The Fluency Dichotomy: Writing X Speaking

Writing samples - Creative Commons photo by Chuni (via Flickr)

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 :-D

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.

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42 comments on “The Fluency Dichotomy: Writing X Speaking

  1. Hi Cecilia

    I’ve found similar results with the adult migrants and refugees I work with, including the observation that students who like reading usually write better than those who hardly ever read, in English or their first language.

    I don’t think it has anything to do with technology (though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this might not make a difference in the future) since many of these students aren’t using technology that much either. My students come from a great variety of different first language, cultural, and prior educational experience backgrounds. This is only an informal observation, but I think the ‘liking reading’ is a key, not the only key, but one which has a positive impact on language learners’ writing development.

    Cheers, Lesley

    • Hi Lesley!

      Thanks for sharing your experience… it certainly shed some light on what I was thinking. Maybe I AM giving too much importance to the (negative) impact technology may have on the students’ writing…

      The “reading thing” is definitely an issue.. And it can’t possibly be the the oly key as you put it… So what are the others? Low literacy levels in their native languages? Are schools giving less emphasis to language and more to other subjects?

      Food for thought…
      Cheers!

      Ceci

  2. Great post. A couple of things spring to mind. One, studies have shown (sorry, forget which ones) that students who do not have a formal mastery of their native language experience more L1 interference in writing than those who do. If memory serves me right, the case they gave was a group of Latina/o students in the US who struggled to read and write in both Spanish and English, and that these factors were interrelated. Two, what really helps students the most in a short period of time are writing resources which are particularly targeted to their language group. In my case, since I speak Mandarin, I have been able to give a straight-forward guide to students about how to avoid typical Chinglish structures. Feedback so far has been really positive and I’ve seen promising changes in their writing too fairly quickly. Of course these kind of resources are not always easy to find or create, but it’s food for thought nonetheless.

    • Thanks Carl :-)

      I’m not surprised by the findings you mention in your comment.After all it only makes sense that if students struggle with mastering their own mother tongue they’ll have an even harder time at learning/trying to master another language.

      As for using resources and focusing on (in my case) Portuguese-related common mistakes… I do that. I give them that kind of feedback, I do that specific work, but I haven’t been as successful with it as I had hoped for. I still find them to be more effective in raising students’ awareness and improving accuracy.

      My biggest problem with my students is not only accuracy – it’s punctuation, lack of style/format awareness, you name it!

      Food for thought, that’s for sure… and that’s always a good thing :-) It pushes us forward!

  3. Lu Bodeman says:

    Hey Ceci, this is EXACTLY what I’m trying to get at with my concern for ss’s writing: let’s face it: ss are weak writers. Who or what is to blame is still unknown but I do agree that through reading, their progress in the skill would greatly improve.

    And I dare say they DO read…for hours on end, on the net. They are online for a long part of their day and I am sure much of what they see/ read is in L2 — since they are fascinated by English.

    So how to bank on this and help them improve on this skill? IMHO, coaching them through different genres of writing as you are doing — through process writing — is a very good start. But motivation comes from their interest in WHAT they are writing, as well as finding a meaningful PURPOSE in it.. This is always what matters and I am sure we’re all aware of that.

    The copy/paste issue is another matter. Due to the fact that in our country, SS and some Ts don’t fully grasp how serious this is, it can and has gotten out of hand, being unaware of the consequences of such an act. This is why I believe that issues like these must also be addressed as part of the curriculum — learning to use the media ethically. Note-taking skills, learning to paraphrase, summarize, are other suggestions…

    I could go on and on. lol Looks like we’re both on the same track, and I would LOVE to attend the webinar tonight, but I’l be in class. Let’s catch up some other time. :) And congrats again on a great blog.

    • Hi Lu!

      You’re right… many of them – though I still think not as many as we would think – spend hours reading things, much of it in English, on the web. I think guiding them on how to use that for their English learning, learning how to engage them through it is a very powerful tool we can put our “hands”in ;-) But the skills we have to work with them to make that motivating reading actually help their writing skills are essential (such as paraphrasing, summarizing and actually writing) or else it’s just reading…

      Yes, it seems many of us all around the world, with such different students from such different cultural backgrounds are all on the same wavelength… It’s great to know we are not alone and exchanging experiences and ideas is probably the most effective and important tool we have.

      Beijo!

