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Teaching writing: a sponge cake and an epiphany

This is a guest post kindly sent to me by Australian language teacher Rowena Bata who works at Kardinia International College, Geelong. You'll see that Rowena is making a very valid point about process and product which she stumbled upon in an unusual fashion. But let her explain...

I'm a firm believer in the idea that practice makes perfect; you get better at something by doing it. I'm never going to be able to run 100 metres in 10 seconds if all I do is sit on the couch and watch Usain Bolt on the telly. I need to get out on the track, learn how to run faster, and train regularly. Similarly, I'm never going to be able to write a decent essay in French if I never actually write anything in French.

Looking at this situation from the teacher's perspective, I know I should set my students more writing tasks so they can improve their writing, but I don't have time to mark so much writing each week. Like the majority of teachers, I'm not lazy, there just aren't enough hours in the day. If their writing is of a low standard, because they don't have enough practice, it becomes a vicious circle.

This was the conundrum I faced a few years ago. I asked my colleagues for their advice, which was to have the students write a journal entry once a fortnight as a homework task. Alarm bells started ringing immediately. For a good number of students, writing as a homework task usually meant a quick paragraph in English copied into an online translator and then pasted into an email and sent.
This approach also didn’t address the core issue - they didn't know how to write in French. The solution came via an unlikely source - a Country Women's Association sponge cake recipe!

It occurred to me that all my students ever saw was the linguistic equivalent of the perfect CWA sponge cake, because I always took great care never to show them anything that wasn't "correct" French. This journal writing idea, was the linguistic equivalent of putting them in a kitchen with a picture of a CWA sponge cake and telling them to produce one without a recipe. I would hope that most students would try to make their cake with flour, sugar, and eggs, the same way as they make their piece of writing with nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Looking in my pantry with the eyes of an inexperienced cook with no recipe was scary. There was plain flour, self-raising flour, potato flour, cornflour, rice flour, Continental flour; I understood the confusion felt by students when a teacher tells them that they need to use more tenses in their writing, and they want to scream back "I know that, but which one?".

Once the flour quandary has been solved, there are another dozen questions about which tin to use or how hot to have the oven. After each failed attempt, the teacher explains how to make the cake, but even when you know the ingredients and quantities you need to use, you are still back in that kitchen trying to make a passable cake. Once you get to the stage where you think you've produced a reasonable cake, your teacher tells you that there's still more you can do. Think of the little tips you get from your mum, like using replacing some of the flour with custard powder, or using eggs at room temperature; they turn an ordinary cake into something amazing. In French, they're the things that take a piece of writing from A to A+.

Even though I can make a reasonable sponge cake, I thought about how demoralising it must feel to be put back in that kitchen week after week, with the picture of that cake, and told to replicate it. In time, I would probably get better. Or I would give up completely and head to the local cake shop, if ever I got over my loathing for sponge cake. I also thought about all the parents who sit opposite me at parent-teacher interviews and tell me how they did French at school, but didn’t continue because they felt they weren't any good at it.

So, armed with my sponge cake analogy, I approached the year 8 writing task with a recipe for success. Being Year 8, they weren't required to make a sponge cake, it was more of a ham and cheese toastie.

It took a while to train the students to start with a simple subject and verb and then build up the sentence, but it was a very worthwhile activity, especially for the students who have lots to say but get bogged down with complex sentence structures. I use the "9 steps to success" often, and just vary the language they're required to produce. As a starter for the lesson, I will often give them the English version of the sentence in Step 9 and ask them to translate it into French. When they give up, I ask how confident (score out of 10) are they that they will write that sentence by the end of the lesson. A copy of the task sheet for this activity is available here.

Another very good activity, which some teachers may not like as it exposes students to less than perfect French, is "C'est toi, le professeur". I give students the task sheet and assessment criteria for a Writing task they did in the past, along with 5 or 6 "student" responses, written by me, and ask them to mark them in pairs. I hurry them along with comments like "Recess is nearly over, you have to get these marked before class. You can't sit around in the staffroom drinking coffee and talking about the football. Your students are pestering you for their work back". Round off the activity with a discussion about why they gave the marks they did, and what marks you would have given the work. If nothing else, even the most oblivious students will be aware of the marking criteria after this activity. It’s especially good to do with exam classes.

While these two activities go some way to improving students’ writing, they don’t necessarily ease the teacher’s burden when it comes to marking so much writing. But that’s a story for another blog.


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