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Teaching Writing:
Helping Second Language Writers Experience a Sense of Ownership of their Writing

By Nada Salem Abisamra
Fall 2001

Writing allows us to EXPRESS ourselves. Through writing we can inform others, carry out transactions, persuade, infuriate, tell how we feel, come to terms with problems, and learn to shape our thoughts, our ideas and our lives. However, we all know that writing -- and learning to write, especially in a second language -- is not simply a matter of "writing things down"; the process is very complex, and the old saying, "If you can say it, you can write it," is very simplistic. This would not be the kind of writing that students should strive to learn and teachers to teach.

Good writing involves the knowledge of the conventions of written discourse in the ESL culture as well as the abilities to (1) choose from near synonyms the precise word that conveys one’s meaning, (2) select from a variety of syntactic structures those that transmit one’s message most precisely, and (3) adopt a style that will have the most positive rhetorical effect .

How should student writers be taught in order to become competent writers?

In this paper I will try, first, to elaborate on the contemporary thoughts about the teaching of writing, and second, to suggest ways to help second language writers experience a sense of ownership of their writing so that they become competent.

Writing … Contemporary Thoughts

The teaching of writing has undergone a dramatic change in recent times. There has been a shift from the traditionalproduct-oriented approaches that dominated the language-teaching scene for decades and which focused on the written text, to a process- oriented approach which views writing as a complex, nonlinear, recursive, messy, and generative process involving pre-drafting (planning & re-scanning), composing, and revising. This process approach also involves consideration of purpose and audience and consultation of the writer’s background knowledge.

Writing has become a process of natural generation of ideas with focus on meaning and communication that precedes concerns about form and grammar. Consequently, ESL writing instruction has become focused on the literacy beliefs of heuristics, experimentation and emergent fluency rather than mechanical accuracy and fidelity to form. Thus, although with caution, ESL student-writers are encouraged to manage their writing acts by proceeding somewhat independently in a discovery mode in order to determine and solve the problem of their composing. Then we can say that the process-oriented pedagogies could improve instruction, if implemented properly (without totally neglecting the "product"), since they:

  • Provide opportunities for involving students in their own writing : an experience of ownership and self-sponsoring of writing is often said to be empowering.
  • Support the beliefs that composition cannot be taught via sets of identifiable rules and that the classroom can be a setting for real communication. (Both beliefs are congruent with making meaning and peer collaboration that are hallmarks of the process approach)
  • Ways to Help Second Language Writers Experience a Sense of Ownership of their Writing

    Before I enumerate the different ways teachers might follow in order to help second language writers experience a sense of ownership of their writing, I would like to say that the teacher alone cannot succeed; there are a lot of other factors that play a great role in the teacher/student’s success, such as the instructional materials selected; they should meet the teaching objectives of particular groups of student-writers without neglecting their level and the skills they need to develop. (Let’s not forget that there are some available supplementary materials in the form of teaching guides, transparencies, test packets, and computer software programs intended for ESL instruction and that could prove to be very helpful to assist teachers in their jobs.)

    How can second language writers be given opportunities to self-sponsor their writing? How should teachers proceed to create classrooms for authors and have students own their writing?

    A- Eclectic Approach:
    There are several approaches to teaching writing as creative communication (the Controlled-to-Free Approach, the Free Writing Approach, The Communicative Approach, The Process Approach, etc.). For ESL classes , Raimes (1983) recommends the use of an eclectic approach that is responsive to learners’ needs as their skills develop, and asserts that there is no one answer to the question of how writing should be taught. Oluwadiya* (1992) advocates a "marriage" of the techniques of the product-oriented approach with the techniques of the process-oriented approach; we should aim at using an enriched process approach that borrows freely strategies and techniques that belong to the product-oriented approach.

    B- Skill-Getting & Skill-Using:
    In order to make students effective writers who own their writing, we should train them in composing, exploring, conceptualizing, drafting, revising, creating… not only writing or transcribing. One of the most difficult and important tasks for the teacher is to know how to effectively bridge the gap between skill-getting (writing down, writing in the language è Form) and skill using (flexibility measures, expressive writingè function) activities , which means teaching "at the bone level, not only at the skin." One possible solution would be to minimize the use of writing practice activities that are manipulative or impersonal in nature and choose instead activities that are contextualized, meaningful, and personalized, even when students are focusing primarily on form . Moreover, it is suggested to use a blend of diverse tasks that elicit performance ranging from the careful style to the vernacular style. As students’ competence increases, writing assignments should become less structured, less teacher-directed, and more creative in nature. After all, students should be encouraged to use the language independently to inform, narrate, describe, question, persuade, express feelings and attitudes, discuss ideas, and support points of view .

    C- Composing Process & Phases of Instruction:

    When designing writing practice at the Advanced level, it is important to include various aspects of the composing process in the instructional sequence. The various steps of the composing process need to be taught, and practiced more overtly than has typically been the case in many foreign language programs. Therefore, a few texts have been developed for advanced students (Valdes, Dvorak, and Hannum, 1984; 1989) that lead them through various steps or stages as they engage in creative and expressive writing, concentrating on organization, style, and the development of greater precision in grammar and vocabulary in the process. In these texts students practice various types of writing, including description, narration, and exposition, using rhetorical techniques such as definition, classification, comparison and contrast, and argumentation.

