Learning theories in practice/Process writing in L2 Classrooms

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Process Writing in the L2 Classroom

Writing. Each day, each hour, each minute is a chance to express ourselves in writing. Despite constant opportunities to write, many remain intimadated by it or lacking in much writing skill or competencies. This writing apprehension often extends from when first attempting to write as a young child to late adulthood. When I first taught writing to adult English language learners (ELLs), I took a form-focused writing approach that left the students uninspired to write (and me unmotivated to read their writing). The class consisted of lectures plus grammar and rhetoric exercises. The students were thoroughly bored and so was I. According to Thiagi, internationally known expert on active learning, I was taking the “deadly, dull, boring” approach to teaching (http://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=TW&hl=zh-TW&v=YSAvbbs8IW4 ). In actuality, I was following the behaviorist approach of drilling grammar and rhetorical patterns in hopes that the students would regurgitate those same patterns in their compositions (Silva, 1990). And that explains much of the problem of writing. It is painful for many, and only made worse by the instructional approaches of their teachers.


After numerous dull lectures and repetitive grammar exercises, my students were led through the planning stage of a composition on a topic from the textbook. These students were then given assigned a composition to be written at home with limited feedback from the instructor. Later, students were given an in-class exam composition that was checked for every grammatical and rhetorical mistake. Students then diligently re-wrote their compositions according to the teacher-made corrections, although I had the suspicion that many students failed to understand the reason behind the red marks on their papers.


Since all of the topics were teacher-assigned, I functioned more as an editor/proofreader, mostly concerned with students’ rhetorical and grammatical structures rather than the quality or expression of their ideas. Students, moreover, were so anxious about using the forms practiced in class that they stopped focusing on coming up with original ideas. After reading one boring, meaningless composition after another, I decided it was time for a different approach—-process writing.

Process Writing[edit]

Heald-Taylor (1986) describes the process method in the following way:

"Process Writing is an approach which encourages ESL youngsters to communicate their own written messages while simultaneously developing their literacy skills in speaking and reading rather than delaying involvement in the writing process, as advocated in the past, until students have perfected their abilities in handwriting, reading, phonetics, spelling, grammar, and punctuation. In Process Writing the communication of the message is paramount and therefore the developing, but inaccurate, attempts at handwriting, spelling, and grammar are accepted, know that within the process of regular writing opportunities students will gain control of these sub-skills. These skills are further developed in individual and small group conference interviews." (as cited in Jarvis, 2002)

Components of Process Writing[edit]

Prewriting[edit]

The first stage is coming up with ideas for writing. There are many activities that students can do, such as: lists, free-writing, brainstorms, Venn diagrams, drawing and labeling a sketch, clustering (http://writing2.richmond.edu/writing/wweb/cluster.html), researching, or journal writing on a topic. There us a cyles of prewriting activities that free the mind for idea generation and later evaluation of those ideas. During the past few decades, writing teachers as well as students have gained appreciation for the prewriting stage. Technology tools like concept mapping, outlining, and brainstorming aids often play a significant role in such activities.

Drafting/Writing[edit]

Next, students write their first draft—this is where students’ ideas take form. Students are encouraged to write multiple drafts. During this process students consider audience and format. Thoughts on paper; that is the goal of this stage. There might be further reflections back on prewriting during this time as the process approach to writing is neither prescriptive or totally sequential. Think of it more as a recursive process where each stage might play a role as needed.

Revising[edit]

Revising is an opportunity for students to look critically at their own writing in order to add, delete, rearrange, rethink or rewrite their piece of writing. Ratiocination is a revision activity for de-coding one’s writing in order to look for clues that will help improve a piece of writing (Carroll & Wilson, 1993). Many writing instructors teach students to avoid revising too early or focusing too narrowly on editorial activities that they lose a sense of the macro structure of the text. Revising can occur at the word level, the sentence or paragraph level, or the manuscript level.

Proofreading[edit]

Students can edit their own writing by using an editing checklist[1] or work with a partner to edit each other’s papers, as in peer editing. First, it is necessary to demonstrate the process and help students to realize that they are helping their classmates rather than grading or correcting their classmates’ writing. Vygotksy's sociocultural theory points to the importance of learning on such a social plane. It is during social interaction with peers about one's writing wherein new strategies emerge and can be internalized. Such strategic internalization moves from the interpsychological plane to the intrapsychological plane of development.

In addition to checklists and peer review, another useful technique at the proofreading or editing stage is called clocking. When clocking, students sit facing each other in two concentric circles (like a clock). The teacher calls out details to be checked. Students in the inner circle remain seated while the other students move one place to the right after each detail is checked (Carroll & Wilson, 1993).

