The writing skill most foreign language teachers don’t teach: interactional writing

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1.What is writership?

Chatting online or texting via SMS, WATSAPP, etc. has become part and parcel of our daily life, the verb and noun ‘chat’ alluding to the fact that although we are writing we are in fact ‘talking’ to someone. Just like in a face-to-face conversation when chatting online we have to respond to our interlocutor in real time if we want to ‘stay’ in the conversation and, most importantly, if we want to keep him or her engaged.

Since in real-life face-to-face communication applied linguists refer to interactional listening as ‘Listenership’ I will henceforth call the set of skills involved in interactional writing: ‘Writership’.

Listenership and Writership have many similarities in terms of the cognitive processes they involve. There are, however, important differences, too. Besides the most obvious difference , i.e. the fact that  communication does not happen through the oral medium, there is another important one: when texting or chatting we do not usually see our interlocutor. This means that the all-important non-verbal aspects of communication (e.g. the cues we get from our interlocutor’s body language) are missing – which often leads online chatters to use imagery as a compensatory strategy. This entails that effective writership must not simply include fluency (as in: speed of production) but also a level of mastery of TL vocabulary and discourse functions which makes up for the lack of non-verbal cues and pre-empts ambiguity.

2. Should we be concerning ourselves with interactional writing?

Whilst skyping with Steve Smith of www.frenchteacher.net last night we were talking about the time teachers should allocate to writing. Steve made a very important observation that echoed what I have always thought: writing is less important than listening, speaking and reading as students are not very likely to use the target language after passing their GCSEs; hence, not much time at all was the answer– writing can be done by students at home. But then it suddenly dawned on me that that was true of Steve’s generation and mine, but not of the current one.

In the highly inter-connected world where global communication happens at the speed of a few milliseconds on Facebook, Twitter, Watsapp and SMSs many of our students are very likely to engage in interactional TL (target language) writing in the future – in fact many already do on a daily basis. Another example of how emerging technologies affect not only the way we communicate in real life but also, inevitably, the way we teach foreign languages.

3. But how do we teach interactional writing?

First of all let us consider what it involves.

First and foremost, obviously, the ability to understand an interlocutor’s input.

Secondly, the ability to respond to that input in real time, maybe not necessarily at the same speed as one would do in oral interaction but still quite rapidly. In other words, effective writership requires writing fluency.

Thirdly, effective writership requires a high level of intelligibility of output – not necessarily grammatical accuracy and complexity. Spelling becomes more important than it is in essay writing in that the speed of the interactional exchange does not allow the interlocutor a lot of time for working out ambiguous items.

Fourthly, the command of a sizeable repertoire of high frequency lexical items, a fairly wide range of discourse functions, the basic tenses and communication strategies (e.g. ways to compensate for lack of vocabulary).

Fifthly, in dealing with a TL native speaker an effective interactional writer must be able to grasp cultural features in their input, including the jargon and abbreviations used in TL instant-messaging communication (e.g. knowing that in French LOL is MDR).

The obvious corollary of the above is that most of the traditional communicative activities we use to foster autonomous communicative competence (through both the oral and written medium) and listenership apply to the teaching of writership too (e.g. information gap tasks and role-plays). In fact the oral communicative practice that takes place in your classroom will have a major impact on learner writership.

These are some of the activities I use in the classroom to promote writership:

