Every time I start thinking about the criteria for marking language learners’ essays a whole bunch of issues come to my mind, but perhaps the crucial one is whether we see essay writing mainly as a learning process or an assessment exercise.
It is not that uncommon to get some essays with no spelling mistakes at all and with just a few grammar errors submitted by students who in class and in the exams produce much poorer pieces of writing in both aspects. This may cause a certain conflict in our minds about how to deal with these differences in performance.
What we seem to forget is that the process of writing essays is fundamentally different from that of writing in class or in exam situations for a series of reasons: (a) students do drafts and peer correction, (b) they type their essays and the Word underlines not only the spelling mistakes, but also punctuation and grammar mistakes, so good students are usually able to spot them and correct them themselves before submitting, and (c) they may ask another colleague to proofread, which is just good academic practice and we are always preaching them to do so.
The whole issue also raises a number of questions:
- If we ‘want’ students to produce a piece of writing that is similar to the ones in class and in the exam, why do we ask them to write essays that are produced in completely different circumstances? Isn’t it because we want them also to practice process writing and spot mistakes that, ideally, will not be repeated in the test?
- Are we correcting essays just to find grammar and spelling mistakes or are we interested in seeing if they are able to use some of the bits of language that we taught them?
- If an essay is OK in terms of grammar, shouldn’t we then be happy to turn our attention to the argument/ideas problems and help our students to start dealing with more complex issues of academic stance and style?
As I see it, writing an academic essay in a language learning context is a process that ideally should cut down on gross language errors and just leave behind argument problems. If students have been through the processes of drafting, reviewing, having it peer corrected and proofread, they should end up with a reasonably decent text model which they can try to emulate in exam circumstances.
My own approach to essay writing is to treat it as a teaching activity and an opportunity students have to practise writing as a process.
There is a fascinating article in The Guardian today about rhetoric, which is the art of making speeches and the art of argumentation. With the King’s Speech very likely to grab a couple of Oscars this weekend, rhetoric and the challenges of speaking in public come, once again, to the spotlight. In her article Mary Beard makes us remind the origins of rhetoric and raises issues of gender, ethics and authorship.
Regarding the proportions, some of the considerations she makes can be brought to the less lofty sphere of giving presentations. This is obvious a personal concern because I have to give presentations myself, but also because in every EAP course I teach this is one of the skills in which we try to train our students. We teach them the basics of speaking in public: the importance of controlling your voice, body language, engaging with the audience, dress code, use of visual aids, time management, etc. However, we hardly ever address issues of ethics or authorship, which in the academic context is closely connected to issues of plagiarism.
Perhaps we should also ask our students to reflect on a couple of other things as well. How relevant to the academic community and the society as a whole is the topic you are presenting? What are the moral and social implications of the experiment you are reporting? What are the ethical concerns that your research has or should have addressed? How many of these words you are uttering are really the product of your reading and thought? Are you sure you are not just parroting what someone else said? People are absolutely scared of committing plagiarism in written form; are you being as careful to refer to other people’s ideas when you speak?
Just some food for thought… Read the whole article clicking on the link below.
What makes a great speech?
Summer is over – MRes is over.
Now I’m back to the OU for the everyday PhD work but I am also back into the classroom. Till December I will be teaching EAP to groups of PhD and Masters students at the ELTU at the University of Leicester. It is just a couple of hours this time but it is nice to be back to the classroom and back to Leicester, a place of fond memories and where I have good friends.
Writing this from the library at the University of Leicester where I’m now teaching the listening/speaking module to a group of students starting their university programmes this term. The Study Skills course is designed to help international students to get acquainted with academic work in the UK, thus in the following fours weeks I’ll be trying to help them to cope with academic presentations, active participation in seminars and essay writing.
I am quite excited about this because I believe my experience can be of some help and also because I think this is an important aspect in helping people to cope with the demands of academic studies in a foreign country. If I can help them to make this cultural and professional transition, I’ll consider myself happy.
I just met them yesterday and it seems it is going to be an interesting multi-cultural experience since I have people in the groups coming from China, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, Portugal, Spain and France.