Teaching TOEFL and IELTS essays – a technique students love


There has been a great  discussion of a problematizing approach to correcting students’ grammar on Scott Thornbury’s blog (An A-Z of ELT). Well – this post has little to do with the debate itself, but one commenter there mentioned a problem with written assignments: it is hardly useful for the learner to receive the corrected paper full of red marks and crossed out words. Not only is it immensely discouraging,  but it is also very brain-unfriendly. It’s doubtful that the student will benefit at all.

This remark made me think I could  write this post describing an approach that:
– teaches how to write better essays without intimidating or discouraging the learners
– is far more brain-friendly that the conventional “red ink method”
– results in significant improvement of the essays
– is loved by the students.
– does not require too much preparation to produce a good 2-hour lesson involving all 4 skills.

If you are too busy to read the notes below, you can simply download the file with all the 4 stages of the approach 🙂 The detailed notes are under the ‘more’ tag.

 I use it teaching one-to-one, BUT I believe it can easily be adapted for groups (peer correction involved).
Step 1.
The student e-mails me their homework. Here’s a sample first draft of an essay (I  bolded the structures the student was supposed to use). In this particular case the learner was working on a better structure of each paragraph (an opening sentence, support, an example, a closing sentence, some more advanced linking structures). I look through it and highlight (not correct):
– major errors  in red
– non-impeding errors in yellow
– words that are used correctly but belong to a different style – in blue
– punctuation errors – by 
underlining the problem spots.

Here’s what the student’s essay now looked like.

Step 2. Together with the student, we analyse his (her) work. I elicit  corrections, relying heavily on the student’s knowledge, rather than merely imposing the correct variants. Learners often  are potentially able to use better words and expressions and correct themselves – it’s just that the knowledge is still passive. (In a group, I would assign this task to pairs, monitoring very closely). Here’s the result of our collaboration. The bolded words were remembered by the student herself! I was simply  asking the correct eliciting questions. A note:  while working on the essay, we actually made more improvements and changes than there were areas highlighted 🙂

If you work with  a group, you could brainstorm the ideas for better wording (based on your analysis) as a class  prior to the correction stage, relying on the language you studied earlier in the course. Eg, synonyms for simplistic words such as get, good, bad, great… Or even brainstorm a comprehensive checklist.

Step 3. Since we use a computer, the final  digital version now looks neat and great, and we print it out. No – it is not perfect! As I already mentioned, it is a product of collaboration, and the result is a version achievable by the student, and yet better than the original. You can, of course, simply re-write the essay. Making a clean and neat version of it is essential!

Step 4. I always get the learner to read the final draft aloud (“with expression!” :)) as I found it aids their memory. Alternatively, the learner could be asked to give a 2-3 -minute talk based on the essay (which is especially useful for IELTS students).  We then embark on a discussion using the essay as a springboard, and meanwhile I make the gapped version of the final draft (keeping on talking!). The gaps should, naturally, be where you made your corrections. The student(s) fill the cloze either at the same lesson, or as homework.

Groups variation: if you can use computers in the class, then the students can make the gapped versions for one another during the lesson. Alternatively, it can be set as a home assignment. The only catch with groups  is, though, that you should try to monitor and correct the remaining major mistakes before they read the final drafts aloud (in pairs), which may require a lot of running around – but it’s really worth it.

Step 5 is, actually, YOUR homework (and is optional). Based on the problems of this particular student/group, you are to compile a small pack of exercises to eradicate some annoying and recurrent problems (confusables, articles, linkers…) to use at the following lesson to reinforce the success.  The internet is  great help here, so it doesn’t take long. I also assign the student(s) another essay, in writing which they are to use the language and skills acquired during this session.

According to my students’ feedbacks, they feel that the final draft is mostly theirs, not the teacher’s, and yet so much better. They remember  it better, too, and also love not being left to their own devices, but being cared after. Finally, they appreciate the approach geared to their needs.  I myself simply think it works.

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