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Concourse 2

Teaching writing: aims and approaches


There are two other guides to writing on this site and the following assumes you are familiar with the content of those.  They are:

  1. The essential guide to what writing skills are
  2. An essential guide to teaching writing

and they both open in new tabs.

This guide recapitulates some of the information found in those two guides and takes things a little further in considering what knowledge writers need to bring to the construction of a text and how we might help them achieve their goals.


Why teach writing at all?

The ability to write is learned, not acquired.
All normal human being learn to speak their first languages (and often subsequent languages) by processes which are still debated and often obscure.  How that happens is the subject of other guides to first and second language acquisition.
Writing, on the other hand, is not a skill that everybody acquires.  It has to be taught and schools everywhere devote years and major resources to teaching writing often with incomplete success as a visit to a random selection of blogging sites out here will attest.

Literacy is loosely defined as the ability to read and write a language but the estimate is that nearly 15% of the world's population cannot do either (Wikipedia, 2019).
Additionally, literacy is not a digital, on-off phenomenon.  It exists on a cline from the ability to write one's name and short notes up to highly literate prize-winning authors.  In between, lie most of us who have the ability to write and read in our first and often in other languages with varying degrees of competence.
Until the 20th century, literacy in English was defined as familiarity with the literature of the language and only later did the concept assume its modern meaning of the ability to read and write at all.
It is, in fact, difficult to find a widely accepted definition of what it means to be literate and countries around the world will calculate their literacy rates based on quite widely varying benchmarks of what it means to be literate.

UNESCO provides a definition of:

Functioning literacy is the ability to use reading, writing and numeracy skills for effective functioning and development of the individual and the community. A person is literate who can, with understanding, both read and write a short statement on his or her everyday life.

The ability to read and write a short statement on his or her daily life is an unambitious aim for a writing programme in foreign language learning.  However, skills for effective functioning and development of the individual and the community is a little more suitable for our purposes.
A more challenging definition is also provided by UNESCO:

Literacy is the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written (and visual) materials associated with varying contexts.

It still doesn't tell us what our learners will need to do to be able to claim that they have adequate literacy skills in English for their purposes.


The targets of a writing programme

What targets we set will depend on a range of variables:

  1. The needs of the learners:
    1. For many of us, especially when we are operating in a foreign language, needs are quite simple.  We need to:
      1. be able to write clearly for service transactional purposes: ordering things, booking things, asking for information and so on
      2. to be able to write simple interactional texts to maintain social relationships, make suggestions, arrange meetings and so on.
    2. For other learners, notably those who need to study in an English-speaking setting, needs are more diverse and of a higher order.  They need to:
      1. write clearly and coherently within their chosen speciality
      2. use conventional generic text staging
      3. be able to use a range of reporting verbs
      4. be able to use modality to hedge what they write with adequate modesty
      5. control the specific lexical items within their speciality
      6. write discussions, reports and explanations
    3. Yet other learners who need to use English in professional and industrial settings also need those skills but, additionally, they need to be able to:
      1. write reports and proposals
      2. maintain relationships with clients and partner organisations
      3. communicate clearly and effectively in-house with their colleagues
  2. The level of the learners
    Inviting someone who has just mastered the ability to play Für Elise on the piano to write a piano concerto is probably not going to be a particularly successful or fulfilling project.  Equally, asking elementary learners to construct complex texts using conventional generic features of verbal processes, circumstance and information staging is likely to be a frustrating and unsatisfactory business.
    We need to be careful to match the demands of a writing programme to the abilities of the learners.  Not to do so is an incitement to error, disappointment and sheer exasperation on the part of the learners.
  3. Settings:
    1. Learners who are in or intend to be in a native-speaker environment either permanently or temporarily will have to learn how to communicate, however basically, in situations which require the writing of short notes, requests and instructions.
    2. Learners who are not intending to live in (and may never visit) an English-speaking culture will have no such demands on them.  They may, in fact, unless they fall into categories 1b and 1c, never have to write anything other than notes in the classroom and most of those can be in their mother tongue.