      Ceci

  4. Michelle says:

    I find this very interesting too, and think your theory that whichever skill they practice more becomes dominant for them very credible.
    I used to help students prepare for GRE and GMAT exams, and the first thing we had to work on was a 5 paragraph essay. They had no idea how to set up a text properly (that is to say, how the exam boards will expect to see them).
    There is also the added difficulty of writing in a formal way when they may have lived abroad as teenagers, in the end it is all new to them.
    Destructuring great essays and showing what makes a text poor versus good versus great was the most helpful task. The language was the easiest for them to pick up later.
    Cheers,
    Michelle

    • Hi Michelle,

      Preping them for exams seems to be an even harder task… but I hang on to the belief that I have to worry about getting them to know how to write and then they’ll be able totackle any challenge that comes their way – be it a standardized test, a job application or a letter to get a scholarship. They need to acquire the skills to be able to use them in whatever situation that presents itself!

      I find destructuring great essays as well as presenting them with examples of a good and a poor essay and have them analyze, compare both as very useful and effective activities…

      Cheers :-)

      Cecilia

  5. Glennie says:

    I have the same problem with my students. But it sounds to me that what you are referring to is poor accuracy rather than fluency and, in that case, I guess it’s fair to say that accuracy comes out of. So one possibility may be that your students are still on the journey to greater accuracy.

    But I’m sure that isn’t the whole story. I teach in Spain and have similar problems to you. There are two important causes that I would like to highlight.

    The first is that school students write very very little in secondary education (I have two daughters who have been through the system so I speak from experience). They make outlines to memorise from, but it doesn’t get much beyond that. The most writing they ever do is answering questions in exams. So, when my students try to write in English, they have very little to fall back on in terms of knowledge of what it is to write cohesively and coherently.

    The second important factor is that my students are extremely reluctant to reach for/click on a link to a dictionary. They normally prefer to rely on what they already know or just hope that a similar sounding word is not a false friend, which it frequently is.

    • Hi Glennie,

      Accuracy is a big problem, but I’m not sure I would say it’s the biggest one. They just don’t seem to know how to write in a more formal format. Many seem to not have been introduced to punctuation (I’m serious. I come across entire compositions -12, 15 lines – without any punctuation), they don’t write paragraphs, just one block of sentences. It’s almost as if they don’t know what a proper composition / essay is, they lack the structure.

      Your comment about secondary schools made me think of my students’ reality regarding their secondary education. In the last years of high school here, which is when they are usuallymy students, (the last 3 years of school) they are forced to focus on preparing for the university entrance examinations, a super traditional, direct, formal type of test, all with multiple choice questions. If they move on to the second phase of the examinations they will have to write a composition, but that’s not their main worry. So judging from where I stand – my children haven’t gotten there yet – maybe the problem qould be an excessive focus on preparing for the test, having students memorize formulas, names and dates – and forgetting about writing?

      If that’s right, it is a big factor, along with their lack of reading – thus not having background to use when writing.

      Something to ponder on…

  6. CoffeeAddict says:

    I work with teenagers (intermediate level) in Turkey and we see the same trend in our students. They sit the PET test at the end of grade 7 and for as long as I can remember (I’ve been at the school for 8 years) the average results have been stellar for Speaking and Listening, acceptable for Reading but poor for Writing. Although most of them pass the test we’re still very much worried about the Writing results. Like you, we’ve spent a lot of time and effort on trying to figure out why our kids are weak writers. We don’t think it’s technology. We do however suspect that they don’t read enough and I certainly think Reading and Writing skills are connected. What we feel is the main problem however is he system of national testing that the kids have to go through every year here. 6th, 7th and 8th graders sit an SAT like test every spring and their average results (not their school grades) get them into High School. The tests are multiple choice, so no writing is involved. Since writing skills won’t get them into a good high school – they aren’t taught! Reading is “important” though so they get plenty of that. My conclusion therefore (as far as Turkish students are concerned) is that their weak writing skills is a result of lack of training. They don’t write enough in their L1 and probably not enough in English either. Add to that the fact that many teachers don’t know how to teach writing effectively and that many also avoid teaching it because they dislike all the marking involved and I think we’ll get close to an explanation. Let’s face it, – it’s much more challenging to motivate kids to write than to motivate them to play a game … Sorry to put the blame on us (the teachers) but sadly I think that’s where it belongs :-(

    Karin

    • Hi Karin,

      Sorry for taking a long time to answer… end of semester things get way too hectic – as you know. And I like to take the time when replying to the comments, reading them over and over again.

