Teaching Writing in the EFL Classroom: Freestyle or Copying?

November 13, 2013

This post is a guest blog written by Scott Zimmermann, D.A.

When we consider writing in the EFL classroom, we typically think of the instructor assigning a topic and specifying the length of the paragraph or essay. This kind of activity is not usually welcomed by students who realize that writing is the most difficult of the four skills, but practicing writing in class is part of a well-rounded EFL lesson.

Instructors should consider at least two factors in determining what kind of writing is done in class:

1) What are the students’ needs? What kind of writing do they typically do in their academic or professional lives?

2) What is the type of test used in student evaluations in the class itself?

Because free writing is best suited for advanced students and is often frustrating for the learner, EFL teachers might be tempted to ignore the teaching of writing altogether. But it is a good idea to consider the alternatives before doing away with most or all writing activities.

Alternatives to free writing include copying, doing exercises, and controlled writing. In these activities, accuracy is much more important than fluency. Copying is beneficial for the EFL student and there are many opportunities for copying in an EFL classroom. Beginners, especially those whose first language is very different from English, benefit from copying the alphabet. Copying can precede listening comprehension tasks.It is good practice to have students copy listening comprehension questions before listening tasks and have one or more students read them aloud. Then do the listening task.

Another kind of copying is having students unscramble sentences from the whiteboard. Copying entire dialogs is often useful, too. Contractions, third-person verb forms, and other grammar structures can be reinforced with these kind of activities. Students can also learn vocabulary by circling unfamiliar words from reading passages and copying them onto flash cards. After writing the definitions on the reverse side, students can use their self-made cards to review vocabulary.

Delayed transcription is another activity that involves copying. The teacher posts text on the walls and the students’ task is to walk to the board, remember chunks of the language, and walk back to their desks and copy the text.

A variation of Kim’s Game is still another copying exercise which allows writing practice. In this activity, the instructor puts ten or twelve key words on the board and gives the class a minute or two to remember them. After the teacher erases the words, the students write them down from memory.

Doing written exercises is the second step on the writing continuum. These are the highly-controlled tasks typically found in workbooks that accompany EFL texts or in grammar texts. Controlled writing is the most-challenging task among these approaches. The textbook is the best source of material for controlled writing which involves changing and manipulating sentences.

Controlled writing can be done individually or in pairs, and gives students practice with grammar, spelling, vocabulary, punctuation, conjunctions, and spelling. For the teacher, it is much easier to check students’ writing.

Controlled writing is also an effective way for students to practice third-person grammar forms:

1) Ahmad and Fatima live in Riyadh.

2) Ahmad lives in Riyadh. They speak French. She speaks French.

3) I go shopping on weekends. He goes shopping on weekends.

The teacher writes the provides the first sentence, and the class changes the language and writes the second sentence. The focus in this activity is on grammar, but the students practice many other aspects of the language, too.

In conclusion, copying, doing exercises, and controlled writing are practical alternatives to free writing.

Biography of the guest writer:

Scott was born and raised in Illinois. He has a doctorate in history, but has been active in TEFL for nearly two decades.  As an EFL teacher, Scott has worked in Asia, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and the United States. In his spare time, Scott enjoys reading, dining out, and exercising.