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Fresh ways to help our teens write better

Are you struggling with teaching writing skills to your students? With short forms regularly used for texts and emails, automatic completion for words and even entire phrases, and the growing popularity of easy-to-use AI programs, it can be difficult to encourage teens to sit down and put pen to paper. Add to this seemingly arbitrary writing activities, it is no wonder that students groan when it's time to focus on writing. You might also be tempted to skip over writing activities, especially if your class is large. After all, who has time to correct dozens of 2-page documents? With the right tools and a fresh approach, both you and your students will be motivated to improve their writing. 

a) Provide models: It is hard for a teenager to write a good report or a job application if they have not seen several examples of those. We need to help them develop genre awareness. They can do this by reviewing a number of examples of specific kinds of writing. Then, give them the chance to consider what those examples have in common in terms of structure, register and any repeating phrases. It is also a big ask for students to go from looking at a model to writing their own piece in a new genre in just one lesson. Our learners will benefit from looking at several models over a few lessons before they are asked to write themselves. 

Even for genres that we think students will be familiar with, such as film reviews or digital magazine articles, they may not have looked at these with an eye on structure and regularly used phrases. Doing so will serve as a refresher. 

b) Draw them into the writing process with personalisation: If teens are writing about something connected to their lives, they will automatically be more interested. Rather than asking them to review a book or a film, which are common review topics, you might ask them to choose a school rule, one of their school textbooks, or a local sweet shop, park or shopping mall. Before starting, you may want to prime them in terms of criteria by having a class chat about what makes a good or bad school rule, textbook and so on. 

If your learners are writing a story, they could set it in in your actual school with imaginary characters. Alternatively, they could use real characters (as long as they promise to be respectful) and create an imaginary story.  

If you request a personal narrative piece, students could write about "The best and worst thing about last week." If you give them a week's notice and make it "The best and worst thing about this week" they can think about what they are going to include as they are living it. 

c) Make sure their work is theirs: You may be worried that your learners are using AI programs to generate their work automatically, and that in doing so, are missing out on thinking about language carefully. This is only really a problem if they do their writing at home, which is the default paradigm in which we often work. There is no reason they cannot do their writing in class. In fact, this has various advantages. Firstly, it means everyone will get some writing done. Secondly, it means that we are there to provide support. Thirdly, while our teens are writing, we can work our way through the class, systematically asking individuals to show us what they have written so far, providing encouragement and correction in the moment. All of this will help keep them on task and reduce the temptation to get a little bit too much help from the internet.  

d) Respond accordingly: Rather than giving just a numerical grade or corrections, provide the sort of response a writer might expect in real life. If students have written a letter to the teacher, a short letter back is a lovely thing for them to receive, although this does take up time, especially for teachers of larger classes. Something similar but more feasible is to respond to one or two of their points in your comments at the bottom of the page. An example might be:  

"Wow, Eduardo, I never knew you played so many instruments. Which do you spend more time practising, the bass, drums or bagpipes? You can tell me in class." 

The important point to remember is that we are responding to content on a human level. We can do the same for any biographical pieces in which they have written about themselves.  

 If our learners have written a piece that is supposed to be a competition entry, we could turn the exercise into an actual competition and have their anonymous pieces read by another teacher (or even class) who then decides on the winners. 

e) Provide enriching feedback: It goes without saying that we need to correct our learners' work and draw their attention to language errors. We can also use this as an opportunity to provide enriching input that takes their language a little further. Imagine a learner writes: 

*The dog was making a noisy. 

 We can correct that to: The dog was making a noise. 

 However, we can also go a little further and ask for specific details: What type of noise was it making? Was it barking, growling, howling, or whining? 

f) Experiment with audio feedback: Providing the sort of enriching feedback mentioned above requires space. We can use track changes and comments when correcting digitally, but when correcting paper-based hard copies, there is not always enough room on the page. One way around this is to record comments as a short audio. This way, you are not restricted by space. Your learners can replay the recording if they need to, so you can speak at a natural speed as well. You can even read the entire text out loud, pausing to address errors as you come across them. Make sure you have permission from your school and parents before sending feedback this way.  

g) Call for some sort of follow-up: Finally, it is important that our learners do something with the corrections and comments we provide. If they do not, they will not process them and no progress will be made. If we can convince them that rewrites are not a punishment but an opportunity to improve, then we are on the right track. Putting our money where our mouth is and increasing their original grade if the rewrite is better, or even awarding a second grade for the rewrite, will act as a strong motivator for them to do this. 

Writing does not have to be a dreaded activity for students or teachers. With these techniques, you will be able to plan and teach engaging, enriching lessons that will give them opportunities to practice and significantly improve their writing skills. 




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