As a teacher of English as a Second Language and a teacher trainer, I have found that there is not much focus put on teaching writing in a general English context. We focus more on speaking and communication skills. This makes sense. My students lived and worked here in New York and they hardly had to do any writing or reading in their daily lives. Thusly, we mostly focused on speaking and listening because that is what the students wanted/needed/used daily.
Then I started teaching TOEFL prep. Oy.
The first time I had to grade their Independent Writing essays, I was floored. They were not using paragraphs! There were no topic sentences! There were no clear beginnings, middles, or ends! Of course, I needed to take into account that different cultures organize their thoughts while writing quite differently from Americans. However, it was still clear that my students had never learned to ‘write American’ and this skill is absolutely necessary for people who want to go to college here or need a TOEFL score. So, we started from the beginning and we got the basics. This was good. But…there was another even bigger hurdle to overcome–writing fluently.
In the TOEFL every thing is timed, so there is a tenuous relationship between accuracy and fluency. This really comes into play in the writing section. You want to write accurately for obvious reasons, but if you don’t write fluently you won’t even come close to finishing so…damned if you do correct mistakes, damned if you don’t correct mistakes.
In the end, what I found was the most crippling for students in the accuracy/fluency tug of war was fluency. When they learned how to write in English (what meager practice they had had…sheesh!), they were given as much time as they needed. They were constantly re-reading, back-tracking, erasing, using white out, asking the teacher, etc. One of my students once told me that it took her 30 minutes to compose a text message to me just to tell me she was running late. I got it 5 minutes before she arrived! Students are so worried about making mistakes that are visible. So, cue rocky music and inspirational teacher/TOEFL student writing-training montage! How did we finally surmount the fluency/accuracy issue? Free writing!
At the beginning of every class, the students would have 5 minutes to write as much as humanly possible stream-of-consciousness-style. It had a huge impact on their ability to write within a time limit. It also built their general confidence level about writing. It worked so well that I incorporated it into my general English classes as well. When I wanted to guide the writing a bit more, I found that kind-of-free writing was equally effective. I had them free write about a topic, or in a specific tense. Adding a tiny bit of guidance can make this an effective practice activity. However, the emphasis is on the free part so it is important not to take too much control.
Another neat thing that came out of free writing, was the recognition of habitual mistakes. After the 5 minutes they would look at the writing in detail to find common/glaring things like missing articles or missing letters, for example, ‘s’ for the 3rd person or the plural forms. The students then started noticing that the habitual mistakes they made while writing were often the same as the mistakes they made while speaking.
So, the moral of this story is: teach writing even if you are just doing 5 minute bouts of it as a warmer. It can help improve their speaking accuracy, and it is important if they are considering studying in a college or they need to take the TOEFL for some godforsaken reason!