Publishing[edit]

Publication does not necessarily entail publishing student work into book format. There are many forms of self-publishing. It may simply mean that students write or type a clean, revised and proofread final copy of their composition. Other students may want their writing shared more publicly in a school newspaper, anthology, wiki or class webpage. This particular wikibook is one example of how technology foster publishing in new venues which brings extended audiences and the potential for still further feedback.

In a face-to-face classroom, students might create an anthology of their work and put it on display in a dentist's office or in the school library. They might also share their work verbally via “author’s chair” or “read around.” In “author’s chair,” students decide to share their writing by sitting in the special author’s chair to read their writing to the class. In “read around,” all students sit in a circle and share their writing while the others respond either nonverbally with nods and smiles or applause (Carroll & Wilson, 1993).

Reading Writing Connections[edit]

One technique to get students to use rhetorical devices that they might not otherwise use is called spillover. Spillover is a technique in which students read a piece of writing as many times as they wish and then turn over their paper and write a retelling of what they just read from memory. Students then compare what they wrote with their classmates before the teacher debriefs the activity (Freeman & Freeman, 2004).

Focused Freewriting (http://writing2.richmond.edu/wac/freewrit.html) is another way for students to write as they reflect on a reading assignment. Five to fifteen minutes is a normal allotment of time for freewriting. In a total freewriting or wet ink activity, students are asked to write without much reflection.

Another such technique is the cooperative script. In a cooperative learning script, pairs of students might read the same passage and write down their summary of it as a tool for memory. In a cooperative teaching script, they read separate passages and turn them over and teach them to each other. Writing could play a significant role in the summarization of that passage. It is in elaboration and summarization of content wherein learning occurs.

Writing Conferences[edit]

Writing conferences offer an opportunity for teachers to listen and ask questions that will prompt students to improve their writing. Rather than tell students how to write their compositions, the goal is for teachers to strengthen the authority of the writer and help students to see what they already know (Carroll & Wilson, 1993).Again it is the social dialogue of the conference wherein learning occurs.

Mini-Lessons[edit]

The teacher presents brief 5 - 10 minute grammar tips that he/she deems that the class needs or are developmentally ready for. These mini lessons may be presented to the whole class, a small group, or to an individual student during a student-teacher writing conference (Weaver, 1996). Moving from such lessons to small group activities or cooperative writing tasks has been shown to be highly effective.


Why Process Writing in the L2 Classroom?[edit]

Students write regularly[edit]

In a process writing classroom students write daily on a variety of topics and for a variety of purposes. In addition to compositions, students write journal entries, personal stories, brainstorms, freewriting, and double entry notebooks. Writing becomes a natural extension of what students do. They are writing all the time. It is just expected as part of daily practices.

Reading writing connections[edit]

Students read to inspire and inform their writing. Sometimes they read the teacher’s writing, their classmates’ writing, or other writing examples.

It’s meaningful[edit]

Students write about topics of their choice that have real meaning to them. Students are motivated to write about topics they care about.

It’s student-centered[edit]

Many English language learners don’t like writing because they fear making mistakes. Yet learning to do anything takes time. In a process-writing classroom, students can significantly improve, no matter what their ability. Once ELLs understand the process and trust that their teacher will accept and approve of their writing, their ability improves dramatically (Jarvis, 2002).

Grammar in context[edit]

In a process-writing classroom, the teacher first focuses on ideas. Students’ first drafts are likely to have many syntactical and grammatical errors, yet accepting the language a student uses is very important. All students should feel positive about writing.

During the revising and editing phases of the writing process, students will have time to focus on improving their sentence structure and grammar. Individual teacher conferences are also a time to work on syntactical issues. The goal is for students to gradually learn to edit and revise their own writing in order to become independent writers.

Process Writing Instruction Compared with Traditional Writing Instruction[edit]

According to Freeman and Freeman (2004), there are two views of second language development: (1) a learning view and (2) an acquisition view. From a traditional learning point of view, language must be taught directly. Language is broken into parts that are drilled and practiced. Students are corrected to develop good language habits. From an acquisition view, language is made comprehensible so that it can be used for a variety of purposes. Students use language communicatively and errors are seen as natural. Teachers keep the focus on meaning by helping students understand and express ideas.

Likewise, there are two views of writing. Traditional classrooms take a learning a learning view in which writing must be taught directly. Process Writing Classrooms take the acquisition view, that writing is a reflection of the language competence an individual has acquired. Teachers from both points of view teach writing, but their instruction differs in a number of ways (Freeman & Freeman, 2004):

Goals[edit]

Traditional Classroom-- learn how to produce good pieces of writing.

Process Writing Classroom--produce good writing while aquiring knowledge of the writing process.

