It is a myth that all it takes to write is to sit down in front of a blank page, to begin at the beginning and write through to the end, with no planning, break, editing, or changes in between. And yet, this is sometimes what we ask our students to do. Good writers plan and revise, rearrange and delete text, re-reading and producing multiple drafts before they produce their finished document. This is what a process writing approach is about.
- What is process writing?
- Why should teachers be interested in a process approach to writing?
- The changing roles of teacher and students
- What stages are there in a process approach to writing?
- Classroom activities
- The importance of feedback
- Writing as communication
- Potential problems
- Further reading
What is process writing?
The process approach treats all writing as a creative act which requires time and positive feedback to be done well. In process writing, the teacher moves away from being someone who sets students a writing topic and receives the finished product for correction without any intervention in the writing process itself.
Why should teachers be interested in a process approach to writing?
White and Arntd say that focusing on language errors ‘improves neither grammatical accuracy nor writing fluency’ and they suggest instead that paying attention to what the students say will show an improvement in writing.
Research also shows that feedback is more useful between drafts, not when it is done at the end of the task after the students hand in their composition to be marked. Corrections written on compositions returned to the student after the process has finished seem to do little to improve student writing.
The changing roles of teacher and students
The teacher needs to move away from being a marker to a reader, responding to the content of student writing more than the form. Students should be encouraged to think about audience: Who is the writing for? What does this reader need to know? Students also need to realise that what they put down on paper can be changed: Things can be deleted, added, restructured, reorganised, etc.
What stages are there in a process approach to writing?
Although there are many ways of approaching process writing, it can be broken down into three stages:
The teacher needs to stimulate students’ creativity, to get them thinking how to approach a writing topic. In this stage, the most important thing is the flow of ideas, and it is not always necessary that students actually produce much (if any) written work. If they do, then the teacher can contribute with advice on how to improve their initial ideas.
During this stage, students write without much attention to the accuracy of their work or the organisation. The most important feature is meaning. Here, the teacher (or other students) should concentrate on the content
of the writing. Is it coherent? Is there anything missing? Anything extra?
Evaluating, structuring and editing
Now the writing is adapted to a readership. Students should focus more on form and on producing a finished piece of work. The teacher can help with error correction and give organisational advice.
Here are some ideas for classroom activities related to the stages above:
Getting started can be difficult, so students divided into groups quickly produce words and ideas about the writing.
Students make a plan of the writing before they start. These plans can be compared and discussed in groups before writing takes place.
- Generating ideas
Discovery tasks such as cubing (students write quickly about the subject in six different ways – they:
- 1. describe it
- 2. compare it
- 3. associate it
- 4. analyze it
- 5. apply it
- 6. argue for or against it.
In groups, the idea is to generate lots of questions about the topic. This helps students focus upon audience as they consider what the reader needs to know. The answers to these questions will form the basis to the composition.
- Discussion and debate
The teacher helps students with topics, helping them develop ideas in a positive and encouraging way.
- Fast writing
The students write quickly on a topic for five to ten minutes without worrying about correct language or punctuation. Writing as quickly as possible, if they cannot think of a word they leave a space or write it in their own language. The important thing is to keep writing. Later this text is revised.
- Group compositions
Working together in groups, sharing ideas. This collaborative writing is especially valuable as it involves other skills (speaking in particular.)
- Changing viewpoints
A good writing activity to follow a role-play or storytelling activity. Different students choose different points of view and think about /discuss what this character would write in a diary, witness statement, etc.
- Varying form
Similar to the activity above, but instead of different viewpoints, different text types are selected. How would the text be different if it were written as a letter, or a newspaper article, etc.
Evaluating, Structuring and Editing
Students take the notes written in one of the pre-writing activities above and organise them. What would come first? Why? Here it is good to tell them to start with information known to the reader before moving onto what the reader does not know.
A good writer must learn how to evaluate their own language – to improve through checking their own text, looking for errors, structure. This way students will become better writers.
- Peer editing and proof-reading
Here, the texts are interchanged and the evaluation is done by other students. In the real world, it is common for writers to ask friends and colleagues to check texts for spelling, etc. You could also ask the students to reduce the texts, to edit them, concentrating on the most important information.
The importance of feedback
It takes a lot of time and effort to write, and so it is only fair that student writing is responded to suitably. Positive comments can help build student confidence and create good feeling for the next writing class. It also helps if the reader is more than just the teacher. Class magazines, swapping letters with other classes, etc. can provide an easy solution to providing a real audience.
Writing as communication
Process writing is a move away from students writing to test their language towards the communication of ideas, feelings and experiences. It requires that more classroom time is spent on writing, but as the previously outlined activities show, there is more than just writing happening during a session dedicated to process writing.
Writing is a complex process and can lead to learner frustration. As with speaking, it is necessary to provide a supportive environment for the students and be patient. This approach needs that more time be spent on writing in class, but as you have seen, not all classroom time is spent actually writing.
Students may also react negatively to reworking the same material, but as long as the activities are varied and the objectives clear, then they will usually accept doing so. In the long term, you and your students will start to recognise the value of a process writing approach as their written work improves.
Hedge T 1988 Writing Oxford University Press
Krashen SD Writing : Research, theory and applications Pergamon Press
Kroll B 1990 Second Language Writing : Research insights for the classroom Cambridge University Press
Raimes A 1983 Techniques in teaching writing Oxford University Press
White R & V Arndt 1991 Process Writing Longman
Written by Graham Stanley, British Council, Barcelona