Thoughts on writing: what should we really be teaching our students in the 21st Century?

We had our second input session on writing on Thursday and it brought up some interesting questions for me, but the one that I can’t get out of my head is whether the traditional writing activities we do in the classroom still have a place in the lives of 21st Century learners.

the main focus of the lesson was on three different approaches to writing: the product approach, the process approach and the genre approach. I won’t go into these here as anyone interested enough in teaching to read the thoughts of a random DELTA trainee on WordPress probably knows far more about them than I do. You might be interested to know though that the most popular approach in course books is the product approach, which goes a long way towards explaining to me why my students always produce fairly, unimaginative written work (I’m aware that this could also be down to the teacher…).

One of the activities that we had to do was walk around the room and assess some different writing activities taken from a variety of course books. This ‘gallery’ activity was less like a visit to the art museum and more like a police line-up of some of the worst offenders in the world of English language teaching. All the usual suspects were there, including:

  • The informal letter/e-mail to your pen friend
  • The letter of complaint to an electronics company’
  • The mocked up newspaper opinion piece on the town you live in

As I walked around with my partner, I couldn’t help but think about how irrelevant these writing tasks were in my life as a English man in his late twenties, let alone to the Vietnamese teens and twenty-somethings that make up most of the classes that I teach. I tried to think of the last time I wrote a letter of complaint with all the formality that the activity insists on learners using, or if I have ever written an e-mail to a pen friend full of information about my town and family or what I did on my last holiday.

This in turn got me thinking about better alternatives that could use the same or similar language, but that would better reflect the types of writing that people do nowadays. Below is a list of my suggestions of alternatives to the types of writing I’ve listed above*:

Letter to a pen friend? Try Facebook Messenger or Whatsapp style communications instead

If pen friends still exist (or if they ever really existed outside the world of language teaching) then no doubt that now they’d communicate over Facebook, Whatsapp or some other instant communication medium. This means we should be teaching students how to write in short conversational chunks and process instant responses, rather than focusing on the layout of an informal e-mail.

This activity could have the added benefit of giving the teacher the opportunity to teach language related to expressing anxiety in relationships:

“Both ticks are blue but he hasn’t replied yet, I hope he’s not mad at me.”

“Who’s this guy who keeps liking all her photos? How can I bring it up without looking like I’m jealous or suspicious?”

“He’s following me on Instagram, that must mean he like me, right?”

Try telling me that teens all over the world wouldn’t benefit from that?

Forget about direct feedback. In the 21st Century, passive aggressiveness and sniping from a safe distance are the two pillars of modern day complaints

Remember those well reasoned letters you used to compose to make a complaint about a good, service or company? Well those days are long gone in the age of online reviews. Had a crappy meal? Don’t tell the waiter, vent on TripAdvisor. Train delayed? Broadcast your dissatisfaction to the world on Twitter in 140 characters or less. Delivery slow on your latest Amazon purchase? Leave a one star review unrelated to the quality of the product itself.

The Internet has completely changed the way we deal with giving and receiving feedback and it’s time for course books and classrooms to reflect this. It would be far more useful to teach learners how to write reasoned reviews online than have them faff about trying to cram formal writing conventions into a letter written to an electronics company that no longer exists in the Internet shopping age.

“Newspapers, teacher? Nobody reads them anymore”

Newspapers may still be popular in some Western countries, but since I’ve been in Vietnam I’ve rarely seen anyone actually reading one. Nowadays people get their news and opinions in real time on a six-inch screen that they can access anywhere. Why not design tasks that fit this format? Instead of having a ‘write about your local town for the newspaper’ task, have them instead make a Buzzfeed-style list article with a clickbait title like “This family moved to the countryside and met some of the locals…what happened next is UNBELIEVABLE” coupled with a misleading image. You could even change the feedback format and give a prize to the student whose article generates the most clicks in a given period of time.

Obviously these are all just rough plans at the moment,but I hope they show that writing is changing and get you thinking about ways to adapt your lessons to fit the 21st Century model.

*Any course book editors looking for a fresh young talent, you know where to find me 😉


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