L2 Children and Writing. A Neglected Skill?
In ELT Journal 62/4, Jayne Moon summarizes an online discussion on Children and Writing hosted by IATEFL Young Learners Special Group. In it, she raises the issue of why students write, when and how they should be introduced to writing and the materials used for such purposes.
Having worked with young learners, I agree with some points mentioned in the discussion. I think there are key aspects that should not be left aside such as learners' skills in L1, differences among students and motivation. However, I would like to suggest the inclusion of technology as an available tool to introduce as well as practice writing.
As regards why students write, I agree with Moon that nowadays writing is mainly used as a means to assess how much students have learnt. However, the fact that writing has come into the picture again through technology - chat rooms, e-mails, text messages, etc- does not seem to have taken into account in the discussion. I consider that students should write in English for the same reasons they do it in their own language. In this way, what they learn would be far more connected with their daily life.
When it comes to when to introduce writing in children's classes, I believe it is best done once the child has acquired basic literacy skills in the L1. From my point of view, the lack of spelling and sound correlation in English can make it very difficult for young Spanish learners to get used to writing in English, even demotivating the child. Considering that Spanish young learners of English do not need to acquire a different writing script, they should start with words that appear to be easy to read such as cat, dog basket, etc after building a sound of oral skills in the L2 and of literacy skills in the L1.
Regarding how writing can be introduced, I strongly agree with Moon that there is no one approach to teaching L2 writing skills and usually a variety of methods and techniques are applied by teachers. These may include a grammar- focused approach, a task- based approach and a process oriented one among others. Different children, different cultures, different backgrounds obviously imply needs, and so as to be able to recognize what can work better in a certain environment.
Motivation, as pointed out in the online discussion, plays an important part. Moon mentions one danger is that students may regard writing as not cool. In my opinion this is not true. After the 'orality boom' some years ago, writing has received thanks to technology. Epals can be very motivating for students, providing both an interest in the accuracy of what the student wants to communicate and awareness of how other people express themselves in L2. I think technology should be used as a very important tool when it comes to writing. For example, students can send text messages in English to their teacher or they can contact him/her through emails. Personally, I remember a game I loved as a child. It was called 'invisible friends' and the idea was that some partner should write letters to another one until the recipient guessed who his/her 'invisible friend' was. This game could be easily updated using emails.
Finally, as regards the materials used to introduce and practice writing, Moon highlights a lack of focus on early L2 literacy in coursebooks for young learners, which fail to take into account different needs, aims, writing systems, etc. Although I agree with this point, I believe that teachers should be encouraged to adapt and discourage from adopting. As I have said before, it is the teacher's job to spot different needs and try to satisfy them. Teachers should be able to realize when they should resource to a certain material, regardless of any specific coursebook they have decided to use.
To sum up, introducing students to writing does not appear to be an easy task. I think that the more real-life the writing task is, the more useful, memorable and enjoyable it will be for learners. Teachers should take advantage of the fact that writing is now much more used and fashionable than before. Therefore, students should be encouraged to tackle activities connected to what they are used to managing from an early age: I strongly believe this holds the key to a more successful approach to writing.