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In-Class Writing Assignment Ideas For Esl

Collaborative writing

Some teachers tend to avoid writing in class, perhaps feeling that as it is something which learners do individually and in silence, it is better done for homework.

However, when writing is done as a collaborative activity, it can have many of the same benefits of a group speaking activity:

Discussing the writing process obviously provides more opportunities for learners to interact in English, a benefit in itself.

It can also help learners to develop their communicative competence by forcing the negotiation of meaning. As learners try to express their ideas to each other, they will have to clarify, rephrase and so on. The process should also help them to actually develop their ideas.

According to Vygostsky’s theory of ZPD (zone of proximal development),  working with others  can provide the opportunity for learners to work at a level slightly above their usual capacity, as co-operating with others who know a little more can boost achievement.

Collaborative writing has been shown to lower anxiety and foster self-confidence, compared with completing tasks individually (Johnson and Johnson 1998)

Research by Storch, found that texts produced by pairs were shorter than those produced individually, but that they were better  ‘in terms of task fulfilment, grammatical accuracy and complexity.’ It appeared that the process of working together meant that learners were giving each other useful feedback as they went along, and thereby producing more accurate and complex texts. [Incidentally, I plan to look at feedback on writing in a future post]

Collaborative writing can also be a lot of fun, and, with the growth of webtools for collaboration (not my personal expertise!), it is becoming increasingly popular.

Planning collaboratively

Planning is usually an important part of a successful writing process (though ‘free’ writing has its place). Even if students are to go on to write individually, planning together can be very motivating. It tends to work best if the process is given some kind of structure, so that the group is not simply staring at a blank sheet.

In terms of getting ideas, I love this activity from Learner based Teaching. Students are preparing to write about a topic they know a lot about, such as a hobby or their job. They write the topic at the top of a piece of paper, then, sitting in a circle, the pieces of paper are passed round clockwise. Students have to read each topic and add a question about it, making sure that they don’t duplicate any questions. When the paper comes back to its original author, they then have to write a text which answers ALL the questions, organised in a logical way. The texts are then displayed with the questions and see how they question was answered, asking for clarification if necessary.

One of my favourite activities for collaboratively planning academic type essays is to start by brainstorming the topic onto a mind-map on the board, or use a mind-mapping tool. For example, in describing a festival in your country, you might have sections for dress, food, music and so on.

Then stick a Cuisenaire rod of a different colour onto each section of the mind-map. Of course, you could use coloured strips of paper, but I like Cuisenaire rods… Next, put the students into smallish groups and give each group a set of rods in the same colours. They can then use the rods to decide or to order and arrange the topics within the essay. It’s a simple idea, but there is something about the tactile nature of the rods that seems to help with planning. It’s also concrete, rather than abstract.

Writing collaboratively

The first activity that came to my mind when thinking about collaborative writing was the time-honoured circle writing activity. One student writes a line, then passes it on to another who writes the next line and so on. I have to admit that I am not actually very keen on this activity. It can have some amusing outcomes, but I wonder what exactly the students are learning, as the process rarely produces a coherent or cohesive outcome.

One activity of this sort that I do like, however, is Genre Circle Writing, which I originally found in The Minimax Teacher. This works beautifully with more advanced learners who have been learning about the features of different genres. Start by brainstorming different types of narrative genres, such as news article, romance, conversation, fairytale, sci-fi. Ask each student to choose a genre they would like to write in and ask them to think about the features of their genre, e.g. typical vocabulary and fixed expressions, register, word and sentence length. Put the students into groups of 5-6, then ask each of the to write the first paragraph of a narrative in their genre. After an agreed time limit they pass the papers clockwise, read the new story and write the next paragraph, but in their own genre, rather than following the original genre. Continue until the story reaches its originator, who writes the concluding paragraph. Some of the stories can then be read aloud and the students listening have to say what genre they think each paragraph is. These texts won’t be any more coherent than the usual circle writing texts, but they are really good for raising awareness of genre.

Jigsaw writing is another way of structuring collaborative writing, so that the process is clearly defined. This works well with picture stories or cartoon strips. Put students into small groups and give each group one or two pictures from the sequence. They have to write a paragraph describing what is happening or happened in their picture(s), and should have a copy each. [Incidentally, make sure everyone is using the same tense. ]Then regroup the students into larger groups so that there is someone in each group who has written about each of the pictures, and ask them to decide on the correct order of the pictures and make any changes necessary to turn their paragraphs into a coherent whole. Students can then read and compare the different versions.

