A Process Approach to Writing by Adam Simpson

1. Introduction

When I first started teaching writing in the English Language classroom, two issues immediately sprang to my attention; i) the students were extremely demotivated whenever asked to write in English; ii) the end product was fairly disappointing and didn't seem to correlate with my students' abilities as displayed in other aspects of their language ability, such as speaking for example. As my teaching developed over several years, so did my understanding as to why the students displayed such aversion to writing and why the end product of the writing they did do left something to be desired.

Numerous authors note that there has been a dramatic evolution in the way that writing is being approached in the English Language classroom, with the aim of making writing a more personal and satisfying experience for the learner. This has evolved alongside the development of different approaches to teaching in general, and a greater impetus has been placed on the role of writing in the Language classroom. Writing, however, remains one of the most difficult areas for the teacher and learner of English. This is evident in the way that it has been neglected and/or treated poorly in the past. Indeed, many high level English learners cannot write. As Baskoff (1990) notes, many writing weaknesses in advanced learners can be traced back to lack of systematic practice during the earlier stages of learning .

In this paper I will discuss how the concept of process writing has raised the profile of writing, how it differs from the traditional 'product' approach, and how the application of a process approach to writing, even at low levels, can eliminate most of the problems normally associated with this skill.

2. An Analysis of Writing

In the past, writing was something that teachers expected learners to do in class without giving any prior thought to the meaning of the finished product . As a consequence, learners' attitudes towards writing were less than positive. This was compounded by the fact that this skill was often relegated to the status of 'homework' due to pressures of time and syllabus requirements , thus nullifying the possibility of teacher guidance. Furthermore, writing was viewed primarily as a tool for the practice and reinforcement of specific grammatical and lexical patterns; accuracy being all important whereas content and self expression given little if any priority. Basically students were 'writing to learn' and not 'learning to write' .

However, this is a trend that has changed greatly in recent years. Meriwether (1997) notes that there is now widespread recognition that writing is a process which involves several identifiable steps . The basic steps are as follows;

  • Prewriting (selecting a topic and planning what to say)
  • Writing (putting a draught version on paper)
  • Revising (making changes to improve the writing)
  • Evaluation (assessment of the written work)

2.1 Process Versus Product

Nunan (1999) clearly states how very different this 'process' approach is from the traditional product-oriented approach . Whereas the product approach focuses on writing tasks in which the learner imitates, copies and transforms teacher supplied models, the process approach focuses on the steps involved in creating a piece of work . The primary goal of product writing is an error-free coherent text. Process writing allows for the fact that no text can be perfect, but that a writer will get closer to perfection by producing, reflecting on, discussing and reworking successive drafts of a text .

Jordan (1997) acknowledges that process writing evolved as a reaction to the product approach, in that it met the need to match the writing processes inherent in writing in one's mother tongue , and consequently allow learners to express themselves better as individuals. This is not to say, however, that the product approach no longer exists, nor that it has no practical applications. Indeed, the process approach can still contain elements of product-based writing. Nunan (1999) reaffirms this by stating that there is no reason why a writing program should not contain elements of both approaches . With this in mind, each of the aforementioned stages will now be considered.

2.2 Prewriting

In process writing, the first thing that a writer needs to do is to find something to write about. In language classrooms this issue is often solved by the teacher, who provides the subject matter. When a subject is chosen, the audience, purpose and tone of the writing need to be considered . The next stage is to employ strategies that will help the learner to explore the topic. Strategies such as brainstorming, clustering and freewriting enable the writer to expand a narrow topic or narrow a broad one, as well as enabling a learner to focus on the specifics that need to be covered This is consistent with 'top-down processing' . This differs from product writing, in which the audience is rarely considered, and readings provide the model for students to emulate. Furthermore, there is already a focus on structural accuracy at this stage.

2.3 Writing Production

Process writing production is merely a 'prototype' stage, which will involve aspects such as free-writing and peer feedback. At this stage the emphasis is on content and organisation. In contrast, the product approach employs genre based writing tasks based on previously modeled structures, and the focus is again on accuracy.

2.4 Revising

Revision is not something that clearly exists in product writing, as the assumption is that the provided model has been followed. Process writing, in contrast, requires that a degree of analysis be undertaken. Revision would usually be based on the feedback given by peers.

2.5 Teacher Evaluation

Williams (2003) states that written feedback is an essential part of any language course that involves a writing element . Feedback falls into two categories: feedback on form and feedback on content. Content feedback relates to product writing, and generally consists of the indication of grammatical errors. Feedback on form, however, focuses on the communicative effectiveness of the piece.

2.6 A further Note

It should be noted that, while the product approach follows a linear pattern, the process approach is, in direct contrast, cyclical. While some degree of structured product-oriented writing may be appropriate for lower level learners , Baskoff's opinion, cited in the introduction, indicates that a cyclical process approach initiated in the early stages of learning will be beneficial to the long-term writing skills of the learner.

