From Topic to Task: Strategies for helping ELLs write more specifically

All good writers—no matter what they are writing about—share a secret, and that is the power of being specific. Anyone can circle around a topic with vague statements and abstract commentary, but where writing really gets interesting is when it tells the reader something she doesn’t already know.

As teachers, we can demystify this secret by implementing strategies that will help second language writers narrow their focus and use specificity in their support.

It starts from the very beginning, when students are just choosing a topic. For example, in our upper-intermediate writing classes, students are asked to write a problem-solution essay on an environmental theme. Some choose topics like “traffic,” “pollution,” or “global warming.”   Then they want to write about traffic in their whole country, or pollution worldwide.

What happens is their topic is so immense, they are not allowing themselves to give deeper supporting details. The essays become overgeneralized and difficult to follow. The students have trouble proving a point without these specific examples.

So, instead, we ask them to write about one specific problem in a place they live now or used to live.   Now they have something to say. They can provide their own examples. They have first-hand experience, as if they are reporters. Our students have written several of these essays now. Here are some of their recent titles:

“Water Polluted Village”
“Can Mexico’s largest lake be saved?”
“Overpopulation in Ho Chi Minh City”

“A Daily War” was another one, about how the automobile traffic in Morocco is taking lives, and ways to solve it through legal action and better roads.   Here’s a body paragraph, with the writer’s specific example underlined:

       The number of accidents in Morocco is increasing due to many different factors. One of them is the road users’ behavior. Both pedestrians and drivers share the responsibilities of the problems. Usually pedestrians don’t walk alongside the pavement. They walk in the road and they don’t pay enough attention while crossing. The drivers are the users who cause most accidents. They drive well over the speed limit and neglect traffic signs.

In this Turkish student’s second body paragraph on solutions, he could imagine more concrete and “real” solutions for the unsafe streets of the suburb of Dummar, for he had grown up there himself.

In order for children to grow up, they need to play with each other, run around and do physical activities. Thus they need an appropriate place to do these activities. Children in Dummar, like in many other suburbs, don’t have such places to do their activities. Parents have difficult choices. The first option is to allow their children to meet outside to play in the streets, on the sidewalks and in non-secured public areas which put them under the risk of being hit by a car, meeting bad people or facing dangerous situations.

Other students include personal examples. Some write about a neighborhood problem, and we learn a lot about what it is like firsthand: “When I walk down my street, I see a lot of empty bottles and trash.”

This process of going from general to specific in the topic makes giving specific details more natural when students are writing. It’s scaffolding for a deeper level of specificity, and requires less work on the part of the teacher. Teachers can spend more time responding to the content instead of time on replacing overly general examples with specific ones.   That is, the specificity in the task emerges from that of the topic.   It’s another spiral.

The following are three other lesson plan elements that teachers can implement to help students narrow their focus during the writing process:

Divide and Conquer

IMG_4782One strategy is to carefully construct the assignment. We can do a fair amount of narrowing ourselves by using a divide and conquer approach. Here’s how it works.

  1. Take a standard topic like, How is technology affecting family life?  We can think of two ways to go, and choose one. For example:
    1. How is technology affecting children?  
    2. How is technology affecting parenting?
  2. Let’s say we choose, B. How is technology affecting parenting?  Next, we divide B. into two, and choose one.
    1. How does the prevalence of gaming affect parents?  
    2. How do smart phones affect parenting?
  3. Now let’s say we choose B. again, How do smart phones affect parenting? We then divide that into two:
    1. How do smart phones affect communication among family members?
    2. How do smart phones affect family meals?
  4. You can continue this divide and conquer method until you feel you have reached a topic that falls within the range of students ability to supply details from relevant research or their own personal experience and use that as a starting point.

Provoke Deep Thinking

FullSizeRender-2A second strategy is to provoke deeper thinking about a topic by asking How do you know? questions. You might begin with your narrowed topic. For example, Could a robot ever be your friend? (Possibly an outcome of, Is technology helping or harming us?)

You can begin by eliciting criteria for a friend such as being helpful, supportive, fun, or entertaining. Next, elicit responses to the prompt, but after each answer say, “How do you know?” And/or “Can you give me an example?”

The student might say, “Yes, because a robot can help me.”

“How do you know?”
“Because it can give me information.
“How do you know?”
“Because I already get information from my phone—today.”
“What is an example?”
“Well, my phone helps me find addresses.”

This can continue until the student has produced enough specific material to write a draft.

Note that it might be a good idea to build in some preparation time so students can think of responses. Perhaps have everyone write, and then nominate an individual or select a volunteer.

Alternatively or in addition, students could take the activity to groups, and continue asking each other the How do you know? questions as a means of getting into specific supporting details and examples. When this goes well, writers have opportunities to elaborate (and get more specific!) as well as get new ideas from others.

A Fork in the RoadIMG_4042

A third strategy can happen during conferencing after a draft has been written.  Often writers have two or more threads going on at the same time.  We can help them recognize this fork in the road so they can choose which path they want to follow and which one to let go of.

For example, a writer might entangle a thread that details general holiday traditions with a specific holiday memory. A perceptive teacher can point this out and let the writer decide whether to focus on the annual traditions in the present tense or one single memory in past tense. By clarifying the focus, the writer has a better chance of giving greater life to the paper through the use of specific details.

Writing is a process of coming to a better understanding of something through an exploration. It is natural for students to go in circles or to mix tangents. However, with the judicious application of some specificity strategies, we can help them develop as writers who use writing to learn.

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