classroom

Writing Teaching – TESOL 2015

I had the honor of being invited to take part in the panel “Crossing Borders, Building Bridges: Second Language Writing in Global Contexts” at TESOL 2015 in Toronto, CA. The presenters shared their experiences in Second Language Writing (SLW) practice and research in global contexts including Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. The presenters discussed best practices in SLW pedagogy and research projects that are influenced by contextual factors such as medium of instruction, culture, and politics. Below I share a transcript of my talk.

Many thanks to Lúcia Santos, Isabela Villas Boas, Denise De Felice and Vânia Rodrigues for this wonderful opportunity of sharing the hard work we do at the Casa.


OUR CONTEXT

I have been at Casa Thomas Jefferson for fifteen years, the last five of which working as Advanced Course Supervisor. Let me briefly describe my context to provide you with some background information that will, hopefully, help you better understand the scope and nature of our work in the teaching of writing, as well as the challenges we face in our educational context.

Casa Thomas Jefferson is a language institute, which, for the past 51 years, has specialized in teaching English as a foreign language. We currently have a little over 17 thousand students, distributed among 6 different campuses, 10 outposts in private K through 12 grade schools, and a select number of corporate courses  in Brasília. Our students have English classes with us twice a week, which amount to a total of approximately 4 hours a week. We are an extra-curricular program, and a large number of our students begin studying with us from as early as 4 years of age, staying with us until they become young adults, teenagers ranging from 16 to 18 years of age. Therefore, the bulk of our student population are youngsters, some of whose parents have been our students in the past, so we do have a reputation of excellence and tradition in teaching English, which we strive to uphold every day.

The teenagers who have been with us since their early years graduate from our Advanced Course, the course which I oversee; these students speak fluent English, and achieve a very respectable command of the language in terms of structure and vocabulary. They can understand spoken and written English, as well as produce the language with a dependable degree of accuracy and fluency both in oral and in written form. That is a result of our skills-based approach to teaching English, adopting communicative methodologies that are informed by highly regarded, pedagogical practices, such as those informed by social-constructivist principles. Another key feature of our methodology is that our classes are taught in English, since we have a strong English-only-environment policy in our classroom.

We adopt coursebooks in all of our courses, which we choose via a comprehensive book analysis process in which teachers, as well as other members of the school Coordination, evaluate and critique several coursebook series before we make a final choice and adopt one specific series. We are, however, very particular about how we need to adapt whatever material adopted to best suit our own context and our students’ needs. That is actually one of the major sources of impetus for the ongoing professional development that takes place at the Casa. Course Supervisors, such as myself, are responsible, among other things, for assessing the success in the adaptation process and spotting opportunities for improvement and development, which result in training for our teachers.

So, as you can see, the work has really only just begun when a new coursebook is adopted. And, traditionally, one of the major components of our courses which require lots of adaptation and personalization is exactly the teaching of writing.

OUR METHODOLOGY

Let me now go into the writing teaching methodology we adopt at the Casa. As mentioned before, we adopt a skills-based approach to teaching English. Therefore, writing is one of other skills that we want our students to develop in English. From beginner levels, our students already start producing short texts, and are exposed to tasks which will foster an experience in writing as a process which not only involves linguistic knowledge but also planning and drafting skills. In other words, we expose our students early on to practices informed by the belief that writing is a sociocognitive process, recursive and non-linear in its creative nature, and the very expression of one’s voice.

By the time our students reach the Advanced levels, they have developed a repertoire of basic writing skills, as well as some writing metalanguage. They have also been introduced to the concepts of audience and purpose, with some experience with different genres. They have worked with drafts, receiving feedback on their writing by means of comments addressing content, style and organization, as well as indications of linguistic improvements by means of proofreading symbols used by teachers.

In the Advanced levels, our students, who are mostly teenagers going to high school, are asked to focus on a specific genre, namely the academic essay, which they are required to master both for language proficiency and college entrance exams.

THE ADVANCED COURSE WRITING PROGRAM

I would now like to focus on some of the distinguishing features of the Writing Program we develop in the Advanced Course. Our Advanced Course is made up of four semesters. The first two, corresponding to the upper-intermediate level, are critical for the success of the writing program developed during the last two semesters, which correspond to an advanced level of English.

