Writing does not have to be painful
If there is one skill that is neglected duringgeneral foreign language (FL) courses, it needs to be the skill of writing. It so happens that most lower-secondary school classrooms are no exception here. Teachers frequently assume that their only responsibility is to help their students gain grammatical and lexical competence. The ability to write, on the other hand, is often expected to take care of itself. Learners’ usual reluctance to produce any type of a writing text does not motivate teachers to change their current practices regarding writing practices either.
Changesintroduced in the Gimnazjum FL Examination requiring those learners who studied a particular FL in the primary school to display their ability to produce a short written passage during the exam, will most likely put an end to this blatant marginalization of writing in FL lower-secondary classrooms. The question remains how teachers can make their students regard writing in a FL more favourably.
A small-scale project carried out in one of the Polish lower-secondary schools aiming at changing teenagers’ negative attitude towards writing in a FL by means of diaries has been described below. Hopefully, some teachers will draw on the conclusions the teacher-researcher reached in order to provide their students with meaningful writing practice and to reshape their low opinion of writing in a FL and even improve their attitude towards the language as a whole.
Diaries have been used in the FL research for decades. There are studies describing the use of diaries for the purpose of learners’ refl ection on the process of studying a FL (Bailey, 1980; Schumann, 1980, both quoted in Krishnan and Hoon, 2002; Hall, 2008) and its culture (Peck, 1996). Similarly popular have been studies where professional teachers use diaries to describe their experiences while studying a FL (Burling, 1981; Moore, 1977, Schmidt and Frota, 1986, all quoted in Campbell, 1996; Thornbury, 1998). Other projects describe the application of diaries as tools employed to gather information on learning styles and the use of learning strategies (Ellis, 1989, quoted in Campbell, 1996; Sanaoui, 1995, quoted in Takac, 2008).
Authentic language practice was listed by Howell- Richardson and Parkinson (1987) as one out of sixteen possible diary uses in a FL classroom. Even so, studies describing the application of diaries understood as books containing entries reporting a particular person’s experiences and adventures that are in no way related to the process of learning are lacking. Defi ning authenticity has proved to be a challenge for many FL learning specialists (Mishan, 2005). It is not the aim of this article to choose the most appropriate defi nition either. Nevertheless, whichever explanation of the word would be applied here, writing a diary in a FL would certainly fall closely to the authentic end on the authenticity continuum. The study reported below shows what benefi ts might be reaped from utilizing diaries, in the above mentioned sense of the word, in a FL classroom.
Every student handed in the diary every 2 weeks producing 8 entries during a semester. Each entry was commented upon by the teacher, yet he refrained from correcting mistakes in the commentary underneath the entries. It was believed that the focus on form rather than meaning would dishearten the learners. Having said that, it does not mean that diary keepers’ mistakes were thoroughly ignored. The most frequent and salient ones were typed, printed out and distributed during classes for the students to refl ect upon and correct, thus forming a basis for a consciousness-raising activity. The authors of each mistake were not revealed so as not to embarrass them in front of the group. After the semester, the students were asked to fill in an anonymous questionnaire containing 3 closed questions:
- Do you like keeping a diary? Why / Why not?
- Is there anything you would like to change in the diary practices?
- Would you like to continue writing a diary in the next semester?
The learners were allowed to choose from several suggested responses or provide their own. The results of the questionnaire have been summarized below.
Questionnaire resultsand implications for future practice
Despite initial complaints, 13 students stated they liked keeping a diary and were keen to continue doing it in the next term. When asked for reasons, ten people claimed it was a good way of improving their language ability. Equally important for them seemed to be the feedback they received from the teacher, since as many as ten learners marked “I like the teacher’s comments” as the reason for their positive feelings. The teacher’s feedback took the form of a short commentary on every passage written by the learners. The fact that the teacher’s replies to the learners’ entries concerned what they wrote rather than how they did it and how many mistakes they made might have encouraged the diary keepers to focus on the meaning, thus promoting the task’s authenticity discussed above. In addition, the teacher’s feedback very frequently contained personal information concerning the teacher and his opinions on various issues touched upon by the diary keepers. It is, therefore, justifi ed to claim that the dialogue between the learners and the teacher in these diaries and his revealing some personal information might have made the learners inclined to be more upfront themselves and discuss issues they would have never talked about during lessons in front of their peers. It is most probably the teacher’s candid responses and previously sworn discretion on his part that, at least partly, inspired certain students’ open discussion of their siblings’ love aff airs, their parents’ stinginess, or even their dislike for other teachers working at the same school. The genuine nature of this information exchange also generously contributed to the authenticity of this exercise.
