What is “real world writing” in a second language class?

This question has been coming back to me over and over in recent months. Matching up learning with an appropriate form of written output is important, but not always easy. As a teacher, I am familiar with the groans that ensue when I ask students to engage in something they don’t want to do, or a task that isn’t the right fit. I’ve also seen the high level of engagement and growth that happens when the two can come together. That’s not to say I think I can get it right every time, or that students will always love writing, but I want to get as close as I can. Trying to determine what constitutes real world writing, or an authentic task, is a big ask. I’ve come across situations where I know what isn’t authentic, but I wanted to get further than “I know it when I see it”.

These are the basic rules I gave myself:

  • Student learning needs to take centre stage, regardless of format.
  • Real world writing needs to be relevant and interesting to students. Where possible/practical, they need to have choice.
  • The definition of “real world writing” needs to align with the revised BC Curriculum, and be a tool through which students can practice the skills which form the foundation of our curriculum.
  • The definition of “real world writing” also needs to align with research-backed frameworks for language learning. For my purposes, I’m looking at the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference) and the ACTFL Performance Descriptors.

If you want to skip to the end of this blog post to see the summary of what I found, it’s there. If you’re interested in how I got there, take a look at what follows.

CEFR Writing Levels

In basic terms, this is what the Common European Framework of Reference says learners should be able to do. For its purposes, the CEFR divides writing into two categories: written interaction, and written production.

The descriptors of the CEFR levels focus on the communicative purpose of writing. Because our high school students in BC’s second language programs rarely have enough hours of instruction and exposure to the language to get beyond the B1 or B2 levels (and B2 would likely require some of the language to be spoken at home) I left out the C1 and C2 levels. When I read the descriptors, three very clear categories of information jump out at me, and I have reorganized the information to reflect that:

  1. Why? This category contains the communicative purpose of the written communication.
  2. What? This category gives examples of types of writing that might be done to suit a given communicative purpose.
  3. How? This category gives more information about the level of complexity that can be produced at a given level, and what types of vocabulary or information a language learner might be able to produce.

OVERALL WRITTEN INTERACTION
B2 – Can express news and views effectively in writing, and relate to those of others.
B1 – Can convey information and ideas on abstract as well as concrete topics, check information and ask about or explain problems with reasonable precision. Can write personal letters and notes asking for or conveying simple information of immediate relevance, getting across the point he/she feels to be important.
A2 – Can write short, simple formulaic notes relating to matters in areas of immediate need.
A1 – Can ask for or pass on personal details in written form.

CEFR Level Why What How
B2 Correspondence Can write letters… …conveying degrees of emotion and highlighting the personal significance of events and experiences and commenting on the correspondent’s news and views.
B2 Notes, messages & forms No descriptor available No descriptor available
B1 Correspondence Can write personal letters… …giving news and expressing thoughts about abstract or cultural topics such as music, films.

… describing experiences, feelings and events in some detail.

B1 Notes, messages & forms Can take messages… …communicating enquiries, explaining problems. 
B1 Notes, messages & forms Can write notes… …conveying simple information of immediate relevance to friends, service people, teachers and others who feature in his/her everyday life, getting across comprehensibly the points he/she feels are important.
A2 Correspondence Can write very simple personal letters… …expressing thanks and apology.
A2 Notes, messages & forms Can take a short, simple message… …provided he/she can ask for repetition and reformulation.
A2 Notes, messages & forms Can write short, simple notes and messages… …relating to matters in areas of immediate need.
A1 Correspondence Can write a short simple postcard.
A1 Notes, messages & forms Can write numbers and dates, own name, nationality, address, age, date of birth or arrival in the country etc. such as on a hotel registration form

OVERALL WRITTEN PRODUCTION

B2 – Can write clear, detailed texts on a variety of subjects related to his field of interest, synthesising and evaluating information and arguments from a number of sources.
B1 – Can write straightforward connected texts on a range of familiar subjects within his field of interest, by linking a series of shorter discrete elements into a linear sequence.
A2 – Can write a series of simple phrases and sentences linked with simple connectors like “and”, “but” and “because”.
A1 – Can write simple isolated phrases and sentences.

