Teaching Writing Online

Events of the past month have led to a dramatic change in how we teach our classes. Most college and university programs in North America and elsewhere in the world have suddenly shifted instruction to online formats, with teachers asked to redesign their courses midway through the semester (or just before the new quarter) from face-to-face instruction to entirely online instruction.

While some of you have likely taught online or hybrid courses before, for many of us, this is our first time not meeting regularly with our students in a classroom on campus. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling a bit overwhelmed with the prospects of turning the second half of a carefully developed face-to-face course into an all-online class while maintaining my connection with my students. In this blog post, I share a few thoughts and recommendations for teaching second language writing online.

Synchronous Instruction

I’ve seen some discussions about whether we should be doing synchronous sessions at all, since many students have had to move away from campus, possibly to other time zones, and may have limited access to the Internet at the times when our classes are scheduled. On the other hand, students seem to appreciate the opportunity to see each other’s faces and experience a moment when they can talk with people other than their parents or roommates. I have been trying to balance asynchronous activities with synchronous sessions in order to allow for both situations.

Though synchronous online teaching cannot completely replicate the casual interaction of the classroom, there are ways to set up instruction to give students a chance to talk with you and with each other about their writing and learning. Zoom allows for breakout rooms, which means if you have a larger class, you can separate the students and ask them to work on a task with a smaller group of peers. The participants within the breakout room can share their screens with each other or can work together on a Google Document, for example, as they talk through a task. This is a particularly useful way to encourage collaborative writing or discussion of a reading text. One caveat is that if you are recording the Zoom session, the recording only captures the main room, not the breakout rooms, so someone watching the session later wouldn’t be able to see what happened during the breakouts.

Vocabulary Development Tools

The Internet has some useful tools for students to analyze their own vocabulary usage and explore new words to include in their writing. Although the interface is not stylish, LexTutor has a couple of different Vocabulary Profiler tools that are quite easy to use. After pasting in a text they have written, students can then see how their word choice fits into the different levels (first thousand words, second thousand words, etc.) of English vocabulary. They can then use these results to make some decisions about whether they need to include more academic words in their texts (i.e., use a higher level synonym for a simple word) or vice versa.

LexTutor’s Vocabulary Profiler output

LexTutor’s Vocabulary Profiler output, showing word counts grouped by 1000-word sets

LexTutor’s concordance tool allows learners to check how a word is used in many different corpora (a corpus being a large collection of texts, usually all in a shared genre like academic writing or graded readers). Students can experiment with these tools to see whether they are using the words in the same way as other writers have. LexTutor also has some vocabulary learning activities and games that students could play on their own time to increase their word knowledge.

LexTutor Concordancer output for “synchronous”

I recommend that teachers play around with the tools themselves prior to assigning students to use them, since they are not always intuitive. When you know what you want your students to do on the site, you might make a screen capture video demonstrating how to access the specific tools and how to do the task you are asking students to do. (One easy-to-use free tool for this is Screencast-O-Matic, which lets teachers record up to 15 minutes of screen capture video at a time.)

For more ideas and tips on using corpora with your students, see “Basics of Using Corpora” on the TESOL Blog, by Greg Kessler.

Peer Response

In a writing class, we often want to have our students provide each other with feedback on drafts of their written texts. Research has shown that peer response is beneficial to both writers, who get advice for improving their own texts, and reviewers, who learn how others have responded to the same task (Lundstrom & Baker, 2009). In an online teaching environment, we can set up asynchronous peer response activities to allow students to get feedback and see how their classmates are responding to an assignment.

One option is to assign students to groups and have them share their drafts via email (CCing the teacher). Another (useful if you can’t rely on all your students to submit work on time) is to have all students post to a class discussion board and then write comments as discussion responses. I would only suggest this approach for lower stakes assignments, however, as some students may be self-conscious about sharing their work with the entire class. As with any peer response activity, it’s important to provide students with guidelines and focus tasks. I wrote last year about peer response in general, and all three of the suggestions I made hold when the process is done online: (1) establish a climate that fosters supportive response, (2) allow students to provide feedback in their first languages, and (3) provide peer response training.

Small Group Conferences

One way to facilitate peer response and support students’ learning how to provide each other with feedback is to run small-group writing conferences. Unlike one-to-one conferences, where the teacher and a single student meet to talk over the student’s draft, small group conferences allow students to apprentice into the role of feedback provider. Ching (2011) described the process in an American college writing classroom, and Yeh (2016) observed the same process in an EFL setting in Taiwan. In both cases, three or so students met with their teacher at one time. Before the conference, the students had exchanged their drafts with each other and with the teacher. During the conference, the teacher facilitated a discussion about each student’s draft in turn. Unlike what happens in many peer response sessions, the teacher was also an active participant in the discussion, modeling how to give feedback and pointing out areas where the student writer could improve the text. This process could easily be replicated in an online setting, where small groups of writers sign up to meet with the teacher to talk about their drafts. The screen-sharing function of applications like Zoom allow the whole group to be looking at the same point in a text, and the “interactive whiteboard” feature allows users to underline, highlight, and otherwise annotate the text on the screen as well.


These suggestions are just the tip of the iceberg for online writing instruction. If you are not already following Facebook groups dedicated to teaching during the pandemic and TESOL’s COVID-19 Resources Group, I strongly encourage you to sign up for those. Please comment below about other resources you have found helpful for online writing instruction.

References

Ching, K. L. (2011). Apprenticeship in the instructor-led peer conference. Composition Studies, 39(2), 101–119.

Lundstrom, K., & Baker, W. (2009). To give is better than to receive: The benefits of peer review to the reviewer’s own writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 18(1), 30–43. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jslw.2008.06.002

Yeh, C. -C. (2016). EFL college students’ experiences and attitudes towards teacher-student writing conferences. Journal of Response to Writing, 2(2), 37–65.

About Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland
Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she was chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section (2019-2020) and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.
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