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15 types of writing task

When most people think of language proficiency they think of speaking and listening - engaging in conversations. In my view, of the four skills writing is the least useful and although social media has created plenty of "real life" opportunities for writing chunks, sentences and short paragraphs, assessment regimes still value writing too highly. At GCSE in England and Wales it is worth 25% of all the marks available. Is this justifiable and does it risk skewing too much what teachers do in lessons? This bias is no doubt partly to do with tradition and the hold which universities still exert on language teaching syllabuses.

To my mind, the main value of incorporating writing in  lessons is to use it to support the development of proficiency in general: doing writing tasks helps build vocabulary knowledge, oral fluency and accuracy and, I daresay, reading and listening skill. Every writing tasks you do helps build those memory links which can lead to the procedural knowledge we would like students to have.

In very practical terms, writing tasks also give you a deserved rest in the lesson and the students quiet time for individual reflection.

Writing is therefore usually an extension of other activities you have done during the lesson, a reinforcement of speaking, listening and reading. Here are just some writing tasks you can do in class, some which might seem obvious, others which you may have forgotten or neglected:

1. Copy-writing from a book or the board to establish simple spellings. This offers effective practice for beginners as they start to process sound-spelling relationships (phonics). The act of copying focuses the attention of students on details of spelling, including the new elements of accented letters. It provides quiet time in a lesson and the chance to process something which has been explained or practised just before. Students often enjoy keeping their own record of grammar notes. I wouldn’t worry that copying may seem a dull, uncommunicative task; I’d value it for what it does to aid learning. Just don’t do it too much.

2. Writing down words spelled out orally. This is the simplest form of transcription. Relating the phonology of a word to its spelling and the physical act of writing combine to help students remember. Close listening is needed together with an attention to written detail.

3. Writing down TL answers to oral TL questions. This is a natural extension to oral question and answer sequences, allowing students to reinforce and recycle previously practised language. Students can write draft answers on paper which can then be handwritten or typed up neatly at home.

4. Writing down TL answers to written TL question. This traditional task can require complex processing of written language and the ability to write grammatically correct sentences. You can ask students to write either full sentences or note-form answers. The former may seem artificial, but they require more skill with verb usage. By the way, I wouldn’t worry about a task seeming artificial if it provides a clear learning gain. The classroom is a place of learning, not the real world.

5. Filling gaps (with options given or not given). There’s a danger of “death by gap-fill” in language lessons, if you aren’t careful, but cloze tasks can be used to practise both comprehension and writing. You can tailor them precisely to your class giving as much or as little help as you want.

6. Writing down corrected answers to false statements given orally. This multi-skill task involves both careful listening, grammatical judgment and written accuracy. You can easily improvise this type of task when working with a written text.

7. Writing short phrase statements or just true/false on a mini-whiteboard. The mini-whiteboard, as you know, is a tremendously useful tool, especially since it means you can easily see how well your class is doing as they display their answers (assessment for learning).

8. Taking notes from an audio, video or spoken source. This is highly effective and challenging for intermediate and advanced students. Notes can be taken in English or the TL. The former demonstrates comprehension more clearly, the latter requires more written skill.

9. Completing an information grid based on a written or spoken source. Think of this as guided note-taking. You can scaffold the activity by providing more information in the grid, e.g. partly written words.

10. Writing sentences or a narrative based on a picture or picture sequence. This is a natural extension of teacher-led oral work and one which allows students to recycle language practised orally.

11. Writing sentences from short notes (e.g. diary entries). Once again, it makes sense to do this task having done some previous oral work. Students need to remember what was said, then put their answers into writing.

12. Transposing sentences or text from one person to another (changing point of view). This usually becomes an exercise in manipulating personal pronouns, possessive pronouns and verb forms. For it to be worthwhile there need to be plenty of items in the text to change.

13. Summarising from an English or TL written text. This is a useful task for advanced students, but the downside of using an English source is that students are getting no TL input in the process (apart from consulting the dictionary). Using a TL source text is, in a way, less demanding since some language is given, but it does need to be understood and reworked. The second option seems preferable to me.

14. Writing a passage from bullet points, template, frame or mat (e.g. an A4 sheet containing key language). You can scaffold this type of task as much as you want for your class. It’s another useful exercise to set late in a teaching sequence or for assessment of writing.

15. Writing social network messages to a TL speaker or classmate. If your school allows you to do this you can send messages in real time using a phone or tablet, either to classmates, or, say, to an exchange class. Even if you don’t have the technology or are not inclined to use it, you can pretend to send real-time messages, e.g. tweets, using mini-whiteboards, for example.

The above is an adapted extract from Becoming an Outstanding Languages Teacher.

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