Written production is a skill which requires ideas to be formulated and expressed as printed output. Like its oral production counterpart, written production is developed sequentially in terms of the kinds of texts to be produced by the learner; i.e., from copying and formulating simple words or phrases to create simple messages to drafting autonomous works which involve the expression of numerous thoughts in a coherent and cohesive manner such as one would find in essays or short stories.
As with oral language, there are also two main types of written texts. Interactive texts involve at least two people who are actively engaged in written communications with each other, giving the texts the flavour of spontaneity or a lack of preparedness which is often typical of two-person journals or friendly letters. Noninteractive texts are those texts which the writer produces but does not necessary expect a direct reaction to what he/she has written. This type of writing is almost always prepared either fully or partially and is often followed by a number of drafts which have been edited and rewritten. This latter process is one which is generally used for the publication of books or articles or relates to academic tasks such as compositions, book reports or essays, requiring students to demonstrate their ability to argue a point coherently while showing cohesion of thought and expression. Prepared texts often exhibit the following kinds of characteristics:
- 1) clearly organized thoughts,
- 2) rare usage of incorrect words or expressions , and
- 3) argumentation which is logical and sequential.
Spontaneous written texts, on the other hand, are often characterized by:
- 1) point form annotations of thoughts,
- 2) incomplete sentences with more errors present than would normally be accepted in formal written communications, and
- 3) overt evidence of self-monitoring as some words are slashed and replaced with others as thoughts and ideas are quickly reworked. Because of these distinct characteristics, the type of written text will depend on the context and purpose for writing the message.
Written production is, by its very nature, generally prepared and more precise in its expression than its oral counterpart. This is so because written communications, even so-called spontaneous ones, will allow the writer the time to reflect upon and mentally rework the intent behind the messages before producing them. As well, once the messages have been drafted, their visual presence allows writers the opportunity to read and reread the manner in which the messages were written in order to determine if the sentence structure, word usage, and grammatical forms have been correctly used to communicate the messages in the best way possible. If, at this point, writers find that the written messages are flawed in some way, they can rework the idea(s) until the words, sentence structure and grammar all reflect the manner in which the messages were intended to be communicated. On the other hand, oral production is often not afforded this luxury, since messages are often quickly exchanged and meaning immediately negotiated as is the case for interactive texts.
When these concepts are applied to the classroom situation, it becomes increasingly evident that teachers will need to become familiar with the characteristics demonstrated by these different types of texts so as to be able to help students differentiate between the appropriate use of spontaneous, unprepared written communications and formal prepared written communications. Therefore, at the classroom level, written production activities will depend upon three factors:
- 1) the purpose of the writing activity, be it experientially-, communicatively-, or linguistically-based,
- 2) the type of written production activity that is planned, and
- 3 ) the communicative/linguistic level of the students.
Bearing this in mind, Beginner level students will generally carry out simple writing tasks, such as creating want ads, which are very structured in nature, following models, and focusing on language precision at the word level. Intermediate students will build on these written tasks and will add others to their repertoire which will now require the development of a series of sentences to create short paragraphs for newspaper articles or simple business letters for example. Advanced students will move towards the development of more complex and lengthy written communications which demonstrate the ability to elaborate ideas in a coherent and cohesive fashion as would be the case in the writing of an essay.
In order to appropriately develop the written production skill, it is important to note that there are often two aspects which cause second language learners difficulty and they are:
- 1) recognizing and applying the sounds known orally to the written symbols which evoke these sounds and
- 2) the correct syntax patterns of the language.
These two aspects are best developed and learned through guided practice exercises. However, these types of written activities are not considered communicative nor experiential, since they do not convey authentic messages which are relevant to the learner nor are these exercises a consequence of an information gap. Nevertheless, these types of written drill exercises do play a vital role in the development of students’ linguistic abilities as they provide a knowledge base for the use and application of these linguistic structures. Still, there lies one danger in using these types of activities, in that they often do not reflect authentic language use and are almost always decontextualized. Therefore, it is very important that teachers be aware that these types of written activities only develop linguistic knowledge and that their application is limited to the mechanical use of the language, meaning that it will not necessarily transpose itself automatically to real communicative/experiential language usage. Rather, this can best be achieved when the communicative tasks which are assigned to the students are real-life based, using a procedure which employs examples of authentic models and is followed by guided practice sessions based on these models. Thus, an important step in developing students’ writing abilities is to determine if the activities the students are going to carry out are focused on real-life tasks or are simply language exercises, since the type of activity will determine the kind of “product” and its authenticity.