      Your comment made me think outside the box (and the classroom) ;-) My students don’t have to sit an exam, though we incentive them to take the ECCE and later on the ECPE examinations of the University of Michigan ELI. And the difficulties they show in developing their writing skills can be noticed both in English and in Portuguese – I know because I have spoken to teachers of Portuguese and other subjects, from their regular schools about the issue and have asked to actually read a couple of compositions from some of my students.

      When I read your comment, what came to mind was only one thing: the blame is on the system. My students don’t have to sit an English examination, but they do have to take College entrance examination tests when they’re in the last year of high school. The only way to get into a university here in Brazil is through them. And they are exactly as you described. They’re multiple choice all the way. They cover ALL the subjects (from Physics to History,including Biology, geography, etc etc) and take hours. Each university has its own test, and students are currently spending their 3 years of high school preparing for that test. There is writing involved in most of these tests, but many times only if they make the cut to the second phase of tests, and even so, it’s not the grade they’re worried about. So thr students spend years focused on this test, preparing for it… It IS lack of training. It IS lack of importance being given to writing well, to developing ideas and using language to produce something and not only understand and mimic.

      It’s the system I believe… Not the teachers. I see your point when you talk about teachers not being prepared to teach writing and using games in class to keep students happy and motivated. But if the system required good writing, the teachers would also be forced to change their ways, don’t you think?

      Thanks for the thoughts… :-)
      x
      Ceci

  7. DaveDodgson says:

    Hi Cecilia,

    I can certainly back up what Karin has said about the Turkish system. With such a high exam focus, and with many of those exam questions being multi-choice, writing is not a skill of paramount importance in either Turkish or English.

    My students also have a great reluctance to write. When I say we will be doing a speaking activity or story telling in a particular lesson, there is great excitement, When I say a writing task or story-writing is our focus, heads drop and they very slowly take their notebooks out like it’s some great burden! Of course, I use many ‘tricks’ to make the lessons more motivating with pre-task activities, brainstorming ideas, using images etc but it only has a limited effect – they often really get into the other activities but still don’t want to write much!

    But I think it’s important to acknowledge that writing and speaking are very different and being skilled in one doesn’t necessarily mean being skilled in the other. When speaking (assuming it is not an individual presentation), the learner is involved in an interaction with at least one other person and therefore can be more reactive, spontaneous and to an extent guided by what the other person says. With writing, there is usually just the initial task as input and then it’s all on the learner to produce something. They also have to consider style and structure (essay, story, letter, description etc) as well as the language forms and spelling – a lot to ask!

    I’m not so sure I would say it’s down to technology but I would agree lack of reading both in L1 and L2 is an issue. With the readers my classes did this year, I noticed it was not just getting the kids to read in a foreign language that was the issue – just getting them to read was a challenge! Some may say that this is where technology comes in as TV and computer games compete with boring old books for time but I say this is where parenting comes in as well. Since my son was about a year old, I’ve read to him every night before bedtime and I’m always shocked when other people are shocked that I do that! He loves the stories we read and I’m sure his English would be lagging far behind his Turkish if he hadn’t had this form of massive authentic input.

    Let’s wait and see how he feels when it comes to writing. ;)

    • CoffeeAddict says:

      What do you mean “many”? ALL the questions are multiple choice. No writing is involved, at all.
      Karin

    • Hi Dave,

      Please forgive me for taking so long to reply – and see my justification for it on my reply to Karin :-)

      I agree with you that we have to keep in mind that speaking and writing are two very different skills. They both show students’ability to produce and communicate using language, but the way in which they do is very different. And the formal aspect of writing is what we have to teach our students. Somehow I can’t imagine any of my students have difficulty with writing when it comes to texting or chatting – but most likely that’s not the type of writing they’ll need to use later on in their lives. The interaction bit that is missing in the “formal” formats of writing bears a lot of the weight in why these types of writing are more difficult for the student to develop. I guess the first thing we have to do is raise students’ awareness on the importance writing will have in their lives.

      BUT

      It’s hard to get students motivated to do something they don’t see much practical / immediate use, especially when you’re dealing with younger learners. And if you think you’ve got it tough, think of my situation…you have your students more often, for longer periods of time because you teach at a regular school. I see my student for 2 and a half hours a week, for 4 months each semester. And I have to help them develeop their English in all skills…

      So you’re right, we can’t put all (or much) of the blame on technology, though it has made it possible for the students to communicate without developing the more formal skills. We can’t blame the teachers – we can only do so much. So who to blame?

