively, and therefore to help them improve their writing, especially at the planning and editing stages.

12. Giving awards
This is a slightly less judgemental version of the tip above- giving out awards to all or most pieces of writing for different things such as succinctness, use of formal language, neatest handwriting etc.

13. Summarizing other people’s texts
The other students can then decide if it is a fair summary, write a full essay from that summary and compare it to the original piece of writing, compare several summaries of the same pieces of writing, match summaries to original texts etc. To add more fun, you can also get people to write summaries of the summaries etc, even getting down to one sentence. Any of these activities can then be done with that very short summary.

14. Communication with the teacher
For example, learner diaries or pen friend letters that the teacher writes back to. Please note that this is lots of work for the teacher (as well as for the students).

15. Doing the same task and then comparing
This works best if you tell them what to look for when they compare, e.g. using the same arguments, language for particular functions, paragraph structure etc.

Written by Alex Case for Teflnet May 2009
Alex Case is the author of TEFLtastic.

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Teflnet : ESL Lesson Plans : Classroom Ideas : Writing : Making writing interactive