During the first semester of the upper-intermediate levels, students’ writing goals are to consolidate and master the writing of paragraphs, following the linguistic and organizational requirements of body paragraphs in academic essays. Now, once they go on to their second semester in upper-intermediate, they will gradually expand on their previous knowledge to learn how to structure a full essay, containing an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion. They acquire some basic training and knowledge of the overall requirements of a well-structured essay before going into the advanced levels in the next two semesters.

Once they get to their third semester in the Advanced Course, they’ll get plenty of practice in the four-paragraph academic essay. They will be provided with practice in a variety of writing strategies, producing expository and argumentative essays, for example. In other words, they are learning a specific rhetoric and genre that will benefit their writing skills in and outside of our English classroom.

At this point, it’s appropriate that I mention another aspect of our educational context. In Brazil, they way our teenagers are taught Composition in their K through 12 schools, more specifically in grades 10 through 12, is fundamentally different from the experience with Composition they have with us at the Casa. A vast majority of Composition teachers in Brazilian high schools adopt a product-oriented approach, where writing teaching means correcting students’ mistakes and grading essays against college entrance exams parameters. There is emphasis on neither the cognitive nor the social dimension of the writing process, which relegates writing to being an end-product, resulting from the mechanical replication of models, which is ultimately a score on a life-changing exam for these teenagers, the one that will get them into a good university as soon as they leave high school.

Back to our English teaching context, in the Advanced Course, teachers are required to use a set of writing worksheets which will serve as the basis for their pre-writing lessons. The writing topics are adapted so as to become appealing to our teenagers, and are chosen in order to fit the subject-matter explored in their coursebook units. Students are assigned their writings at the end of a unit, after they have had plenty of opportunities to explore a given topic. In the case of the Advanced Course, pre-writing lessons are preceded by a Reading lesson, which will serve as an entry point to the required writing for the unit.

Now, keeping in mind that we have approximately 100 teachers working with a population of a little over 2000 Advanced students, we need to adopt instruments that will ensure the quality of every lesson, be it a pre-writing, or any other type of lesson. So, we try to select and adapt topics that we believe will entice our teenagers, stimulating their creativity and willingness to voice their opinions and feelings. We also adopt the use of writing scoring rubrics to try to minimize subjectivity in the feedback process, as well as to provide students with a set of clear expectations for their work. Our students need to know how their writing will be assessed by their teachers.

A pre-writing lesson will typically contain the following stages: think about and discuss the writing topic, brainstorm content, outline ideas, study and analyze a model and focus on specific language strategies to convey meaning. Once students have had their pre-writing lesson, they produce their 1st drafts, on which they’ll get feedback from their teachers regarding several aspects of their writing: content (their ideas), text (organization, genre, style), and language (grammatical accuracy and word choice). Students may also get feedback from peers and from one-on-one conferences with their teachers. They are then asked to produce their final drafts, whose grade will be considered for evaluation purposes, together with the other grades they have as part of our course.

We have also been adopting a Portfolio approach, in which students are encouraged to reflect on their overall development through the semesters as Casa Advanced students. One of the strategies we want our students to learn with the collection of a portfolio is to identify areas for improvement and establish goals for future assignments.

Now, the use of portfolios in the Advanced Course presents challenges. Brazilian students, coming from the background they have in their K-12 school culture, do not seem to value their own writings. That is understandable, given the mechanical production of essays for college entrance exam prep. By implementing writing portfolios, we are trying to foster a sense of value regarding writing as a means of personal expression.

Another challenge we face is a certain level of resistance to adopting peer revision, which I personally believe to be a natural fit to a portfolio approach and a writing teaching pedagogy based on socio-constructivist principles of learning.

Another challenge worth mentioning has to do with time constraints and teachers’ workload. It is no easy task for teachers to do the necessary planning and keep up with the drafting process, providing the necessary support and the high quality feedback our students need to succeed. One major adaptation we’ve had to implement is that of bringing the number of drafts from three to only two. That means that teachers now provide feedback on content, organization, as well as language use upon correcting students’ 1st drafts. Teachers are also instructed to grade 1st drafts so that, should a student fail to produce a final draft, that student already has a grade for his writing work, even if he or she do not follow through with the entire drafting process.

To the effect of tackling those issues involving time constraints and handling logistics (turning in assignments and providing feedback in a timely manner), we have started experimenting with a digital alternative to the physical portfolios. We are experimenting with the affordances of Google Classroom for the development of our Advanced Writing program. We are still in a piloting stage, having invited a small group of about ten teachers who were eager to try out this new tool with their Advanced students. We hope that, by making the handling of logistics simpler and paperless, students and teachers might find ways of managing the process more rapidly and more conveniently. And of course, that is not to mention other possibilities of sharing content, communicating, and classroom flipping that we have just begun exploring with this tool. Digital portfolios and the possibility of showcasing students’ writings to a real audience online are what’s next for our students’ writings.