      As you, I encourage my children to read. I read them stories. We take regular trips to their favorite book store to get new books. They always see me reading. But we are a minority, don’t you think? And how hard is it to keep them reading and interested when their friends don’t do it? You’ll see when Jason is older…. When all they can think about is using the computer, iPods, TV, music…

      But I stay strong. I keep hitting the same key… and hope it works.

      X
      Ceci

  8. We are all dealing with the same problem around the world! Important!
    Just discovered I missed a webinar you gave on writing – do hope there will be a repeat!

    • Hi Naomi!

      Yes, it’s wonderful to find out we’re all dealing with similar problems in the classroom, and that we cna discuss it, share ideas and concerns. It makes it a much less lonely job, and hopefully we can find practices that will help us overcome the problems we face along the way…

      Thank you for the wonderful post you wrote inspired by this one… That’s the beauty of twitter, the PLN and the blogosphere. We inspire and are inspired by each other, we make each other think and reflect. Reflection always brings improvement and growth IMHO.

      I hope you enjoyed watching the recording of the webinar!
      X
      Ceci

  9. Aisha Ertugrul says:

    I believe David is closest to the reason why. I will expand.

    Writing is much harder than speaking.
    Even for natives.

    When you are speaking, the words flow and you hear them as they flow.

    A person may not be able to ‘hear’ what they are writing as well as when they are speaking. Haven’t we all repeated our written sentences out loud to check from time to time?

    When you are writing, you might have to slow down the thoughts in your head to get them on paper and that causes a loss of flow,or you may quickily write to keep up with your thoughts which could lead to making mistakes.

    Sometimes a student will make the mistakes we find silly, that they would never make while speaking; such as, ” I putted it away.”

    I put it away spoken does sound like I putted away, doesn’t it?

    The higher the level of English, the harder it is to write.

    If we put ourselves in the position of our students and ask ourselves what the difference is for us, we would get closer to the cause, and be able to understand the problem and them a bit better.

    • Hi Aisha,

      I see your point, especially when it comes to the transference that so many times happens between the spoken language and the written word. But don’t you think that in a way, writing gives you the opportunity to take your time producing the language, using it to communicate? So in the same way that many times when we speak we may make mistakes that go by unnoticed (such as the “I putted away” you mentioned, or “Your” instead of “You’re” ) we also have the chance to think further and reading over things when we write, to see if we were clear, to correct such transference mistakes….

      In this aspect the problem is the students’ inability to take their time, to revise properly… a culture of immediate response maybe?

      As for what you said about the higher the level of English the harder it is to write… my initial impulse is to agree, but when I think better about it I also think that it’s hard no matter the level. The difference is what makes it hard. In earlier stages/levels, students struggle with the language itself, forming sentences, verbs, prepositions to make things make sense. At higher levels, they usually control that aspect of the language already, and their biggest struggle is with the format – accomplishing the tasks proposed – and with using the language they’ve learned in the way they’re expected to because they’re fluent, because they are at higher levels. New demands come: variation of tenses, more specific/complex vocabulary, transitions… And I still think the format / register is the hardest for them.

      But as far as being hard – both are equally hard in my opinion.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! And sorry for my taking so long to reply… end of semester here ;-)

      Cecilia

  10. Sandy Millin says:

    Dear Cecilia,
    This is an excellent post, and has obviously hit a nerve with a lot of us. The comments have already covered a lot of the things I would have said, so I hope these extra points are useful!
    I agree that reading really does benefit your writing skills, and I encourage my students to read as much as possible, but one of the problems is WHAT they read. If you expect your students (as many exams do) to write essays, reports, articles and reviews (among other things), then ideally this is what they should be reading, but while the latter two can be interesting and easy to find, the former two are often very difficult or unmotivating to read.
    I’ve been working a lot on my students’ writing skills this year, especially those of them who are taking the Cambridge CAE Exam. I wrote a post (self-promotion – sorry!) with some of the writing activities I’ve done with students: http://wp.me/p18yiK-3Q including some work on essay writing with CAE students. One of the things I’ve found that has motivated them this year is using Jing to record feedback – it takes a few minutes for each student, but they are far more likely to edit their work and send it back.
    I also encourage students to do a lot of writing in groups – it’s often more motivating for them to produce a piece of writing with another student than by themselves (and involves half as much marking for me – which is good at times!)
    Thanks for raising this issue,
    Sandy

    • Denise Krebs says:

      Hi Cecelia,
      Wonderful post, and I am so pleased and impressed with your commitment to help your students improve their writing. I am not a teacher of English language learners, so I can’t comment on what you and most of your readers have said. However, I can speak from experience as a teacher of junior high native English learners: They speak much better than they write.

