Are you interested in writing a critique and would like to see how it is done? This article is for you. I write about the work of an English teacher, Melina Porto, on how to teach students to write. How did Melina approach students’ difficulty in writing good papers? I explain below how she made innovations in her pedagogical approach and presented my own perspective about what she did.
Writing the Paper
The author of this article is Melina Porto. She is an English teacher from the National University of La Plata, Argentina. She believes that timed writing itself contradicts recent research on writing pedagogy, and is therefore inappropriate.
This pedagogic proposal is based on cooperative writing response groups and self-evaluation. However, the university has already established testing procedures and she can only take limited instructional decisions.
The university requires students to devote two hours in writing approximately 350 words on a teacher-selected topic. The teacher then gives feedback in the form of error correction. In this process, grammar is given more emphasis than content. This means that a student would receive a failing mark if his sentences are grammatically wrong.
This situation contradicts Melina’s belief that writing is an interactive activity wherein learners need to know who they have to interact with and why (Widdowson, 1984). In addition, writing is a provoked activity; it is located in on-going social life.
Raimes (1985) intensifies this argument by giving a real audience for the students —their own teacher. In doing this, students become more social and communicative in their written works because they know whom they are writing to.
Another problem in teaching writing is the time pressure involved. Students are deprived of the concept of writing as recursive, interactive, communicative, and social activity (Silva, et al., 1994) due to the length of time allotted in finishing a composition. They do not have enough time to give suggestions or comments about their classmates’ paper nor to revise the final copy of their work.
Finally, little or no teacher feedback only leads to limited improvement in student’s writing because of unawareness of the linguistic problems and thus, they cannot generate alternatives and assess them.
The problems mentioned above encouraged Porto to conduct a research guided by the following criteria for good writing pedagogy:
- to respond to student writing as work in progress (Zamel, 1985),
- to encourage revision for meaning, and
- to offer specific guidelines and directions on how to proceed (Raimes, 1991; Zamel, 1985).
With these in mind, she used the cooperative writing response groups (Bryan, 1996) in which three or four students as a group take turns in reading out their written pieces to members who then give feedback to the writer based on instruction given. This was implemented by selecting a topic that was developed at home through teacher-student negotiation. The point of discussion was merely on the content.
As a result, the students were able to ask questions, give clarification and opinion, make suggestions for improvement, give examples and pinpoint ambiguities before grammar related aspects were considered. Likewise, the writer was able to evaluate himself based from his teacher’s and classmates’ suggestions and feedback. In this process, the learners need to write the first draft, two revisions and the final copy.
The steps involved in cooperative writing response groups and self-evaluation are complicated and time consuming; but at the end, this is rewarding. Students’ performance can be easily monitored by including their cooperative writing response groups and self-evaluation in their portfolios; however, it entails more time for a teacher and the students as well, to read and give feedback for the initial draft, the two revisions (one on content, one in grammar) and the final copy.
On the other hand, students achieved better when 80 percent of the learners passed the required writing task in 1997 compared to the 70 percent passing rate before the innovation was introduced.
Further, empirical support was clearly lacking. Thus, further research should be made whether the approach actually succeeded in helping the students meet the writing requirement set by their institution. Cooperative writing response groups synthesizes product and process; thus, capturing the complexity of writing.
I strongly agree with Porto’s idea of implementing the cooperative writing response groups and self-evaluation because it is student-centered and content-based rather than grammar. As a teacher, I also experienced before the dilemma of giving grades. I tended to give higher grades to students whose papers were grammatically correct; and in effect, students got a lower score if their papers had grammatically incorrect sentences, no matter how comprehensive and substantial they were.
I also agree that students should address a particular audience in writing and have a definite purpose. In doing this, they will know what kind of words they will use and how they will organize and present their ideas. The use of a more familiar audience or a particular person whom they know more – like their teacher or a classmate can motivate them to express their ideas well. They might feel that it is a cool and non-threatening activity.
Likewise, the concept of writing as recursive, interactive, communicative, and social activity entails a lot of time. Therefore, students must be given ample time to write and to interact with their classmates for suggestion and feedback. The giving of feedback by their classmates and most especially, by their teachers can help them improve their work and correct their mistakes. This also helps them become critical thinkers, writers and readers.
However, the implementation of this concept is impossible if the school administrators still insist on carrying out their traditional belief or policy concerning writing. A total re-engineering of the curriculum is necessary in order to avoid mismatch of the theories and principles (worthwhile activities that should be done in a classroom to make students communicatively competent) and of our practice in the educational system.
© 2014 October 9 M. G. Alvior