For the teacher: Helping Elementary Learners with Informal Writing

Choice of Focus

The focus of this essay will be helping elementary learners with informal writing. Getting lower level students to write informal letters and postcards is important for a variety of reasons especially when we consider the context of teaching monolingual classes in Spain. I have noticed a shift in how learners’ perceive their needs when it comes to writing. Whereas 10 years ago most learners mentioned the desire to be understood and understand others in social situations, nowadays an increasing number of students who are starting to learn English for the first time, mention the need to be able to write cover letters, fill in job applications, and write work related emails in order to improve their job prospects. So why bother having lower level learners in this context develop the skills of writing informally? I believe that by getting elementary learners to first work on writing informal letters and postcards, the concepts of grammatical and lexical appropriacy will be easier for students to understand and use. It allows them to immediately start using the English they are learning at this level by writing informal letters and postcards. Focusing first on the techniques of informal writing then allows learners to contrast those with the techniques required of more formal writing and become better writers.

Analysis and Learner Issues

According to Tribble, writers need to know “what grammatical and lexical choices need to be made in order to match the text to the writing purpose.” (Tribble 1996 28) This knowledge involves a range of concepts and skills that will be analyzed below. I will also consider problems elementary students have when learning and using these concepts and techniques.

Communicative purpose

In “How to Teach Writing” Harmer says that “experienced writers think of the audience they are writing for, since this will influence not only the shape of the writing…, but also the choice of language… (2004 5) This is closely bound to the purpose of the writing. Good writers know why they are writing, who they are writing to and how this affects what they write. The reason for writing and the relationship between the writer and reader determines the layout and also “the choice of language…” (ibid) In the case of letters and postcards from one friend to another, the writer is aware of this informal relationship and writes in order to maintain contact with a friend or family member.

When teachers get their elementary students to write letters, the fundamental issues of purpose and audience can be overlooked as writing is often seen as merely getting the grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and punctuation right. (Weigle 2002 35) At the start of some elementary courses, students are often asked to write a letter to the teacher to share personal information. The relationship between the learner and teacher, and how this effects the choices the writer makes, are often ignored. If lower level learners are not aware of the significance of audience early on, they will progress more slowly towards becoming proficient writers.

The genre

According to Harmer, “genre represents the norms of different kinds of writing.” (2007 327) Effective writers are aware of these norms and are able to construct texts within the limitations of the genre. When we consider informal texts such as postcards and letters, the writer considers the expectations of the reader and their shared knowledge of the genre. (Harmer 2004 17).

Content and text structure

Tribble says “the successful writer has to have content knowledge.” (1996 67) This means they are aware of what information the text type contains and at the same time know how the genre is organized. By following these constraints, the writer makes the text coherent to the reader. (Harmer 2004 24)

Elementary learners may not be aware of these constraints. When we consider the content and text structure of a postcard, most students do not know that this text type almost always follows a conventional order of salutation, description of place and activities, pre-closure, and finally sign off. (ibid) If students do not adhere to the conventionalized norms, they may be in danger of having a negative effect on the reader as the postcard might not meet the reader’s expectations. I have observed elementary learners who were given the task of writing postcards without any prior focus on content or text structure, produce disjointed and largely incoherent texts that would not meet the expectations of the reader. At the same time, learners must not be lead to think that this is the only information that can be included in a postcard or that ordering the content differently is wrong. Harmer calls this “the genre trap.” (2004 29)

Layout

Competent writers are aware of how texts are physically organized on the page. (Tribble 1996 23) In the case of letters, writers also know the conventions of how an envelope is appropriately addressed according to where it is being sent to.

Students must be made aware of the differences between how letters are addressed in different contexts. In the case of monolingual classes in Spain, learners may not have the prior knowledge that when addressing an envelope to the US, the house number comes before the street name and the order of the third line is city, state, then finally the zip code.

Grammatical cohesion

Competent writers of informal texts use pronouns, linkers, and tense agreement to bring their ideas together in order to be understood by the reader. (Harmer 2004 22) In catch up letters, writers use present perfect simple and continuous tenses to share recent news and make their texts cohesive. They might use the past simple and past perfect to give further background details. Catch up letters often include future forms to express the writer’s plans and aspirations for upcoming events.

Elementary learners often have difficulties getting their ideas down on paper because of their “limited linguistic knowledge.” (Weigle 2002 36) Most elementary students in Spain may lack sufficient control over the language system to make their ideas cohesive to the reader by misusing or overusing the present simple tense for example.

Grammatical Appropriacy

Effective writers use contractions and ellipsis when writing letters and postcards to friends to reflect the very familiar relationship between the sender and receiver. Writers use contractions and ellipsis because they know it is appropriate to the genre and mirrors a friendly tone.

The main issue here for elementary learners is again one of awareness. In Spanish the inclusion of pronouns is not always necessary regardless of the tone of the text. For example in the following sentence

Yo he trabajado mucho hoy.

Yo is not normally included and in fact sounds more natural when left out. If students want to include this idea in a catch up letter and translate it into English as

Got lots done today.

then they need to be aware that leaving out I is only appropriate in informal texts and incorrect in other contexts. This concept can be very confusing for elementary learners.