CEFR Level Why What How
B2 Reports & essays Can write an essay or report… …that develops an argument systematically with appropriate highlighting of significant points and relevant supporting detail.

Can evaluate different ideas or solutions to a problem.

… which develops an argument, giving reasons in support of or against a particular point of view and explaining the advantages and disadvantages of various options.

Can synthesise information and arguments from a number of sources.

B2 Creative writing Can write clear, detailed descriptions Can write clear, detailed descriptions of real or imaginary events and experiences marking the relationship between ideas in clear connected text, and following established conventions of the genre concerned.

Can write clear, detailed descriptions on a variety of subjects related to his/her field of interest.

B2 Creative writing Reviews Can write reviews of films, books or plays.
B1 Reports & essays Can write short, simple essays on topics of interest. Can summarise, report and give his/her opinion about accumulated factual information on familiar routine and non-routine matters within his field with some confidence.

Can write very brief, reports to a standard conventionalised format, which pass on routine factual information and state reasons for actions.

B1 Creative writing Can write straightforward, detailed descriptions… … on a range of familiar subjects within his/her field of interest.
B1 Creative writing Can write accounts… … of experiences, describing feelings and reactions in simple connected text.
B1 Creative writing Can write a description… …of an event, a recent trip – real or imagined.
B1 Creative writing Can narrate a story.  
A2 Reports & essays No descriptor available. No descriptor available.
A2 Creative writing Can write linked sentences… … about everyday aspects of his environment e.g. people, places, a job or study experience.
A2 Creative writing Can write very short, basic descriptions… … of events, past activities and personal experiences.
A2 Creative writing Can write a series of simple phrases and sentences… … about their family, living conditions, educational background, present or most recent job.
A2 Creative writing Can write short, simple imaginary biographies and simple poems.  
A1 Reports & essays No descriptor available. No descriptor available.
A1 Creative writing Can write simple phrases and sentences… about themselves and imaginary people, where they live and what they do.

Source: https://rm.coe.int/168045b15e

ACTFL Writing Proficiency Guidelines

The ACTFL (or American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) revised their proficiency guidelines most recently in 2012. The guidelines are “descriptions of what individuals can do with language in terms of speaking, writing, listening, and reading in real-world situations in a spontaneous and non-rehearsed context.” The proficiency guidelines are organized using the major language competencies of speaking, listening, reading and writing. For each skill, five major levels of proficiency are identified: Distinguished, Superior, Advanced, Intermediate, and Novice. The major levels Advanced, Intermediate, and Novice are subdivided into High, Mid, and Low sublevels. For the purposes of the majority of high school language learners, I have left out the Distinguished level, and would not expect the majority of students to reach the Superior level.

SUPERIOR
Writers at the Superior level are able to produce most kinds of formal and informal correspondence, in-depth summaries, reports, and research papers on a variety of social, academic, and professional topics. Their treatment of these issues moves beyond the concrete to the abstract.

Writers at the Superior level demonstrate the ability to explain complex matters, and to present and support opinions by developing cogent arguments and hypotheses. Their treatment of the topic is enhanced by the effective use of structure, lexicon, and writing protocols. They organize and prioritize ideas to convey to the reader what is significant. The relationship among ideas is consistently clear, due to organizational and developmental principles (e.g., cause and effect, comparison, chronology). These writers are capable of extended treatment of a topic which typically requires at least a series of paragraphs, but can extend to a number of pages.

ADVANCED
Writers at the Advanced level are characterized by the ability to write routine informal and some formal correspondence, as well as narratives, descriptions, and summaries of a factual nature. They can narrate and describe in the major time frames of past, present, and future, using paraphrasing and elaboration to provide clarity. Advanced-level writers produce connected discourse of paragraph length and structure. At this level, writers show good control of the most frequently used structures and generic vocabulary, allowing them to be understood by those unaccustomed to the writing of non-natives.

