The other week in my year-round school, I did a collaborative writing exercise with adults using Edmodo. We spent time looking at genre specific conventions before getting down to some actual writing.
Summer school teaching often shies away from getting learners to write, not because there is little value in writing per se, rather it’s not something that we typically expect to focus on during a two-week study holiday. Sometimes, it’s written into the advertising literature that speaking and listening skills are given precedence over all others.
We should also remember that writing requires time and possibly a process of redrafting after the lesson has finished. If it’s expected that teachers need to mark and possibly return to a specific writing task on more than one occasion, it’s fair to say it would not be conducive to the roll-on roll-off nature of summer school; the learners we teach on Monday may not be the same group of learners on Tuesday. We should also keep in mind that summer school teachers already work very hard and would not have time to give each piece of writing the attention it deserves given the student turnover rate.
As a side note, my own criticism of writing is that it generally fails to create an authentic audience; it’s written, read by a teacher, who makes language notes, before being handed back to the student who then reads the comments. The process essentially ends at that point. It’s just a shame that nobody else gets to read it.
Also, it’s probably not a controversial thing to say that writing is rarely done with a real person in mind. If it is, the recipient is rarely afforded the opportunity to reply.
For this guided writing task with my adult learners, I wanted it to resemble social media correspondence or a WhatsApp written exchange. Short connected discourse that requires an immediate response using mobile phones.
Essentially, I wanted learners to write to each other, ask questions and then respond with further comments.
Prior to starting the task, I gave out strips of paper which read:
_________ (name) you are writing to: _________ (name)
Each learner wrote their name once, passed the paper to someone else and then wrote their name again on the paper they received. This guaranteed everyone had someone to write to and that they would receive a message from someone else.
The worksheet I used to help guide learners can be found here: Edmodo writing task
You will notice that it has not been written for a summer school context and therefore would need to be adapted. It does however give the gist of what I wanted my learners to do.
The most interesting thing about this process was how I, as the class teacher, was pushed to the peripherals as soon as the task gathered momentum. As soon as my learners understood the format and how to reply to a message, I essentially became redundant! This might be due to the fact that written correspondence of this nature is often a personal activity that requires little intervention from others. In fact, offers of help and support were shunned so instead, I sat from the comfort off my chair to read the responses on my phone as they came in.
Some learners stuck to the suggested format while others veered off course a little in order to respond to the message they had just received. This is far from a criticism; the task had created an authentic audience and was to all intents and purposes a genuine real-world task.
The last section of the lesson was devoted to peer review. I thought it was important for learners to look over their correspondence in pairs to review what had been written.
Although this task was performed with adults, I can see scope for including similar activities of this kind in a summer school context. Authentic writing in short bursts, which can be seen and commented on in real time, could be something which I would seriously consider including and encouraging teachers to experiment with.
As the teacher would be able to read each message as and when they were sent, it would allow time for notes to be made for cold correction at the end of the task. Giving cold correction followed by a global impression on how the task went would negate the necessity of a lengthy marking process post lesson.
If the necessary safeguards have been put in place, using Edmodo in this way might help conjure up the relevant engagement to help make a task of this kind successful. There is an obvious real-world link, which gives purpose to mobile phones and most importantly, creates connections between learners who often struggle to say hello in ordinary circumstances. With the catalyst starting inside the classroom, I can seriously see the potential for this to continue long after the lesson has finished and become an independent learner driven activity which helps promote engagement within a summer school context.
But does this flout the idea that we should not be focusing on writing in the summer school classroom? I would argue that it does not. We are not attempting to teach essay writing or a standard formal letter- it goes without saying, why would anyone be doing that in summer school? To my mind, this is different because it’s an activity which has a high degree of relevance to a generation of learners who are maddeningly obsessed with social media and have a very strong attachment to technology.
As learners create and absorb a stream of correspondence of this kind in their L1, should we be jumping on the bandwagon to exploit it for learning an L2? I think, yes, we should.