      Is it not true that listening and speaking are the first literacy tools people learn? Reading and writing fluency come with much more work, no matter what language one speaks.

      I applaud you for working so hard for your students. In fact, you inspire me to work harder with my students. Thanks for a great post.

      Denise

      • Thanks Denise!

        Something that I have learned after I started reading blogs – and later starting my own – is that no matter what we teach, deep down the essence of the problems we face is the same, because after all they’re all students and we are all educators. :-)

        Cecilia

    • Vey interesting point Sandy! I had never considered it… That if students are expected to know how to write essays, reports, narratives that’s what they should be reading… Food for thought. And at the same time, HOW can we get students to read reports and essays… Well, I’m sure we’ll be able to find a way ;-)

      Loved your ideas… And I have only heard great things about recording feedback on jing, that’s certainly on my lists of things to do next semester… I just have to organize myself for that.

      Thanks for sharing your view on the issue, and your writing activities…
      X
      Ceci

  11. seburnt says:

    First, I haven’t read anyone’s comments before writing here. So, maybe I’m repeating something. That’s likely given the issue.

    Maybe technology is partially to blame, but by the same token, so is anything that takes your time away from reading or writing practice: sports, travel, socialising, really any hobby. It isn’t an inherent problem with technology itself. It’s rather a lack of time spent on familiarising oneself with writing conventions at an academic level. That’s my take, anyways.

    I, myself, was a very poor writer when I started university. I’m confident the same could be said for most 1st year Canadian students. My structure was ok (basic framework from high school curriculum), but my grammar was atrociously mixing phonetic sound of reduced words with real grammar, poor parallelism and little to no cohesion between ideas. Was the technology there like it is today to drain me of classic literature and expose me solely to low-level, text-influenced writing? No, of course not.

    • Hi Ty,

      You’re right, technology is just like any other activity that takes students’ time from reading or writing… or is it?

      My biggest issue with technology and how much it is to blame for the lack of writing skills in students these days is not only because technology seems to take that time away from reading and writing, but because it validated a much more informal type of writing that students seem to have accepted as the norm. It’s harder to teach anyone one way of doing things after they’ve assimilated another one and consider it to be THE ONE.

      Am I making any sense? I mean, think of English learner’s fossilized mistakes… It’s much harder to teach someone that when using an auxiliar verb the verb goes back to the base form when they’ve been saying “She didn’t went” for years… Writing on a blank sheet of paper requires a ot less effort than writing in one where you have to erase what has been written before. My analogy here is that maybe technnology has been getting our students to write on their blank sheet of paper thus making it more difficult for us to show them there are other ways of doing it, of writing.

      And if you were a poor writer as a student…it gives me hope, because you’re a wonderful writer now. So there’s light in the end of the tunnel. But what made you learn? Need? Motivation? Your chosen profession?
      X
      Ceci

      • seburnt says:

        I see your point but think I’ll save a long reply for some sort of technology-based chat discussion instead. The only thing I want to mention here is that like almost any youth-inspired convention, when our students get into the “real world”, where their writing at an accepted academic level is absolutely necessary, they’ll pick up their boots, if not before.

  12. annforeman says:

    Hi Cecilia,

    Just posted a link to this on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check for comments.

    Best,
    Ann

  13. Helen says:

    Hi. This is a great post and something I’ve been thinking about a lot this year. Most of the things I would say have been mentioned in previous comments, such as blaming the teacher, not enough reading, etc.

    I teach teens at various levels in Spain and find that pre-intermediate students can’t produce a grammatically correct sentence, however simple, when asked to produce a longer piece of text. I’ve experimented with sentence level writing this year building up to a maximum of 5 sentences. This works to an extent but anything more than that and the same problems arise. They get bored and demotivated unless I do it in an interesting way. One activity that worked really well was girls against boys, each group planning a story, drafting it on paper, then writing it up on mini whiteboards, taking photos then making a video out of it. This is great as a classroom activity but, of course, not something they can do in an exam situation.

