Practical tips for teaching writing: The missing paragraph
Teaching writing often poses difficulties to teachers of English, in the same way that practising writing is difficult for learners of English. A number of reasons contribute to this assertion. One of them, which I would like to address in this short piece, is the fact that writing is frequently approached as a solitary act. Instructions are given to the student, explanations perhaps are added whenever this is needed or asked for, and off s/he goes to write whatever is required of him/her. In other words, writing is perhaps the least interactive of all four skills, at least in the form that is most often practised and taught in the EL classroom. If one thinks of everyday life, text messaging and email exchange are two excellent examples of interactive uses of writing, which, are, nonetheless, not always applicable in the EL classroom.
As a result of the isolation experienced by learners-authors, in addition to being demanding, writing tasks can also become boring and counter-productive, thus undermining the learner’s motivation, and intensifying poor overall results. Writing, then, has to become relevant, so that the learner actively engages with the task, the text, his or her peers, and, finally, with the entire classroom.
I will present two versions of the ‘missing paragraph’ writing task, adopted for different age and ability levels respectively. Needless to say, numerous variations can be developed from there. I consider it a straightforward, but extremely productive approach. All you have to do, is to present your learners with a text, from which a certain part of your choice is missing. That part, they will have to reproduce, in the most appropriate way and according to your instructions.
For young learners, this may be a short story without conclusion. An amusing story will trigger their imagination. Character identification will provide them with the motivation to write something that is relevant and positive, and will lead to a laudable overall effort. For more advanced learners – I often employ this strategy when teaching register and style – you may use a newspaper article with one paragraph missing. Your learners will have to reproduce the missing paragraph, paying particular attention to the existing text, identifying features such as register, style, cohesion, vocabulary, and trying to imitate them as closely as possible in their own paragraph. You may even use two different newspaper articles – one from a broadsheet and one from a tabloid – covering the same news story. This would lead to a comparison of the register employed in both texts, but, more importantly, it would force your learners to convey similar meanings using radically different linguistic conventions. A truly challenging task!
The main benefit of this approach is that your learners’ writing acquires a very tangible point of reference – the already existing text – which stops the task from becoming abstract and irrelevant. Associations can be made between the original text and students’ contributions, and numerous comments about different aspects of language can stem from the comparison.
At that point, ask students to read each other’s versions and comment on them. Ask them to explain what they find interesting, realistic, or problematic about each other’s approaches to the task. Then, having at least two or three different perspectives in mind, ask them to go back to their own script and assess it. Their gaze will now be more mature and investigative, as they will be employing a number of different viewpoints – that of the original text as well as that of their peers’ work – and hopefully reaching a number of useful and informed
conclusions regarding their own writing skills.
Remember that by employing peer-review and self-assessment, not only are you establishing the relationship between receptive and productive skills – reading and writing, in this instance – but you are also highlighting the relevance of the writing task, empowering your learners, engaging and motivating them in a creative and productive way.