Back in June, I read an article on the Oxford University Press English Language Teaching blog entitled “Using Technology to Improve Writing Activities” (Silva, 2012). Anna Silva, a language teacher in Brazil, found that teaching students how to write with the tools they already love has been very helpful. I would like to add my own thoughts to this idea, adding my own experience to Silva’s.
Start from Where the Students Are
Many teachers predicate their teaching philosophy on the idea that we need to start from where the students are. I am one of them. It is important to assess your students’ background knowledge, interests, and challenges before planning your lessons. Choosing content to which students can relate and that is comprehensible seems to be common sense.
But what about the tools with which you deliver the content? What about the tools you use to assess their knowledge? What about the activities you devise for students to learn the content? Should they not be student-centered as well? I say – and am sure that many other teachers would say – yes.
The Dreaded Essay Assignment
One assignment many students dread is writing an essay. They dislike the planning involved, chunking information into paragraphs with a topic sentence, details, and then a concluding/transition sentence. They dislike coming up with a thesis statement. They find writing an essay time-consuming and difficult; many tell me they have not had much success with essay writing. They usually phrase their self-assessment this way: “I suck at it, Mrs. E.”
Let them blog!
While essay writing is an important skill and one that all students should master, what we are really teaching in English class is communication. If we do not vary the methods of communication and do not teach students using methods that are popular today, we are missing an opportunity to help students learn to use the English language and use it well. If we continue to foist essay assignments upon our reluctant essayists, what we are really doing is hampering their ability to communicate. So, let them blog instead.
What’s funny is – blogging and essay writing are quite similar. With a blog, you are allowed (and encouraged) to use more conventional language, shorter paragraphs, more headings, and so forth, but the purpose of a blog and an essay are essentially the same. Both are forms of written communication that are meant to entertain, inform, or persuade. Blogging, however, is less intimidating than an essay assignment, in my opinion. Perhaps there is less psychological trauma associated with a blog post assignment. That would be a good question for students.
Start with blogging and slowly introduce the essay format you think is best. Let them take the ideas they posted at three o’clock in the morning (and to which their classmates responded) and put them into essay format.
Speaking of responses … Let them text!
I do not know anyone between the ages of 8 and 21 who cannot text. It would be interesting to see the students’ responses to a texting assignment. “Read pages 25 – 30 and text me the first thought that comes to mind.” If they do not have a phone, they could email the text or just write it on a piece of paper and hand it in the next day.
The best class I have seen yet that integrated texting with literature study centered on the balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet. My friend Shelly decided to have the kids rewrite the scene as if Romeo and Juliet were texting each other. The results were impressive and hilariously sappy. They also proved that the students understood the scene, even if they did poke fun at it a bit. Shelly used the tool that most kids can use expertly to help them unlock the door to a difficult text. Brilliant, in my opinion.
Speaking of understanding… Let them tweet!
One way to demonstrate understanding of something is to write a summary about it. A well-written summary gives the reader a clear picture of the text it summarizes. Writers of research papers know that the abstract is important and that it is limited to 120 words. Writing an excellent summary of an 85-page paper in 120 words is a challenge, but not one that is insurmountable.
How about challenging students to tweet a summary of what they read? Students only have 140 characters to work with on Twitter, so it presents quite a challenge. Silva mentioned using this technique in the article cited above. She wrote, “In the end, what they expected to be a piece of cake ended up taking much longer. They had to write and re-write it many times until they got to the number of characters permitted without using abbreviations, but keeping the summary meaningful.” I had a similar experience asking the students to write a fortune cookie summary of a chapter of The Great Gatsby each time they finished one. Some of them were not happy with me, but others seemed to enjoy the challenge.
I think the important part of the process mentioned above is that the students would have to “write and re-write it many times” until the summary was “meaningful.” In other words, until they are communicating effectively. The habit of revising text is one good writers adopt as they are learning to be good writers. With encouragement, those who have a Twitter assignment and learn to revise their work will transfer their revision skills to larger pieces.
Use the Tools Students Love to Foster a Love of Writing
When we ask students to write using the tools they already love, what we are doing is couching writing within a safe context. Instead of students dreading the assignment, they might actually find it to be fun. And when they think a learning activity is fun, they are more likely to actively participate. When they actively participate, they learn with confidence. When they are confident, they welcome a challenge, like the dreaded essay assignment. So, let them blog, text, or tweet! Those essay-writing skills will come.
Jago, C. (2000). With rigor for all. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Silva, A. (2012, June 19). Using technology to improve writing activities. Oxford University Press – English Language Teaching Global Blog @OUPELTGlobal. Retrieved July 15, 2012, from http://oupeltglobalblog.com/2012/06/19/using-technology-to-improve-writing-activities/