    For higher levels (pre.FCE and FCE), I’ve done a lot of group writing and using computers to try to get them motivated. This did seem to work, because they spent longer trying to get the sentences correct and competed with each other for better vocabulary, etc. Again, this is great in the classroom but not really preparing them for writing in an exam situation – or is it?.

    The basic fact remains that they are generally not motivated to write. I often ask my learners what they write at school. The reply is “nothing”. Other comments here mention the test systems in school (which are similar in Spain) and the fact that my students seem to have to memorise everything before a test. Although memory is good for learning vocabulary and grammar rules, how good is it for freer activities, such as writing an essay on a random topic, etc in an exam?

    Linked to the school system, another factor IMO, is that younger students are asked to write things (certainly in FCE) that they would have no idea how to write in L1, such as reports and letters of complaint.

    I don’t think technology is the problem, I just think that cognitively many teenagers are still developing, and emotionally lots of things are happening, and writing is basically not a priority for them (especially in this age of technology). They have no immediate need for it except to write a few messages on Facebook or (in Spain) Tuenti.

    For younger exam students, if they are good enough to pass other parts of exams without writing, they won’t worry too much about it. Perhaps when they think they need it (our job?) they’ll become better writers.

    Helen

    • Hi Helen,

      Sorry for taking so long in replying to your comment. No excuses, just end of semester madness, so I’m sure at least you know what I am talking about ;-)

      I feel your pain…. what you go through with your teens I go theough with mine. It seems like there are no boundaries or cultural issues when it comes to teens and how they feel about things :-) I think the only way to REALLY motivating teens (and not only the committed, driven students who just plainly want to do well and learn as much as they can) is to find a real, meaningful CURRENT reason for them to learn things.

      Now when it comes to other skills, it’s easier to find such reasons… videos of bands they like. sitcoms, videogames… Meeting people, exchange student programs and traveling… But what about writing??

      I still haven’t found any answer to that question either… I’ve tried many (college entrance examinations, a future job / college overseas application) but they’re just too far away!!!! I also try to make it fun, but that’s not always possible… so what’s left? Just endure it?

      Thanks for sharing your experience Helen! :-) Cheers!

  14. Lillian says:

    I really don’t think blaming this on computers is fair! Many of my best students (and friends) from Japan are skilled writers and readers BECAUSE of the time that they spend online. What do you do online? READ. They read and write online (Twitter, blogs, etc.), as well as in text-heavy videogames (many RPGs contain as much text as a light novel). David Crystal has written some compelling essays and book chapters about online literacy that are worth looking up, by the way.

    This is a perennial problem. It’s not a new one. It may *feel* new, since you’re bumping up against it now, but I think it’s just a different instance of the recency illusion.

    It definitely needs attention, though. Many students don’t realize how different their spoken and written language are. They also don’t realize that reading can be fun, because in their L1 and in English they’ve only been given dull materials (and unappealing writing topics). It’s really important to find appealing materials–many graded readers are terribly dull and lifeless, for example (I think the Cambridge ones, which are written from scratch, are very good, but they’re an exception). Start them with comic books if you need to–Krashen spends 20 pages defending them in The Power of Reading, if you need convincing.

    • Hi Lilian,

      I’m not sure the problem is that students don’t realize how different their spoken and written language are but rather how they don’t realize the register. They don’t realize how for many other types of writing they will need different structures and different language components. For me that’s even worse, because it signal an inability of noticing the nuances of language, or even worse a lack of knowledge of the many ways written language can be employed, and more importantly will be required of them in the future.

      But then again, it’s hard to feel motivated when it’s for something in the future, isn’t it? Especially when you are a teen…

      And I agree that technology is not THE one to blame, but I think it plays a very big part on the issue. It gives the student the sensation the language they use, the WAY they use it is enough to communicate. And maybe that’s true for the moment, but… will they be able to learn the other ways, the ways they’ll be expected to communicate in later on in life? I’m not sure…

      Food for thought…. Thanks for raising and adding to the discussion Lilian :-) Cheers!

