Thursday, 1 November 2012

Writing in Class - a Waste of Time?

The class sits in silence, apart from the rustling of paper and the scratch of pens.  Meanwhile, the teacher stares off into space, completes her marking, surreptitiously checks her texts or reads the newspaper.  Through the walls drift the sounds of another class apparently having a lot more fun - they are watching a video, playing a raucous game, talking and laughing loudly...  Sound familiar?

Writing in class is a tricky area: some teachers swear by it, while others consider it to be a total waste of time  for all concerned.  Here are some of the most common arguments:

If you write in class you can observe the whole process and advise students on planning and structure as they go – you can prevent major errors at an earlier stage.
It’s a waste of time.  Students can do written work at home – class time should be saved for language input and communicative work.
If you set written work to do at home, not all students will do it.  By doing it in class you can ensure that all students benefit, even the lazy ones.
If students choose not to do work that benefits them, that’s not your problem as a teacher.
Writing in class is good practice for exam preparation – students planning to take an exam need to practise to time, in a formal environment.
Students can time themselves at home just as easily, and in the run-up to an exam, classroom time is at a premium.
Writing in class enables collaboration on the planning stages and peer feedback, helping students to learn more from each other.
Technology can enable this to happen at home, through a VLE or shared document on Google Drive.
Plagiarism is a serious issue when students write at home – if they write in class you can control the environment and be sure that it’s their own work.
Plagiarism is easier than ever to detect thanks to the Internet, and it’s students who ultimately lose out if they try to cheat.
You can give more support to weaker students when they write in class.
Stronger students finish the activity early and end up sitting around waiting for the weaker ones.

I sit somewhat uncomfortably between these two chairs, repeating the mantra that all students learn for difficult questions: It Depends.  It depends on the class, the type of written work, and the syllabus.

One class may have a recurring problem with plagiarism, another may be very trustworthy.  One class may be very studious, preferring quieter activities and wanting a strong exam focus, while another may need extra time on communicative practice, and activities to build confidence in using English.  It all depends.

I usually do at least one piece of written work in a class at the start of term, so I have a guaranteed sample from each student that I can compare with work produced at home, for plagiarism checking.  Then I'll do plenty of writing skills work, looking at document types, paragraph construction etc, which helps me to identify problem areas for particular students.  I may then decide that most actual writing can be done at home, or that alternatively it requires more attention in class, with differentiated activities so the stronger students can still be challenged while the weaker ones go step-by-step through more basic activities.

So, a definitive answer?  No, but some things to consider.  I've learnt not to feel guilty if the classroom is quiet sometimes - it may have to be to allow for serious thinking.  And on the other hand I don't think it's a cop-out to focus on writing skills work in the class, and then say 'Do this when you next write something at home'.  If students have understood the lesson, and made good notes, then they won't have forgotten it by the time they next sit down to write.

Image made using photos taken from by @baibbb, @vladkaslniecko, @aClilToClimb, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial licence,

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