Saturday, February 7, 2009

Nadia-Veronica: collaborative writing task

In second language writing, as much as in second language teaching in general, any piece of practical advice, suggestion, idea or tip on “how to…” appears to be very important and, actually, indispensable for a language educator. Therefore I find these two articles useful and worthwhile reading even though many, or all, of these activities are updates of pre word-processing/computer lab activities that many of us have used in the classroom. In many cases, these papers seem to be “killing two birds with one stone”-- teaching keyboarding at the same time as language.

I have used these types of activities with my ESOL and Literacy (mainstream English) junior classes and now with my L2 French students. I use them in a traditional classroom f2f, simply because there is only one computer lab in our large secondary school, and I don’t get much chance to spend a decent amount of time in it (hopefully there will be more labs in future). In a pre-computer/no-computer f2f setting there are a number of variations on how these activities --minus the key-boarding skills--can be presented. However, my students do spend more hours in the lab in their Social Studies or English classes, and the students are generally highly literate in word processing (in most NZ schools it’s being introduced at primary level).

From my own experience I know that most of the activities mentioned in the two articles work well with the students and are very useful in developing their literacy skills. I presume that using a word processor would make these tasks even more attractive and desirable from a student perspective. However, in a larger classroom, it would be good to develop different levels of activities and have students work from lower to more demanding levels.

From the list of activities suggested by Renata Chylinski, I am particularly in favor of those that use highlighting to indicate different grammar structures, categories of words, or parts of a paragraph. So, my own example would be to give students a model paragraph (preferably, more than one) and ask them to identify the structure of the paragraph using different shades or some other method (underline, bold, italicize, etc). I usually teach paragraph structure to the formula: 1. topic sentence/or statement, 2. explanation, 3.example/or evidence. Having discussed the ideas, in relation to  the model paragraph, they can write their own on different topics and swap in pairs to highlight the peer’s work as a form of peer editing and pair work. 

Similarly, from the list of activities in Vance Stevens’ text, I have also used almost all of them in ‘pen and paper’ conditions. Some of these activities I use as speaking practice in my French classes, for example description of a picture or famous people, or cross-class interviews – with the only difference that instead of writing my students do all this orally. It’s usually quite fun. I have also tried and used different kinds of narrative based on pictures. They can easily be designed as ‘focused tasks’  in order to elicit the use of a particular grammar structure (very useful with verb tenses if there is a suitable picture-based story).

Since I am personally very much in favor of respecting the genre and register conventions, I like the type of tasks such as Writing a letter in Stevens’ article. I think it is very important for second language learners to master control over the differences between formal and informal registers in letters, speech, etc. Personal experience tells me that students at all levels usually enjoy such tasks.  

To wrap up, the two articles we have focused on this week, may give some ideas to those who teach at lower levels. Furthermore, they have helped me to revise my own ideas of collaborative writing. I have realized that actually my idea of collaborative writing has been rather limited – to the collaboration in writing essays, reports, academic papers or pieces of creative writing, but now I’ve seen that many of the ‘normal’ everyday activities I am practicing with my students are, in fact, some kind of collaborative writing. What a relief! It’s also interesting to see that these activities seem to be updates of the activities many of us used in the classroom in pre-computer days; they give a new twist to old ideas.


P.S. A bit off the track, or out of context, anyway, I’d like to comment on Renata Chylinski’s presentation of her text. I don’t know what others think but I suppose that all those “ums” are meant to be there for the sake of authenticity. (By the way, I usually use “ums” and “uhs” when transcribing a spoken text but in this article I cannot see anything else that would signal a spoken text.) To me it seems a contradiction with the content of the text – because we are still teaching our students to follow the conventional ‘rules’ of discourse, be it grammar, or genre, or pragmatics…if they are to succeed in life. Apparently, her text is exactly about that.


  1. Zdravo, Nadia.

    Your comments were fascinating, and they were also detailed, thorough, and thought-provoking.

    Although I've read both of the articles that you mentioned, I can't make direct reference to either of them because I don't have them in front of me as I type this. However, I can tell you that I used techniques similar to all the ones that you mentioned when I was teaching.

    I favor using model paragraphs, but instead of giving the model first, I sometimes started by giving a general topic (for example, "My Best Friend") and then giving my students a kind of outline of what they should do to create a conventionally organized paragraph on the topic--for example,

    1. First, start your paragraph so that the beginning leads to the sentences that will follow. In a paragraph about "My Best Friend," for example, you might do the following:

    -- Mention the title and the name of your best friend.

    -- Show what you will write next.


    Chuck Martin is my best friend for several reasons.

    Chuck Martin and I have been best friends for a long time. There are ____ main reasons that we feel close to each other.

    2. Explain why _____ is your best friend. Give at least three examples. You might say, for example,

    First, _____ and I often see each other because _____ .

    Also, we're both interested in _____ .

    Most importantly, I can always be myself with _____ even if he/she doesn't agree with me.

    3. Finally, after you are finished with your reasons, write a conclusion that summarizes what you have said and adds a comment or question. For example,

    Those are the main reasons that _____ and I are best friends. I hope that our special friendship will last forever.

    I think, beause of the reasons that I gave above, that I'm lucky to have a friend like _____ . Do you agree?

    NOTE: I normally used the above technique for in-class writing. I introduced it by telling a little about my best friend (more or less following the outline) and then said that in writing, information needs to be organized in a very clear way. Next, I explained the three-part organization that most good paragraphs feature and followed that up by either projecting the outline so that everyone could see it or giving individual copies to each student. As the students were working, I circulated around the room and made comments or asked questions.

    When using the above technique, students were usually able to create the draft of a paragraph during class. If so, I collected their work and returned it with general comments and suggestions for improvement. I also said that for homework, they were to "polish" what they had written and type (word process) it according to guidelines I had given previously (1-inch margins, 12-point Times or Times New Roman font, name and class identified in the top right corner, centered title, double spacing for the paragraph body).

    I also frequently used photographs--of people, places, things--as writing prompts. I found these very useful stimuli for creative thinking.

    In addition, the idea of communicating the same information in forms that are appropriate in different settings/context is also valuable, as, for example, in communicating disagreement

    -- in speech with a friend / stranger / elder / social superior

    -- in writing via a text chat / note to a friend / business e-mail message / paragraph or essay for a teacher / memo to a supervisor or boss

    All the best--

    Dennis in Phoenix

  2. Zdravo Dennis,

    Thank you very much for this - your suggestions and examples are great, with so much detail and practical advice. That's fabulous and certainly very useful in teaching practice. I've also used many of the features that you are mentioning, pictures for example - they are always inspiring and helpful.
    Again, thanks a lot!
    Dovidjenja, Nadia