ENGLISH MAGAZINES+= MOTIVATION IMPROVED EFL WRITING SKILL

Yuewu Wang
CHINA
ENGLISH MAGAZINES+= MOTIVATION IMPROVED EFL WRITING SKILL
TEACHING ENGLISH AS A FOREIGN LANGUAGE (EFL) WRITING IS A HEADACHE FOR many teachers; they spend considerable time correcting their students’ compo- sitions only to find their corrections and comments ignored. Despite teachers’ hard work, many students’ written English remains non-idiomatic, poorly orga- nized, insufficiently developed, grammatically awkward, devoid of sentence structure variety, and weak in vocabulary usage. One important reason for all this is that learners have not been helped to become motivated, involved in their own learning, or self-sufficient. The fact is, students will not devote their efforts to learning a foreign language if they do not have a need or desire to learn it. However, when students are duly motivated, they will become involved in learn- ing a foreign language and will learn it autonomously.
One way to motivate learners, according to Ellis (1994, 516), is to design challenging tasks that present students with opportunities for communication and self-direction. To create such conditions, I designed a magazine-editing proj- ect at Shanghai Maritime University, where I taught English writing to EFL stu- dents. This paper describes that writing project.
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Objective of the project
The objective of the project was to encour- age students to write more freely, naturally, and fluently while creating and editing an English language magazine. The project was designed to supplement the compulsory Eng- lish writing course I taught.
Class description
The project was carried out four times in four different semesters. Four separate classes comprised of 95 English-major sophomores participated in the project. They met for two hours each week for 19 weeks. The students’ English levels ranged from intermediate to high intermediate. All had a basic knowledge of keyboarding and Internet search tech- niques. Five had advanced computer skills, but none had ever edited an English magazine.
Requirements and guidelines
At the beginning of each semester, editing an English magazine was assigned to the stu- dents as a term task to be completed outside the classroom. They were given maximum free- dom to read, write, and edit articles, and to print them. Only two classroom hours, one at the beginning of the task and the other about halfway through it, were set aside for the instructor and learners to brainstorm and share ideas, discuss difficulties, and solve problems.
The requirements and guidelines went through some changes, but in general they are as described below:
1. Magazine size: 30 pages
2. Students’ own writing: no less than two- thirds of the magazine content
3. Illustrations: no more than five percent of the magazine content
4. Content and form: freedom of decision permitted
5.Format: paper size A4, handwritten, typed, or computer printed in 12-point font
6. Restrictions: no mother tongue, no pho- tocopies, no direct web page downloads
7. Classroom discussion: week 8
8. Completion deadline: week 16
9. Exhibition and assessment: weeks 17-18
10. Students’ assessment for the writing course: 70% magazine editing (50% stu-
dents’ own writings + 20% edited mate- rials) + 30% exam
To encourage the students to read and get information for their writing, about one third of the magazine’s content was permitted to be simulations, adaptations, translations, reviews, etc. of any kind, in any style, and from any source. The rest of the content, however, was required to be the students’ own writing. They could write in various forms (e.g., essays, short stories), and the content could be about any- thing (e.g., their own emotions, experiences, world affairs). The purpose was to encourage the students to express their own ideas, experi- ences, emotions, and values using the words and expressions they were learning. Because of the nature and purpose of the project and to maximize fairness among all learners, the stu- dents were not permitted to use photocopies or web page downloads. They were told that it made no difference whether they edited their magazines by hand or with the help of a type- writer or computer (which obviously was preferable, however). To develop in them a sense that they were writing to communicate to a real audience, students were told that their completed magazines would be exhibited in the classroom for their peers to review. The students were also encouraged to exchange views and share difficulties and joys during the editing process.
The portfolio assessment of the students’ writing was designed to avoid inhibiting them and to encourage them to write freely as well as responsibly. The final magazine was evaluat- ed as “very good,” “good,” “fairly good,” and so forth. In general, grading was cumulative. All of the students’ work was included in cal- culating the final grade.
Collecting and editing materials
Students searched through all kinds of materials for what they thought best fitted their magazines. The topics eventually included in the magazines covered almost everything that interested them (e.g., arts, culture, business, sports). They spent considerable time adapting, rewriting, editing and organizing their selected materials. About 70 percent of the students used computers to help create their work and the others either used typewriters or wrote and drew everything by hand.
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Students’ own contributions
Most of the students included classroom assignments as part of their magazines. All stu- dents made use of their selected materials as input to their own writing. Almost all students told me that their own contributions con- sumed much more time and energy than other parts of their magazine.
Classroom discussion
The students were encouraged to raise questions and help each other improve the content and organization of the magazines. Peer review was encouraged as a collaborative strategy to help them learn from each other. During the discussions, they became aware that their classmates had similar difficulties in editing and writing. Major difficulties they encountered included decisions about the use of illustrations and anxiety resulting from unfa- miliarity with computer operations. They also worried about their poor handwriting and the pressure of time. They were assured, though, that matters such as whether they used illus- trations or computers, or whether their hand- writing was poor, were not considerations in their final grade assessment.
Feedback by the instructor
To lessen the students’ anxieties and avoid discouraging them, the feedback the instructor gave to the students was generally positive. It focused on strengths rather than weaknesses.
Classroom exhibition
Towards the end of each term, the maga- zines were exhibited in the classroom. Every student was required to skim through them and read carefully at least three pages con- tributed by the editor of each magazine. Stu- dents were also required to note their impres- sions of each magazine on a separate piece of paper, which was later delivered to the editor. Thus, students knew what their peers thought about their work and, as a result, they learned from each other.
Evaluation of students’ work
The magazines were read and assessed by the instructor. In addition to the criteria specified in the task requirements, the criteria for evalua- tion included the quality of the editors’ own writing in English (communicative effective-
ness, coherence and fluency, linguistic accuracy, euphony, etc.), and the originality demonstrat- ed in the design and content of their magazines.
