One question many ESL teachers struggle with is whether to include timed writings as part of their class planning.
It can be a difficult question to answer because, as with most things in teaching and in life, timed writings come with both plusses and minuses. To help you figure out if timed writings are right for you and your students, here are some of the advantages and disadvantages I have found come with timed writings.
Consider These Advantages of Timed Writings
Standardized Test Preparation
If you are teaching older students who plan to pursue higher education in English, timed writings may be a good idea to include in your class. In order to attend an American university, your students will have to take the TOEFL test or another test like it. Part of that standardized test is a timed writing. Students who have practiced composing essays on the spot in your class will stress less and be able to organize their ideas more quickly and effectively than those who haven’t. If TOEFL preparation is a primary reason you choose to include timed writings in your ESL class, you can even model your writing prompts after those on the standardized test or recycle questions from previous tests.
True Measure of Writing Skills
If you have been a foreign language student and especially if you have studied a language in a foreign country, you know how intimidating writing essays in a foreign language can be. Unfortunately, some students deal with their anxiety by soliciting help from native speakers. Some help may be fine, but help can quickly become do, and what you eventually receive is a very poor representation of how your student writes. In class writing, timed or not, enables you to get a true measure of your student’s writing ability. This means your students will not have input from native speakers on their writing – content, style, or most importantly grammar.
No Canned Essays
I had never heard of canned essays until I was taking a foreign language testing methods class. The way my professor explained canned essays was like this. When scoring writing for standardized testing, a given essay had to relate to the writing prompt. If it did not at least mention it, the essay was disqualified. If, however, an essay mentioned the writing prompt and then proceeded to write on a completely different topic, that essay was something they could score. Some test takers know this and prepare for the writing sample on standardized testing by memorizing an essay that they will write during the exam. During the test, that person needs only connect the writing prompt to the topic of the memorized, or canned, essay. When you give in class timed writings, you will uncover those students who may want to rely on a canned essay during test taking. The more often you do in class writing, the more likely the canned essays will be outed and the less likely your students are to try a canned essay again. You can then meet with those students to discuss and practice essay writing strategies.
Keep in Mind The Disadvantages of In Class Timed Writings
It’s Stressful for Students
Writing an essay can be enough of a challenge on its own. When you add to that the urgency of writing in class and under a clock, students can become nearly paralyzed with anxiety. Stress is dangerous where second language learners are concerned. Too much pressure, whether external or internal, can create a barrier that a language learner may not be able to overcome. For such students, in class writings may not be worth the risk.
It’s Beyond Beginners
If you are teaching beginning students, you know that activities intermediate and advanced students would breeze through can be a huge challenge to the members of your class. In class writings may be one of those things. Even with ample time, your students may not be able to compose anything on the spot. For these students, it’s important to have not only time but also resources – dictionaries, text books, etc. – on hand for any writing project and probably wise to avoid pressured writing experiences.
It’s Two Challenges in One
When ESL teachers ask students to do an in class timed writing, the primary goal is measuring the student’s writing ability – his or her ability to organize, use correct grammar, choose the best vocabulary, and generally get his message through to the reader. And even though those are what an ESL teacher seeks to measure, that is not all the student is being tested on. In class writings also measure a student’s ability to select appropriate content about which to write. Depending on your students, testing the ability to choose and support one’s ideas may skew their success at writing in English. In this case, students may appear to have less successful writing skills when the content is what is really tripping them up. Giving students the question in advance will give them time to prepare their answers, but it will also tempt students to produce a canned essay in class.
It Takes Time
For some ESL teachers, fitting another task into the lesson plan is just too much on any day. Timed writings can take an entire class period, and some teachers do not have the time to spare. Some schools require that certain material be covered in each class, and often that leaves little to no room for additional exercises like timed writings. For these teachers, in class writing may be a luxury they cannot afford.
It’s Not Real Life
Unless your ESL students intend to pursue higher education in English, it’s not likely they will ever have to perform an English task like timed writing. In business, coworkers are more likely to collaborate when writing, especially if one of them is not a native English speaker. Requiring your students to do a timed writing in class may be the only time they have to write in such a way. You may decide that your class time is better spent on realistic writing tasks which have real world applications for your students.
Ultimately, whether to have students write timed, in class compositions is a question every teacher must answer for himself or herself. For some, the advantages will outweigh the disadvantages. For others, the opposite will be true. To find the answer for yourself, think about where your students are in their English studies and what their ultimate goals are. Ask yourself some questions and be confident in your own decision.
Do you include timed writings in your class?
What helped you make your decision?