Methods[edit]

Traditional Classroom--Begin with the parts and build up to writing a whole text.

Process Writing Classroom-- Begin with a message and develop the skills needed to produce the message.

Role of the teacher[edit]

Traditional Classroom--Teacher directly instructs students in how to form letters, then words, then how to combine words into sentences, and then sentences into paragraphs

Process Writing Classroom--Teacher creates conditions for authentic written responses and then helps students express themselves in writing

Approach to correctness[edit]

Traditional Classroom--Writing product must be conventional from the beginning. The teacher corrects each piece of writing.

Process Writing Classroom--Writing moves naturally from invention to convention. Classmates and others, including the teacher, respond to drafts (Freeman & Freeman, 2004, p. 29).

Summary of Learning Principles and Theories related to Process Writing[edit]

Social Learning Theory (Bandura, 1997)[edit]

• Peer Editing—vicarious experience that provides comparative information about the writing ability of one’s peers (Driscoll, 2004).

• Writing Conferences—By asking questions about students’ ideas, teachers strengthen the authority of the writer through verbal persuasion (Driscoll, 2004).

• Publishing—sharing writing through the act of verbal or other forms of self-publishing becomes an enactive mastery experience that provides students with feedback on their own writing capabilities (Driscoll, 2004).

Cognitive Information Processing[edit]

• Process Writing—is broken into manageable steps—pre-writing, drafting, revision, proofreading, and publishing—that can be easily remembered.

• Pre-writing—is a way of coming up with ideas through the use of graphic organizers such as Venn Diagrams and concept maps that at the same time organize information visually for learners.

Motivation and Self-Regulation in Learning[edit]

• Curiosity and interest are maintained by involving students in variety of writing activities.

• Process Writing offers multiple opportunities for self-regulation by allowing students to plan their writing in pre-writing, observe their performance as they revise their writing, compare their performance to a goal by reviewing the writing rubric, and reflect on their writing by reviewing their writing folder or writing portfolio.


• Confidence is built because students’ writing is accepted and their ideas are encouraged.

• Sharing their writing with others generates satisfaction.

Meaningful Learning and Schema Theory[edit]

• Prior knowledge is activated through the use of advance organizers in the planning phase of writing.

Learner Center Principles[edit]

• Differences are taken into account.

• Learning is influenced by social interaction with peers in peer-editing, publishing, and in other collaborative activities.

• By choosing their own topics, personal interests are taken into account.

Constructivism[edit]

• Students actively engaged in knowledge construction

• Responsive to learners’ needs and interests

• Learning is expected to be different for everyone

• Errors are seen as necessary for encouraging learning.

• Social negotiation takes place through peer-editing, spillover, conferences, etc.

• Students reflect on their writing.

Challenges[edit]

Large class sizes[edit]

Since the teacher responds individually to student writing, process writing could be time consuming with large classes. Also, teachers may not have sufficient time to schedule individual writing conferences in large classes. Peer-editing and clocking are options, but beginning ELLs benefit from one-on-one conferences with a native speaker teacher.

Large amounts of writing to grade[edit]

Learning to write effectively in English takes practice and time, but that means lots of grading for the teacher. Or does it? Not every piece of writing must be graded. Like learning a musical instrument, students need practice writing. Just as not every song practiced is played at a performance, in writing, not every piece of writing needs to be graded. On some writing assignments, students can get feedback from their peers and on others from the teacher. A feedback cycle can be set up for journal writing. For example, on Monday the teacher responds to journals, on Wednesday a peer responds, and on Friday a native speaker buddy responds. Self reflection is another form of assessment that does not involve too much more work for the instructor. External feedback from experts is also possible with collaborative technologies.

Rubrics can also cut down on grading time, by helping the teacher to focus on certain areas of student writing, rather than fixating on every grammatical mistake.

Implementing Process Writing in an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) Setting[edit]

From my own experience, I have found that neither a pure traditional nor a pure process writing approach is ideal in an intensive English language setting for university bound students. In an EAP setting, attention to form is paramount; however, focusing primarily on form by using the cookie-cutter traditional approach is patronizing to adult learners who have ideas of their own and need to learn to express them effectively in English. Process writing, on the other hand, allows learners to focus on ideas, form, and rhetoric, but has its own drawbacks.


Time is clearly an issue. In an eight-week intensive English language program, there is simply not enough time for students to do pre-writing, write five or more drafts, and have six 5-10 minute writing conferences, numerous mini grammar lessons, revise the paper, proofread it, write a final copy, and then share their composition. To expect a teacher to include all of these activities each time may create more frustration and stress than it is worth. Moreover, it has been argued that process writing is not realistic considering that students will not get multiple chances to write and revise their work at the university (Atkinson, 2003). It is crucial for instructors to be aware of learners’ strengths and weaknesses in order to decide which parts of the writing process will be most beneficial at which points in a writing course.