The way in which an activity can be deemed communicative/experiential is whether a communicative intent is present and whether the intent can be carried out authentically in writing or not. For example, an authentic writing task would be to write a postcard to a friend whereas a non-authentic writing task would be to write out a face-to-face conversation which would otherwise be carried out orally. Therefore, in order for a writing activity to be deemed communicative, it must essentially exhibit authentic language use in a meaningful and relevant context, which requires students to supply needed or missing information in order to meet the needs of the communicative intent and to be experiential, it needs to be carried out in a true-to-life fashion. Authentic written tasks could include drawing up a grocery list, creating a want ad, creating a publicity poster, writing a friendly letter or a business letter, writing a newspaper/magazine article, or writing a brochure, guide or manual. All of these communications are authentic and fulfill communicative needs which occur in real life. The types of written tasks assigned to students will, however, be based on the communicative/linguistic abilities of the students. Beginner level students will be limited to tasks which centre around the use of words and simple sentences, such as the drawing up of lists, creating want ads, simple announcements and simple publicity posters. Intermediate students, on the other hand, will be given tasks which will require the development of paragraphs, such as a small article for the newspaper or a simple guide for babysitters, whereas Advanced level students will write more elaborate articles and stories based on the field of experience being developed. Thus, not only will the tasks need to be tailored to the level of the students, but the students will also need to have the necessary communicative/linguistic abilities necessary to be able to carry out the task.
As with the other three language skills, three phases are also being proposed:
- 1) a pre-writing phase,
- 2) a writing phase, and
- 3) a rewriting phase.
This proposal is in keeping with the view of writing as a process more so than a product activity. As with the other skills the pre-writing phase involves the “setting of the stage” in which students are engaged in activities which will assist them in carrying out the communicative task to be assigned in the writing phase. The purpose of the pre-writing phase is to develop the necessary linguistic elements in a contextualized fashion which will later be recycled in the communicative task. This phase is composed of guided practice sessions which will lead students to be able to replicate the same task at the writing stage but on a more individualized basis.
In helping students start their written communications, it is important for them to understand the purpose of what it is they are to write. In other words, the need for communicating must be made clear and evident. Further, the writing task needs to reflect the authentic ways in which writing occurs in real life. Thus, by knowing the purpose, students’ writing will begin to take shape and will define its form of expression. To begin this phase the following activities could be carried out:
- 1) brainstorming ideas which are involved with a particular writing topic,
- 2) helping students define the types of ideas they might want to include in their work.
- 3) helping students organize their ideas by working out some of their language problems,
- 4) reviewing or developing pertinent vocabulary,
- 5) writing reflective journals about the writing process, and
- 6) developing semantic maps to demonstrate the flow of ideas and how they are connected.
In the case of semantic mapping, a good activity for developing coherence of thought is to ask students to connect or “map out” their ideas by drawing lines and arrows to form idea clusters. These clusters can then become the focus of paragraph development as students trace the beginning of an argument and seek out the ideas which can be used to support the argument. Any ideas which are irrelevant or do not serve a direct purpose are then eliminated. This process then allows for students to actually “see” their ideas in terms of relationships relative to the argumentation they are developing so that they can begin to visualize the organizational patterns which could form the basis of a draft version of their ideas.
Another activity which can be carried it out is to use authentic documents. Students can use these documents as examples of correct models of communicative expression and grammatical usage. In this case, students carry out a guided analysis of the elements of the text and the type of expressions used to communicate ideas. Students can now use these frameworks for developing their own messages based on the models presented. Or, these authentic documents can serve as informative reading to provide students with insight as to how others express themselves regarding the same topic. Students can be involved in a comparison activity in which they can discuss the different ways in which the same subject has been treated and the different writing styles which have been used to reflect these same ideas. In essence, then, the prewriting phase serves the purpose of “setting the stage” in that students are guided through all the necessary steps needed to carry out the task, whether it be linguistic or communicative in nature.
The writing phase is the moment when students actually begin the process of carrying out the written communicative task. First and foremost, students need to be given a situation or reason for carrying out the task. They will also need to go through a guided and modelled session before they will be able to carry out the task on an independent basis. Thus, this phase is viewed as the development of a series of drafts where students reflect and carry out the revision of ideas, grammar usage, and the overall organization of the work. This phase is an important one in the development of effective writers since students need to see themselves playing two roles: the writer of the text and the reader. In other words, they have to ask themselves the question: Does the reader understand the messages as written by the writer? The answer they come up with will determine the extent of their revisions. Thus, it is through a reflective process and analysis of their work that students will become more competent writers. Consistently, it has been demonstrated that persons who are more effective in their written communications are those who possess the following characteristics:
- 1) they are willing to do more planning, rescanning, and revising of their work,
- 2) they will concentrate on the essence of the message instead of getting bogged down with grammatical accuracy or searching for justthe-right word, and
- 3) they understand and accept that an important part of being a good writer is composing several drafts.
