Something has been puzzling me for a while… I teach mostly more advanced groups (B2 and on) and many of them have had experiences abroad – some have lived abroad, some have taken English courses abroad, some have been exchange students in English speaking countries, etc – so they’re quite fluent orally. I mean it, they speak very well (and not only the ones who have traveled abroad). But when it comes to their writing they just don’t seem to be able to keep up the same fluency. Of course I run into the exact opposite (students who write really well but have a hard time producing orally), but these are the exception.
I started noticing that in the writing assignments they handed in. Sometimes it seemed incredible that “that” essay full of communication breakdowns, poor punctuation, incorrect spelling and L1 dependent structures had been written by that student that spoke like a native speaker during our classes.
To corroborate my perception I have the results for the Michigan Language Certificates tests we offer at our school. I am the Michigan Test Manager and what I usually see when I receive the reports is a number of our students who have taken the test achieving top marks – High Pass – in most, if not all, the other parts of the test (oral interview, listening and GVR – Grammar, Vocabulary and Reading) and a Low Pass in writing. How can that be explained???? Isn’t fluency usually supposed to beall around? When students learn something and are able to use it comfortably in their speech wouldn’t it be natural to expect the same fluency level in writing?
I started looking for an answer… or at least trying to. I looked into their previous class records and comments from previous teachers; I talked to them; I compared writing assignments done in class to the ones I sent as a homework assignment. Something was very obvious: students who liked reading usually wrote very well – not exactly surprising eh? It was also very common for me to hear a student say: “I hate writing, it’s boring”. And then I started asking students abouthow they did when writing in Portuguese, and they said the results weren’t much better. I heard Portuguese teachers, professors at the universities complaining the same thing. It seems students are losing their ability to write cohesive, well-structured, effective texts (especially teenagers I dare say) in any language, not only English.
Is it a reflection of how little they read? Of how much time they spend on computers? At using web-search for their school projects and making use of the copy/paste dynamic duo? I am afraid so… it is like any other ability we acquire or develop in life – such as bike riding – if you don’t use that for a while your brain slowly forgets how to do it properly. And then again, have they ever learned how to write compositions? I tend to blame it much on technology, since I believe this is a more recent phenomenon. When I was in school most of us knew how to write. We had to read a long list of classic literature books, we had to research in books and big encyclopedias for school projects and write things with our own words – or else everyone would have the exact same text, since everyone has the same encyclopedias at home
I’ve been working hard at improving my students’ writing skills, trying to come up with creative ideas of working with it, motivating so students don’t feel it’s that boring. I give special attention to building their vocabulary (I posted about some of these ideas before, the vocabulary bank and reviewing vocabulary); I work with sentence/paragraph structure; I do process writing; I give meaningful feedback. But so far, I have to admit I’ve had far fewer success cases than otherwise.
What’s your take on this? Do you have the same problem? Do you also think technology is (even if partially) to blame? Is there something we do? Would love to hear from other teachers.
P.S. This post is the result of reflections post my presentation at IATEFL this year – on this topic, and on a webinar I’ll be presenting with some of the ideas I presented in Brighton, tomorrow, filling in for Shelly Terrell while she’s traveling. So I’m doing the American TESOL Free friday Webinar tomorrow, June 3rd, at 5PM Brasilia time (GMT-4). If you’re interested in taking part it’s free and you can access it here.