Five Activities to Encourage Creativity and Collaboration in Writing (Ian Bosiak, VUS TESOL 2015)

The second session of the day was focused on YLs: how to support them in developing their writing skills. It was hosted by the excellent Ian Bosiak who really got the audience engaged, laughing and taking part.

It was pretty quick-fire stuff as the opening ceremony had overrun due to the seemingly endless procession of local officials receiving flowers and “gifts” on stage. It would be funny if it wasn’t so predictable.

Anyway, back to Ian’s session.

He started by discussing the problems YLs have with writing. Primarily: FEAR, CONFIDENCE and LACK OF IDEAS. I’m sure we’ve all experienced this in Vietnamese classrooms. Then we looked at the path to writing successfully: alphabet and words (phonics), then on to sentences > paragraphs > the (dreaded) essay in full-on writing class.

Ian suggested we don’t support our students enough on this path. We see them struggle to write anything substantial in length because WE don’t teach them the preliminary stages, specifically sentence writing. How can we expect our students to write good essays if we haven’t given them time to practice and develop their sentence writing skills.

However, simply providing sentence frames and dropping words into them to make grammatically sound sentences can result in “sound” but nonsense writing in which students think they are achieving something because “it’s not grammatically wrong” but it doesn’t mean anything as a piece of writing. The obsession with grammar in Vietnam surfaces again.

The solution:

Always set a topic – Topic-based sentence writing

Let students choose the topic:

  • Write sentences about your favourite _______________ character

Ian showed us making a mind-map with the topic in the centre and words (adj + noun; noun; verb + adv) to describe it, in this case Spongebob. This then leads on to writing a sentence for each arm of the mind-map, et voila, we have the early workings of a topic-related paragraph:

He is yellow. He wears long shorts. He has glasses. He is really funny. He has a yellow face.

Obviously though, we can push our students more.

Practice sentences of different length and structure

We were given a new mind-map example, this time with ‘I’ in the centre and the topic ‘on Sunday’. We ask students to write their sentences. Then, to add complexity we add gaps to the paragraph (how does he do this with his students’ work? I’m not sure). We then get students to fill out the gaps with:

  • Adverbials
  • Preposition phrases
  • Conjunctions
  • Adverbs
  • Prepositions

Obviously, we will need to provide suggested examples of the above.

Now we really do have a “proper” paragraph. And we haven’t had to use the word paragraph yet in class! It’s still interesting, on a topic and chosen by the students. Motivation should be high – they are writing seriously without knowing it. And it looks pretty because we provide a range or publishing options (more on this idea in a little bit).

But my students won’t be motivated to read their work and add in the features listed above. So we can make it competitive – “try to get at least 30 points but adding in the features (adverbials are worth 5 points, conjunctions are 3 points etc). This was a great touch on the activity.

Other important tips:

Give students a guide

  • Show them that details are vital
    • Idea + detail
    • Theme + rheme
    • Hook + reel the reader in
  • They always need a model text to analyse to identify the features above. This kind of discovery can be done with crayons, with students noticing different parts of the text and colouring them.
  • Guided questions
  • Structure guide: small >>>big / sentence > paragraph > text
  • Writing has to ALWAYS be on a topic, ideally chosen by the student

How about feedback to writing?

It can be:

  • Oral
  • Peer
  • Written
  • Targeted to a specific structure or language point*
  • Comprehensive?
  • How often?

Ian’s tips for feedback:

  1. Use checklists of common errors that students refer to before they submit their work – peers can check each other’s too.
  2. Try not using a red pen, but a less threatening one!
  3. Focused feedback: past simple verbs, articles, plural nouns
  4. Let students self-correct – revise and redraft – but process writing is tough to do with YLs so they need motivation to do it – rewards or a system (though I don’t think one was suggested)
  5. Discuss common errors with the class –this could be done before the writing, before submission or after you’ve marked it and then followed by students checking their work then submitting

A very useful set to consider when considering feedback!

…. Homework

Students hate writing homework, for the most part. So what can we do to improve motivation?

  1. Always give the homework a genuince, authentic communicative purpose, not just: write 5 sentences using the words from today. Or far, far worse and unfortunately rife in Vietnam: write each word 10 times in a list. Makes me shudder, god knows how many students must hate English because of that one sentence.
  2. Give students a choice about what to write about
  3. Publish their work: give students a space on the classroom wall which is theirs, to publish whatever they like. Or a class blog – something definitely to try.
  4. Give them rewards for doing homework.

Something I will absolutely try to implement is the portfolio idea Ian talked about next.

He showed us an example portfolio, which is basically a scrapbook or all the writing students have done in a course. They update it with new work and at the end of the course the teacher writes a comment in there and gives it to the student to keep. This provides real, tangible proof of not only of the amount of work they’ve done and should be proud about, but of their improvement and the range of writing genres and skills they have developed. Students and parents alike love this kind of thing.

Publishing Options

Endlessly writing on empty A4 paper is not fun. So YLs need a variation of writing templates to motivate them to write. These could be:

  • Mind maps
  • Post it notes
  • Comic strips
  • Story boxes

The different publishing options need to be readily available in the classroom for whenever they might be needed. Students should know that they are in the room and they should get to know them by using them.

I would like to find out what kind of other publishing options Ian uses with his students.

Now to the activities alluded to in the workshop title (this was a fast-paced, action and information packed workshop!)

  1. Brainstorm

Sounds simple, but it’s brainstorming with a twist.

Give students a prompt and they write as many endings as possible, in a race (could be on mini-white boards).

Example prompts:

  • This weekend I really want to…
  • I wish I could…
  • If I had a million dong I would…

This game can be adapted: make T/F sentences then mingle and guess which is false.

The point is to encourage students to think of as many endings as possible – to have them realise that they DO have ideas and things to talk about.

2. Early finisher activitites

This is a common problem in language schools. What can we do?

Ian’s idea is to have a magic box of suspense and mystery (or something along those lines), full of fun writing prompts and questions. Students can stick their hand in the box, take a paper, choose a publishing option, write and publish it on their wall space or in their portfolio.

Superlative questions work well, but keep them funny:

  • What’s the worst smell you’ve ever smelt? Where did you smell? Where did it come from? How did you feel?

3. Dictation

Ian asked the audience who liked dictation? A resounding no. I’ve started to love it recently! He demoed a running dictation activity with some brave volunteers and suggested some tweaks to the standard procedure:

  1. Use existing student work for the dictation text
  2. Just have prompts on the text, students have to complete the prompt in their own words
  3. Have a grammar point or a vocab list on the dictation and students have to make a sentence using some of the words or the grammar point
  4. Let students work with the text after the running dictation, maybe using it a model for a paragraph writing or having students add more complexity to the text by adding adverbials, conjunctions etc.

Some really nice developments to the standard procedure, it’s easy for running dictations to become stale and predictable.

4. Clause colossus

Ian was really running out of time now so we had to zip through this one at pace.

It’s a bit like the brainstorm one from earlier.

The teacher calls out a clause and teams, using mini white-boards, complete it. To make it competitive you award + points for creativity and minus points for unoriginality.

Example clause prompts were:

  • Last night we…
  • We like it when…
  • Some people…
  • It’s weird that…
  • The problem with wifi in Vietnam is that…

Note: all games are adaptable to, for example, break-up an IELTS or adult class.

And that was it – this buzzing little workshop in a big room came to an end. It was my favourite session of the day, lots of practical activities and some food for thought with regard to how we introduce and support YLs in their writing. I’ll be trying out many, hopefully all, these ideas at some point in the future and may even present them to the teachers at my school.

My thanks for Ian Bosiak for a cracking workshop!

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