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Designing writing tasks by Roger Hunt

‘And mother bear enquired as to who had been eating her porridge’:
designing writing tasks

By Roger Hunt

With the possible exception of art forms such as poetry, all authentic writing is written with a particular reader in mind and has a specific purpose. The intended readership and purpose of the piece of writing determines the linguistic style of the text and the sort of inclusions that would normally be expected to be present.

For example a magazine article about dolphins will differ markedly from an academic paper on the same subject; business letters are usually written in a formal style and include a number of formulaic expressions that would not be found in an informal email to a friend. Newspaper articles on a particular news item differ widely from paper to paper depending on the perceived readership – hence one paper might describe a particularly hot summer day as a ‘scorcher’, while another may describe it as an ‘exceptionally warm day’.

Readers expect certain conventions to be followed when they read a text: business people expect a letter to be addressed to the reader as ‘Dear Sir or Madam’, they expect an introductory opening in appropriate style and they expect brevity and clarity in the content of the letter. The reader of a newspaper article expects a headline then a concise description of what happened followed by further detail which the reader decides to read or not depending on personal interest in the topic or the interest created by the opening lines. Newspaper readers do not expect to see a lot of background detail before getting to the ‘news’ of the item: this always comes first.

Even in children’s stories there are strict conventions. For example the use of reported speech, the past perfect continuous and some of the lexis in the following from Goldilocks and the three bears is wrong:

‘And mother bear enquired as to who had been eating her porridge’ (CF: ‘Mummy bear said: “Who’s been eating my porridge?” ‘). Writing for children is in the here and now, or ‘once upon a time’ at least, and uses direct speech.

In other words texts are written to conform to a particular genre, with a particular type of reader in mind and with a specific purpose whether this be to inform, to complain, to invite or to thank.

However this is frequently not the case with writing tasks set in ELT classrooms. Such ‘tasks’ as ‘Describe a recent holiday’, ‘What would you do if you won the lottery?’ and ‘Describe a childhood experience’ are common but do not take account of a number of issues such as:

  • Who is the intended reader?
  • What sort of style is the writer to adopt?
  • What sort of information should be included?
  • What should the text length be?
  • What is the purpose of the text?
  • Does the student have anything to say on the topic?

These questions also impact on the marking of a piece of student work. One common criterion for assessment is task achievement, however, the examples cited above do not have a specific purpose therefore it is impossible to say whether or not this criterion has been achieved. Another criterion is the appropriacy of the language used; however, as no genre style has been indicated it is impossible to assess this criterion. At best a marker might focus on such things as grammatical accuracy and spelling, although a task such as ‘What would you do if you won the lottery?’ might elicit little more than something resembling a shopping list and such a list could be written with equal accuracy by an intermediate student as by an advanced level student. Therefore what is expected and what is being tested or assessed in terms of grading is unclear.

A model of a valid writing task

Background: this task was designed for a multi-lingual group of young adult students at upper intermediate level studying to take the IELTS examination in the near future with the intention of entering a British university. The group have studied a number of different text types and the linguistic conventions in each including pseudo-scientific reports and articles such as those found in publications such as National Geographic; news articles on current issues from different newspaper types; formal letters in the context of financial and general business English and informal letters and emails. They have also studied examples of academic writing such as discursive essays, reports describing processes and conventions such as sentence types in paragraphs and punctuation.

The task:

“What are the arguments for and against children learning one or more foreign languages from the age of seven? Is it better to learn one foreign language fluently or to have a superficial understanding of three or four? Refer to how and when you learned languages other than your own mother tongue. The text you write is intended for publication in a Sunday newspaper supplement and should be similar in style to the text in the reading test above.

NB: The section written in italics above is particularly important as the students had just read a text on this topic which provided them with ideas on the sort of things they could include (as opposed to having to only use their imaginations). It was also a reminder of the genre or text style they should use in their own texts.

Rational underlying task:

  • The genre and intended readership is clear and a model has been provided.
  • The task has a purpose in as much as conclusions must be drawn.
  • A wide range of language is required for the task. This includes discursive and narrative features.
  • A word limit is given.
  • The task does not rely on imagination: the students all have backgrounds in language learning and they have been provided with discussion points in the text they read prior to this writing task.

Marking criteria:

  • Task achievement
  • Appropriacy of language used for the genre specified
  • General cohesion and coherence
  • Conformity to conventions such as sentence types used and paragraphing
  • Spelling and punctuation where misuse of these interferes with comprehension
  • Range of language structures and lexis
  • Accuracy
  • Conformity to word count

Conclusions

More attention should be paid to the design of writing tasks we set for our students. These should be valid tasks in terms of clarity in genre style and the intended readership; the task should have a purpose or outcome; it should require an appropriate range of structure and lexis; the task should not rely on imagination which could disadvantage some learners who may have little or nothing to say on a topic; a word limit should be set and the students should be clear on the criteria the teacher uses to evaluate and assess their finished work.

There is nothing wrong with students engaging in writing for its own sake – some may well be poets or budding novelists. However, the majority of our students will probably need to write text to get them through university or business, therefore we should set tasks which reflect these needs and ensure we teach these features as well as testing them.

Author’s Bio:
Roger Hunt is Director of Education at International House Barcelona and author of the on-line teacher training course in teaching writing skills offered by the Barcelona school.
Please go to http://www.ihes.com/bcn/tt/online/writing.html

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