    The typical writing lesson involves three phases:

      1) Prewriting: (It is defined by Oluwadiya* as "any structural activities – oral, written or experiential -- that influence active student participation in thinking, talking, writing, and working on the topic under focus in a writing lesson, stimulating higher-level thinking as well as writing skills.)
        • Discussing the type of writing to be attempted by students (description, narration, and exposition)
        • Working on a writing model
        • Analyzing the model’s organization and style
        • Considering the reader’s and writer’s purpose
        • Doing a series of exercises that focus on both organizational devices and topics appropriate to that writing function
      {Oluwadiya offers all student-writers a series of prewriting techniques as mental warm-ups to help them get started on their writing process: -Oral group brainstorming            - Clustering
      - Looping                                    - Dialogue writing
      - Cubing                                      - Free writing
      - Debating                                   - Fantasizing
      - Outlining                                   - Oral compositions
      - Oral reading                              - Silent reading _extensive/intensive
      - Interviewing                              - Use of pictures to stimulate students
      - Visits to places of                      - Lecturing
        interest in the school locality       - Classical invention }
      Teachers of writing at all levels of the educational system in ESL situations ought to be familiar with most of the pre-writing techniques available, and adapt and use them to meet the needs of their students in order to help them experience a sense of ownership of their writing.

      "Pre-writing activities generate ideas; they encourage a free flow of thoughts and help students to discover both what they want to say and how to say it on paper. In other words, pre-writing activities facilitate the planning for both the product and the process."

      Pre-writing activities should be used as a therapy to help inexperienced or incompetent students who tend to slow down their pace of writing by insisting on a perfect essay from the onset. These students should be made aware that by doing so, when they try to put down only the "right word in the right sentence." they hinder their own fluency and give themselves the "Writer’s Block." They should be told to leave matters of correctness and form to the revision and editing stages, when they can re-see, rethink, and rewrite their essay to polish it as well as make it Reader Centered – not Writer Centered – prose.

      2) Composing: (focuses on organizational and mechanical considerations)

        • Writing preliminary outlines and answering a series of questions within an organizational framework
        • Making ongoing decisions about every aspect of writing, from vocabulary choice to syntax, style, and organization
        • Reviewing, rereading, and anticipating what will come next
        • Reformulating and adjusting parts of the manuscript as it evolves
      3) Revision:
        • Contemplating the finished draft
        • Revising the organizational and stylistic features of the composition
        • Revising the grammatical features
        While reviewing, student writers should check the following items:
        • The clarity with which the thesis is stated, developed, and supported
        • The sufficiency of the support and development of the thesis for the reader
        • The degree to which the writer has accommodated the needs of the intended audience
        • The degree of grammatical and lexical cohesion and overall coherence of the composition, including the organizational and stylistic features besides the choice of diction, syntax, spelling, and punctuation
    D- Feedback and Evaluation:

    The teacher's attitude toward correction, the way in which he offers it to students, and students’ own feelings about the teacher in general are significant factors in the effectiveness of correction strategies.

    It is recommended that teachers focus more on process in their comments and use multi-draft assignments; they should teach students how to use feedback to enhance their writing skills (self-correction has proven to be very effective; being aware of one’s errors and rewriting them using problem-solving techniques is significantly beneficial for developing writing skills.)

    Moreover, teachers should provide feedback that addresses the specific instructional needs and expectations of the various groups of student-writers. While certain student-writers expect feedback on the content, style, and rhetoric, others may value corrective feedback of their lexical and grammatical misuses. Consequently, ESL classroom practices need to enrich the lexical and grammatical resources of student-writers as well as equip them with the strategic, discourse, and cultural knowledge in order to help them improve their fluency, manage the complexity of their composing, and engage their readers.

    E- Extensive Reading:

    A high degree of writing competence can be achieved through extensive reading (Krashen). Teachers should encourage their students to read a lot by giving them the opportunity to make oral/written presentations, book reports, etc.


    After having elaborated on the contemporary thoughts about the teaching of writing in the ESL classroom, and suggested some ways for teachers to help student-writers self-sponsor their writing, be creative and competent, I would like to say that the writing activities should be structured in ways that help students learn to produce cohesive and coherent discourse on their way to become self-sponsors of their own writings.

    Finally, the primary focus of writing practice "should not be the word, the phrase, or the sentence, but the larger elements and processes that must be integrated and synthesized for effective written communication."

    *Oluwadiya, Adewumi (1992). "Some prewriting techniques for student writers." English Teaching Forum, 30/4: 12-15

    Comprehensive site on "Teaching Writing"

    Page created on September 8, 1998 | Last updated on March 20, 2009
    Copyright © 2001-2009 Nada Salem Abisamra

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