Task 1

Before we go on, make a note of what you believe should be the targets of a writing programme in terms of enabling your learners in your setting with their needs.
Click here when you have an answer.


What knowledge do writers need to apply?

Writers need two kinds of knowledge:

  1. Linguistic knowledge: a mastery of at least some of the elements of the language in which they are going to write
  2. Social knowledge: an understanding of what is conventional about the kind of text they are setting out to write

If you have followed the essential guide to writing, you may recall what some of the elements are.  Even if you haven't ...


Task 2

Make a note of some of the things that your learners need to know in both categories.
Click here when you have an answer.

Linguistic knowledge is what is shown on the left under Systems.  Social knowledge is what is shown on the right under Genre.

If we attempted here to discuss all the categories, this guide would become unmanageably long.  We will assume, for the purposes of what follows, that you are aware of the fundamentals of all the categories.  Some notes will do.



In this area we encounter orthography, punctuation and word processing.  Earlier analyses will also have included handwriting (sometimes called graphology but often confused with the dubious attempt to read people's characters from their handwriting).  These days, we can breeze through most situations in life without ever picking up a pen except to write a phone number and even that skill is quite rarely deployed.
It is vanishingly rare for institutions, educational or otherwise, to require handwritten texts except for answers to examination questions.
A few notes in the margins of texts is all that most of us ever write by hand.
However, the ability to use a word processor of some description is a skill not all learners have and using one in a foreign language can throw up unexpected difficulties in terms of formatting and fonts.
This is a very large area and there are numerous guides on this site in the section devoted to it.  Suffice it to say here that, without the ability to use conjunction (coordination and subordination) accurately, and to handle the vagaries of English word order, any attempt to produce a text above the very simple level with be fruitless.
Learners also need to be able to handle modality appropriately and know what effect on style their use has as well as being able to handle the phrase constituents of clauses with some level of mastery.
This is distinguished from syntax here because it is more concerned with verb forms and referencing in written texts.  Concord is usually simple to handle but determiners in English are not and their inaccurate use has a very detrimental effect on how a written text is perceived.  Cohesive devices include pro-forms of all kinds, not just pronouns and other forms of internal text referencing.
Lexical choice
This is probably the most difficult area even for quite advanced learners because collocation is often unpredictable and the use of lexical items in terms of style is equally difficult to master.  The lexis of the learners' areas of expertise is probably already known but how the items collocate and what colligational characteristics they exhibit is not at all clear to most learners.
rock band


Much is said about the need to have an audience in mind when writing and that is not seriously arguable.  However, less is said about the two sides to purposes:
The audience the writer has in mind will affect how he or she attempts to fulfil the purposes for writing.  A text intended to explain or demonstrate something will vary in terms of complexity depending on the nature of the audience the writer has in mind, for example.
However, writers have no control over the purposes of the reader and little over the types of reader who may come to the text.  The reader's purpose(s) will also affect how the text is understood and accessed.  Good writers are able to take some variation in audience purposes into account when writing.
Awareness of the intended audience will, naturally affect the style the writer adopts and the register-specific language which is used.
This follows from audience and purposes.  The level of clarity of the writing will, partly at least, depend on the writer's perception of the sophistication of the audience and the amount of shared information there is presumed to be between writer and reader.
The level of specificity of cohesion and coherence markers in the text will depend on similar considerations.
This is often assumed to be just a matter of learning to paragraph sensibly but there is a good deal more to it that that.  Within all cultures, there are generically conventional ways in which information is presented and the stages a text contains will reflect these.  The inability to apply the conventional rules of generic text staging disempowers the writer and will make the txt much less effective.
A central issue here in writing in English is the ability to handle theme-rheme structures competently.

Time spent alerting learners to the three aspects here is well spent.  Nobody can write a coherent text without considering why they are writing it, the topic or field of interest in which they are writing, the person who will read it and the relationship between the reader and the writer as well as the way in which they will need to organise the text and get it to the reader.


