Recently I have been trying to encourage my (mostly but not solely Czech) students to write more and in this post I’d like to describe some of the practices we have been doing. I only just now realised that distance learning naturally lends itself to TBLT writing, as learners, deprived of the opportunity to speak with the teacher, suddenly need to write more, which makes for some lovely authentic writing.
I came across this about two or three months ago in this 2015 post on the Witch in Agen. It describes a simple procedure in which learners write for 10 minutes on a topic. The purpose is fluency (number of words), not accuracy, so the written pieces are not marked for mistakes, but instead are read by the teacher for content and commented on.
I though it was a great exercise to try. I tend to like all things fluency in my classes, so I explained the procedure to my students and we did the exercise about twice a week. Quickly though, it became apparent that disregarding mistakes and focusing only on the content was not really working. The students felt cheated somehow, as if I hadn’t been doing by job properly, and also felt rather reluctant to hand in writing full of (suspected) errors. So I added some tweaks: after the ten-minute limit ran out, I asked the students to look at their pieces, and while they were counting the number of words, I asked them to correct any mistakes they saw. I was surprised how relieved they were and I could see the corrections they made were good and improved their writing. So if you decide to try this exercise, allowing your students to check their writing seems sensible. One note, my students did not include prepositions and other small grammar words in the total word count, so make sure you explain how to count words.
When we switched to online lessons due to the lockdown (CzechRep was among the first countries to apply it), I wanted to go back to the exercise, but we do it much less often. This type of writing is best written by hand, which then makes it difficult for me to read and comment on when scanned. Another tweak I included was to invite students to elaborate on the 10-min writing and turn it into essays. For example, this successful topic by English Prompts: “Friends are more important than family because you can choose your friends” generated a wealth of ideas by my students. I then asked them to use the unstructured ideas outlined in the fluency writing in an essay they wrote. The instructions needed some explaining (Do you want us to write it again, Ms Kamila?), but eventually, the essays were very good and largely better written than the fluency writing.
As you can see, we’ve had fluency writing develop into writing essays. Next thing that happens is the comments. I find that due to the lesser personal contact, students open up more, so in my comments to their essays, I react not only to their use of language, but also to their thoughts, adding my experience and stories. All this is very light and natural and genuine, just as if I were talking to a friend. The students then react back in the comments and the nature of such comments is that of mutual trust, which hasn’t stopped amazing me till now. Finding the trust of students, who only need you to pass their exams, is incredibly worthy and priceless and renders the whole teaching experience worthwhile and rewarding.
But this isn’t all. Some of my learners do not stop at comments, as some of our comment-conversations develop into other exchanges about topics which aren’t directly related to our learning programme. To give you an example, one of my student has started translating song lyrics by his favourite musician into Czech, and asks me to look at them. I may have philosophical talks with another one over email. And I might end up giving personal advice to a third one – all of which transitions from language teaching to language coaching and would have been unimaginable in regular classes.
Other successful activity I have introduced is the autonomous listening and reading. It basically follows the procedure described by Kyle Dugan here. It has been incredibly successful with my classes. I have changed it a little. Obviously, I have translated the steps into Czech. I also assign videos and texts to my classes so that they roughly correspond to our Exam Topics (such as Family, Food, Sport, etc.). Every week, I choose one video and one article and it is up to the students to work on their own and fill in the report sheets. Since this is not a compulsory exercise, some students don’t do it. I don’t mind – there is less to be marked. But those who do it send some excellent work. The writing involved comes very naturally in the last steps where learners are asked to reflect on the listening/reading and therefore produce some authentic texts, contributing their ideas, thoughts, reflections etc. As I said before, the pleasure to reacting in comments to some genuine ideas is immense.
Finally, I can see the improvement in my students writing. For one thing, they are now able to use the Czech keyboard a lot better, and that is worth noting, because it isn’t easy, look at this spelling: TUČŇÁČEK – A LITTLE PENGUIN. I can see they can now adapt their style to the form when writing emails, comment, or chat messages in the chat window on our e-learning platform. All this makes for fantastic food-for-thought and is a pleasure to reflect upon.
As you could see, I am very enthusiastic about fluency writing, so if you have any questions, please let me know in the comments.
Thanks for reading.
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