As many authors have noted, the process approach is a relatively new phenomenon in the English Language classroom. Indeed, it was something that I was unaware of when I started teaching. This lack of awareness, particularly in terms of the cyclical nature of the process, has obvious repercussions in classroom application, and these will be discussed in the next section.

3. Implications for Teaching

Some of the difficulties that are associated with writing in language classes stem from the nature of writing itself. According to Hadfield and Hadfield (1990), Writing can be considered to be an 'artificial' activity when compared to speaking, in that everyone learns to speak and to listen, whereas far fewer people develop literacy, i.e. are able to read and write . Consequently, writing should be something that is nurtured and developed in the language classroom, resulting in the difficulties experienced by learners being comprehended and dealt with. I have tried to achieve this by understanding the problems that learners experience and employing techniques to overcome them.

3.1 Problems for the Learner

Hadfield and Hadfield (1990) note three areas of difficulty for the learner in relation to the productive skills of writing and speaking, namely psychological, linguistic and cognitive difficulties. Each of these will be considered in turn .

3.1.1 Psychological Difficulties

Firstly, the writer cannot consult the reader; the audience is not immediately present as is the case with speaking. The psychological difficulty therefore lies in deciding what information the reader needs and the best way to express this. This difficulty manifests itself in the prewriting stage, when some learners may be unwilling or unable to produce ideas that will work towards the construction of a piece of writing. In order to overcome these difficulties, the teacher must employ certain strategies to elicit the necessary input.

3.1.2 Linguistic Difficulties

Secondly, learners suffer from linguistic difficulty, in that the language used when speaking is not the same as that used in speech. In some cases it is simpler (e.g. shopping lists), in others it is more elaborate and formal (e.g. academic essays). Native speakers not only know an elaborate network of conventions but also know how and when to legitimately 'break the rules'. This problem is evident in learners who are unaware of the discourse patterns inherent in certain types of writing .

3.1.3 Cognitive Difficulties

Finally, there is cognitive difficulty. This relates to the necessity of learners to organise their thoughts on paper. This may be difficult in such circumstances as an essay given as homework, for which the purpose is not immediately apparent, and the piece of writing is not being done for any personal reasons.

4. Problems Related to the Process

Dickson (2001) identifies several of the problems that writers suffer during writing . In this section I will discuss these symptoms and suggest appropriate solutions for them.

4.1 In-Class Problems

'The reluctant writer' This type of writer stops continually, writes briefly, and is always looking around. He/she never seems to concentrate for more than a few seconds at a time. A way of dealing with this is to give gentle encouragement to return to the task at hand and a reminder that perfect work is not expected.
'The always-has-to-be-correct writer' For such learners, the use of an eraser or liquid paper indicate a writer with perfectionism as their ideal. Reminding writers that they do not have to be perfect in this task, that they just have to complete the task by writing (and can revise later) can ease this situation. Also these learners can be asked to put away such devices or to stop changing what they write.
'The keyboard tapper' This learner makes frequent use of pocket electronic dictionaries or is constantly flipping the pages of paper dictionaries, thus indicating someone pursuing the most accurate word possible. Such learners could be to put away the dictionary, or leave a space or write the word in their own language. Remind them just to keep writing until the task is finished.
'The talker' Because a quiet class is usually required for writing, the talker is immediately noticed above the silence of the classroom. This type of learner can be asked to capture on paper some of the thoughts that are being expressed verbally, since they seem to have a lot to say.

5.2 Post Writing and Evaluation

After the students have written their work it needs to be revised and evaluated. Learners who are unused to process writing will view revision as a sign of failure if handled poorly by the teacher. Consequently, as a teacher, I need to highlight the positive aspects of revision. As with revision, evaluation is often viewed negatively, mostly due to the traditional technique of merely highlighting the errors in a learner's work. The teacher's task is to provide evaluation that will lead the learner into reflecting on their work, rather than merely copying correction or not studying the evaluation at all .

5.3 Other Issues

Hadfield and Hadfield (1990) also note that, on occasion, writing classes are there merely to show that work is being done and not with a specific purpose or goal. Consequently, writing is associated with chores or even discipline. This is particularly the case as writing lessons are quiet, so the teacher can easily maintain control. Writing classes can therefore suffer from what Hadfield and Hadfield label 'homework syndrome', i.e. students are poorly motivated and therefore perform badly.

6. Approaches and Methods

Massi (2001) states that writing is by nature an interactive process because it evolves out of the symbolic interplay between writer, text and reader . Consequently, by making conditions more authentic than the ones in traditional classroom tasks, an awareness of audience, purpose and intentionality is reinforced. Tribble (1996) develops this idea by stating that assigning tasks that pose real problems to the learner will keep their motivation high and create a sense of achievement . I have found this to be true in my own experiences, and that by engaging learners in something that i) they are interested in, and ii) they can give positive input to, can create a truly active and interactive writing environment. In the following sections I will discuss some of the activities I use in class.