Seven students mentioned that what made the diary keeping attractive was the fact that they could write whatever they liked. This suggests that one of the ways of changing some learners’ rather unfavourable opinion of writing is to ask them what they would like to write about. This is particularly important when working with rebellious teenagers, as they seem to value the freedom of speech more than any other group of learners and a bulk of them tend to hold strong views on many issues and seem to be determined to grasp every opportunity to share them. Interestingly, though, the fact that the subject of each diary entry was not imposed on the learners, was regarded as a drawback by both students unwilling to keep on writing the diary. They claimed they did not know what to write about, which, in turn, may suggest that the special relationship between the teacher and the diary keepers alluded to earlier failed to develop in their case. This, together with the fact that three people willing to continue writing indicated that the subject of each diary entry should be specifi ed by the teacher beforehand, contradicts the claim that teenagers generally prefer to write on a subject of their own choice.
These contradicting results imply that it might be wise for teachers to off er their learners a choice as to what the subject of their entry will be. For those who prefer to have a topic suggested by the teacher, educators might want to provide a subject for each passage.
One of the people unwilling to keep a diary chose “I know my entries won’t be graded” as the reason. Additionally, when asked what they thought should be changed regarding diary practices, three students indicated that they thought their diaries should be marked by the teacher. Therefore, the idea of assessing learners’ diary entries may be justifi ed in certain cases.
However, the fact that five people stated the awareness that their entries are not going to be marked as a good point implies that, similarly to determining entry topics discussed above, presenting learners with a choice between being graded and the lack of marking seems to be the most effective solution. Nevertheless, grading entails paying attention to meaning and form as well as bringing students’ mistakes to their attention. This, on the other hand, does not tie in with the idea of an authentic language practice, with a primary focus on meaning rather than form, that was one of the researcher’s motives in starting the project. One possible solution here might, again, be a possibility of choice for diary keepers. So as not to deprive the exercise of its meaning focus, it is advisable to ask those learners willing to be graded to choose one of their entries at the end of a semester that they would like to be critically examined and evaluated by the teacher.
Limitations of the study and concluding remarks
Considering a modest size of the sample used in the study, teachers should be cautious about drawing hasty conclusions from it. It is highly unlikely that all teachers will be able to engage in real and, at times, even intimate conversation with their students on the pages of their diaries. No two students are identical, just like there are no two teachers having exactly the same personality. Similarly, some teachers might regard such practices as fraternizing with their students and fi nd them inappropriate. First-hand experience and common sense, however, suggests that sharing some personal information with learners, showing interest in their opinions and feelings and becoming their equal in certain justifi ed circumstances is far from being harmful. On the contrary, it appears that such teachers evoke much more positive feelings in their students than strict and icy educators and, more importantly, they have the potential to make their pupils grow fond of not only writing, which was the aim in the study described here, but of any subject they teach. The fact that ten people participating in this study stated they liked and valued their teacher’s comments seems to confi rm this belief. Obviously, this does not mean that teachers should try to become their students’ friends. They need to be reasonable in their practices. First and foremost, they are teachers, not friends. Showing their human side from time to time, though, will do no harm to them or to their students.
At the beginning of the article it has been stated that it is the changes in the Gimnazjum Exam that will most probably motivate teachers to put more emphasis on the skill of writing during lessons. To claim that merely keeping a diary in a FL will help learners write better e-mails during their examination would be frivolous. Still, apart from practicing e-mail writing in the classroom, teachers might fi nd it wise to ask their teenage students to get involved in a meaningful writing activity. Lower secondary school teachers’ primary responsibility is to show their students the most eff ective road towards mastery of a FL and not, as is popularly believed, to prepare them for the examination. Writing a diary in a FL is likely to facilitate FL learning. It seems probable that the inability to express certain thoughts in a FL will raise students’ awareness of gaps in their knowledge which, in turn, should induce them to look for ways of expressing their ideas in dictionaries or other learning aids. This is what Swain calls the noticing function of output (1995), which, according to her, promotes language learning.
Finally, although the study discussed in this article was carried out with 13-14-year-olds at a broadly defi ned intermediate level of profi ciency, it should not discourage teachers to engage in diary writing with younger or older learners at lower or higher levels of profi ciency. On the contrary, one could risk a conjecture that any group of learners from elementary level upwards would benefi t from this activity. In fact, teachers are advised to introduce similar projects in their classrooms with other age groups and share the results of their projects.
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