Riccardo Chiappini suggests some tips and activities that teachers can use to help their students manipulate information and improve their writing.
Boring. Time-consuming. Pointless. Teaching and learning writing was once described as an unwelcome and unwieldy process that teachers and students had to go through, either because it was in the syllabus or because it would be tested in an exam. With time, though, we’ve come to learn that there is more to writing than that: especially now, when online activity has made it quicker, more fun and more necessary (even mandatory for some) to be able to type – and that means to write.
From pretext to purpose
From using writing as a mere pretext for teaching grammar, we have moved on to more communicative text-and purpose-based approaches. We have even become more skilled in combining them into more personalised hybrids, appropriate to our different teaching contexts, and, as a result, our students have become better at recognising genres, planning the content of their texts, using more appropriate connectors, and so on. But on top of exposing our students to model texts, so they can identify their purposes, supplying writer and reader profiles, layouts and organisations of different text types, what more can we do in class to help our students become better at using language when writing?
Teaching writing in the language classroom generally involves a concentration on nonfiction texts, such as brochures, articles and essays, whose purpose is generally to inform. The information in a text can be new to the readers or already part of their knowledge. Therefore, when we ask our students to write a text, we are actually asking them to manipulate information: that is, to describe, explain, argue, paraphrase, summarise, add and organise it, so that it is clear and meaningful to a reader. Here are some tips to help your students manipulate information in writing.
Before your students can manipulate new and old information and write about a topic, make sure they have sufficient knowledge of it. After analysing the instructions of a writing task, ask them to discuss the topic, what they know about it and their own experience of it. Then, provide them with appropriate written, audio or audio-visual materials for them to do further research on it.
Train your students to identify (new) key information in source texts.
- Ask your students to read a short text (or a number of short texts) related to the topic of the writing task, and to identify two or three key points – that is, information that is relevant for the task and that they can reuse in their own texts.
- Have them compare with a partner and, together, decide on the most important one or two points.
- Once all the pairs have agreed, ask them to write their ideas on the board for the rest of the class to see, and have a whole-class discussion of the reasons behind their choices. For example, some points might relate better to the topic, others can be seen as ‘extra’ or just a good fit for the reader profile, etc.
- Finally, ask the whole class to agree on the one or two most important pieces of information, based on the previous discussion.
To use and reuse new and old information in writing, the students will need to lay it out so that it is clear, effective and in the right order. To do this, they will need to be able to paraphrase, summarise, explain and organise information, and express it in an appropriate style.
Teach your students how to paraphrase.
- Give the students some sentence transformation exercises. In this type of exercise, they have to manipulate the information contained in one sentence and complete a second sentence so that it has the same or a similar meaning to the first one, usually using a key word. These types of activities are usually found in international exams, but you could use them in a less ‘controlled’ way by giving your students fewer or no prompts at all that they have to use to complete or rewrite the second sentence, and letting them think about appropriate words (and therefore style, tone, etc) to use.
- Get the students to focus on lexical chains. Ask them to read a text, and help them notice how a concept is developed throughout the text with different words: draw their attention to synonyms, antonyms, hyponyms and the typical lexis that is found in texts on a particular topic. As a follow-up activity, you could ask the students to use the items they have found to rewrite the original text. At the end, they could also collect the new items in their notebooks or on their phones, making lists, spidergrams, Quizlet card sets, etc.
- Train your students to use a thesaurus. Use a class computer and projector (or your phone or tablet) to show them how digital thesauruses list synonyms and antonyms, whether by relevance, register or frequency, and point out which ones also provide example sentences to show an item used in context. Once your students are more familiar with how a thesaurus can be exploited, organise the class into pairs or groups of three. Give each pair or group a context (eg they are writing a letter to the Queen of Norway, or a text message to a schoolmate), then write a sentence on the board (eg My kids are crazy about Choco Bakes). Ask the students to use the thesaurus to rewrite the sentence with synonyms (or antonyms) appropriate for their context. If they are writing to the Queen of Norway, for example, their sentence might be: My children particularly like a type of cereal called Choco Bakes. Although less authentic, this type of activity gives the students plenty of opportunities to manipulate language and make appropriate lexical choices when considering a specific reader.
Teach your students how to summarise.