Questionnaire survey
When the project was brought to a close, all students were asked to answer an open questionnaire anonymously. The questions elicited such information as their growth dur- ing the process of carrying out the project, their motivation and interest in English writ- ing, the project’s contribution toward improv- ing their written English, and any general ben- efit they felt they gained from editing their magazine. The majority (59%) of the students reported that they had been motivated greatly to be self-sufficient and creative, and their interest in EFL writing, in particular, had increased enormously. More than half of the participants (54%) said they thought the proj- ect had contributed greatly to their improve- ment in written English. The great majority of the learners (97%) said they believed they had gained a great deal or at least something from taking part in the project.
Test results
Students who edited their own magazines performed well in the Test for English Majors (level 4), a high-stakes national examination of English proficiency in China. They did partic- ularly well in the writing sub-test, which con- sists of essay writing and note writing. On the whole, these students turned out to be more successful than students who took the test in the years before and after them who did not participate in magazine editing. The writing test mainly reflects the learner’s success in writ- ing one kind of essay, argumentation. Howev- er, it was clear that the magazine project had had the remarkable effect of enabling students to write other types of essays and even creative stories as well. Although the writing the stu- dents did on the magazine project had some grammatical and lexical problems, it was cre- ative and communicative.
Main achievements in students’ writing
In my past teaching experience, I frequent- ly encountered compositions with interesting content and ideas but inaccurate expressions, or with correct form but boring content. The magazine-editing project provided students
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with a good opportunity to balance form and content in their writings. In contrast to con- trolled writing on arbitrary topics, editing a magazine in the target language engaged stu- dents to such an extent that they wrote more and better.
Students were given an opportunity to immerse themselves in personal topics so that they had something interesting or something they considered important to communicate to their readers. Reading and selecting materials gave them valuable input to their own writing, indeed, so much so that they didn’t have to worry about sufficient content for their maga- zine. The average length of a typical piece of their own writing for the magazine was one page (about 400 words), making it much longer than a normal classroom assignment (about 200 words).
The student editors had to write drafts and make repeated revisions of them, trying their best to polish their writing to their own satis- faction before having it published in their magazines. “After finishing every passage,” one student editor wrote, “I would always modify and revise it very carefully.” Another wrote, “I had spared no efforts to write every article the best I could.” It is clear that students had learned to take full responsibility for their own work. They had come to understand that writ- ing is a process involving constant revision, not only in terms of English grammar and usage, but also in terms of the logical organi- zation of ideas. In general, their own writing read more fluently and coherently and with fewer mistakes than the compositions I had corrected laboriously before the students launched their magazines.
Why such achievements?
After years of teaching EFL writing, I have reached the following conclusions: If students have the need or desire to write for real com- munication and a real audience, they will be glad to write. If they are engaged in challeng- ing and interesting tasks, they will write well. Finally, if they learn to be responsible for their own writing, they will write even better.
Clearly, giving students the freedom to include what they wanted and write what they wanted in their magazines required them to consider for whom and for what purpose they were writing. These considerations in turn
spurred them to write what they thought would be interesting or important to a real audience, in this case, their peers. Moreover, they felt compelled to consider how they could accomplish their task. All this motivated their writing and made it seem close to real- world writing outside the classroom (White 1987, 261).
Another important factor contributing to the success of the project was that it was nei- ther too easy nor too difficult for the students. Some students felt anxious at the beginning of the project, but all of the students persisted and finished the task on time, in spite of diffi- culties. In the course of editing their maga- zines, they gained confidence in their own abilities and enjoyed the work. There was no doubt, therefore, that requiring learners to present “a tangible end-product” made the project “meaningful and purposeful” (Skehan 1998, 273–4).
The project was learner-centered because strong emphasis was placed upon individual- ized reading and writing. It was up to the stu- dents to decide which topics to choose and how to approach those topics. Autonomy was thus initiated and learners were empowered to be masters of their own work. The task catered to students’ differences, needs, and interests, which in turn stimulated their enthusiasm for the task. When the project came to an end, many students were unwilling to stop, and one wrote: “You should have asked us to launch another magazine full of our own writings so that we may have the chance to write more and to write even better.”
Conclusion
During the project we had fun. The stu- dents were active participants, learners, writ- ers, and editors, while the teacher acted as director, organizer, and counselor. Students were engaged. They bragged to others, and they looked forward to the appreciative com- ments of their readers. Each magazine was unique, and they were a delight to read.
Next time I organize the project, I will make some improvements. First, I will increase the proportion of students’ own con- tributions or require that the magazines consist solely of their own writing, as one student sug- gested. Second, I will assign more classroom time to discuss problems and difficulties, since
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creating a magazine in a foreign language is such a demanding job. Third, I will ask stu- dents to publish their magazines on the Inter- net so that a wider audience will be able to appreciate them. With these changes, the proj- ect will be even more effective in strengthen- ing students’ writing skills.
References
Ellis, R. 1994. The study of second language acquisi- tion. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Skehan, P. 1998. A cognitive approach to language learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
White, R. 1987. Approaches to writing. In Long, M. H. and Richards, J. C. (eds.), Methodology in TESOL: A book of readings. New York: Newbury House Publishers.
YUEWU WANG teaches English at Shanghai Maritime University and is a Ph.D. student in Applied Linguistics at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China.
APPENDIX | EXCERPTS FROM STUDENT MAGAZINE English Magazines = Motivation + Improved EFL Writing Skill • Yuewu Wang
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APPENDIX (cont’d.) | EXCERPTS FROM STUDENT MAGAZINE English Magazines = Motivation + Improved EFL Writing Skill • Yuewu Wang
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