Teaching ESL Writing

Teaching ESL Writing - Teach English in Japan

by David Martin

Writing is disliked and avoided because it is frustrating. It is frustrating because it is unnatural. Speaking is natural and not frustrating; when we speak, we open our mouths and words flow out easily. We do not think about the grammatical correctness of the utterances, nor do we think about mechanics. We do not repeat utterances over and over again to check for correctness or appropriateness. Speech takes place very quickly; the words are spoken and soon lost forever. Most writing, on the contrary, does not flow out smoothly. We write a few lines, reread them, scribble out one of the lines and move on. We are constantly checking for correctness.

Not ESL but TSL

The most important thing that the writing teacher needs to know is: "We are not dealing with ESL but rather TSL: Thinking in a Second Language. If we can get our students to do that we have surely taught them something" (Raimes, 1985:92). Our minds have difficulty processing and retaining so much information at one time. When we write, we are thinking about editing and generating ideas at the same time. These are conflicting processes: creating and destroying. If we can get those thoughts down on paper as they happen, before they are lost, we can juggle them later on paper--juggling them in our minds is too difficult. There are those who can juggle ideas in their minds and then get them down on paper coherently, but they are the minority. We, however, are teaching to the majority. The majority of students are not mental jugglers.

Teaching ESL Writing - Making Writing Fun

So, since writing is avoided and disliked, what can we do to make writing more likable and less avoided? First, the student needs to learn to turn off the editor when s/he writes. S/he needs to learn to generate ideas without destroying them at the same time. The student can go back to the piece later (with a chain saw if necessary) and edit, after all the ideas are safely down on paper. But until all the ideas are down on paper, the editor must remain turned off.

English Grammar Exercises: Turning off your Inner Critic or Editor

The best way to teach your students how to turn off their editor is to teach them how to freewrite. Freewriting is writing that is "free" of the editor. The student feels relaxed, and as a result there is no frustration about writing. The goal of freewriting is to generate as much material as possible (usually in 10-20 minutes). In order to achieve this goal Elbow (1979) suggests the most important thing is to remember: "Don't stop for anything." Don't stop to think about mistakes; don't stop to check spelling; don't stop to think about grammar; don't stop to cross out or read what you have written; don't stop for anything. The most important heuristic that free writing affords is that it forces the students to think in English. If you are really free writing and not stopping for anything, then there isn't sufficient time to translate from the L1 into the L2.

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