A quick look at the writing exercises in course materials and it quickly becomes evident that longer essays and letters belong to the domain of higher levels (CEF B1, B2, C1), while shorter texts are practised only at the lower levels (CEF A1 or A2).
Yet looking at the world around us, it is strikingly apparent that for the lay person, short messages dominate our daily written communication. Whether it is leaving a message on a post-it note, posting on a social media thread, sending a text message or chatting on an instant messaging platform e.g. WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, an in-house corporate messaging system, short messages are the modern way of communicating with one another in an unintrusive and time-efficient manner.
Some might argue that there is no need to teach the writing of short messages at higher levels. After all, how difficult can it be to write short sentences? Surely that must be the domain of lower levels. Becoming more proficient in English must mean the ability to write longer sentences, form coherent paragraphs, and consider the discourse of formal letters and discursive essays and wax lyrical about something using more than 250 words.
The language exams seem to agree with this logic as well. In the Cambridge English exams, candidates for the CAE (Certificate of Advanced English, equivalent of CEF C1) have to write 220-260 words for each of the two parts of the writing paper, while candidates of the PET (Preliminary English Test, equivalent of CEF B1) exam have to write a 35-45 word short message and a 100-word informal letter or story. The Business exams are no different. The Cambridge BEC Preliminary (equivalent of CEF B1) has candidates writing a 30-40 word short message and a 60-80 word short business correspondence, while the BEC Higher (equivalent of CEF C1) requires a 120-140 word report followed by a 200-250 word correspondence, report or proposal.
You might be thinking, “Sure, this makes perfect sense. The more proficient you get at a language, the longer and more complex the sentences you are able to write. It’s a matter of developing their writing skills and pushing them on to the next level up.” Or is it?
Anyone who has ever done a PechaKucha (or any super short presentation that had a time limit of e.g. 5 minutes) are likely to tell you that preparations took twice as long as a 30-minute long presentation. University students at risk of being penalized for going over the strict word limit for their essays would recount how hard it sometimes is to be concise.
For literature lovers, long flowery sentences with multiple clauses might be held up as good writing but in the real world, (in particular, the business world) such fluff simply increases the chances of miscommunication and incurs precious time to decipher. After all, according to one study, the average office worker receives about 121 emails a day and recent statistics show that we spend an average of about 11.1 seconds reading each email.
Elliot Bell, Director of Marketing for the online corporate magazine The Muse gives the following example of an unnecessary long flowery sentence he received in an email:
“At this point in time, I think it would make a lot of sense for us all to regroup on the issue and come up with a few key points for discussion at our meeting in two weeks that will help us get closer to finding a solution that works for all parties.”
For the time-starved working person, trying to sift out the fluff and work out what the writer wants to achieve with that message can be annoying as well as time-consuming. In international communication where not all recipients might speak English to a C1 level, complex sentences like that can cause misunderstandings and lead to breakdowns in communication.
Instead, Bell suggests a more straightforward message that everybody would easily understand:
“Let's all come up with 2-3 discussion points on the issue before our next meeting.”
So how can we help our learners (and not just A1 and A2 learners) become better at writing short messages? How can we prepare them for the real world by getting them to write clear, to-the-point, concise messages in their correspondence? Like with anything in language learning, practice is key.
Below are ten lesson ideas for practising short message writing. They can be adapted to suit any level.
- Have students summarise an article they have read, a video that they have watched, or a song they have heard in two sentences.
- Start a ‘Secret Angel’ game for your class. The names of the students in your class go into a hat and each week/month, students have to pick a name from the hat. Students will become the secret angel to the person they have picked, and have to leave anonymous kind messages, make pictures, write poems and do thoughtful things for their ‘mortal’. You can even dedicate a class notice board for angels to leave their messages on.
- Have students write reviews for TripAdvisor or Amazon that do not exceed 150 words.
- Have students write a short paragraph of no more than 100 words trying to sell something that they own online.
- Have students write comments on YouTube videos they have watched or blogposts they have read.
- Set up private social media group where students can chat to each other and post interesting thoughts and comments.
- Have students write comments on each other’s Instagram or Snapchat photos.
- Set up an instant messaging chat group e.g. WhatsApp, Skype, Line, and have students message each other (in English). They can do this out of class or even while doing an activity such as watching a video in class.
- Embark on a long-term group project where students have to organise an event or activity. Have them email each other or use a chat group to continue working with each other after class.
- Have students bring in longer emails that they’ve written or received, and get them to see how they can shorten the emails to make them more effective.
As Elliot Bell points out, the Gettysburg Address is only 271 words long.
If Lincoln could eloquently talk about humanity and equality in that length of a text, we should be able to send shorter messages in our daily communication. And in order to prepare our students for written communication in the real world, we should not assume that short messages are easy to write and neglect this important writing skill.