Writing: Fear and Loathing in the Classroom

by Alexander Makarios

Each and every time EFL learners hear the word “writing” a number of grim thoughts suddenly crop up in their minds.– Teachers know that, better than anyone else – even the learners themselves.

Imagine the following scenario:

You have  planned a perfectly staged lesson, have brought in imaginative realia,  and your  learners are fully engaged in noticing activities of various kinds,  in fact, everything is going perfectly well leading you to believe that they are just dying to now get down and do some writing of their own; then you utter the following words in a most mellifluous manner: “Now, let’s try and write up our own report.”  The students’ first question is usually “Now?” as if your request involved the direst torture.. deus ex machina wanted ASAP!

I have actually experienced this too often  – as I’m sure most of you are bound to have at some point in your career – and I could not understand why this would happen even with learners who were genuinely interested in every lesson would react thus.

But why do students hate writing so much?

The vast majority of learners tend to think of writing as dull and drab because:

  1. They are almost invariably asked to produce certain rhetorical modes of writing, such as narratives, argumentative essays etc. in a conventional way laying emphasis on information structure, accuracy and range of lexical patterns, intra-textual cohesion, and so forth.
  2. They are very frequently given writing as homework without ever having the opportunity to get proper feedback. This tends to associate the skill with an extra, mundane, time-consuming, unnecessary process.
  3. They are highly unlikely to be exposed to more literary texts. As a result, they are deprived of any opportunity to delve into different styles of written language by evaluating well-known, critically acclaimed scripts.
  4. They do not get the chance to look at written language through a more artistic perspective, such as poetry.
  5. In some extreme cases, creative writing is even undesirable in the classroom.
  6. Concerning younger learners, writing is rumoured to be “quite an effective way of punishing young learners for unruly behaviour during the lesson”.

What can we do to turn writing into a more pleasurable activity?

We could, perhaps, take Andre Breton‘s advice and try Automatic Writing in which learners are “fully aware of their surroundings but not of the actions of their writing hand.” This is bound to result in some incomprehensible scribblings which all learners can later engage in deciphering in an attempt to interpret what the writer was striving to communicate subconsciously.

At a later stage, they could, perhaps, try to combine as many different writings as possible to build one concrete story after they have edited certain parts. Such activities tend to be very playful and usually capture most learners’ attention.

  • Designing lessons based on well-known poems in lieu of EFL-designed materials – which tend to be quite uninspiring as well as void of aesthetic value – serves as an alternative perspective through which writing skills and creativity can be practised. This is an excellent opportunity for skills integration, too. For example, the teacher could record several poems (using Audacity, let’s say) and, then, ask each learner to choose one, listen to it a couple of times, and draw the effect it had on them. Then, the drawings will change hands and each learner will attempt to write down the original poem by interpreting them. Finally, they could all listen to the original poems, compare them to their own poems, and exchange their opinions and thoughts. Issues, such as individuality, personal experience, bias, and feelings reinforcing or restricting a person’s ability to filter information will surely spring up.
  • Using animation  tools, such as Xtranormal, Animoto, Glogster, Voicethread, or other similar tools, the teacher could prepare a visual represantation of a poem or a short story and ask the learners to work individually or in pairs in order to come up with the poem or story.
  • Assigning each learner with a persona and encouraging them to keep up a diary of a series of humorous and/or tragic events. Then, once every two weeks (or a month) you can have a session in which each learner will read out their diary entries. You can vary this project by narrowing down the choice of personae to famous authors/poets. The learners can be asked to come up with unpublished works of the author/poet they pretend to be. These works could be short stories, love letters, etc. This project can be quite demanding since the learners will have to do some research on the persona they have been assigned with. However, highly motivated Sts would have no objection to doing so as it can prove to be very thought-provoking, imaginative and creative.
  • You can find a very interesting lesson promoting creative writing here. This lesson was created by Ms. Marisa Constantinides. She used a Word Cloud tool to provide the learners with the key vocabulary of a rather unusual story and also gave students the title of the article. The learners then worked together and wrote down the article using all the words in the cloud.

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9 replies

  1. Very well-said, Alexander! I love the idea of bringing a bit of surrealism into the classroom in an effort to awaken the students’ (and, I am sure, the teacher’s) zombified creativity!

    The only thing I am not sure I agree with: In some extreme cases, creative writing is even undesirable in the classroom. I am afraid you’re being rather overoptimistic here; in my experience, creative writing is usually completely undesirable in, and even ostracised from the classroom!

    • Dear George,

      Yes, I think you are right now that I come to think of it. Creative writing is shunned deliberately and systematically in classrooms. That could be because teachers wouldn’ t know how to deal with or are somewhat afraid of unpredictable answers.

  2. Thanks for the inspiration Alexander – web 2.0 and poems – the new way to go- let’s inspire and fire!

    • Dear Karenne,

      Perfectly-said! I couldn’t agree more with that comment!
      Personal choice in what and how to write anything is the number one motivator, indeed. It’s, also, what we should take into account when encouraging learners to start their own blogs or get a tweeter account, isn’t it? Sometimes too much instruction and guidance can prove to be tiresome and discouraging for students.

      Thank you for your marvellous comment!

  3. Teachers also play a role in making the teaching of writing so unsatisfactory. Teachers themselves rarely write anything creative (present company of course excepted), and it seems to be the case that because teachers themselves don’t understand how to correct student writing, they tend to fall back on correcting what they do feel secure about – our friends grammar and spelling again. So inevitably that’s what students end up thinking writing’s about.

    Writing is really hard for all of us whatever language, ours or another, we do it in. We’ve all read well-known writers tell us how it’s 90% perspiration, 10% inspiration, so it seems to me desperately unfair to ask students to do something we may not necessarily be very good at ourselves, or, if we expect creativity, we are bound to assess subjectively.

    Surely the debate should be around separating out what constitutes the teaching of writing and identifying student routes to these, and how teachers can support these?

    • “Teachers also play a role”… Absolutely agree, Sue, perhaps even the most important role of all. We may make some allowances for teachers who have to get their students to write institutional type ‘compositions’ for exam purposes, but a good teacher could certainly infuse some motivation even in the driest of tasks!

      Writing is, indeed, hard for most people, including teachers themselves! But you only get better at writing by writing, not by thinking about it.

      Many don’t write anything, read anything, listen to anything, use the foreign language with anyone outside their classrooms, that is IF they use it as the language of instruction and not the mother tongue.

      And yet, the power to teach the very same skills which they themselves are not highly skilled at is granted them automatically – a rather sobering thought, which I fear does not give them or their empolyers any sleepless nights.

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