Lexical Appropriacy

Effective writers have an awareness and command of appropriate lexis when constructing informal texts. They use salutations, pre closures, and closures in letters and postcards that are pertinent to the genre. Competent writers have sociolinguistic knowledge of how language “is used appropriately” (Weigle 2002 29) in this particular social context.

I have found that elementary learners in Spain have limited linguistic knowledge of appropriate lexis when writing informal letters. They are often unable to distinguish between formal and informal exponents and make mistakes closing catch up letters with “Yours faithfully”. Learners at this level often leave out salutations and do not include pre closures. This may have may confuse the reader and have a negative effect.

Teaching Suggestions

Here are some ideas to use in the classroom.

Dicto-gloss

Aim: To raise students’ awareness of grammatical appropriacy

Procedure: The teacher reads a postcard she recently received while students listen. Students listen again, note four words they understood and then compare with partner. Pairs verbally reconstruct the text then, in open class, a strong pair does the same. Pairs reconstruct text in writing. Students are then given the original and compare differences guided by the teacher.

Commentary: This grammar dictation activity is an effective way to get students to notice grammatical features of postcards such as contractions, ellipsis, and tense agreement. During the analysis stage, students become aware of how these features are used by the sender and reflect the relationship between the sender and receiver. As the teacher gets students to notice ellipsis in the text, care should be taken to make students realize that this feature is appropriate because it is a postcard. At the final stage of this grammar dictation, students tidy up their own text and are left with a model of the text type which can then be used as a resource for learners in further stages of the lesson.

Controlled practice

Aim: To give students practice writing an informal letter

Procedure: After students have read and analyzed an informal letter, the teacher gives them a similar gapped letter to be completed in pairs.

Commentary: This activity is an effective way of scaffolding student’s linguistic competence regarding the features of informal letters. It acts as a bridge between learners first noticing the linguistic conventions and then having to use them later when they write their own informal letter. Elementary students would probably benefit from being given the missing language from the text and then matching it with the gaps.

Model text: exponents, content, and text structure

Aim: To get students to notice the content and text structure of a catch up letter

Procedure: Learners are asked to discuss why friends write letters or emails to each other. Students are then given a model catch up letter to read and to discuss its purpose. The teacher further checks understanding by having the students answer comprehension questions related to purpose and audience such as “Who wrote the letter?”, “What is the relationship between the sender and the receiver?”, “When was the last time they were in contact?”, and “Is the sender happy about recent events?” Students are then given exponents of the genre of catch up letters and match them with the corresponding parts of the model.

Commentary: The pre-reading task activates schemata and the comprehension questions get learners to think about the audience and purpose of the letter. By matching the exponents with the different sections of the text, students are made aware of the content and structure of a typical catch up letter. Learners notice the conventions of the genre and how the content and order of the information fulfills the reader’s expectations. (Tribble 1996 34)

Suitable language

Aim: To raise students’ awareness of lexical appropriacy in informal writing

Procedure: Students are given a gapped postcard and after reading the text, they choose between pairs of phrases to complete the text. Only one phrase in each pair is suitable for a postcard. Students discuss why the other phrase is not suitable.

Commentary: This activity adapted from Cutting Edge Pre intermediate could be exploited to raise elementary students’ awareness of lexis that is appropriate for postcards. By contrasting more formal lexis with the informal language of postcards, students are guided to notice “the genre constraints associated with this sort of writing.” (Tribble 1996 25) When using this type of activity with elementary learners, it is important to make it very clear that the unsuitable phrase is not “wrong” but rather inappropriate for the genre. The complete text can be used by the teacher in a product driven approach to writing, as it provides a model for students to refer to when they go on to write their own postcards.

Pen pals: letters to another student

Aim: To give students an opportunity for freer practice writing informal letters

Procedure: Students in one class are matched with students in another class at the same level. They write letters to one another and respond to letters they receive over the course of the school year. The teacher provides a communicative purpose for the first letter: students introduce themselves and describe their personalities so as to find out if they have anything in common with their pen pal. They continue to write letters responding to their pen pal.

Commentary: This framework was established by a teacher who taught the same A2 level to two different groups of young adult learners. The students found it very motivating to write and receive letters from their peers in other groups. The very clear communicative purpose of maintaining social contact was created and provided learners an excellent opportunity to practice writing informal letters. Although there was minimal interference from the teacher, she said that she often used a process driven approach to help her students write to each other by establishing a communicative purpose and encouraging them to brainstorm ideas through discussion, organize their ideas into paragraphs and then write drafts before “sending” them to their pen pal. The teacher also said that she adapted writing exercises from the course book that required students to describe their favorite place or explain a recent event in their lives by having students “send” it to their pen pal. I would agree with the teacher when she mentioned that most writing tasks from course books lack a clear purpose and an explicit audience for writing. She said that getting her students to write to their pen pals resulted in the creation of a highly motivated group of writers and readers.

Conclusion

Writing in a foreign language, especially at lower levels, is a hard skill to acquire. I am convinced that by first raising elementary students’ awareness of the writing skills required by informal letters and postcards, and by giving them the opportunity to practice those skills, we can provide learners an easy way in to understanding genre. We can then contrast these skills with those needed to write more formal letters or e mails and ultimately help elementary learners become more proficient writers in a range of situations.

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