I’d like to share a quote by Professor Ken Hyland in his book Second Language Writing, which I feel synthesizes our efforts towards an effective writing teaching pedagogy:

“In practice this (an effective methodology for L2 writing teaching) means a synthesis to ensure that learners have an adequate understanding of the processes of text creation; the purposes of writing and how to express these in effective ways through formal and rhetorical text choices; and the contexts within which texts are composed and read and which give them meaning.”

We choose to teach writing the way we do because we believe that effective, communicative writing can and should be taught to our English learners. We believe that the very development of their writing skills directly impacts their cognitive and expressive abilities, empowering our teenagers as they exercise and get to know their own voices.


References:

HYLAND, Ken. Second Language Writing. Cambridge Language Education series (Editor: Jack C. Richards) Cambridge University Press, 2003.

VILLAS BOAS, I. F. Stepping Stones for Successful Writing. In: VI Seminário de Línguas Estrangeiras da Universidade Federal de Goiás, 2006, Goiânia. Anais do VI Seminário de Línguas Estrangeiras – UFG, 2006. p. 453-464

VILLAS BOAS, I. F. Process Writing in a Product-Oriented Context: Challenges and Possibilities. Article based on part of the Doctoral Dissertation entitled A Contribuição do Processo de Ensino-Aprendizagem de Produção Textual em Língua Inglesa para o Letramento do Aluno,  presented at the School of Education, Universidade de Brasília, 2008. In: RBLA, Belo Horizonte, v.14, n.2, p. 463-490, 2014.

Reflections on Context

I teach English as a foreign language to Brazilian upper-middle/middle class teenagers aged 14 to 17. All of them are at that stage of their educational trajectories where they are being primed for academic life in university. A vast majority of them go to renowned private high schools whose core goal rests in getting their students into the best universities and colleges in the country. That means that these kids are being prepared for competition, especially those who are aiming at prestigious careers, such as Medicine or Law, to name a few.

Pedagogically speaking, these kids’regular schools are pretty conservative. Students are grouped in large numbers (30 to 40 students) and classses are delivered lecture-style, with the teacher being the expert in charge of passing on the knowledge necessary for these kids to make it to the next big thing in their lives – college and the prospect of a promising professional life, which will provide the means for ensuring a comfortable life, much like the one they already have with their parents. Another contextual aspect particular to our city (Brasília, the capital city of Brazil) is that a career in public service is also among many of these kids professional future prospects. Being able to pass a public examination for a prestigious career in Congress, for example, means high salaries and life-long professional stability. On top of that, many of these kids parents are civil servants themselves, naturally being role models for their kids.

It’s a culture of competition the one in which our teenage students are born and raised. High-stakes tests are the gateways to a prosperous future, and the gatekeepers are the schools and teachers who make getting as many of their youth as possible inside a good university their highest priority. Schools actually use college entrance exam rankings for the purpose of advertisement. They are highly competitive and lucrative enterprises. It makes perfect sense that these schools prepare their students to do well on tests. After all, we live in an assessment-driven culture. Students’ performances are measured and primed for passing tests, and passing tests equals successful professional future. It is common for these high schoolers to spend their Saturdays taking tests at school and spending their whole week, mornings and afternoons, in school, both attending their regular classes and engaging in academic activities, such as writing workshops, where they practice writing academic essays in a product-oriented approach.

These are only some aspects of the cultural fabric of which we, EFL teachers, are also a part. It is our goal to teach these kids English, the language that will open even more doors to a prosperous future. Any job or career worth pursuing nowadays requires individuals who have very high levels of proficiency in English. These kids’ regular schools fail at teaching the language itself, since their goal is to prepare them to pass a test about the language, something which they can do without being able to speak or write fluently in English. That’s where we come in. Our goal is to teach these kids the language itself, and not only about the language. Our classes are taught in English, and we adopt a no-Portuguese policy in the classroom. We adopt communicative methodologies, aiming at developing students’proficiency in English in all four skills, understanding (reading and listening) and producing (writing and speaking) the language fluently and accurately. A majority of our students start their English studies with us as little kids, staying with us until teenagehood, when they will have reached upper-intermediate to advanced levels of English proficiency. By the time they reach these high levels of English proficiency, most of them will have been studying with us for about 6 to 7 years.

