Sometimes we tell our students not to worry so much about how accurate their writing is, but to just take risks and write. Then we fall into the trip of correcting their grammar or spelling and we wonder, are we sending the wrong message.
While many of our students care about writing correctly, it can sometimes become such a worry that they can barely write a few words before stopping to look up the spelling or check the grammar. You may decide as a teacher that there are times when that is important and other times when you would like to encourage your students to write as much as they want or can without worrying about grammar.
One way to work on writing fluency is to start a dialogue journal. A dialogue journal is a writing journal in which both the teacher and the student write. The entries go back and forth like a conversation and the emphasis is on meaning, but correctness. You as the teacher may wish to begin by writing a short prompt in the beginning of a student’s notebook and then giving time in class for all of the students to respond to that prompt. Then you take the notebooks home, read each response and write a further response in each. Each of your responses will be slightly different, depending on the direction the discussion is taken. With each turn, the conversations get more and more interesting and students start to trust that you are indeed interested in what they have to say, not just how they say it.
Of course, errors in writing can get in the way of meaning and then it is logical to deal with them. The decision of how to deal with them matters. Correcting errors with a red pen will likely communicate a conflicting message to what you intended. Try focusing only on those errors that block your ability to understand. Perhaps you can write a question in the margin and add an arrow to the section you can’t understand.
Or, if you eventually figure out what the student meant, you can write a comment like “Oh, I see what you mean” and then a sentence that uses the phrase written correctly. This is a technique known as recasting. In the case of spelling errors, you can recast as well, writing a comment that uses the word spelled directly.
Perhaps you have an artistic bent and like to doodle. Try drawing pictures in the margins to help students understand the main point you are writing about. You may be surprised with a few pictures back.
ESL teachers around the world use dialogue journals to help students with writing fluency and studies have shown that they work to promote exactly that.
Roswita Dressler, Ph.D.
Instructor and Director – Teaching Across Borders
Werklund School of Education
University of Calgary EDT 1022, 2500 University Avenue, Calgary, Alberta, T2N1N4