Ways to approach the teaching of writing

Before even beginning to consider how to teach people to write well in English, it is important to consider what is called the Context of Situation and that involves knowing what one is writing about (the Field), why one is writing, who the audience is and what relationship one has with it (the Tenor) and how the finished text will be transmitted to the reader (the Mode).
So, before diving in to the development or teaching of writing skills, it is worth taking a bit of time to alert the learners to these three aspects of all texts.
This can be done by having a simple form to fill in, by questioning and elicitation or via a short discussion among the learners.
Something like this works well:

Before you start to write, look at these questions with a partner.
What is the subject?  
Why am I writing this text?  
Who am I writing to (the audience)?  
What is my relationship with the reader?  
How will I get the text to the reader?  

and takes about 5 minutes.
If you would like to learn more about what effect the Context of Situation has on how language is used, read the guide to an introduction of Systemic Functional Linguistics, linked below.  That guide also contains a questionnaire you can use with learners for all skills work, not just writing.

In the essential guide to teaching writing, three approaches were described.  This is not the place to repeat everything that is said there so if you are concerned that the following diagrams make no sense, you should go to that guide and read through the relevant part before coming back here.  Click here and that part of the guide will open in a new tab.  When you are done, close it to return to this page.

A product approach: analytic and synthetic A process approach: cyclical A genre approach: cooperative, modelled
product process genre

That's all very well and good and it appears, as do many things in this professions, that we have to make a decision concerning which approach we favour and then apply it.
However, it does bear repeating from that guide that:

It can readily be seen that these approaches are not mutually exclusive.  Elements of the product approach, such as the focus on structural aspects of language can form part of the process approach when students evaluate what they have written as a first draft and such a focus is legitimately part of a genre approach when the language is being analysed.
A genre approach can also be usefully combined with a process approach or a product approach.

What is not in that guide is just how we might do this.  The trick is to combine not just elements of the three approaches but the processes themselves.  This means incorporating synthetic approaches, breaking down the various systems subskills and knowledge into teachable sections, into cyclical approaches, repeating and constantly revaluating a text through drafting and correcting and using the insights from the genre approach to present an analysable model from which the language and structure can be understood.
That might look like this:
3 ways

This does, of course, require a certain level of flexibility from the teacher because her role is to determine when in the process of learning to write a particular text type with a particular generic structure, it is necessary to pause, take a step back and look at where the focus needs to be.  This may mean:

and a number of other possibilities.

Of course, this requires you, as a teacher of writing, to have the knowledge and analytical ability to do all this.
It is with that in mind that you are directed to other guides on this site which cover the concepts involved in using a genre approach and, of course, the systems which have to be mastered before accurate and effective writing can begin.
Here is a short list.

Related guides
introduction to SFG this guide introduces the main areas of concern within Systemic Functional Linguistics and also considers some classroom implications concerning the teaching of skills
genre overview the introduction to the concepts
circumstances elsewhere these sorts of language items are analysed as adverbials (see below) but this is a useful generic classification
verbal processes what verbs do and what sorts of verbs appear in what sorts of texts
tense and genre how certain genres influence tense choices
theme and rheme for more how cohesion is maintained in texts
Formal knowledge
syntax for the index to guides in this area
modality for the index to guides in this area
discourse for the index to guides in this area
English for Academic Purposes for the index to guides in this area
style and register for a description and a distinction
punctuation for a guide to the rules
spelling in English for another guide to rules (such as they are) 

References you may find useful:
Cushing Weigle, S, 2002, Assessing Writing, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Harmer, J, 2004, How to Teach Writing, Harlow: Longman
Hedge, T, 2005, Writing, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Hughes, R, 2005, Exploring Grammar In Writing: Upper Intermediate and Advanced, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Hyland, K, 2003, Second Language Writing, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Hyland, K, 2002, Teaching and Researching Writing, Harlow: Longman
Kroll, B (ed.), 1990, Second Language Writing: Research Insights for the Classroom, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Raimes, A, 1983, Techniques in Teaching Writing, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Shemesh, R & Waller, S, 2000, Teaching English Spelling: A Practical Guide, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Spiro, J, 2004, Creative Poetry Writing, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Tribble C, 1997, Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press
White, R & Arndt, V, 1991, Process Writing, Harlow: Longman