6.1 Prewriting

ü Group brainstorming on a given topic (students work cooperatively and write down all the ideas that come to mind in connection with a topic).

I often employ brainstorming, as I find that the class as a whole generates more ideas than an individual could manage alone (also, their collective schemata is greater than the individual's).

  • Specification of an audience and purpose of a text by making the situation 'real'.

Appendix 1 shows an example of an assignment that I gave to a group of learners. The task was to write a film review and submit it to the website www.imdb.com. The learners responded to this real audience with enthusiasm, and embraced the task as it had a genuine purpose.

  • Group research on a writing topic.

Appendix 2 shows an extract from Compton's Encylopedia. I have found that introducing students to multimedia has been an effective way to engage them in the research process. The appendix shows the background research relating to an art essay.

6.2 Writing Production

  • Collaborative writing (i.e. Students work together to write a previously agreed text).

I find that asking students to produce a text in collaboration can be quite motivating. It enables the stronger students to help the weaker ones. I usually ask groups to prepare and OHP, so that their text can be seen by other groups.

  • Whole class text construction, composing on the blackboard and parallel writing.

These techniques have their foundation in product writing but are effective in providing a framework for lower level students to work from. These techniques can develop a sense of collective achievement, while eliminating the fear of being left to 'go it alone', completely unguided.

  • Students consult each other and co-construct texts.

During such an activity I move around listening to their comments, providing feedback or answering questions on structure, lexical items, the validity of an argument, the order of presentation of the information, etc. Therefore, I can keep track of their progress and work out a record of most frequent questions, doubts and inaccuracies for a future 'error analysis' session.

6.3 Revision

ü Peer-editing. Students exchange their first drafts of a text and point out changes which are needed to help the reader (e.g. better organization, paragraph divisions, sentence variety, vocabulary choice). They can also act as each other's editors spotting vocabulary repetitions, grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, etc).

Peer editing is a useful tool for any level of learner, although its specific application can vary from level to level. For example, at lower levels I would generally use this to highlight the grammatical problems, whereas for higher levels this would be used to assess how effectively an essay question has been answered.

ü Whole class discussion of how a particular text might need adjustment according to the audience it is addressed to.

One technique I regularly employ is to ask my students to imagine that I am a small child, and to explain what they consider to be a straightforward topic in words that a child would understand. I then ask them to explain the same topic to me, only this time they imagine I am a university professor, and ask them to adjust their language appropriately.

6.4 Evaluation

ü Negotiated feedback in which the learner decides the focus of the given evaluation.

Through experience I've found that evaluation is most useful if it is given on the basis of what the learner has asked for. In my experience, learners still favor comments on the grammatical and lexical correctness of their work . In order to make this n interactive activity, I use an error correction code, which serves to highlight the error but still requires the learner to reflect on what the error actually is.

7. Conclusion

Writing can escape from its image as a labourious activity if process writing techniques are adopted in the language classroom. Process writing not only alleviates most of the problems associated with this skill, it also turns the writing class into a stimulating and communicative experience. Furthermore, using this approach at lower levels is not only feasible, but will also provide a launch pad for the language learner to become an accomplished writer in English.

Appendix 1

Appendix 2


Baskoff, F., (1990), New Worlds: A Course in Guided Composition, HEINLE & HEINLE

Dickson, K.J, (2001), Freewriting, Prompts and Feedback, THE INTERNET TESL JOURNAL Vol. VII, No. 8, August 2001 (http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Dickson-Freewriting.html)

Evans, V., (1998), Successful Writing Proficiency, EXPRESS PUBLISHING

Hadfield, C. & Hadfield, J., (1990), Writing Games, NELSON

Harmer, J., (1991) The Practice of English Language Teaching, LONGMAN

Hedge, (1988) Writing, OUP

Huizenga, J., Snellings, C.M. & Francis, G.B., (1990), Basic Composition for ESL: An Expository Workbook, HEINLE & HEINLE

Jordan, R.R., (1997), English for Academic Purposes, CUP

Massi, M.P, (2001), Interactive Writing in the EFL Class: A Repertoire of Tasks, THE INTERNET TESL JOURNAL Vol. VII, No. 6, June 2001 (http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Massi-WritingTasks.html)

Meriwether, N.W., (1997), Strategies for Writing Successful Essays, NTC PUBLISHING

Nunan, D. (1999), Second Language Teaching and Learning, HEINLE & HEINLE

Olsher, D., (1996), Words in Motion: An Interactive Approach to Writing, OUP

Reid, J.M., (1987), Basic Writing, PRENTICE HALL

ü Tribble, C. (1996), Writing, OUP

Williams, J.G., (2003) Providing Feedback on ESL Students' Written Assignments, THE INTERNET TESL JOURNAL Vol. IX, No. 10, October 2003, (http://iteslj.org/Techniques/Williams-Feedback.html)

Wong, R., Glendinning, E. & Mantell, H., (1987), Becoming a Writer, LONGMAN


Adam Simpson works at CALL Centers, Istanbul Bilgi University

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