Most of the time, when given a topic to write about, students will feel a sense of dread and some anxiety to embark on their essays, be it a narrative or expository piece. Even teachers, like myself, require a lot of planning, brainstorming, and preparation before I feel confident to pen down my ideas for everyone to read. Students usually develop writer’s block or fear of the ‘blank page’ as they do not know where or how to begin.

Some of the difficulties students may face include:

  • the inability to articulate their thoughts clearly thus, leading to a messy and unstructured essay
  • fear of being judged

So, how can we help students become more confident and proficient in their writing? Here are some useful tips and strategies to consider:

1.  Teach students to internalise the steps in the “Writing Process”

The writing process is a series of overlapping steps that are usually introduced to learners as soon as they begin writing stories. It entails the recursive phases of pre-writing, drafting, revising, editing and publishing. Sound familiar? Let’s have a quick recap of these phases:

  • The pre-writing phase, also known as the ‘thinking stage’, is where brainstorming, planning and organising ideas and information takes place.
  • The drafting phase is when ideas are being jotted down and are being formulated as one writes, no second-guessing allowed. Just write.
  • The revising phase is when more ideas and details are being added while irrelevant ones are being deleted. Restructuring of ideas into paragraphs to make them coherent is also done in this stage.
  • In the editing stage, sentences are fine-tuned by checking for capitalisation, grammar, spelling, and punctuation.
  • And the final stage, the publishing phase, is when the written work is showcased, either neatly printed, read aloud or posted on a bulletin board.

Students are encouraged to incorporate the process approach while writing as it acts as a road map that helps them create guidelines to produce a logical and structured piece of writing. On top of that, following the process approach breaks down the intimidating task of writing into manageable chunks, addressing the anxiety and struggle students face when embarking on any written tasks.

semanticscholar thewritingprocess

Image credit: Semantic Scholar

2.  Do not belittle the importance of the pre-writing phase

Even though the pre-writing phase does not account for the actual act of writing, believe it or not, it is an essential step in the writing process where most of the ideas and content of writing is developed. According to a large scale research done in 1998 using the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), pre-writing exercises were the most significant factor in helping students improve on their writing. It was also reported that although the pre-writing phase should account for 70 percent of the writing time, most students spend only about 3 minutes on average to prepare for their writing. It is therefore important to train students to allocate more time in this phase of writing as it allows them to think more concretely and develop clear reasoning about the topic before penning down their ideas. Some examples of pre-writing activities that can be carried out in class include brainstorming, mind-mapping, outlining, free writing, just to name a few.

Similarly, the DAS Main Literacy Programme (MLP) has incorporated the writing process strategy which is embedded in the Process-Genre approach (Badger & White, 2000) adopted by the DAS in guiding students with writing. The Process Approach focuses on the stages of writing – Planning, Drafting, Editing, Revising, while the Genre Approach focuses on building knowledge of a specific genre or topic such as its language features and purpose. The element of breaking down a writing task into manageable components for struggling writers shown in the writing process strategy further complements the Orton-Gillingham principle (Orton & Money, 1966) of teaching concepts in a structured, sequential and cumulative manner.

3.        Introduce students to both model and mentor texts

 Text Type Model Mentor
Similarities

- Highlights key features required in specific genres of writing
-Provides a clear example of what good writing looks like

Differences

- Mentor texts are professionally written pieces
(e.g. articles from the newspaper, opinion letters to forums)
- Mentor texts are used to study and emulate the author’s varying voice and style

 

A mentor text is an excellent resource for teachers to expose students to varying styles, the way authors use words and structure their writing. Students are encouraged to emulate these features when crafting their own writing. Once students have mastered the art of developing content through the processes mentioned above, exposing students to both text types would be even beneficial to their writing as students would be able to deliver content while emulating the author’s voice and style or as they work on developing their own.

When it comes to teaching argumentative writing, here are some interesting pre-writing activities to help students build content for their argument.

4.  Four Corners

As most students have difficulty taking a stand on a given topic, Four Corners is an activity that teachers can carry out in class to encourage students to do so. How does this activity work? Label each corners of the room with strongly agree, agree, disagree, and strongly disagree. Then, give the students the topic that they would be debating on. They would then have to choose the corner that best reflects their opinions and write down their reasons. To further challenge the students, encourage them to visit the other corners and write down statements that support those opinions even if they disagree with them. That way, it allows the students to think from different perspectives and develop counter-argument skills.

5.  The Cube of Perspective

This activity is a very helpful tool to guide students in developing an argument as students are urged to think deeper and wider about the topic that they have chosen to write by looking at the topic from six different perspectives.

1. Describe it: Students generate ideas by defining the subject or topic, what it looks like, what it is used for.

2. Compare it: This aspect of the cube allows students to compare and contrast by writing down how similar or different the topic is as compared to other topics.

3. Associate it: Students then list down memories or thoughts that come to mind when reflecting on the subject.

4. Analyse it: Subsequently, students break the subject down into parts and then elaborate on how each of these parts is related or unrelated to each other.

5. Apply it: Students can also elevate their thoughts on the topic by using humour, irony, sarcasm or even hyperboles to argue, counter or criticise the opposing opinion.

6. Argue it: In the final side of the cube, students can spend time to argue for both sides of the topic; the pros and cons and finally conclude their stance.

teachwriting activities

Image credit: Teaching Writing

Students may get stuck with coming up with ideas and overcoming a ‘blank page’ is no doubt intimidating. With these tips and activities in mind, I hope that teachers would be better equipped to guide their students to generate ideas that may help them not only in discovering new perspectives and depth to their argument but also inspiring them to get started on writing and conquering their fear of the ‘blank page’.

Written by: Zafirah Abdul Ramzan, Senior Educational Therapist and Curriculum Developer 

 

References
Badger, R., & White, G. (2000). A process genre approach to teaching writing. ELT Journal, 54, 153-160.
Greenwald, E.A., Persky, H.R., Campbell, J.R., & Mazzeo, J. (1999). The NAEP 1998 writing report card for the nation and the states. (NCES 1999- 462). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics Center.
Orton, J.L., & Money, J. (1966). The Orton-Gillingham approach. Orton Dyslexia Society.
SemanticScholar. (2007). The Writing Process: An Overview of Research on Teaching Writing as a Process [Flow Chart]. Retrieved on March 16, 2020 from https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/THE-WRITING-PROCESS-%3A-An-Overview-of-Research-on-as/db746c718fb3798326cb8ab87f8b732b5e1efb01
TeachWriting.org. (2017). 2 PreWriting Activities Your Students MUST DO Before Writing the Argument Essay. Retrieved on March 25, 2020 from https://www.teachwriting.org/612th/2017/9/12/2-pre-writing-activities-your-students-must-do-before-writing-the-argument-essay