- To summarise oral texts, put the students into groups of three. Explain that Student A either answers a given question or gives a short presentation on a topic, while Students B and C listen to A and take notes. The students take turns to be Student A. Once A, B and C have answered the questions or given their presentation, they individually use their notes to write a) a summary of what each of the other two students said, and b) a summary of what the whole group talked about.At the end, the students compare their texts with the rest of their group and discuss the best parts of each summary.
- To summarise written texts, get the students to read a text and answer multiple-choice questions in which they have to choose the sentence that best summarises each paragraph (or specific parts of the text).
Teach your students how to explain.
- Use chain-type activities in which the students start from a complex idea and break it up into smaller, easier sentences or ideas. Choose some challenging definitions, either from a dictionary or encyclopaedia. (Remember that they have to be challenging, not impossible to understand!)
- Organise the class into small groups, and give each group a handout with a different definition at the top and some blank space below – allow as much space as necessary for them to write a) the type of target audience/reader and b) three more definitions of similar length to the one given in the handout.
- Once you have checked that the students in each group have understood the definition on their handout, ask them to think of a specific person who might want or need to know more about the information in the definition (eg a 16-year-old girl who has just taken up surfing and might want to know what a ‘backdoor’ is) and to write this down on their handouts. Then tell them, with the target reader in mind, to write a simplified version of the definition – this doesn’t necessarily have to be shorter or longer.
- Next, ask each group to give their handout to another group. The groups should read the information on the new handout and, together, write another definition, trying to simplify further the definition provided by the previous group. When all the groups have written a simplified version for all the definitions on all the handouts, have them stick their handouts on a wall for everyone to see.
- Ask the students to read the definitions and discuss how the same definition was further simplified by each group, and to agree on the best one. (If your students are tech-savvy, you can set this up on an online noticeboard, with virtual sticky notes for the students to type in, send and receive.)
Teach your students how to organise.
- Help the students to identify text patterns. In some nonfiction texts, the writer may use a zigzag technique – that is, using the rheme (the part of a clause that gives information about the theme) of the previous sentence as the theme of the following one (eg The topic of a sentence is called the theme. The theme usually goes at the beginning of a sentence). In others, the writer might start their sentences with the same theme (eg The rheme of a sentence is what is being said about the topic. The rheme usually follows the theme of a sentence). To help them notice things like this, expose your students to different texts, encouraging them to notice the patterns and helping them to integrate these in their own texts.
- Encourage the students to use visual techniques. One activity I use is ‘Topsy-turvy pyramid’. Once the students have a clear idea of what to write in each paragraph, they could start with a sentence about something the reader in mind already knows about (eg It’s generally true that the closer a planet is to its star, the hotter its surface temperature will be). This sentence could represent the top of the pyramid or, better, the bottom of it since it’s upside down. The students then proceed to write another sentence or set of sentences expanding on/explaining the first sentence (eg There are, however, other factors that could influence a planet’s temperature. In our solar system, for example, Mercury is not as hot as you might think. In fact …). They continue until they reach the bottom (the wider part in our case) of the topsy-turvy pyramid, that is, the end of the paragraph or, depending on the genre or activity, the end of the text.
Teach your students to write in an appropriate style.
Give your students lots of practice in producing the appropriate style in their writing. Coursebooks do have exercises to help the students with this, but sometimes there just don’t seem to be enough. Students whose L1 is Latin-based (for example, Spanish and Italian) tend to overuse formal language, even in very informal contexts. To help your students avoid this, collect common mistakes that speakers of your students’ L1 usually make with style (or relevant mistakes from their previous writing), and turn them into a list of multiple-choice gapped questions. For example:
I’d just turned the corner when he ______ (entered / got into / accessed) the pub.
A plenary discussion on the most appropriate choices should follow.
In the scales provided for overall written production in the CEFR at levels B2, C1 and C2, we can read the following:
B2: Can write clear, detailed texts on a variety of subjects related to his/her field of interest, synthesizing and evaluating information and arguments from a number of sources.
C1: Can write clear, well-structured texts of complex subjects, underlining the relevant salient issues, expanding and supporting points of view at some length with subsidiary points, reasons and relevant examples, and rounding off with an appropriate conclusion.
C2: Can write clear, smoothly flowing, complex texts in an appropriate and effective style and a logical structure which helps the reader to find significant points.
I have marked the concepts that inspired the activities collected in this article in bold. I hope you’ll find these activities useful and that they will inspire you to create more scaffolding activities for your students, to help them manipulate information in writing and give them that extra nudge towards the fluency and complexity advocated by the CEFR.