Free Writing from Personal Experiences
Continuing our series of articles on improving conversation in ESL classes through writing, in this article, we present a way to encourage students to exercise their creativity from a more personal point of view: ‘free writing’ from personal experiences.
Free writing can be used with students at all levels and developed during your TEFL course with EBC. Students are instructed to write about a personal experience but not to concern themselves with punctuation, grammar, spelling, sentence structure, looking up words, what time it is, erasing, etc. This frees them to let the creative ideas flow from their heads to their hands and onto the paper. Before writing begins, our teachers discuss the topic ideas for a few minutes to awaken memory and add colour, texture, voice, tone, shape and form to the writing experience. Then, the instructor says ‘begin’, and students write continuously for 20 to 30 minutes until prompted to stop.
When the free write is complete, students read their papers out loud, and mistakes are overlooked at this point. Active discussion ensues with questions from classmates. The students each have a turn reading and discussing their writing. The instructor later corrects papers, and students create a final piece for the second round of discussion. This time the conversation is enhanced because students have practised and polished their language.
Create a Scene
Dialogue is particularly effective in teaching idiomatic English. We use the following exercise with students at all levels. We pair up students for the first stage of writing dialogues and ask them to ‘create a scene.’ They have a few days to think about their scene, meet with their partner out of class, and brainstorm. After preparation and incubation, the pairs sit down and work out their dialogue and setting.
A second ESL exercise asks the student pairs to ‘produce’ their scenes, casting their class members as characters and perhaps putting together some simple props. Sometimes one class will present its scenes to another class. We like to videotape these productions for use as teaching tools. In general, we have found that writing dialogue before moving into the speaking phase has many advantages and provides feedback from the instructor during the process of creating the scene.
They usually work through several versions then hand in the final version to the instructor. The instructor then gives feedback to the pairs in a mini-conference, focusing on idiomatic language use. Finally, the students revise until their dialogues have an American ring and use some appropriate American English idioms.
High beginners and above enjoy another exercise we use in going from writing to speaking: the autobiography. We have our students write their life stories and receive feedback from the instructor before telling their stories. They work on one chapter at a time, focusing on the turning points in their lives. We have found that once the students have written a life story chapter, they are much more fluent and effective in their speech than they would have been without the writing exercise. This exercise allows learners to find out what they have in common with the other students. An added benefit is a permanent diary to take home to review and reflect on later. This exercise helps strong bonds to develop among the students, some of whom become lifelong friends.
In another writing-to-speaking exercise, our high intermediate students and above write arguments as preparation for debates. Although, in comparison, autobiographies encourage the students to find what they have in common, writing arguments and debating highlight their differences. People tend to avoid differences in many conversational situations instead of exploring them. However, when people are encouraged to develop their opinions systematically in writing, they can present a good and interesting position, which stimulates others to think about their views on the issue in question.
We base our exercises in argumentation on Stephan Toulmin’s argument analysis, in terms of ‘claims,’ ‘grounds,’ and ‘warrants.’ The Toulmin approach, in a simplified form, is easy to learn and encourages students to explore their opinions systematically, in-depth and detail.
In these exercises, the instructor responds to student arguments in mini-conference, first making suggestions to strengthen the argument then pointing out any problems in language use. We then arrange debates. We find that the students’ speech taking part in the debates is much higher quality than it would have been without the writing exercises.
As a result of these writing-to-speaking exercises, our students can increase their active vocabulary rapidly, learning the words and constructions they need to express their particular views and experiences. In other words, these students are not just learning ‘new words,’ they are learning the particular new words that allow them to express their ideas. Different people have different interests, opinions, and experiences, so they need the vocabulary that will enable them to express their perspectives. We have also discovered that these exercises may be the first time an international student has been asked to express an opinion or stand on an important issue.
Our students gain confidence with each exercise and attempt to express increasingly complex ideas precisely. The focus on quality in communication encourages them to overcome the common tendency to compromise a message. Instead of simplifying, they strive to say what they mean. In many cases, this involves ‘discovering’ what they mean as they write in preparation for speaking.