  1. As a starter or plenary I stand in front of the class and type questions in the TL on the classroom screen. The students, equipped with mini-boards or iPads, have two minutes to write an answer including three details. In order to differentiate I usually ask two questions, the second being an extension for the more fluent students. Accuracy is not a concern, but intelligibility is.
  2. Picture tasks. This is similar to the previous task, except that the stimulus the students have to respond to is visual. The rationale for this task is that (a) in social media students often do have to respond to a visual stimulus; (b) it taps into their creativity; (c) it may elicit language that transcends the boundaries of the topic-at-hand.
  3. ‘What is the question?’ tasks. Students are provided with a very short dialogue in the TL where the questions have been omitted. Their task is to provide the missing questions
  4. Social media slow chat. Using Edmodo I ask my students to chat with each other about a given topic. I give out red cards to the chat-initiators and blue cards to the responders. The initiators are in charge of asking questions to any of the responders in the class. Every ten minutes the initiators and responders will switch cards. The students are given a time limit to answer, which varies from group to group – this is hard to monitor, of course, but my students are usually honest. The reason why I use Edmodo rather than Twitter is that (a) Edmodo allows the teacher to edit mistakes (please note: I only correct major intelligibility mistakes); (b) it looks a lot like Facebook but it is safer; (c) the teacher has total control over everything that happens in the interaction. Last year I paired up my class with a class from an overseas school and we chatted on Edmodo for thirty minutes. Great experience that intend to do again this year. This activity is great as a prelude to oral activities as it allows the students more time to make the same communicative choices they will have to make in the oral interaction whilst still putting communicative pressure on them
  1. Very short translations under time constraints; students need to translate the teacher’s input on mini-boards. Again, focus is on intelligibility and fluency here rather than on100 % accuracy.
  2. Agree or disagree. A simple statement appears on the screen (e.g. Tennis is very enjoyable; I like it when it rains; the food in the canteen is great) and the students have to write a response on their mini boards under time constraints.
  3. Fluency assessment. At key stages in the unfolding of a unit of work I use the activity described in point 1, above, but ask students a much broader question and give them a lot more time to answer it on paper or on using google classroom. At the end of the allocated time I ask the students to stop and note down how many words they wrote. The time to word ratio will give me an indication of the levels of writing fluency in my class at that moment in time. I value this activity as fluency is an important pre-requisite of effective writership.

Conclusion

Emergency technologies, especially the internet and social media have transformed the way we live and we use language in communication. On a daily basis I find myself chatting on social media in four different languages and I find the linguistic challenges this poses quite taxing as it requires faster language processing ability and sociolinguistic competences that I do not always possess.

Whether we like it or not, the vast majority of our students communicate via social media or other forms of instant messaging. Hence, if we are to prepare them for communication in the real world this phenomenon cannot be ignored. Teaching interactional writing skills is therefore a must, in my opinion.

Teaching this set of skills has also the added benefit of preparing our students for oral communication as it requires them to process language in real operating conditions whilst allowing more time than the oral medium does. In this sense, the attainment of effective writership may be seen not just as an end in itself but also as instrumental to the attainment of oral fluency intended as the ability to retrieve information from Long-term Memory under communicative pressure. Do you currently work on developing TL writing fluency in your learners?

11 thoughts on “The writing skill most foreign language teachers don’t teach: interactional writing

  1. Hey Gianfranco,

    A friend forwarded me a link to your article. I did my MA dissertation on the role of text chat in second language acquisition, specifically learner noticing of feedback.

    Recently I repackaged my research as a hands-on teacher’s guide and added some (29) lesson plan ideas. Some are similar to the ones you came up and some are a little different. If you’re interested, it is free to download tomorrow (Tuesday 17th November) from Amazon at

    http://www.amazon.com/Text-Chat-Activities-Resource-Language-ebook/dp/B016PMLEM4/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1445047703&sr=8-1&keywords=text+chat+activities

    If you don’t read this post in time and are still interested, I can send you a free copy.

    Kind regards
    Mark

  2. […] The only kind of writing tasks I stage in class involve interactive and interpersonal writing. By interactional writing I mean that students are required to respond to a stimulus (e.g. a picture or sound) which elicit written output involving the target structure (e.g. picture of a house; arrow on the sofa in the living room; students to write under time conditions as many phrases as they can describing where the bed is located in relation to other furniture in the room using prepositions/adverbials). By interpersonal writing activities I mean tasks in which the students use the target structure whilst write to each other in real time using onine platforms as described here. […]

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