Podcast: Teaching Writing to the Students We Forgot (with David Tait)

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Why don't we teach writing more? Is writing less interesting than other skills? Or less useful? Or just harder to teach? We (Ross, Tracy and Matt Courtois) speak to published author and ESL writing specialist David Tait about how to teach writing and the students who thrive when writing that we forget about when teaching speaking.

Matt Courtois, Tracy Yu, Ross Thorburn

Matt Courtois, Tracy Yu, Ross Thorburn

Teaching Writing to the Students We Forgot - Transcript

Tracy Yu:  Welcome to the TEFL Training Institute Podcast, the bite‑sized TEFL podcast for teachers, trainers, and managers.

Tracy:  I want to welcome into our podcast today, we've got our special guest, David Tait.

David Tait:  I like how you drew out that name.

Ross Thorburn:  Then also, we have of course with us, Matt Courtois.

Matt Courtois:  Hey, how's it going?

Ross:  Nice to have you back, Matt.

Tracy:  Dave, do you want to introduce yourself?

David:  I'm a teacher. I've been in China almost five years, and I also am a writer. I write poetry. I have a new book out next year, which is all about homophobia and air pollution. It's going to be a joyous read.

Ross:  You got a plugin so early. That's [ hit the one‑minute mark, and you got that in.

Do you want to tell us a bit about your job, because you're a teacher but you teach writing, right?

David:  I teach writing a fair bit, yes, particularly within business contexts. Getting students to think about the way in which they write, identifying how something may come across in terms of its tone, identifying how to structure things like emails, how to write in a way that...

Actually, it comes from a novel perspective of showing rather than telling. How do you say, how do you write something that puts an idea in someone's head rather than telling them to think that idea?

How do you show somebody that you are professional without telling them, "I am professional"? What techniques can you go for implanting those ideas in your readers' head? As Anton Chekhov said, "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on the broken glass."

Ross:  Beautiful. Obviously, because David's here, we're going to talk about writing. We've actually never talked about writing before, have we?

Tracy:  It is a topic a lot of people won't want to touch because it's quite complicated. It's a big topic.

David:  For a lot of teachers in the language classroom, they don't see writing perhaps as a "engaging activity," because it's not loud, it's not instantly identifiable as all the students were engaged and were talking and making a lot of noise, and so on. Actually, writing can be extremely engaging.

Ross:  Let's get on to the questions. We're going to look at three different areas of writing today. The first one we're going to talk about is...

David:  ...why is teaching writing difficult?

Tracy:  And the second one, how writing has been changed, and the last one?

Matt:  How can we use creative writing in our lessons?


Why is teaching writing difficult?

Ross:  We spoke a bit about earlier why doesn't writing get taught. What makes writing difficult, more difficult than say, speaking?

David:  There's a big fear of silence. With writing, you are opening yourself up to that fear, and also, a lot of teachers aren't good writers.

Tracy:  The perception of writing in English classes in China is different, because usually, people say, "Oh, Chinese students are better at writing and reading," but actually, no. They're not good at writing. They're probably only focused on taking exams. They're just doing a lot of writing exercise to answer those questions.

Ross:  How do you go about picking authentic‑ish tasks, or meaningful tasks, for writing classes?

David:  I always say, it always starts with context. Usually for the students I work with, usually blue‑collar professionals, adult learners, so it's very often linked to the office as a context. The next step is to think about how might language be used, what difficulties might students have with language in those situations.

The obvious ones there would be things like, workplace stuff like sending emails, dealing with a complaint, being able to write an attractive performance review, or even more functional things like writing a help desk request that includes all the key information in a top‑down manner.

You would stick to what would the students possibly struggle with and the context when you are choosing a topic, if that makes sense. That's what I try to do, anyway.

Matt:  It's funny, I was just thinking about even native speakers like regarding error correction and stuff, and feedback, the one time you see native speakers correcting each other's' English is in written comment feeds on the Internet. When somebody misspells "their," or something, inevitably somebody's going to correct them, which I always find annoying. I don't know.


Ross:  That's an interesting point. The most maybe authentic place that you would get correction or feedback outside the language classroom is on writing.

David:  I think it was you I was talking with, Matt. Didn't you once observe a class of somebody writing? They did a whole amazing class on writing a WeChat class in China, like ages ago.

Matt:  This teacher compared like fake WeChat moments to real ones from native speakers and students had to guess which ones were written by the real native speakers.

They were all wrong because the ones from real native speakers were omitting the subjects, and the verb. A lot of times it would be a lot shorter, a lot less eloquent, and everything, and just be very direct and to the point and that grammar had nothing to do with it. Whereas non‑native speakers tended to use full sentences and attempt to do correct grammar.

Ross:  That's so interesting. Was it John McWhorter, is it? Talked about this and saying that, "When we're texting, we're not writing. We're speaking with our thumbs."

Matt:  That's interesting.

David:  Saw it on Twitter, too. In fact, Carol Ann Duffy, the UK poet laureate said that, way at the beginning of Twitter, and was ridiculed by "The Daily Mail," but c'est la vie.


How Has Writing Changed?

Ross:  Let's talk about how writing has changed, particularly with technology.

