This is a technique I’ve been using with my mixed level high school classes recently. The aim is to generate ideas before writing a composition using question words as prompts. It’s very simple, very basic, but so far has been quite effective.
This is how it worked the first time we did it.
We had been reading an article from a local English language magazine. It focused on a group of boys in a neighbouring town and their passion for tricking (a kind of beach based parkour that involves hours and hours practising the same acrobatic tricks on a strip of wasteland at the back of the beach). They’d enjoyed it and identified with it and I wanted to make the most of this enthusiasm and extend the topic of pastimes and passions into writing a short, exam-like composition. This is the title I gave them:
Describe one of your favourite pastimes. Explain why you like it and recommend it to others.
First I asked the students to underline the three main verbs. I explained that these verbs would give them the backbone for their composition, each acting as a prompt for the three sections of their text. Then we brainstormed wh- question words and expressions we’d been looking at recently and I asked them to “question” the verbs. They didn’t get it to start with, but soon caught on with a bit of prompting. This is what we got after pooling all our questions.
Describe: what? where? when? with who? how long? since when?
Explain: why? how ( does it make you feel)?
Recommend: where (the best place)? when (the best time)? with who? why?
The students then discussed these questions with a partner, and with me as I circluated and monitored before setting pen to paper to write their first draft. They only had about ten minutes to do this and on the whole the texts were quite short and quite unsophisticated – way off the mark for the exam. This didn’t worry me, it was in fact what I needed as a starting point for the next stage of questioning in the next lesson. Here’s an example of a first draft:
At home I looked at the rough drafts and typed them all up. I recast and reformulated the first drafts where necessary. And necessary for me meant either where the students had made slips that they could easily have avoided had they taken more care, or where they were pushing themselves beyond their comfort zone and experimenting. In both cases I was hoping that, with a little prompting, comparing their original with my reformulation would help them notice their mistakes, or the new language I was suggesting, but would also give a sound basis for redrafting and expanding on their initial piece of writing.
Here are a couple of examples.
I added a word count because we’d been looking at the exam marking criteria recently and they clearly state a minimum length of 120 words. All the first drafts were short, some by a long way. My main aim in this lesson was to show students how questions could help them expand on their original ideas and help them reach for the 120 word mark. And that’s why I added the questions under each text.
The questions can be used in a number of ways, I guess. I had print outs of all the drafts, so I could have asked the students to go through all the texts and add an extra question to each. I could have asked them to work in pairs and answer the questions for each other’s texts based on what they already know about each other and educated guesses. I could have asked the students to add more questions for their own texts and then discuss this in pairs. I’m sure you can think of lots of other alternatives too.
What I actually ended up doing was far simpler. I really wanted them to get down to redrafting as quickly as possible, so I simply gave each student a copy of their own text and no one else’s and asked them to 1) compare my version with their original version and 2) write short notes on each of the follow-up questions I’d asked. This gave me the time to go round and help, prompt, check and ask more questions if necessary. I listened to their answers and fed in language where they needed it. We jotted down words and phrases and when I saw that they were ready to redraft, I set them off, each one in his or her own time, to add to and embellish the basic draft. Some choose to scrawl and scribble over my print out, others decided to write out a clean copy. (I’m sorry, I don’t have an example to show you. I gave them all back to the students at the end of the class.)
Whether it was a clean copy or a mess of scrawled writing, I didn’t care, it was definitely a question of process rather than product for me. I wanted them to see how questions could scaffold and prompt and hopefully take that experience into the exam with them to help them in the note-making stage.
But of course, for those students who did write out a clean copy, the product was also something they were very interested in, and aware of that, we marked them together and gave them a mark out of 3 following the exam criteria.
I don’t know if this will have any effect on their exam performance, but I hope at least it gave them an experience of success, and that in itself should help boost their confidence.