Why don’t we talk about writing?

11 08 2016

writing books

The fabulous 15th Braz-TESOL International Conference ended almost a month ago and I am still processing all the information I acquired in the many presentations I attended during the event. The program was varied both in terms of topics and presenters, and everything I chose to watch was meaningful in one way or another. I myself gave a talk, together with my colleague and CTJ course supervisor Silvia Caldas, on how we adopt and adapt the process-genre approach to writing in our context.

We had a wonderful group of participants in our talk, but the room wasn’t crowded. I had warned Silvia that this would probably happen because it is not the first time that I present on the topic of writing in Braz-TESOL conferences and my experience has been consistent: there aren’t many participants, but the quality of participation is always rewarding. The first thought that comes to mind is that the low attendance might be because I’m not such a good presenter and this is the reason why I don’t get such a large audience. Well, this is not necessarily true because when I present on other topics, the result is different, which leads me to conclude that it is the topic – writing – that is not so attractive.

Analyzing the Braz-TESOL Conference program, I realized that there were only four talks or workshops categorized as “writing”, a fifth one about teaching online writing but under the category “educational technology”, and a sixth one on peer correction strategies but categorized as “applied linguistics” because it was a research report. I attended some of them, and they weren’t packed either. Thus, I believe I can safely say writing is not such a popular topic in ELT in Brazil nowadays.

Why is this so? Why don’t teachers like to talk about writing? Here are some reasons I have heard from peers to whom I’ve posed this question, followed by my thoughts on them:

  • Teachers don’t give due importance to writing because they themselves don’t write much.

It is true that not only teachers but people in general write very little these days. Actually, I don’t know if it is only these days or if it has always been like this.  Besides lesson plans, reports on students’ performance, and a few professional and personal e-mails, and social media posts here and there, how much else do teachers have to write on a daily basis after all? And if they don’t have to write much, they also think their students won’t have to write much either.

However, it is the ability to express ideas clearly in writing and catch the readers’ attention that has led many teachers to advance in their careers and become well-known in their professional learning communities by way of blogs and conference presentations. In order to be accepted as a presenter in a major conference, one has to be able to write an effective presentation proposal, with coherence, cohesion, and correct use of language. In addition, all teacher development certificates and degrees require a great amount of writing from teachers. In all these cases, writing can be either a barrier or an advantage, depending on the teacher’s writing skills.  Thus, teachers who want to continue advancing in their career should consider it important to write in the language that they teach and should make it a point to continue developing as writers.

  • It’s very difficult to teach writing in the EFL classroom because students don’t like it.

Indeed, my methodology guru Douglas Brown (1994) states that writing is a difficult skill to teach because it is culturally-acquired, rather than species-specific, and there is great variability in the extent to which it is fully acquired. However, if it is difficult to teach writing, shouldn’t it be the other way around, that is, because it is a difficult skill to teach, there should be more people presenting on writing and more people attending these presentations? Why do we avoid talking about writing?

We also need to consider the root of the problem: the main reason why students don’t like writing is because they find the task daunting. They don’t know what to write and how to do it. It doesn’t have to be like this, though. A well planned writing lesson, with a focus on all the stages of the writing process and explicit teaching of the rhetorical and linguistic features of the genre students will have to write, will certainly make writing more palatable to students. When they feel confident about what to write and how to do it, students begin to see writing in a different way and to value it, especially if the tasks are based on their current and future real-life needs and this is explicitly shown to them.

Not learning more about writing because students don’t like it leads teachers to teach writing ineffectively, which leads students not to like writing and also write ineffectively, creating a vicious cycle.

  • Students (especially teenagers) don’t have to do much writing in EFL anyway, so why give much emphasis to it in the skills-integrated classroom?

I have heard again and again that nowadays teens don’t write anymore; they only do texting or voice/video recording. This might be true for some teens, but how about bloggers and vloggers? The former certainly have to write and so do the latter, who probably write scripts or at least outlines of what they will record.  The ability to organize ideas both in writing and in speaking and to engage their audience is what makes these social influencers succeed so much. Isn’t this what students learn when they write?

Besides, when we are learning a language at a younger age, we don’t know yet the purposes for which we will have to use that language in the future. However, we need to acquire the necessary skills to use the language in a variety of formal and informal settings, for personal, professional and academic purposes. A teenager is not learning English only to be able to use English as a teenager. In a few years, they might have to write college and/or job applications, statements of purpose, formal e-mails and a whole host of other genres. Even adults who are learning English only for personal reasons, for travel and leisure, might find themselves in the future writing an e-mail of complaint or a hotel or restaurant review.

My older daughter finished the advanced course and got her certificate of proficiency in English at the age of 14. Even at this young age, she had to write formal essays and other types of genres. At that time, she didn’t understand why she had to write all this. Today she writes papers only in English for her Master’s program here in Brazil,  and she is grateful that she was ready to write academic English when she had to, rather than have to acquire this skill only now, together with all of her other academic demands.

Just as it can be for teachers, writing is a gatekeeper in many professions. Those who can write well in English have a great advantage. Give your students this advantage!

  • Writing can only be taught fully and effectively in a writing course or in an exam-prep course, not in a “regular” EFL course. Thus, writing teachers and exam-prep teachers are the ones who should be talking about writing.

Harmer (2004, 31) states that focus on writing can range from a mere “backup” for grammar teaching to a major syllabus strand in its own right. Maybe many programs across Brazil use writing as a back-up for grammar teaching and do not focus on writing for writing, only on writing for learning.  The fact that most course books give little emphasis to writing and rarely present complete writing lessons, with all the stages of the writing process, especially planning and generating ideas, and a focus on different genres, is probably proof that this is not what most programs want.

However, it is possible to teach writing as a skill in its own right in a skills-integrated program and make it meaningful to students. This is exactly what we should be talking about more in conferences and elsewhere.

In my next blog post, I will focus on why we should talk about writing. Before that, though, do you have other thoughts on why we don’t talk about writing? I’d love to hear from you!

Brown, H. D. (1994). Teaching by principles: An interactive approach to language pedagogy. White Plains, NY: Pearson Education.

Harmer, J. (2004). How to teach writing. Essex, UK: Pearson Education Limited.

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2 responses

16 08 2016
Maria Eneida Soares Coaracy

Very pertinent discussion, Isabela. I totally agree with you that writing can be a gatekeeper in many professions. As it happened with you and your daughters, I could also see how much writing well helped my two sons when they started pursuing different careers at UNB, and graduate studies afterwards. Food for thought, for sure!

29 08 2016
isabelavb

Thanks, Eneida!

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