Righting Writing #4: Starting at the End

87717614In this post, I’m going to set out the detail of a writing assessment activity for KS3 and then in the next post, I’ll make a start on describing the speaking, listening, reading and writing activities, techniques and materials I use which lead up to it.  It’s a 6-week unit for a mixed-ability class in Year 8 or 9 on healthy living, which culminates in an extended writing piece.  If you haven’t read the introduction to this series, please take a look at that first or you’ll miss what I’m trying to do!  In a tiny nutshell this is it, (but please read the full introduction), I want to get my students to produce some extended writing, appropriate to their age and level, but I don’t want to overdose on writing all the way through the unit or bang on all the time about there being a written assessment at the end.  Involvement, spontaneity, learning styles, motivation to communicate and quick thinking are just some of the things I want to foster or include over the 6 weeks which is not easily achieved in a mixed-ability group when writing dominates.  And I want to do it all through the target language.  This post and the others in this series will serve as an example of how I think writing fits into a communicative approach to language teaching.  So here’s the plan:

The end-of-unit assessment activity will be for pupils to write either a poster for the PE Department Corridor/Gym or a ‘My Story’ article for a glossy magazine.  Like all writing activities, I think it should have a sense of Text (T), a sense of Audience (A) and a sense of Purpose (P):

Sense of Text  We hardly ever write in normal life with no idea of what sort of text we’re writing.  Whether it’s a shopping list, an e-mail, a letter of application, a story, a list of instructions or whatever, the type of text it is influences how we write.  So pupils need to have it clear in their minds the type of text they’re writing.  Without that, it’s difficult to engage with the activity and rather pointless.  In this case, it’s a poster or a ‘My Story’ article.

Sense of Audience  Again, whenever we write, it is intended that someone will read it, even if it’s only ourselves.  A note to a friend, a boss, a colleague we know, a colleague we don’t, a potential employer will have a different tone according to its intended audience and, in many languages this will also determine which person of the verb is used and the corresponding verb forms.   If a piece is written only for the teacher to mark it, only a small minority of pupils will get excited about it, and they really should get out more.  The teacher can, of course, be a worthy audience, but then pupils should be clear that they are writing to the teacher, which is not the same as ‘writing to nobody but the teacher will read it when the work gets marked’!  Here, the poster is for visiting exchange students and the article is either for sending to the partner school or to the class next door in your own school.

Sense of Purpose  The purpose of writing a shopping list is so you don’t forget what you need to buy.  The purpose of writing an instruction manual or a recipe is so that someone else learns how to operate something or make something that you know, but they don’t.  It’s a very different piece of writing to when I need to persuade someone to do something or to complain that they haven’t or find out if they have.  I have found that writing activities work much better with a class when they know why they are writing the piece.  I’m not keen on making a big deal about a piece of work being an assessment.  I think doing so often arises from the suspicion that the class won’t take the piece of work seriously otherwise, and if we are being judged on how well they are doing, the necessity feels all the greater.  However, I’m not convinced that they become better writers of another language just because it’s an assessment.  (If anything, I’ve known quite a few pupils will avoid it.  Terrible how the flu hits on the day of an assessment…..).  There are better purposes we can come up with for why the students are to write the piece.  In this case, their immediate purpose is to set out what their own lifestyle is like in terms of food, drink and exercise, so that later we can compare and find out who has the healthiest lifestyle.  Depending on how you want to run it, it could be that someone in the class next door writes back or maybe a pupil in the partner school abroad, but the idea is that someone reads it and responds to what they read.

Below you’ll find 3 examples of what some of my students did, one in French, two in Spanish.  All were in Year 9 at the time and they began their secondary learning of the language at the beginning of Year 8 (there was a middle school system in the area at the time).  French was taught in the local middle schools but Spanish was not, so the French-learning pupil had a bit more French behind her than the Spanish learners had Spanish.  All three students were learning only the one foreign language and they had the luxury of 4 x 40-minute lessons per week.  I gave them 25 minutes to write the piece, in class, without notes, exercise books or dictionaries.  They knew who they were writing to and why, and a couple of days earlier I had shown them an example on the screen of what a previous student had done before, just to give them some ideas, but they didn’t have their own copies.  On the day that they wrote the piece, I only gave them the title and then it was over to them to see what they could do.  All three were taught in mixed-ability class.

Click here to see a pdf of what they produced:  Writing Assessment – examples

If you follow this series of blog posts through, you’ll spot where the students picked up some of the expressions, grammar and vocabulary as we went along.  What I find particularly interesting is that very little of it is picked up from worksheets and exercises.  Almost all of it is through interaction and activities where there is an element of guessing, arguing, contradicting, catching out or competition.  Yes, they needed visual support, and yes, they needed to see the language written down.  Yes, spelling and homophones were issues to be tackled (especially in French where, like English, spelling and pronunciation have a bit of an awkward relationship), but I have been happy enough with the results year after year not to jump to the conclusion that in order to improve writing skills what my pupils most need is to ‘do more writing’.  It’s worth saying at this point that although the class encountered the new language through interactive, speaking activities, one of the things I needed to give particular thought to was how to get it into their books.  There is a potential danger (reasonably easily avoided) that at the end of a unit there is not that much in their books and then it is difficult for them to revise both before the assessment or at the end of a year.  We’ll look at that as we go along.

So, if this is what I want them to be able to do by the end of the unit, what language do I need to teach them?  In terms of vocabulary: parts of the body, fruit and vegetables, food and drink, activities and sports, illness.  Grammar: Present tense, imperfect and perfect tenses (they were already good with the perfect tense, the imperfect – and the difference between it and the perfect tense – was new to them in this unit), adverbs of frequency and time-markers.  I also wanted to give them some opportunities to interact with written texts at word level, sentence level and text level.

In the next post, we’ll begin to have a look at the activities I chose to help me get these concepts and vocabulary items across.

The Target Language Classroom

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