Thursday, 7 March 2013

Using Wikis to teach writing

I recently took part in a Facebook discussion where most of the contributors voiced their concerns over the state of their students' writing skills. 


I shared many of the concerns raised, which ranges from comments on grammar, vocab use to understanding punctuation and sentence structure.

Writing is an important part of life, and many students do not seem to realise this. They want to improve their speaking and listening so they concentrate on those skills and use writing as a means to learn how to speak. 

These students quickly realise how important writing is when they come to write as essay, email or even a report for work. Writing is not something that can be picked up in passing. It takes a long time to learn structure and proper usage. 

In order to help students I have been using Wikis to teach writing for over a year now. There are a number of advantages to using them in your class. 

- Organisation: Keep all the students written work in one easy to access place.

- Displaying information: Upload all the essay outlines to Scribd, then take the embed code and display them in one convenient place.

- Collaboration: The teacher can monitor each student's progress from introduction to conclusion and give feedback during the writing process. 

There are a number of ways to teach writing with Wikis, but I'll go over how to use them to teach writing essays. The same approach could be used for other forms, such as creative, emails, reports etc.

Wikis are all about collaboration. Blogs are great, but more adapted to one person using them to create a finished product. Google Drive is awesome also, but when there are lots of students in the class, Wikis are better equipped to deal with large numbers with more collaboration. 

I teach at a university, so my students have to produce three essays, as well as group work, in a pre-U course. They all hope to enter into a foundation, degree or masters course... if they pass!!!!

Scaffolding is the most important thing to start with. I'll use a pre-intermediate class with no Wiki experience to illustrate how to use Wikis to teach essay writing skills.

First, start with a simple writing activity. I usually ask the students to draw a picture of their best memory. They talk about it with the other class members, then for homework write the story into a simple paragraph. 

The next day I check the students written work and make the corrections. I then tell the students to write it again, but put it on their Wiki page. Each student has a private page for individual writing work.

Before the Wiki

The students have now had their work edited on paper, so they understand this process. They have also put their work on the Wiki, so they see how that works. Scaffolding stage one complete!

I tend to work more on paragraphs in the first few weeks. Each time I'll edit it and offer advice on grammar, word choice, punctuation etc. When they have grasped the basic outline of the paragraph we move onto a simple block essay. 

Many of the students can write, it's just they need the ideas to do so. As a class we think of essay ideas. I tell them "If you are interested in the topic, it is easy to write about it". After some general ideas, I put the students into writing groups. They will write the essay individually, but the group is their to motivate and support each member. In the groups they can talk about topics and write out a rough outline which the other members can help them with. 

Many of the students are new to essay writing, so I make sure I put a very clear essay outline on a separate Wiki page. I tell the students that this is copyright free, so you are free to take ideas and sentences. I especially focus their attention on topic, thesis statements and concluding sentences. I don't go into any detail, I just want them to be aware of them. 

Now we have started writing actual essays, I tell the students that I will edit it twice. In the first edit I usually check for grammar, word choice, punctuation, plus general coherence of the essay. In the second essay, I concentrate more on flow and structure of the essay. I also offer advice as how to improve the content by doing further research.

The same process is repeated for the next essay. Get the students into writing groups to help come up with content ideas and outlines. I still edit the essay twice and follow the same procedures as above. 

For the final essay, I tell the students that I will only edit it once and I will only edit a complete essay. Also, when I edit the essay, I will only underline sections that need to be reviewed or changed. My hope is that the students will be able to edit and find the mistakes in their writing by themselves as the class has been scaffolded to show them how to do it independently.

This is largely a process driven writing system. However, as the students are lower intermediate, elements of genre-based writing approaches have been implemented, such as clear essay outlines and sample essays to follow. I really think this is important. It is great to let the students write and find their own writing style, however, their experience with such writing is limited and as such they need examples to follow. 

An editing language was created for the Wiki and it is below. It is pretty straight forward and the students pick it up pretty quickly.

(go - del) = Delete the word 'go'.
(in / at) = Change the word 'in' for 'at'.
(to) = The word 'to' is missing.
bus<>red = Word order.
T = Tense
Marcket = Underlined words highlights spelling errors.
Decided to be him when saw the persons who were = Underlined sentences can not be understood,

You can add colour to highlight the areas to be checked. I tend to avoid red as it seems to be too negative. In addition to the editing above I try and sandwich my comments with something positive, something to work on, then something positive again. Process writing is time consuming so the students need support and praise in order to keep their motivation high.

Deadlines - I have found these to be the most important thing when teaching writing like this. Most, many, some students will leave it until the last minute to write the essays. I give the students 7 days for one essay.
Day one - Decide an essay topic and do some research
Day two - Write an outline
Day three to four - Finish the first draft
Day four - At the end of day four I edit it
Day five - The students make the changes.
Day six - I edit the second daft.
Day seven - Students make changes and additions and hand it in.

If your students are naturally motivated you won't need so many deadlines. However, the last class I taught needed the extra push. 

What are the benefits?
I'm currently doing research on this so nothing conclusive yet. From what I have observed, the word count increases significantly. Sentences structure is improved and is more complex with less run-ons and fragments. Essay structure is more organized and ideas are explained more clearly. Grammar errors are still there, however, these are to be expected given the fact the students are trying to write longer and more complex sentences.


It may seem a complex process, but writing is a complex process. The Wiki allows a teacher to edit quickly and effectively. This gives the student immediate access to their writing and allows them to look at past essays as they are all stored on the same page. They simply have to scroll down to see what was good and what should be improved from their last essay. Learning to write takes time, so the more feedback and support the student has, the more likely they are to succeed. 

The short video below takes you through a Wiki which I use in class. You'll be able to see how the essay outlines and assessment rubrics are outlines, as well as see how the student work is organised. 







2 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing your procedure details, Simon. I have always used the comparison of versions in wikispaces to help them share in class (via IWB) the corrections they've made to their work. Some students have suggested cut&paste above. Now you help me see it from a teacher's perspective.

    I'd like to share my reflections on wikis for writing:
    http://eltnotes.blogspot.com.ar/2007/08/efl-course-wiki-as-writers-community.html

    Regards from Buenos Aires,

    Claudia

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry that I am replying to this so late. I only just now looked at the comments and saw your message. Thanks for the link to your blog, it was very interesting.

      I noticed that you made that post around 6 years ago. Are you still using Wikis in the classroom? If so, what have you found out in all those years?

      I would be interested to know how you have used Wikis over the years.

      Thanks!

      Simon

      Delete