Monday, November 30, 2015

Collaborative Writing, Courtesy of Nigel Caplan

TamaraJonesBy Tamara Jones
ESL Instructor, Howard Community College
Columbia, Maryland

In my most recent blog post, I wrote about the workshop Nigel Caplan recently delivered for teachers at my school. He introduced us to the concept of genre writing, and suggested that in order to help students become the best writers they can be, we follow the steps in the Teaching Learning Cycle as described in Martin (2009) and Rothery (1996).


The first part of the Teaching Learning Cycle is to provide students with good models of different genres to prepare them for the wide variety of writing they may do outside the ESL or EFL classroom. However, it isn’t enough just to hand out examples of good writing for students to glance over and then stuff into the depths of their back packs. Instead, we need to help students pick apart the models to expose the patterns associated with those particular genres.

In his presentation, Nigel used the example from his text, Inside Writing 2, of a product review much like you would find on eBay or Amazon. From his guided questioning, we (the imaginary students) were able to glean that reviews often have a title, a paragraph describing the context, a description of the product, and evaluation of the product, supporting reasons and a recommendation with stars.

Also, Nigel drew our attention to the language associated with each of the stages of his model product review. For example, product review titles are almost never a complete sentence and the part of the review that builds context for the readers often makes use of the pronoun “I” and the present perfect. Again, these aren’t rules; they are patterns. Writers don’t have to follow them, but if they don’t, they run the risk of violating the expectations readers have of the conventions associated with that particular genre.

I guess that’s really why genre writing is so essential to teach. Haven’t we all received an email from a student that was far too informal? Those students would certainly benefit from a closer examination of the conventions of email.

Joint Construction

The next part of the Teaching Learning Cycle is the collaborative writing phase. At first, when I heard this, I thought, “Collaboration in the writing classroom? Isn’t writing essentially an independent act?” However, when Nigel projected a slide with a before and after of a student’s writing, I became a believer. Apparently, collaborative writing affords many benefits: there is more scaffolding; talking about the language helps students acquire the language; talking about the genre increases students’ comfort with it; when students work together, their writing is better; and (most importantly, in my opinion) it’s fun.

So, how does it work? Well, Nigel modeled a lesson for us and we pretended to be his students. Our goal was to collaboratively write another product review. First we brainstormed as a “class” with Nigel’s guidance. We came up with an item to review, a bicycle, and decided that the review would be negative. We then shouted out some positive and negative adjectives to describe it, which Nigel wrote on the board. Finally, Nigel opened a word document on the computer and started to type.

First, he had us come up with a title together. He reminded us it shouldn’t be a sentence. Once we had a title we were satisfied with, he asked us for a few sentences giving the context of the review, and so on. The key to collaborative writing was that we came up with the sentences, but as he typed them, Nigel elicited improvements and cleaned them up. He also thought aloud. In other words, he would say things like, “How can we make that a complex sentence?” and “Is there a better word than ‘good’ to use here?” In the end, with the “teacher’s” help, we “students” created a really good product review.

I had worried that this kind of collaboration would be boring for students. Certainly it involves more teacher talk than is ideal in a communicative classroom. However, Nigel said that when he notices students disengaging, he may call on them directly to provide the next few words or give the entire class time to write the next sentence on paper and then call on several of the quieter students to suggest theirs. I have to say, though, I was completely engaged throughout the entire collaborative writing process. It was fun to hear the ideas of my colleagues and to suggest my own. I felt the pleasing sensation of ownership without responsibility.

And, I imagine, if I were a real ESL student, I would feel much better equipped to write my own product review during the next, independent construction phase.

Caplan, N. and Bixby, J. (2014). Inside Writing 2. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Martin, J. R. (2009). “Genre and language learning: A social semiotic perspective.” Linguistics and Education, 20(1), 10–21.
Rothery, J. (1996). “Making changes: Developing an educational linguistics.”  R. Hasan & G. Williams (Eds.), Literacy in Society (pp. 86–123). Harlow, England: Longman.


Pingback from Inside my genre-based writing presentation! | Nigel "Teacher" Caplan
December 2, 2015 at 6:07 pm

[…] weren’t, you might enjoy reading about how she was converted to genre-based writing and the teaching/learning cycle. Thanks for the kind shout-out, […]

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