  15. Good post, Ceci, and a lot of what you talk about here resonates with where my thinking is heading in my most recent post about YouTube and Facebook (and how our notions of ‘literacy’ may be starting to get out of synch with what our learners are developing naturally on their own as a result of technology). That post and this one of yours are spurring me on to another post soon about the whole notion of ‘writing’… :-)

    • Hi Jason,

      Thanks for the comment :-) As usual our minds are pretty much in synch… I read both your posts. And yes, we’ve got an issue. The good news is we are aware of it and reflecting on it, how to deal with it.
      Thanks mate! Beijo!
      Ceci

  16. DaveDodgson says:

    Hi Cecilia,

    I observed something in class today that I thought was of relevance to this top,c and thought I would share. :)

    Many of my kids are preparing for the Cambridge YL tests, which they will take this weekend. Even though the speaking scores are generally the highest, the question they stress about most of all in the whole exam is one in which they are presented with 4 pictures and asked to tell a story based on them.

    With this particular question, they find it very difficult to find things to say and when they do, their grammar is all over the place. In order to get them used to this kind of question, I first ask them to write short stories based on the pictures and then try to retell what they have written (kind of an oral form of dictogloss). Slowly, they become more confident at telling stories in this way.

    So, essentially, it’s the opposite situation – in this case, ideas come more easily when they have time to think and write than when they are asked to speak!

    • Hmmmm…. interesting Dave. That is a big contradiction. You say they score the best on the speaking part of the test and yet it’s the one they stress about. What could cause that? Maybe fright of knowing they’re being watched every word they say? This sure puts an extra strain on it…

      At least you have found a strategy to help them with it. Still, makes me hate standardized testing more and more…. when will your students realistically have to tell a story from pictures they’re shown? Where’s the authenticity in the assessment???

      But then again…what can we do? Thye do have to take the tests… push for a change in testing maybe?

  17. What a great conversation – I’m picking up on the “lack of training” Karin. “they only have to write outlines “Glennie” “excessive focus on preparing (multiple choice exams)” yourself.
    When you think about it, most EFL teachers have had years at University to hone their writing skills. All the time you were studying and producing multifarious texts, I was working out Maths problems and doing Physics experiments. With the result that I don’t have the training you guys take for granted. As a native speaker I have the vocabulary, and as a child I devoured books – but in the same way that one’s natural inclination takes you in a given direction (and then hard work makes you good at it ) – some people “have the gift” and others don’t.
    Technology, on the other hand is a god-send for people like me… no more spelling errors, no more “structuring before you start” -copy and paste has freed up we “illiterate” people, who can now “get the words down” and organise them later.
    Someone said “It’s hard to get students motivated to do something they don’t see much practical / immediate use” and Yes, that’s what teaching is about. But I can assure you that even if you are not getting the results hoped for instantaneously – it’ll be in there somewhere.
    quick quick – off to work ….
    thanks Ceci for this great post

  18. Hi Elizabeth,

    I find it amazing how every new comment I read has some different aspect I get caught up in. :-) Thanks for adding to it!

    Differently from you I am a non-native teacher. Similarly to you I have no formal academic background – just almost 20 years of experience in the classroom. I have a BA in graphic design and have gone halfway on an English BA… (didn’t have the patience to finish it though), Similarly to you as well I have always devoured books – and believe it’s played a big part in my English fluency. But I agree with you when you say “some people have the gift, some don’t’. Sometimes I just fel like telling a few students “Try Spanish!” – which is much closer to Portuguese…

    And as for having the results being “there sometime”… well, the problem is how to get students to that point?

    thanks for the great commment Elizabeth! :-)
    x

  19. Josefa King says:

    Hi Cecilia,
    I just found your blog and very happy to find someone teaching EFL in Brazil AND passionate about teaching. I haven’t read all of the posts (I have to admit that I just skimmed most of them) so maybe what I say here has already been said. I found your observations very interesting since I work with entry level students (7th, 8th, and 9th graders) who are not at all fluent in any area, but I see the very same problems that you mentioned as far as their writing is concerned. And those problems are not limited to their English writing ability, they have trouble in Portuguese (their mother tongue) as well. I often here the teachers complaining about the student’s poor writing skills. One resource I discovered which would be very useful in your situation is something called “The Writing Game” developed by Chris Biffle. I have used parts of it with my students with some success. I am only able to use the very beginning levels because of my student’s limited vocabulary and pronunciation skills. But since your students are mostly fluent in this area perhaps you would like to give it a try. Here is the link:

    http://wholebrainteaching.com/

    On the main page click on “free ebooks”. Then look for it in the list of free ebooks. It is free, but you must register in order to download it.

    Once again, thank you very much for your wonderful blog!
    Sr. M. Josefa

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