Ann Raimes

An integral part of participating fully in a new cultural setting is learning how to communicate when the other person is not right there in front of us, listening to our words and looking at our gestures and facial expressions.

But the fact that people frequently have to communicate with each other in writing is not the only reason to include writing as a part of our second language syllabus. There is an additional and very important reason: writing helps our students learn.


First, writing reinforces the grammatical structures, idioms and vocabulary that we have been teaching our students. Second, when our students write, they also have a chance to be adventurous with the language, to go beyond what they have just learned to say, to take risks. Third, when they write, they necessarily become very involved with the new language; the effort to express ideas and the constant use of eye, hand, and brain is a unique way to reinforce learning. As writers struggle with what to put down next or how to put it down on paper, they often discover something new to write or a new way of expressing their idea. They discover a real need for finding the right word and the right sentence.

Speaking & Writing: Differences:

Speech is universal; everyone acquires a native language in the first years of life. Not everyone learns to read and write.

The spoken language has dialect variations. The written language generally demands standard forms of grammar, syntax and vocabulary.

Speakers use their voices (pitch, stress, and rhythm) and bodies (gestures and facial expressions) to help convey their ideas. Writers have to rely on the words on the page to express their meaning.

Speakers use pauses and intonation, writers use punctuation.

Speakers pronounce. Writers spell.

Speaking is usually spontaneous and unplanned. Most writing takes time. It is planned. We can go back and change what we have written.

A speaker speaks to a listener who is right there, nodding or frowning, interrupting or questioning. For the writer, the reader’s response is either delayed or nonexistent. The writer has only that one chance to convey information and be interesting and accurate enough to hold the reader’s attention.

Speech is usually informal and repetitive. We say things like, “What I mean is…….” Or “Let me start again.” Writing on the other hand, is more formal and compact. It progresses logically with fewer digressions and explanations.

Speakers use simple sentences connected by a lot of and’s and but’s. Writers use more complex sentences, with connecting words like however, who, and in addition.


There is no one answer to the question of how to teach writing in ESL classes.

The Controlled-to-Free Approach:

The controlled-to-free approach in writing is sequential: students are first given sentence exercises, then paragraphs to copy or manipulate grammatically by, for instance, changing questions to statements, present to past, or plural to singular. They might also change words or clauses or combine sentences. They work on given material and perform strictly prescribed operations on it. With these controlled compositions, it is relatively easy for students to write a great deal yet avoid errors. Because the students have a limited opportunity to make mistakes, the teacher’s job of marking papers is quick and easy. This approach stresses grammar, syntax, and mechanics. It emphasizes accuracy rather than fluency or originality.

The Free-Writing Approach:

Some teachers and researchers have stressed quantity of writing rather than quality. They have, that is, approached the teaching of writing by assigning vast amounts of free writing on given topics, with only minimal correction of error. The emphasis in this approach is that students should put content and fluency first and not worry about form. Once ideas are down on the page, grammatical accuracy, organization, and the rest will gradually follow. To emphasize fluency even more, some ESL teachers begin many of their classes by asking students to write freely on any topic without worrying about grammar and spelling for five or ten minutes. At first, students find this very difficult. They have to resort to writing sentences like, “I can’t think of anything to write.” As they do this kind of writing more and more often, however, some find that they write more fluently and that putting words down on paper is not so frightening after all. The teachers do not correct these short pieces of free writing; they simply read them and perhaps comment on the ideas the writer expressed. Alternatively, some students might volunteer to read their own aloud to the class. Concern for “audience” and “content” are seen as important in this approach, especially since the free writings often revolve around subjects that the students are interested in, and those subjects then become the basis for other more focused tasks.

The Paragraph-Pattern Approach:

Instead of accuracy of grammar or fluency of content, the paragraph pattern approach stresses organization. Students copy paragraphs, analyze the form of model paragraphs, and imitate model passages. They put scrambled sentences into paragraph order, they identify general and specific statements, they choose or invent an appropriate topic sentence, they insert or delete sentences.

The Grammar-Syntax-Organization Approach:

Some teachers have stressed the need to work simultaneously on more than one feature. Writing, they say, cannot be seen as composed of separate skills which are learned one by one. So they devise writing tasks that lead students to pay attention to organization while they also work on the necessary grammar and syntax.

The Communicative Approach:

The Communicative Approach stresses the purpose of a piece of writing and the audience for it. Traditionally, the teacher alone has been the audience for student writing. But some feel that writers do their best when writing is truly a communicative act, with a writer writing for a real reader. Teachers using this approach have extended the readership. They extend it to other students in the class, who not only read the piece but actually do something with it, such as respond, rewrite in another form, summarize, or make comments- but not correct. Or the teachers specify readers outside the classroom.

The Process Approach:

The teaching of writing has moved away from a concentration on the written product to an emphasis on the process of writing. Student writers need to realize that what they first write is not necessarily their finished product but just a beginning, a setting out of the first ideas, a draft. They should not expect that the words they write will be perfect right away. A student who is given the time for the process to work, along with the appropriate feedback from readers such as the teacher or other students, will discover new ideas, new sentences, and new words as s/he plans, writes a first draft and revises what s/he has written for a second draft. Many teachers in ESL classes give their students the opportunity to explore a topic fully in such prewriting activities as discussion, reading, debate, brainstorming, and list making. The first piece of writing is not corrected or graded. The reader responds only to the ideas expressed.

So in the process approach, the students do not write on a given topic in a restricted time and hand in the composition for the teacher to correct- which usually means to find the errors. Rather, they explore a topic through writing, showing the teacher and each other their drafts, and using what they write to read over, think about, and move them on to new ideas.

Teachers who use the process approach give their students two crucial supports: time for the students to try out ideas and feedback on the content of what they write in their drafts. They find that then the writing process becomes a process of discovery for the students: discovery of new ideas and new language forms to express those ideas.



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