INTERMEDIATE
Writers at the Intermediate level are characterized by the ability to meet practical writing needs, such as simple messages and letters, requests for information, and notes. In addition, they can ask and respond to simple questions in writing. These writers can create with the language and communicate simple facts and ideas in a series of loosely connected sentences on topics of personal interest and social needs. They write primarily in present time. At this level, writers use basic vocabulary and structures to express meaning that is comprehensible to those accustomed to the writing of non-natives.

NOVICE
Writers at the Novice level are characterized by the ability to produce lists and notes, primarily by writing words and phrases. They can provide limited formulaic information on simple forms and documents. These writers can reproduce practiced material to convey the most simple messages. In addition, they can transcribe familiar words or phrases, copy letters of the alphabet or syllables of a syllabary, or reproduce basic characters with some accuracy.

Source: https://www.actfl.org/sites/default/files/pdfs/public/ACTFLProficiencyGuidelines2012_FINAL.pdf 

BC Curriculum

BC’s second languages curriculum documents do not reference or require students to write specific types of documents, but throughout the grade levels a very clear hierarchy of skills emerges. Students begin with identification, showing the ability to ask, answer, read and write text that allows for identification of everyday objects, people and routines in the second language.

From there, they move on to description and comparison. Description is limited at first, but is expected to grow in complexity as students’ language abilities develop. Comparisons are initially based on simple attributes of a person, place or object such as size or colour. However, as proficiency grows, these become more complex. Closely linked to comparison, students learn to express preference. Over time, they also learn to give reasons for those preferences.

The reasons given to support preferences grow into arguments and persuasion, and the ability to express and justify an opinion.

As their knowledge of verb tenses grow, students begin to narrate simple stories. These stories become more complex over time, and students’ ability to use multiple tenses develops. They are expected to demonstrate an ability to choose the appropriate tense or language structure for a given situation, and to recognize nuances between them. The ability to narrate very complex stories develops over time.

Students are expected to reach a level (during grades 11-12) at which they can use and recognize elements such as nuance, bias and register. They are expected to be able to select appropriate forms of written communication for a given purpose, and to demonstrate an understanding of conventions associated with each form.

Real World Writing

So what should students be able to write? Putting together all of these resources and the specific written forms mentioned, the answer is:

  1. forms requiring basic information
  2. phrases, sentences and connected sentences
  3. paragraphs
  4. stories
  5. reports
  6. essays
  7. poems
  8. messages
  9. notes
  10. letters (personal and business)

I think a solid argument can be made for each of these other forms of written communication, given that they are a part of day to day life and serve the needs of the average North American high school student:

  1. text messages
  2. emails
  3. social media posts (everything from tweets to blog posts)
  4. résumés
  5. combining text with images, video and music

My lists are growing and changing regularly. I think other forms of “non-essential but fun” writing also has a place in second language classes, and these would be things like ads, posters, greeting cards, songs, infographics, annotated maps, and so on.

Writing is just a “way in” to explore the skills outlined in the curriculum. It’s a form of communication and expression that students need to be able to use, and they should be given multiple opportunities to practice each type of writing. Rather than focusing on the format, I tend to emphasize the curricular skills (identification, description, etc.) and try to move students forward in their ability to use them.

Following the guidelines of the CEFR and the ACTFL, I also focus on the communicative purpose behind the writing. The goal isn’t always to write more (although as proficiency grows that’s one possible direction), but to write better. My background as an English teacher comes in handy here, and it’s a great place to emphasize cross-curricular skills.

To the greatest degree possible, I want my students to see the connections between the various types of text they write, to develop a range of written expression skills that they can draw on and adapt for new situations, and the confidence to try something they haven’t done before.

I would love to hear other ideas about what language learners need or don’t need to be able to write – please add your thoughts!

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