Writing as one of the five skills

Being pretty sure that writing in L2 is as specialized an activity as writing in L1 is, I was interested in looking at the writing module.

The first weakness in making writing a coequal branch of the fl teaching process of L2 is that in order to write, you need an internal model of L2 to draw on. That takes longer than most students are in a fl class for. Even in advanced h.s. levels such as 3rd, 4th, or 5th years, the level of competence and proficiency is questionable.

Next, most people don’t write much. They don’t have a reason to. The examples given in the module do not demand a high level of writing ability. Grocery lists, e-mails, journal entries, etc. do not place the demands for performance that producing extended prose or, OMG, poetry does.

Finally, the impression given is that writing is like the other “skills”, i.e. abilities in that it can be taught along with the other abilities: reading, listening, and speaking. Writing usually uses the monitor that Krashen posits for the production process and there is a way to use the monitor that must be taught e.g. constructing a relative clause beyond the simple “he’s the man I saw” sort.

Here’s an example of a relative clause written in English by a non-native speaker:

“Washington Elementary school third grade students who took the AIMS assessment in 2009, 76% of students passed the math subtest, 74% passed the reading subtest, and 80% passed the writing subtest.”

I believe this is modeled on the writer’s native language pattern of forming relative clauses………

The process of composing extended prose is unlike other language processing activities. Also, its use is restricted. Even highly educated personnel in businesses usually are not expected to write well-formed extended prose passages. Annual reports, letters, etc. do not demand the same level of compositional ability that the writing of term papers and essays demands.

The use of writing in the most elementary level of fl instruction is obvious. The AVID program out of San Diego, CA insists on a great amount of writing, including extended prose and even poetry. However, the AVID instructors build up to it with a great deal of scaffolding and with students who speak English already if not always as their native language. Many English monolinguals speak a dialect of English not suitable for writing formal prose. Many non-English speakers learn such Englishes. Frankly, the Language of Wider Communication in this country is not Standard English pret a ecrire; most people’s colloquial speech needs a lot of reworking to be ready for the written, formal prose most teachers have in mind when they say “writing”.

Starting with labeling, then moving to lists, then to captions, is a good way to use writing to build knowledge of L2. What often happens is that students are asked to compose longer pieces in L2 long before they are ready. A lot can be done with writing in the early stages of studying a fl but if it is forced and pushed up to levels that even native speakers have trouble with, the student may be convinced he has not and can not learn L2.

Poetry can be a great source of enjoyment if, again, kept to the right level. Too many mechanics dealing with meter and other features of verse can confuse a student, but moving them from labeling a collage of their family to writing a poem about each family member can move them along. I’ve had students in the early weeks of first year Russian compose short little ditties which, when read aloud by me, proved hilarious. The reading aloud of one’s writing is an important part of the writing proces.

In the final analysis, I would say almost any writing at the appropriate level you have students do is useful if accompanied by scaffolding. Anything that gives them a sense of inadequacy and failure is counter-productive and shuts down the acquisition process.

Ask yourself this: how successful are English class programs with native speakers of English in getting students to write decent prose? The key seems to be to get students to read a lot. The same is true for students of L2.

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