If students are quite used to working together, and don’t need quite so much structure, adding an element of competition can provide some fun and motivation. This activity also comes from Learner-based Teaching. Ask the class to choose a current event or issue. Then put them into small groups (3-4) and ask them to write a short article about it together. They should try to make the article as informative as possible. Once the groups have finished the articles are passed around. Each group should look for pieces of information or facts which their group did not remember. Students can then vote for the most informative (and best written) text

What other collaborative writing activities have you used successfully?

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Filed under Teaching methodology, Working with groups, Writing

Tagged as DELTA, education, efl, elt, eltchat, ESL, esol, literacy, mixed ability, text organisation, Vygotsky, writing, ZPD

In-Class Workshops

In-Class Workshops must be scheduled at least two weeks prior to your desired visit date. Given that the workshops are intended to facilitate conversation among students and instructors, primary course instructors must be present in class on the day the workshop is delivered. Course instructors should review the workshop script and be prepared to provide necessary materials.

Our workshops are meant to be highly collaborative, and involve significant individual student and small group participation. Because of this, we ask that there be no more than 35 students per workshop consultant. If you would like to schedule for a class larger than 35, please contact our workshop coordinator directly at wsworkshops@vanderbilt.edu. Specific arrangements for all workshops will be made by email correspondence.

In-Class Workshop Request Form

In-Class Workshop List

40-45 minutes

Writing Studio workshops are designed by our consultants for use in the classroom. These workshops focus on different elements of academic writing and have the following goals in mind:

  • to encourage students to reflect upon their writing habits
  • to introduce students to writing exercises and strategies that they can use in courses across the curriculum, and
  • to enhance discussion of discipline-specific writing practices among students and faculty.

Each workshop runs approximately 45 minutes and includes a discussion of writing strategies, a consultant-facilitated conversation with the instructor and students about writing conventions relevant to the course, and at least one writing activity. We are happy to present up to two workshops per class, per semester.

Instructors are important participants in the workshop conversations, and should plan to contribute relevant materials and be present on the day of the workshop. Several of the workshops are designed to work in conjunction with a class assignment.

Please click on the links below to see the script and required materials for each workshop.

Writing Studio Workshops

Transitioning to College Writing Script— This workshop is designed mainly for 100-level courses.  It is most appropriate toward the beginning of the semester shortly after students have received the prompt for their first formal writing assignment.  The workshop encourages students to be aware of the conventions of academic argument. With the assistance of the instructor, we discuss both the nature of academic discourse as a conversation with the ideas of others and the demands of the course for which the students are writing.

The course instructor will need to provide a paper prompt.

Brainstorming Script— This workshop assists students to find traction and focus during the brainstorming phase of the writing process. Using a prompt provided by the instructor, we work through several exercises designed to help students generate new ideas and then sharpen and develop the most promising.

The course instructor will need to provide a paper prompt.

Revision Script— This workshop assists students with the revision of a paper they have already drafted, focusing on large-scale concerns like argument, analysis, and structure. We work through three revision activities, beginning with a brief exercise in which students rearticulate the main claims of their papers, followed by an exercise designed to identify organizational problems.  For the third activity, the instructor may choose one of four exercises, allowing the instructor to tailor the workshop depending on the nature of the assignment or goals of the course.

The course instructor will need to be sure students bring an essay draft to class.

Thesis Statements Script— This workshop focuses on understanding the characteristics of a strong thesis and how to write one, as well as the conventions of academic argument more broadly.  Using a prompt from the class or a sample prompt, students will begin drafting their own thesis statements.  A discussion about how to argue for one’s thesis rounds out the workshop.

The course instructor will need to provide a paper prompt and sample bad thesis statements for that assignment.

Using Textual Evidence Script— This workshop discusses the ways analysis of quotations can be used as support for argumentative claims.  Students will evaluate, discuss, and revise their own use of textual evidence in a draft.  The instructor plays an important role here in helping the students understand what constitutes good evidence, and use thereof, in his or her discipline and course.

The course instructor will need to be sure students bring an essay draft to class.

Organizing Research Papers Script— This workshop is designed to be implemented after students have already gathered most of the materials they will require to write their research papers.  The workshop helps students impose order on their materials and formulate a plan for integrating the research into their papers.  Using an organizational grid, students will focus on meaningfully categorizing and evaluating their research in light of a focused research question.

The course instructor will need to be sure students bring their research materials to class.

Writing Case Studies and Ethnographies Script— This workshop focuses on two parts of writing case studies and ethnographies. First, students discuss the importance of neutral and detailed description when conducting field work, taking time to practice writing or revising their own field notes. Second, following a discussion of how ethnographies and case studies drawn upon field notes as evidence, students will begin drafting sentences that use their observations to warrant claims and tie their notes to course concepts.

Course instructors may request this workshop either before or after students have conducted fieldwork.

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