Thursday, January 20, 2011

Teaching EFL Writing: Challenges and Frustrations

blunderbussTeaching EFL writing classes at the university level can present some interesting challenges.

Some of the students you encounter may have been learning English on and off for more than ten years. Yet some of them may not have internalized anything that they have been taught.

Often this is because they have had no desire or motivation to put in the time outside the classroom to achieve any degree of proficiency in English.

And that’s OK.

I know that there will be more than a few such students in any university writing class. While the course may be a requirement for them to graduate, they may have no desire to ever use English after they leave school.

I encourage those students to learn the material that we practice in class. I tell them that they can memorize the structure of numerous sentences and then substitute different nouns and verbs according to an assignment or exam question.

But a far bigger challenge are the students who do have a fairly good English vocabulary, and have reasonable speaking and listening skills. Many of these students falsely believe that they can also write well in English. However, many of these pupils cannot write a single error-free sentence. Their poor writing skills are compounded by their assumptions about expectations.

Skewed Syntax

Now that they are in university, they feel that they have to write in an appropriately academic sounding way. The result is a skewed syntax that is rammed full of errors and, at times, nearly incomprehensible.

Or, as one colleague once put it, it’s as if they load all the words they can think of into one of those old blunderbuss guns, aim at the paper, and fire.

Regardless of how often you stress to these students that they must master the fundamentals first, many of them will keep churning out their strange form of mangled English.

Students who write simple, error-free sentences will always score higher on writing assignments than those who fire the blunderbuss at will.

The students who produce the skewed syntax may be able to engage in more advanced conversations. And when you read what they have written, you can sense underneath the flotsam that the ideas they are trying to communicate are more complex than those from the students who have less experience learning and practicing English.

But you cannot give out good grades for what you sense may be hidden under the horrible writing (perhaps in a creative writing class that would count for something).

Don't Write Beyond your Abilities

I always tell the students who produce the mistake-filled, rambling assignments not to write beyond their abilities. I encourage them to come to see me for extra tutoring. I tell them that I will analyze their writing and highlight their weak areas and provide guidance on how they can improve. Some of these students take up the offer, but many refuse and continue to produce the kind of prose that makes your head hurt.

I don't know if this refusal is based on laziness or a genuine belief that they can write well (perhaps based on the exchange of e-mails and other online interactions with people who praise their writing).

On the other hand, many students who have not had the opportunity to learn English in the past show remarkable improvement after completing a writing course.


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