Assisting students through this process is often tedious, but is vital for them to realize that good writing is not one that occurs “off-the-cuff”, but requires extensive revisiting if students intend to improve the manner in which they express themselves. Thus, the role of reader of the text becomes an integral part of the revision process as students analyze and reflect upon what it is they have written and attempt either individually, with another student, or with the assistance of the teacher to discern the difficulties which are presenting themselves on paper. This revision process, then, is an important stepping stone in making students consciously aware of the need to find solutions for improving their work. This process may be accomplished through the use of objectivation grids or self-evaluations which ask the students to think through the process and to consciously make corrections by referring to their notes, dictionaries, both unilingual and bilingual, thesauruses, verb tense references, etc. as a means of revising and improving the work.
The rewriting phase is the transition point when students are ready to finalize the written communication. This stage involves students in correcting any final aspects of the work to produce a refined and polished product. It is at this point, as well, then, that students receive feedback as to their success and are asked to reflect further on the writing process they have just gone through by relating in concrete terms all the steps they carried out to arrive at this point. This process can be discussed as a group and a chart of students’ reactions can be made so that the next time the students are asked to carry out a similar task they will now have a referential framework that they can resort to in order to be able to carry out the task on their own.
To better understand these phases, it is best to walk through the process with a concrete example. Authentic written productions for Beginner level students will focus on guided and structured tasks which centre around the use of words, such as grocery lists, menu writing, posters and simple announcements, whereas students at the Intermediate and Advanced levels will engage in written production tasks which will require more thought and organization of ideas as students at these levels will want to express more elaborate and sophisticated thoughts. Therefore, the following example is intended mostly for these two levels, but the application of the ideas are equally applicable to the Beginner level.
A very popular field of experience for students at both the junior and senior high level is “The World of Work”, since students are very interested in obtaining parttime jobs. At the pre-writing phase students can be asked to participate in any number of activities. For example, in simulating the filling-out of a summer job application, students might be asked to brainstorm a list of summer jobs which they might be interested in. A subsequent step might be to have students read summer want-ads and to select the one which interests them the most. Then, they can be asked to write a letter to express their interest in the job. At this point, however, it is important to ensure that students have the requisite knowledge necessary to write a formal business letter. Teachers need to walk the students through the business letter writing process by using an authentic example to pinpoint the different elements and the manner in which they are expressed, such as the placement and correct format for the date, the placement and format of one’s address or the address of the person to whom the letter is being sent to, the correct salutation usage and any other formal expressions which might be used in the body of the letter, such as “Je vous prie d’agréer, cher Monsieur/chère Madame, l’expression de mes saluations distinguées”, to make the letter more sociolinguistically acceptable. Having gone through this step, the students now have sufficient information to move on to the next phase. move on to the next phase.
At the writing phase students could be asked to brainstorm a list of characteristics which are important to have in order to be able to apply for a certain position. This activity allows students access to a variety of adjectives and expressions which they can later use in the class letter and in their own letters. Next, in order to ensure that the students have fully understood the letter format and are able to apply their knowledge to the writing of a job application letter, a letter is done collectively so that students can go through a guided practice session prior to carrying out the task on their own. Students can be asked to provide the information as the teacher writes down the ideas. At this point, the teacher can also go through revision techniques by demonstrating to students how to use a dictionary to ensure that words are correctly spelt and are being used appropriately. Students can also be shown how to use a series of reference materials in order to ensure that their messages are being correctly communicated. Once these steps have been completed the students can be asked to carry out the task on their own. When students have completed their first draft, they can share their work in pairs or in small groups as a means of determining if all the requisite parts of the letter are present. The purpose of this revision process is to ascertain if the students have truly integrated in their own letters the elements which were previously discussed and to see if they are able to distinguish these parts in a fellow student’s work. The editing process, then, is a means of verifying if in fact students have been able to apply the requisite knowledge and to what degree they have been successful.
The next step is to have students write their revised letter in the rewriting phase, which will reflect the entire writing process which the students have passed through in order to be able to arrive at a polished product. At this stage, it is important that students receive a response back for the effort they would be to telephone the business and set up an interview time. This extension activity now involves the use of the oral production skill.
In essence, then, the development of the written production skill begins with structured and modelled exercises, leading to the application of this knowledge to simple writing tasks which are found in real life, such as lists, newspaper articles, and so forth. As students progress through the communicative/linguistic levels , they will gradually move to more sophisticated writing tasks which need to follow a guided practice format in which students will collectively go through the process before embarking on their own. Once they have completed this step, they are now ready to freely communicate their ideas by applying their linguistic knowledge to relevant, real-life tasks, which can now be integrated with the other language skills in order to complete the students’ language development.