Language learning: writing and writing exchanges

Writing helps focus on quality: richness of vocabulary and accuracy of grammar.  When you write, you have lots of time to find the best words. You have time to read and check for mistakes. It feels safer than speaking; good.   However, writing also records mistakes so makes many people uncomfortable and nervous.  Understand how useful this is, and improve your new language skills.  You want corrections, because they make you feel safe.  In fact, you need practice, lots and lots of easy practice: this is necessary to develop the new connections between brain cells… so that when to see an apple, your mind thinks Appel / Elma / Manzana / Pomme …
Writing exchanges, and how they started…

In 1995, when I was learning Turkish, a friend learning English asked for my help. We developed this method that allowed both of us to improve our foreign language. Tezcan was just starting his first English class; I had been in Turkey for two years.

First we planned how to work: we each got a notebook and started writing at home, alone. Then we met once a week, for 2 months that summer.

During the week, Tezcan and I wrote in our notebooks: enough so that there was something to be checked at the next meeting. But it worked so well, we became so enthusiastic that by the 4th week, we were writing too much to correct. We had to start selecting “I think I made mistakes here. Can you please check this paragraph?”

…we were becoming responsible learners, guiding our partner towards places we felt unsure about.

One more point: Before our first meeting we each wrote 5 pieces. It was striking to see how much better the 5th writing was (compared to our first writing) even though no one had even looked at them: even if you cannot find a partner, continued practice helps.
What to do:

In the week,

  • Alone, each partner writes several time in the note book:
  • Write on the right page, and on every second line
  • Leave a line empty between each line of writing – so small mistakes can be corrected.
  • Leave the left page blank: this large space is for more detailed corrections, for your partner to expain and give examples of correct use of your most common mistakes.

At the weekly meeting:

  • Decide who will be the first to show their writing
  • The ‘Teacher'(T) reads a section of text
  • T can mark where the small problems are; then the learner (L) can try to correct their mistake. The correction is written in the line above (or below) the writing.
  • T and/or L choose a common mistake: this is explained on the opposite page, with clear examples, until L can write good examples.
  • T and L exchange places: T becomes L, and L becomes T

In this method:

Each partner is motived, involved in the exchange because they want to.

Each partner is in control because

  • you write as little or as much as you want. You will not be told off for not doing your homework
  • you decide what to write about. You are not forced to answer some topic you are not interested in.

There is a balance in the roles. Each partner is both a teacher and a learner. In one meeting, you can feel the excitement of showing your work and waiting to see if you have written better sentences than before. And you will also notice the other’s ways of explaining meaning, though not grammatically correct. You then learn to mirror each other’s skills. You realise it isn’t so easy to explain how to make the right sentence, and you understand that teachers don’t have to be perfect, that learners can guide a teacher.
Partners need enough of a common language to communicate; a Turk wanting to keep his advanced level of French, and une Francaise wanting to learn basic Turkish can communicate in English.

A learner’s progress

Whatever we learn, we move through a sequence of stages. We start knowing nothing. I cannot make a mistake in Chinese, because I don’t know any Chinese (stage 1); I can make lots of mistakes in Spanish; I have a few words remaining from years ago – but I know I’m bad! (stage 2). In the 3rd stage, you can – with some effort – make good sentences. Stage 4 is when sentences just flow, or your fingers flow on the piano…
Going from Unconscious Incompetent => Conscious Incompetent => Conscious Competent => Unconscious Competent

Unconscious Incompetent: Unaware that you are making mistakes, you do not notice that you are not good. The brain cells don’t have information.

Conscious Incompetent: You notice that you are making mistakes. You are not yet able to make a correct form, but you know that there is a problem. Some brain cells have recorded information, but the links between cells are not yet established.

Conscious Competent: You now can do things correctly, but it still doesn’t come naturally: you have to think before you are sure, it takes time and effort. The brain cells are starting to develop regular connections/ pathways, but these are not yet automatic.

Unconscious Competent: Without effort, instinctively, by reflex you can simply produce the right structure: the connections between brain cells are so well established you no longer have to think about ‘how to say…’; you can now just focus on the content, ‘what to say’

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