Great teaching and class ideas don’t happen in isolation; they come through learning from and sharing with other professionals in our field. I recently went to the regional CATESOL conference in Petaluma, CA where I attended a number of wonderful presentations by other dedicated and innovative teachers. My mind is now full of all kinds of ideas that I’m sure will bring positive changes to my class next semester. This and several following articles will highlight some key ideas I got at the conference.
I attended an excellent presentation by Maryna Filistovich and Elvira Harris called “Writing Partners: An Authentic and Rigorous Writing Activity in an Adult School Setting.” With their permission, I am summarizing their classroom activity.
Filistovich and Harris’s writing partners routine comes in response to the key question “How do we get our students to write extensively in a meaningful way.” In their presentation, they explained that this routine creates “a meaningful context as a platform for writing,” helps to transition “existing heritage to a new language context” and is a “student centered project that builds on students’ cultural background and life experiences.” They noted that many students view writing as more of an assignment they must complete but fail to see the value of it as a tool for communication. The writing partners assignment can help to put writing into a context where students are engaged and can use it to communicate authentically with another person other than the teacher.
The end goal of their activity is to get each of their students to write a letter to someone in another class and then respond to another student’s letter. Filistovich and Harris gave the following reasons why this is a great activity.
- It is a practical tool for increasing writing in class
- It provides a meaningful task with an authentic purpose and audience
- It encourages student voice and learner agency in the classroom
- It is a fun way to communicate
- It is a natural way to implement grammar forms
- It provides discourse level practice, not sentence level
Finding meaningful and authentic ways for students to practice and use language isn’t always easy; I agree with Filistovich and Harris that this is a great way to create a classroom activity that will engage students and help them see the value of writing as a form of communication. In their presentation, they outlined six steps to implementing this activity, which I have summarized below.
Step 1: Introduce the Activity
Before getting into the assignment, let students know what they will be doing and why you’re having them do it. This will help give them a context and frame of reference for the assignment and build their schema. As I thought about adding this activity to my own class next semester, I came up with a few ways that I might introduce it to my class.
Discussion Questions: Start by having students talk in pairs about the following questions. Then have them share with the whole class.
- Did you write letters to a penpal when you were a kid? What did you write about?
- When was the last time you wrote a letter? Who did you send it to? Why?
- Do you like receiving letters? Why / why not?
- Do you like writing letters? Why/ why not?
- Is receiving a handwritten letter the same as receiving an email?
Brainstorming: Have students work in small groups to brainstorm all of the possible reasons that someone might write a letter to another person. Next, have them share their top reasons with the class.
Step 2: Introduce the Genre of Letter Writing
Modeling is a very important step. Not all of our students will have the schema for letter writing, especially in English. Filistovich and Harris recommended showing students a sample letter. For example, they showed their students a letter that one of them had written to the other. They went over this example in class with their students to help familiarize them with the genre. They recommended pointing out content organization, greeting and signature, margins, indentation, and double spacing. This will help students feel comfortable with the assignment and will reduce the number of drafts written as more of a formal assignment with a heading, title, and topic sentence, something that the presenters said tended to happen at first.
Step 3: Write Draft #1
The next step is to write a draft. I don’t recall if Filistovich and Harris mentioned that this was done in class or as homework, but really, it could be either way depending on your class and what works best for your students. They did share, however, that they use graphic organizers to help students brainstorm for the topics that they will be writing about. For example, prior to having students write a letter about their favorite place to shop, students worked on a graphic organizer where they write information about “good, better, and the best” stores in their area. This helped students get ideas to write about as well as practice the target grammar. Students are also instructed to ask at least 4 questions in their letters. This helps to highlight the conversational element of letter writing.
Once students brainstorm ideas, they are asked to write a draft of the letter. Filistovich and Harris gave a very specific prompt that related to the topic and structures they were working on in their class. Being asked to simply “write a letter” may be daunting to many students, especially at the lower levels, but being asked to write a letter about specific things helps to guide students in the process and also makes it relevant to what they’re learning. The following is a prompt that the presenters shared as an example. It came during a unit on shopping where students had studied comparatives and superlatives.
Write a letter to a student in the 8:00 am class in Room 6. Tell the student about your favorite store in the area and explain why.
You must use comparative / superlative adjectives in your paragraph. (good, better, best, cheap, cheapest, less expensive)
- Where is your favorite place to shop for clothing? Explain why you like it.
- What is the cheapest store? What is the most expensive store?
- Where is the worst place to shop?
Step 4: Peer Review
The next step is to have the class engage in some form of peer review with the letter drafts. Filistovich and Harris passed out a basic peer review form that asked students to identify the main idea, a strength, and an area for improvement. To get some other ideas for peer review, check out guest author Daniel Glenn’s article about two ways to structure peer review.
Step 5: Optional Second Draft
Depending on your students and their needs, you could do a second draft where the instructor reads the letters and provides feedback on them.
Step 6: Send the Letters
For Filistovich and Harris, this step didn’t actually include sending the letters through the mail. They were exchanging the letters between their two classes, so they just traded the envelopes. They distributed the letters randomly in their classes and then asked each student to respond to the other student’s letter. The responses are then given back to the original writer.
To help make this process flow smoothly, have each student put the letter in an envelope with his/her name on it. When the next student writes a response, s/he can put the response in the original envelope, making it easy to know who to return the letter to.
One question that came to my mind was what do you do when the class sizes are different as they’re likely to be. Filistovich and Harris said that they will copy some letters from the smaller class and then also ask if there are people in the smaller class who would like to read and respond to two letters. They also said that this activity can be adapted to fit many situations. For example, you could split your own class in half and have each half write letters to the other half.
I also had some of my own ideas as I was ruminating on this. Perhaps you could send a call out to all faculty and staff on your campus and see if anyone would be interested in exchanging a letter with a student in your class. You could then compile a list of all interested people and their department and discipline. Perhaps this could come at the end after the students had already written one or two letters to another student. This would work well for a unit on careers. Students could choose someone from the list who was in a field they were interested in and then write a letter asking about that person’s job.
This one would take some groundwork, but to practice asking for and giving advice, you could potentially go to a senior home to see if anyone was interested in exchanging letters with a student. Then, your class could write letters asking for either specific or general life advice. Your students would get great practice, and I imagine the seniors would also enjoy the opportunity to correspond with a student.
The previous two examples go to show just how versatile this assignment is. It can be adapted in many ways to fit what you’re doing in your course. Regardless of how it’s adapted, the end result is the same. Students get authentic writing practice where their writing is read by an audience beyond the usual teacher/student exchange.
If you ever go to a CATESOL conference, check to see if Filistovich and Harris are presenting as I’m sure you’re bound to get great ideas.