Matt:  Among native speakers, and this has to do with generations, is that millennials think of writing an email as a very formal interaction, whereas someone who's about 40, 45, thinks of it as a very casual interaction. A lot of workplace misunderstandings happen because the register's just off between two generations.

Ross:  I remember when I was at school getting taught how to write a letter, and they were very specific. Things like where you place the comma, and when you can use faithfully and sincerely at the end, but I somehow doubt, I don't know for sure, that the same rules really exist for writing emails.

David:  I also had something similar about people having different personas for the different apps and websites that they use. The Matt Courtois on Facebook is very different to the Matt Courtois on LinkedIn, is very different to the Matt Courtois on Instagram. The way that we communicate in these different modes are all very different.

Ross:  What speaks to me is how it's changed. I was speaking to my mom the other day. She was talking about when her and my dad were at teaching college, and how my dad would be writing essays to the last minute and type out an essay on a typewriter. I thought, "Wow. How much more difficult would that be if you had to write an essay from beginning to end correctly."

We then had this 10‑minute conversation about how you could correct one word if you messed it up. I was thinking like, even now if I write email, I'll go through and edit it and change words around and everything. That's a great example of how much technology has changed that process of writing.

Matt:  I don't value spelling at all anymore. I don't see any value in knowing how to spell a word. You approximate it and the computer fixes it.

Ross:  If anything is worth knowing, it's to get close enough that Word knows what word you are trying to find...

Everybody:  Yeah.

Ross:  ...and can correct your spelling.

David:  Going back to what Ross was mentioning with the typewriter and making sure that writing something correctly the first time. One of the benefits of that is separating the creative process from the editing process because otherwise you run the risk of automatically limiting yourself in the act of writing.

You're in a creative space and you're creating something, and some of it might be absolute garbage but it's genuine garbage, it's genuine rubbish.

After you've written it, you can then get rid of it after, but don't get rid of it as you're writing it. Don't self‑edit as you're writing creatively or as you're writing the first draft because underneath all that garbage there's actually sometimes an idea or a thing that all the garbage has to be sifted through to get at.

Think of it as like brainstorming. During a brainstorming session, if you're brainstorming lots of crazy ideas but also self‑editing at the same time, what you're going to come out with is quite a lot of acceptable ideas that are within your normal frame of reference. That's something that's perhaps similar with writing where separating those two things could be a good thing.


How we use creative writing to help our students?

Tracy:  Let's talk about, Dave, on how we use creative writing to help our students in classroom?

David:  Maybe I could start by saying some of the stuff that I do. A typical writing exercise, a warm‑up, an early one, would be I'd like you to write about your journey on your way to the center today.

I want you to think about some of the people that you saw, some of the things that you noticed, some of the sounds that you heard, some of the smells, and all you've got to do is you've got to write continuously for two minutes, and you're not allowed to stop.

If you feel the pen, that you can't write anymore, you just have to write, "I don't know what to write. I don't know what to write. I don't know what to write," until you keep writing.

One student, who was an elementary student, wrote about a woman walking through the rain, and that she saw, and not knowing whether the water on her face was tears or rain. That's an image for an elementary student like, "Hello, elementary student." I think that's quite incredible.

This was a student that does not talk in class, is silent, is very, very nervous, but somehow her writing a simple writing exercise with the ability that she had, was able to produce this amazing image. Of course, it's not a poem yet, but it's getting there.

Ross:  How do you think those skills of writing a poem or writing a short story feed into helping them actually write emails, or doing something more functional, or help their general English proficiency improve?

David:  They might pick up some kind of learning strategy or some sort of writing strategy from it like, "How do I write in a creative way?" You see quite a lot of executives on a management level attending creative writing courses. The reason they're doing that is because they want to become better at writing creative copy.

They want to become better at being able to become more independent and truly creative. I just love when we do a creative writing class and a student achieve something, and it's just unexpected. When I've taught young learners in the UK, going to schools and teaching poetry workshops, it's always the same thing.

Earlier this year, I was the poet‑in‑residence at the Wordsworth Trust back in the UK. As part of that residency, I went to some local schools in Lancashire and Cumbria. I taught some workshops in schools and the same thing happened in every single class ‑‑ one or two kids were amazing. They wrote the most incredible stuff.

We're talking 8 to 10‑year‑olds writing poems out of nothing, that are really strong, really startling imagery. Every time these kids would write something, and every time at the end of the class, the normal teacher would come up to me and say, "How did you get that kid to write that? That kid is a bully. That kid is a trouble‑maker. How has that kid has been able to do this?"

Actually, it's probably because it's just something that's totally different to the normal UK education system which favors extrovert personalities, which favors group work, which favors testing, and so on.


Activities to teach writing

Ross:  To wrap up, David, can I ask you? A lot of what you've spoke about there is what things that you do if someone that...you know, you've published stories, and books, and things.

What about for your average first year or second year, or just your average teacher out there who's thinking about incorporating some writing into their classes, what advice would you have for them?

David:  Let the students know that you have no expectations of them other than for them to have a go, and that there's no pressure. So much writing is scary but writing a poem or a story isn't. It's kind of a lark really, so have some fun with it.

Tracy:  That's awesome. Thanks very much, Dave. Thanks very much, Matt.

Matt:  You're welcome.

Ross:  You're not going to thank me?


Tracy:  Thank you, Ross.

Tracy:  All right. Bye, everybody.

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