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How to be an Effective EFL Teacher

by David Martin

In order to help your students to be better writers, it is essential to first understand your students and the writing process. There is a maxim: "Writing that can be postponed, will be." It is not a great secret that the majority of students dislike writing; in fact, some hate it. Why is this so? What makes writing so unpopular?

Speaking and listening are natural, and as such do not have to be learned. Most people know how to speak and listen in order to communicate and most individuals can read as well. On the other hand, writing is not natural and it must be learned. Generally, someone has to teach you how to write.

This is not to say that there are not those who love the activity of writing, but they are rare. Emig (1978) has proposed that there is a biological base for writing located in the brain. Murray (1980:11) has written that "man has a primitive need to write." Perhaps it is true that both Emig and Murray enjoy composing immensely, but I find it very difficult to fathom writing as being organically based; nor do I see many people trying to satisfy their primitive need to write. I do, however, find my students putting off writing as long as they can. Yes indeed, "Writing that can be postponed, will be."

Writing is disliked and avoided because it is frustrating. It is frustrating because it is unnatural. Speaking is natural and not frustrating; when we speak, we open our mouths and words flow out easily. We do not think about the grammatical correctness of the utterances, nor do we think about mechanics. We do not repeat utterances over and over again to check for correctness or appropriateness. Speech takes place very quickly; the words are spoken and soon lost forever. Most writing, on the contrary, does not flow out smoothly. We write a few lines, reread them, scribble out one of the lines and move on. We are constantly checking for correctness.

The most important thing that the writing teacher needs to know is: "We are not dealing with ESL but rather TSL: Thinking in a Second Language. If we can get our students to do that we have surely taught them something" (Raimes, 1985:92). Our minds have difficulty processing and retaining so much information at one time. When we write, we are thinking about editing and generating ideas at the same time. These are conflicting processes: creating and destroying. If we can get those thoughts down on paper as they happen, before they are lost, we can juggle them later on paper--juggling them in our minds is too difficult. There are those who can juggle ideas in their minds and then get them down on paper coherently, but they are the minority. We, however, are teaching to the majority. The majority of students are not mental jugglers.

So, since writing is avoided and disliked, what can we do to make writing more likable and less avoided? First, the student needs to learn to turn off the editor when s/he writes. S/he needs to learn to generate ideas without destroying them at the same time. The student can go back to the piece later (with a chain saw if necessary) and edit, after all the ideas are safely down on paper. But until all the ideas are down on paper, the editor must remain turned off.

The best way to teach your students how to turn off their editor is to teach them how to freewrite. Freewriting is writing that is "free" of the editor. The student feels relaxed, and as a result there is no frustration about writing. The goal of freewriting is to generate as much material as possible (usually in 10-20 minutes). In order to achieve this goal Elbow (1979) suggests the most important thing is to remember: "Don't stop for anything." Don't stop to think about mistakes; don't stop to check spelling; don't stop to think about grammar; don't stop to cross out or read what you have written; don't stop for anything. The most important heuristic that freewriting affords is that it forces the students to think in English. If you are really freewriting and not stopping for anything, then there isn't sufficient time to translate from the L1 into the L2.

If you can get your students to freewrite, you will have won most of the battle over frustration. Frustration is the main cause of the dislike and avoidance of writing. Perhaps then your students will be more eager to write, and do more of it. Murray (1980: 19) relates that he has a sign over his desk which epitomizes the key to better writing: "Nulla dies sine linea" (Never a day without a line).

Yet another way to change negative attitudes toward writing is to teach students that writing is more a mode of learning than a skill. When people think about skill, ideas of 'good' and 'bad,' and 'success' and 'failure' come to mind. Learning, on the other hand, is something everyone can attain and for this reason it is less imposing of an idea.

A long time ago, classical rhetoricians, notably Aristotle, used rhetorical devices such as definitions, comparison and contrast, chronological order, etc. for heuristic devices to explore a subject, to learn more about it, and see it in a new light (Applebee, 1980). Today, Aristotle's topoi have become ready-made frameworks upon which our ideas are laid.

Raimes (1985: 83) points out that writing should be primarily a means of communication. She relates that, "They are saying something that nobody cares about in order to practice something else." For Raimes, the teaching of writing should stress the students' ideas and how they express those ideas rather than stressing grammar. For example, if a student's essay is free of grammatical mistakes, and the organization is superb, that doesn't make it a good essay. It could be that the student is merely "parroting" information. This is why using a very structured textbook can be dangerous because it allows for little self-expression.

Traditionally, the writing of a paper began with an outline and after that the introduction was written. Conversely, process-oriented writing teachers suggest that the outline not be written first and not to begin with an introduction (Taylor, 1981; Ramies, 1985). There has been a false assumption that the writer knows what s/he is going to say before it is written. If the writer already knew what s/he was going to write before the paper was written, then writing would not be a learning process. Applebee (1980) suggests that writing is a learning process in which writing finds its own meaning. Applebee also believes that truth and meaning cannot exist apart from language. Flower & Hayes (1979: 25) comment on the dangers of outlining or organizing a paper during the first stages of the writing process: "Unfortunately, the original organization of the data itself rarely fits the most effective plan." Taylor (1981) says that organization grows out of ideas and meaning.

What I have suggested so far is this: we need to teach students to sit down and write and write and write uninhibitedly, not looking back, not organizing, and not stopping for anything. If they do stop, the editor (that devil) sneaks in the back door and the writing loses its coherence. As a result, the writing process is destroyed.

