The English Teachers Handbook
As a means of communication, writing differs from speaking in several important ways. Firstly, writing is permanent, speaking is not. Secondly, we can correct what we write before it is received by the reader. Corrections when we speak tend to take place after we have already made an error which our audience has received. Thirdly, we usually write for a receiver who is physically absent from us, whereas most speaking that we do is for an audience which is actually present as we speak. Fourthly, the physical distance between writer and reader means that the reader can't easily ask the writer to explain something unclear or ambiguous. In face-to-face speech, such feedback from listener to speaker is instantaneous. So the writer has to be very careful to ensure that his written message is complete in itself. He shouldn't make any assumptions about shared knowledge between himself and his audience. Nor should the writer leave any room for misunderstandings through unclear expression or faulty organization of his text.
Writing exercises are of two types - those which consolidate language already presented and practised orally, and those which develop the skills of communicating in writing.
Most textbooks contain plenty of examples of the first type, although such exercises are limited in what they can achieve. They may require the student to practise writing a number of unrelated sentences, and although this is perfectly acceptable as a practice activity, it must be remembered that we hardly ever actually write only one sentence at a time. A written message usually consists of a number of interrelated sentences.
Another limitation of such exercises is that they test students instead of teaching them. Typically, students are given a rule or an example, and then have to produce a number of other sentences in which the rule is applied. Sometimes this can result in the production of complicated sentences which would hardly ever actually be written. The students are simply practising instances of classroom or textbook language.
A third limitation is giving students instructions such as 'Write these sentences with the verbs in brackets in the correct tense.' The students are then given a series of sentences with the infinitive form of the verb as a prompt. They have to convert these infinitives into the correct tense, which can be a confusing and difficult task with the infinitive acting as a distractor. Such exercises tend to test the students before they are ready to be tested, and mistakes are common.
It is better to provide exercises in which students can actually consolidate their learning. Instead of asking them to convert actives to passives, or past tenses to present, or infinitives to the correct tense, it is preferable to give the correct form, and require the students to make a correct choice without being distracted by the wrong form. For instance, if we want the students to practise matching the appropriate verb form with a singular or plural subject in the present simple tense, we can provide a series of sentences dealing with both singular and plural on the topic, for example The horse/ horses is/are four legged animals/a four legged animal. They/it eats/eat grass. The students' task is to write out a paragraph with either a singular or plural subject. Everything they need is provided, but what they have to do is to make a meaningful and systematic choice from the items given. They are not being required to carry out a conversion exercise or to add anything new.
Another technique is to provide a type of substitution table from which the students have to select combinations to make up a series of correct sentences. Here is a very brief example:
They John |
met went |
at a restaurant.
In exercises of this type, the students not only have to make up correct sentences, but they also have to put them into a sequence which will form a brief narrative. There are clues to sequence in the above example -John would normally come in the first sentence to tell us the name of the actor.