Peer editing poses other issues in an EAP setting. For one, English Language Learners, who have not yet dominated the English language, have been found to be inefficient editors. Less proficient students, moreover, may feel unsure about editing the work of a more proficient classmate. I tried to remedy this problem in my classroom by focusing peer editing on ideas, organization, and rhetoric rather than on grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Even in that situation, I found that some students did not feel comfortable giving constructive criticism to a classmate.


It is clear to me that the instructor must model how to peer-edit and emphasize that students are to help rather than put down their partner’s writing. A good idea is to teach peer-editing in three steps: (1) First, read the piece of writing and compliment the author; (2) Next, read it again and give some suggestions; (3) Finally, read the writing a third time and make corrections in spelling, grammar and punctuation (Dennis-Shaw, 2002-2009). (See Peer Edit with Perfection handout [2] ). Although the third step may be problematic for non-native English speakers, they are likely to learn more about grammar, spelling, and punctuation by testing out their own hypothesis.


If students are to write meaningfully, it seems only natural that they would be able to choose their own topics. However, allowing students to choose their own topics in an EAP setting is problematic for several reasons. For one, students are likely to choose personal topics, whereas they need to write with an academic audience in mind. With beginning ELLs, it may be helpful to begin with a personal writing topic, such as introducing oneself or a classmate; however, in an EAP setting, it is wise to leave personal topics primarily for journal writing and reflective writing assignments.


Moreover, most EAP settings have a curriculum that dictates the teaching of certain genres. In the academic level writing class I teach, students use process writing to write compositions on topics they choose according to the genre we happen to be focusing on. They are more motivated since they choose their topic, yet their choice is limited by the particular genre of focus.


A major concern with process writing in an EAP setting is the background role of the teacher. In my own experience, I have certainly played more than just a background role in my students’ writing. Students are keen to listen to my comments and make the changes I suggest since I am the person who will ultimately grade their final work (Atkinson, 2003). As more of an expert on academic writing, I think it is appropriate for the instructor to signal weak areas in student writing in order to help students write more effectively. Let me close with a cautionary statement from Raimes on the teacher’s role in writing instruction (1987, as quoted in Atkinson, 2003):


When teachers read writing assigned for reinforcement, training, and imitation, they correct errors (Zamel, 1985); when they read writing assigned for communication and fluency, they react and respond to the content. When writing for learning is the dominant purpose, however, teachers find that they combine the two . . . (p. 41)

Conclusion[edit]

Process writing offers an accepting and encouraging learning environment for English language learners who either failed or were unmotivated to write under a more traditional writing approach. Of course, it can help all learners, no matter their individual writing skill or competency level.

As with any theory or approach, process writing, has its limitations, but is adaptable to most L2 settings. Fortunately, the usefulness of process writing far outweighs the disadvantages.

References[edit]

Atkinson, D. (2003). L2 Writing in the Post Process Era: Introduction. Journal of Second Language Writing. 12 (1), 3-15. Retrieved from: http://english.drjhsteele.net/3425_Readings/post-process-age.pdf

Bruton, A. (2005). Process writing and communicative-task-based instruction: Many common features, but more common limitations?, TESL-EJ 9/3 ( 2005)

Carroll, J. & Wilson, E. (1993). Acts of Teaching: How to Teach Writing: A Text, a Reader, A Narrative. Teacher Ideas Press: Englewood, Colorado.

Dennis-Shaw, S. (2002-2009). Peer edit with perfection: Teaching effective peer editing strategies. International Reading Associaiton/National Council of Teachers of English. Retrieved from: http://www.readwritethink.org/lessons/lesson_view_printer_friendly.asp?id=786

Driscoll, M. (2005). Psychology of Learning for Instruction, 3rd Edition. New York: Allyn & Bacon.

Freeman, D. & Freeman, Y. (2004). Essential linguistics: What you need to know to teach reading, ESL, spelling, phonics, grammar: Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH.

Heald-Taylor, Gail. Whole Language Strategies for ESL Students. Carlsbad: Dominie Press, Inc., 1994.

Intro to Thiagi. [Video]. Retrieved November 21, 2009 from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=TW&hl=zh-TW&v=YSAvbbs8IW4

Jarvis, D. (2002). The process writing method. TESL-EJ, 8 (3), July 2002. Retrieved from: http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Jarvis-Writing.html

Silva, T. (1990). Second language composition instruction: Development, issues, and directions in ESL. In B. Droll (ED.), Second language writing (pp. 11-23). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weaver, C. (1996). Teaching Grammar in Context. Heinemann: Portsmouth, NH.