Fiona Johnston – Write here, write now: Developing written fluency

For my second-to-last talk of the conference, Fiona Johnston of International House in London

Fiona has always been a great believer of bringing writing into the classroom rather than treating it as an add-on. She says students think they are doing less writing these days but in fact they are doing more. A survey she did showed that there is some asynchronous writing going on e.g. comment on youtube, not expecting response. Email was excluded as everyone said yes to that. But lots of people also use Facebook, Twitter, Whats app etc.

Writing is changing. Is it speaking? Writing? a new skill?

“Netspeak has far more properties linking it to writing than speech.” (Crystal, 2001)

“Are instant messages speech? No, even though there are enough speech-like elements to explain why these are conversations” (Baron, 2008)

“selectively and adaptively displays properties of both [speaking and writing]” (Crystal, missed the year]

“People are communicating like they are talking but encoding it in writing” [missed the reference]

Areas of overlap between speaking and writing include:

  • communication takes place “live”, in real time
  • there is time pressure, we have to respond quickly
  • there are fillers e.g. well, right, you know, sort of, kind of, well anyway, etc.
  • incomplete sentences
  • slang (though a question of register)
  • you can’t see your audience/target reader – messenger programmes are like speaking on the phone

Bridging the gap between writing and speaking

We use a variety of ways:

  • emoticons (a bit passe now!)
  • emoji is more current (some move, some culturally specific)
  • stage directions (lol *sigh* *shakes heads in belief*)
  • abbreviations (OMG btw IMO/IMHO)
  • … (leaves it open)
  • All. The. Time. (annunciating punctation to emphasise slower, emphatic delivery)

What do students say?

photo (3) copy

What Fiona’s students say…

Fiona says there are areas we can definitely help with e.g. “I can’t write fast” or “People get upset when I don’t reply fast”

Fluency vs. accuracy

For speaking skills, we tend to focus on fluency. But why, with writing, do we focus almost exclusively on accuracy rather than fluency? There’s a place for fluency focus for writing as well, or should be.

Possible activities

  1. silent discussion
  2. silent shrinking dialogue
  3. silent timed dialogue
  4. paper forum

1. Silent discussion

  • Flip-chart size paper with topics written on e.g. Italian food is better than English food, and coloured pens
  • Put learners ideally in groups of three
  • The idea is they contribute in no particular order, interrupt by twisting the paper around or walking around.
  • To ask the T a question, also needs to be in writing

Can be done as a lead-in to a unit. Takes about 15mins. Some music (without words) in the background is a good idea.

Benefits: 

  • Mimics instant messenger/chat rooms with multiple threads
  • Some students feel less inhibited
  • Can be used as a lead-in, but also to recycle topics, ideas and vocabulary
  • You can take it away after and look at some of the errors but emphasis should be on fluency
  • A good way to settle the class
  • Easy to eavesdrop unobstrusively

Silent Shrinking Dialogue

  • Pairs
  • Each student writes an exactly 12 word question
  • Set some rules re contractions counting as one word or two etc.
  • Reply [in writing] with exactly 10 words and so on
  • Generates a very positive atmosphere and positive energy

Benefits (at higher levels)

  • forces students to manipulate language by omitting words, using contractions/full forms, voice (Active/passive) and different sentence structures [to fit the criteria i.e. word number]
  • personal, genuine communication albeit in an unnatural format
  • mimics the way digital conversations often taper [e.g. start long and end just with a smiley face!]
  • linguistically challenging

Silent timed dialogue

  • Like silent shrinking dialogue but with a time limit and no word number restrition
  • agree a length of time so that they have to take turns at the time limit
  • reduce the amount of time for each interaction

Paper forum posts

  • Students write a short “forum post” (having looked at examples in class)
  • “Post” these on A3 pieces of paper, so that there is space to write underneath, and displayed gallery-style around the classroom.
  • Other students can add comments
  • Students can grab their own and see what’s been written
  • Can be adapted to be like BBC “Have your say”

Speaking? Writing? A new skill? Or a new genre? Open to questions…

Some audience members thought a new genre, some thought it a new skill. There was no “right answer”.

Q: An audience member queried contrast between English and other languages?

A: Fiona told us that “How to laugh online in many languages” generated a lot of classroom discussion:

photo (4)

Different ways of laughing online made us laugh! 🙂

It was an interesting talk with some nice take-away ideas.

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One thought on “Fiona Johnston – Write here, write now: Developing written fluency

  1. Pingback: IATEFL 2014: Bringing all my posts together in one place! | Reflections of an English Language Teacher

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