Assigning a topic is only part of the writing teacher's job, and a small part at that. Even so, far too many teachers treat it cursorily. Often teachers assign topics and leave their students to fend for themselves. The result, obviously, is a bunch of confused and bewildered students. I liken this to the track coach who tells her students that they need to run the one-mile in under five minutes in order to qualify for the upcoming track meet, and then walks away with no further instructions. The coach needs to help the athletes to achieve their five-minute goal. She needs to instruct them, "You have to do a lot of stretching every day, wind sprints, long-distance runs and weight training as well."

Likewise, if a writing teacher assigns a specific topic, s/he needs to help the student learn how to achieve his/her goal. Raimes (1985: 85) comments on this: "Giving an assignment involves more than selecting a topic for the students to write on. It means giving the suggestions as to how to go about writing it." Going back to the track coach and her students: the coach gave the assignment--run a mile, but notice that she gave the goal, in five minutes. Too often we, as writing teachers, fail to give our students a goal; we only give an assignment, and the result is a dead and lifeless piece of writing written to the teacher. It should be the teachers duty to create a specific audience for the students to write to so that the writing can be goal-oriented. Writing that has no goal usually lacks what Elbow (1981) calls "real voice."

One of our aims as teachers of writing is to teach our students to be self-sufficient writers. For this reason we need to help our students to look at their own writing critically. One way to achieve this is through writing conferences. Rather than marking the student's paper all up in red ink and handing it back to them; it is much more effective to meet individually with students and discuss the strong and weak points of their papers.

During the writing conference it is important that the student do most of the talking. The teacher should act as a facilitator of the learning process. Murray (1985: 13) comments on this: "The teacher has to restrain himself or herself from providing the content, taking care not to inhibit the students from finding their own meaning, their own subjects, their own forms and their own language." However, Carnecelli (1980) warns against the teacher performing a type of "Carl Rogers therapy" in the writing conference where the teacher merely listens and nods his/her head in agreement. Murray (an L1 theorist) holds the assumption that the student has the necessary language to work from. But this is not usually the case with EFL students. Many times the teacher will have to suggest different ways of wording a sentence, etc.

Rob, Ross, and Sutherlin (1986: 91) after their study of error-feedback to Japanese EFL writing students concluded, "The results suggest that highly detailed feedback on sentence-level mechanics may not be worth the instructor's time or effort." I feel that the conclusions above are premature and unwarranted. Why is it that the correction of error did not help the students to improve their writing? Perhaps it is because the students did not attend to or understand (for various reasons) the feedback and therefore did not use it as a tool to improve their papers.

There is a way we can help our students take feedback more seriously and that is through the conference. The teacher can explain the remarks that were put on the paper carefully and effectively in the writing conference. It is important that the paper not be graded prior to the conference. The students will not sit and listen if they have already received a grade (Carnicelli, 1980:103). During the conference the teacher needs to praise good parts of the paper, as well as point out weaknesses.

Realistically, in many teaching situations individual conferences are simply not possible due to time and space constraints. However, much of the dialog and content that would go into a conference can be realized in the form of written comments on the students' compositions, conversing with the teacher in the classroom, and in peer editing.

In writing comments on students' papers teachers "hold a license for vagueness while the student is commanded to be specific" (Sommers, 1982: 164). If no conference is held for a particular paper, then Sommers suggests that "the comments should be specific enough so as to enable the student to make necessary changes" (1982: 164).

The most effective way in which we, as EFL writing teachers, can help our students to be better writers is by:

  1. helping them get rid of negative attitudes towards writing through the freewriting process.
  2. giving them feasible writing assignments, complete with specific instructions.
  3. giving specific feedback and correction in writing conferences, or in written form.
If these three suggestions are followed, combined with the teacher's patience and care, then "writing that can be postponed, won't be."


Applebee, A.N. (1981). Writing in the Secondary School: English and the content areas. (Research Report No.21.) Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Carnecelli, Thomas A. (1980). "The Writing Conference: A one-to-one conversation," In Eight Approaches to Teaching Composition, Timothy R. Donovan and Ben W. McClelland, eds., Chapter 7, 101-131. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Elbow, Peter. (1979). Writing without Teachers, Oxford University Press.

Emig, Janet. (1978). "Writing as a Mode of Learning," In The Writing Teacher's Sourcebook, Gary Tate and Edward P.J. Corbett, eds. Oxford University Press.

Flower, Linda and Hayes, John R. (1979). "The Dynamics of Composing: Making plans and juggling constraints," In Cognitive Processes in Writing: An Interdisciplinary Approach, Lee Gregg and Irwin Steinber, eds. Hilldale, NJ: Larwrence Erlbaum.

Murray, Donald M. (1980). "Writing as a Process: How Writing finds its own Meaning," In Eight Approaches to Teaching Composition, Timothy R. Donovan and Ben W. McClelland, eds. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Raimes, Ann. (1985). "What Unskilled ESL students do as they write: a classroom study of composing," TESOL Quarterly 19 (2): 229-258.

Robb, Thomas, Ross, Steven and Shortreed, Ian. (1986). "Salience of Feedback on Error Quality and its Effect on EFL Writing," TESOL Quarterly 20 (1): 83-93.

Sommers, Nancy. (1982). "Responding to Student Writing," College Composition and Communication 33 (2): 148-156.

Taylor, Barry P. (1981). "Content and Written Form: A two-way Street," TESOL Quarterly 15 (1): 5-13.
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