The schooling experience of most of the teenagers that I have in my upper-intermediate and advanced level English classes is a very traditional, teacher-centered, high-stakes-test driven experience on a daily basis, as I have briefly described above. It’s a grinding routine in which they wake up very early, have classes the entire morning, have lunch (many times at school) and come over to our institute for their twice-a-week English lessons. Their classroom experience with us is different from their experience in their regular schools in some aspects. Our classes are smaller, with about 18 students in each group. The classrooms themselves are smaller and we adopt a U-shaped seating arrangement of desks. As I’ve mentioned before, we adopt communicative methodologies. Our teachers are trained to facilitate classes that are student-centered and dynamic, fostering plenty of genuine communication. We adopt course books that are the core of these classes, though teachers are encouraged to make the necessary adaptations to course books in order to address their students needs. Group work and pair work dynamics are widely adopted and are an important element in the communicative dynamics implemented in our classes.

Still, my teenage students are tired, and understandably so, given their high school routines. And even though their schooling experience with us bears many differences from their regular schooling, written tests, essays and grades are also important components of our courses. They need to do homework, write paragraphs and essays, and take tests on grammar and vocabulary, as well as reading and listening comprehension. I have often felt that my classes might be coming across as more of the same for my teenagers, despite all my efforts to engage them in energizing discussions and collaborative dynamics with their peers. I mean, these kids have been our students for nearly a decade. It’s as if they have already been intensely exposed to our repertoire of communicative dynamics and activities, no matter how much we personalize and adapt and revamp what goes on in the classroom.

I’m thinking of ways to rethink their engagement. I’m thinking, and looking around, and getting acquainted with other pedagogic practices. Lately something has caught my attention – project based learning. I have been really curious about it and on a quest for learning more about what it is, and how to implement it. I want to write more about it soon, but for now, I will let these reflections on my context sit in my mind a while longer.

Starting Afresh with Ipads in the Classroom

Yesterday I taught my very first class to a lovely group of upper-intermediate teenage students in one of our many outposts. I’d made up my mind to try something different and fresh this semester so I went for an ice-breaker activity using Ipads in the classroom. Here’s how it went.

My PicCollage

My PicCollage

We used an app called PicCollage, which allows you to create posters with photos, stickers, and text, among other cool features. I had previously used it to prepare a poster of my own, so I began the lesson showing it to students so that they’d get to know me a little better. I then asked students to pair up and, inspired by the imagery, come up with some questions they’d like to ask me about the poster and about my life.

After about five minutes, students began asking me questions, which were, at first, mostly prompted by my poster, but once they began feeling more at ease with each other (and with the teacher), they began asking me other questions, such as “what does your tattoo mean, teacher?” (They never fail to ask me that one, I tell you.)

Now it was time for the fun part. Each student got an Ipad to make a poster of their own – a small snapshot of who they were, so that later they would share it with everyone else in the group. I could literally see their faces light up the minute I unzipped the two suitcases and began handing out the Ipads. That in itself already gave me such a heartwarming feeling. They were truly engaged! So off they went, and began to work on their posters. I set a time limit of 10 minutes and made myself available throughout, walking around and monitoring. Some took a little longer to get started, as they were figuring out how they’d add their photos to the app and some ideas began to came up. Pairs were helping each other and English was being used for an authentic purpose (how delightful!) right off the bat, on the very first activity of the very first day of class.

It's sharing time!

It’s sharing time!

Once they were finished, it was time for them to share. I asked them to stand up and walk around the room, showing each other their posters, asking each other questions. I did, however, give them one very specific piece of instructions: they had to first talk to people they didn’t know so well or had never met before. I also gave them a clear goal: in the end, they’d be asked to share something interesting, funny, or surprising about someone they had talked to during that stage of the acitivity. This stage lasted for about 10 more minutes. There were 12 students in the group so they could talk with absolutely everyone. We rounded up by sharing interesting things we’d found out about each other.

The entire activity lasted for about a half hour and it was worth every minute. Students were using the language authentically at all times, they were curious and engaged, and were fully energized for the rest of the afternoon. They got to know me a little better, they got to know each other a little better, and I have a feeling they actually enjoyed themselves in their very first English lesson of the semester. Talk about good first impressions, huh?

How about you? Would you be willing to try something like this? I certainly hope so!

First posted on ctjconnected.blogspot.com

Students showing off their posters!

Students showing off their posters!