New directions: Using writing circles in second language instruction.

I don’t know if this happens to everyone, but sometimes I get an idea that just doesn’t leave. Like ever. And the only way to deal with it is to explore it, dig into it, follow it where it takes you.

This past summer, my collaboration partner and I read a book that we had put on our shared reading list. The book was Writing Circles: Kids Revolutionize Workshop, by Jim Vopat. The book is intended for use in English or language arts classes, and contains a wealth of ideas for teachers of those subjects. Both Meghann and I are FSL (French as a Second Language) teachers. She also teaches science, and I am also trained as an English teacher. We could not stop talking and thinking about this book, and wanted to explore the possibilities for our students.

Because second language teachers are not the intended audience of this book, we knew it would take some time to adapt the process and structures for our students. We also have to do it in a way that takes into account our curriculum document, and the constraints of teaching students with limited ranges of vocabulary. Unless writing tasks are within the content knowledge and grammar or language structure knowledge of our students, they would be more inclined to use online translators and dictionaries to find material that did not reflect their learning. This is crucial for us to avoid. We see writing circles as an opportunity to remove some of the risk associated with high stakes assessment, and to encourage students to take more of a lead role in exploring and playing with the things they have learned. We hope that this will, in turn, allow them to develop greater proficiency and a personal connection with the language they are using that fits who they are as a person, and how they prefer to express themselves. In order to achieve that, we have to structure writing opportunities (not assignments) that allow students to use or adapt phrases, vocabulary and structures from what they are learning in class.

Given the limited range of vocabulary, especially at the junior level, the writing pieces have to be short, but also fit the skills described by the curriculum. Writing circles are not teacher directed – they are small groups of students who work somewhat independently. In a language arts class, students would generate a topic, but given the proficiency of second language students, I will give my students topics that I know they have the vocabulary to work with. Within that topic, they will have a choice of genres which will allow them to both use the language they have, allow a level of student choice and individual expression, and to practice the skills outlined in the curriculum.

The first step for me has been to develop a list of genres suitable for students at each grade level that I currently teach. Here’s what I have so far:

French 8

Prescribed skills (from curriculum): All genres need to be used to demonstrate skills such as questions & answers, descriptions, comparisons, explanations and opinions.

List of genres: 

  1. Picture stories
  2. Comic strip
  3. List poem/other poem (not rhyming)
  4. Form
  5. Graph
  6. Diagram
  7. Map
  8. Simple timelines
  9. Invitation
  10. Simple brochure
  11. Simple advertisement
  12. Online profile (similar to passport)
  13. List
  14. Paragraph
  15. Simple story
  16. Adapted text (working from a model and changing to personalize)

French 10

Prescribed skills (from curriculum): All genres need to be used to demonstrate skills at this level, which  include asking and answering various types of questions; describing activities, situations and series of events; comparing similarities and differences; explaining and expressing opinions, including degree of preference or agreement; expressing hopes, dreams, desires and ambitions.

List of genres:

  1. Comic strip
  2. Poem (including rhyming)
  3. Form (with explanatory text)
  4. Graph (with captions/explanations)
  5. Infographic (with captions/explanations/annotations)
  6. Annotated timelines
  7. Invitation
  8. Advertisement with text for explanation, description and persuasion
  9. Brochure with text for explanation, description and persuasion
  10. Web page
  11. Simple biography (can be like online bios)
  12. Resumé
  13. Annotated map
  14. Instructions
  15. Interviews
  16. News reports
  17. Forecasts
  18. Horoscopes
  19. Myths
  20. Legends
  21. Personal letters
  22. Nursery rhymes
  23. Surveys
  24. Songs
  25. Short speeches
  26. Paragraphs
  27. Greeting cards
  28. Movie/TV/product reviews
  29. Adapted text (from a model/mentor text)
  30. Student suggestions (this can be done at the French 8 level too, but is less likely to occur because of the limitations in vocabulary etc.)

French 11 & 12

French 11 Prescribed Skills (from curriculum): All genres need to be used to demonstrate skills at this level, which include asking and answering various types of questions; sharing personal experiences; making predictions; describing activities, situations and series of events; comparing similarities and differences; explaining, expressing and justifying opinions; comparing and contrasting points of view and opinions; identifying biases; expressing hopes, dreams, desires and ambitions; expressing plans related to everyday activities.

French 12 Prescribed Skills (from curriculum): All genres need to be used to demonstrate skills at this level, which  include asking and answering a wide range of complex questions; sharing personal experiences; making predictions; describing activities, situations and sequences of events; comparing similarities and differences; explaining, expressing, supporting and defending opinions; identifying and explaining biases; expressing doubts, wishes, possibilities and hypotheticals; expressing needs; explaining emotions.  

List of genres: 

Genres include all those mentioned in grade 10 (at a higher level of vocabulary and using grade appropriate grammar and language structures) as well as…

  1. Complaint letters
  2. Business letters
  3. Catalogues
  4. Dictionaries
  5. Encyclopedia entries
  6. Essays
  7. Short stories
  8. Memoirs

What’s next?

My next steps will be developing and adapting resources to give students sentence starters and vocabulary for each skill they need to practice at a given grade level. Although it’s possible to look at sentence starters as not very creative, they often make the difference between students being able to start or not. They are adaptable, and students can add to or modify them in order to personalize their form of expression.

Because these are second language classes, my writing circles will not have an exclusive focus on writing, and will also need to include oral and listening components. The reflection pieces will need to be carefully structured to incorporate reflection on the writing process as well as language development, and to allow students to reflect in the target language. I have already started to take some baby steps toward implementing parts of this model in my classes, and will share how it’s working soon!

 

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