In a way, this post is about something I won’t actually be able to use myself and isn’t something I have done extensively (or at least, consciously so) in the past. This week I start a new job, and I actually won’t be in a classroom environment, so that’s why I won’t be able to make immediate use of the ideas I’ll set forward. However, I’m hoping that I’ll be able to use the underlying principles to guide the work I will be doing, which will involve working on lesson frameworks.
The first mention of the term framework, therefore seems to suggest a focus on the structure of a lesson, class, session, or however you wish to name those hours and minutes that the teacher and students are together. The ideas that you’ll are partly to do with this, but they rather more focus on helping students studying English with one particular aspect, that of writing.
What do we know about writing?
Writing, as a productive skill (i.e. the student doing a writing activity usually – but not always – produces a piece of writing), is one of the prime ways a teacher can see their students knowledge of the language in use. It provides a record of what the student knows that is tangible, it can be stored, looked at, investigated, marked, corrected and used for feedback to the student. However, so much is bound up in the skill of writing that it can be particularly challenging for students learning a second language. It can be particularly telling that students who are very communicative, and appear to speak with a reasonable degree of fluency and relative accuracy, struggle to produce coherent pieces of writing.
No wonder some people suffer from blank page syndrome
You know the feeling – when you see a blank piece of paper (or blank text input box, eh bloggers?) and you know you have to write something, but nothing comes to mind when you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Imagine that feeling if you were writing in a language other than your mother tongue. Imagine again that maybe writing is something that is not as valued in your culture as it is in the anglophone world. Problems may arise in this situation.
As mentioned above, there are a number of different aspects that are important to consider when writing, chief among them:
- Genre – what is it that is being written? a letter? report? essay? something else?
- Style and register – who is the intended reader for the text being written? a family member? friend? colleague? superior? someone else?
- Language knowledge – what are the particular features of language that you need in order to produce this piece of writing? what elements of syntax and semantics are needed?
- Ideas – what are you going to write about? any ideas?
Now, I’m not suggesting that this list is complete, nor that these come to mind in precisely this order, but look at all the things that need to be considered without taking the actual ideas into account. No wonder some people suffer from blank page syndrome.
Luckily, as language teachers, there are at least two things we can do to help those of our students who struggle with their writing.
Perhaps most useful in helping students to notice features of genre, such as text layout, particular features of language, and the structure of a piece of writing, writing frameworks work by providing the student with part of a text and asking them to fill in the rest of it with their ideas. A typical example of this might look like this:
Dear Mr/Mrs _________ (put surname)
I am writing to you to apply for ________ (name of job, course, etc.)
I believe I am a suitable candidate for this because ______ (give a reason).
Please could you contact me by _______
I look forward to hearing from you.
Obviously, the text type of a letter lends itself very well to this writing frame approach. There are a number of common features to letters, whether they are common to all (or perhaps better said, most) letters – a salutation, a reference to the reason why you’re writing or acknowledgement of receipt of previous letter, a closing remark, signature, etc. If we look at particular types of letter, like you can see above that it’s an application letter, there are even common features of language, such as grammatical structures and there may even be set phrases which can be used in the same kind of letter again and again (I look forward to hearing from you). The same approach of taking the generic features of a text and reducing it down to these, leaving the rest of the content as gaps to be filled has the effect of providing a student writing something to hang their ideas on. They can worry more about the actual content that the language which surrounds it.
Breaking a text down to bits of phrases like this, together with activities like identifying the different features they relate to, identifying the order they commonly appear in the type of text being worked on, etc. can help students to notice these features. This may cause them to use these bits of language more readily when they write their own texts from scratch.
Using graphic organisers in language teaching
Graphic organisers are best thought of as a way of setting out a page, using visual, non-verbal elements, such as boxes and arrows, and prompts in the form of text, images or symbols. In providing this frame on the page, they provide a frame for writing, helping to scaffold the writing process. This may help students who are writing to come up with ideas, and lay out their writing in a fashion that will help when it comes to putting together a proper version of their text. It should be noted that graphic organisers will not necessarily cause the student writing to have their words in a format ready to be transformed into a complete text straight away. They may need to manipulate and reorder certain parts.
Here is an example of a graphic organiser to show you what it looks like:
You’ll see that in this case, the boxes in the graphic organiser focus on particular things relating to an overarching theme or purpose (which here is all to do with thinking about achieving a future goal). Other graphic organisers may focus on looking at the positive and negative aspects of a situation, which may be useful if the text being worked on is something like an objective discursive essay. Others might help identify different stages in a process (like those that sometimes come up in the IELTS Academic Writing papers).
While blank page syndrome refers to a problem created when a student is confronted by a blank page and needing to write something, the blank boxes and sections in graphic organisers may help students come up with things to write. The blank box effect actually helps students to produce text. With guiding statements and instructions, these boxes and sections can even guide the kind of language that is needed for writing a particular type of text. And the versatility of the tool means that you could use graphic organisers when working on writing almost any kind of text you could want to write.
So, if you find yourself faced with students struggling with their writing, give writing frames and graphic organisers a go!
Note – the graphic organiser above, along with many others, can be found at Exploratree. You can also create your own. They can be created and used by students online, but they probably work best when printed off and filled in by hand.
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