Building Confidence and Competence through Prewriting Activities
◎ Catherine Dibello（黎白露）
Encountering Student Anxiety about English Composition
In 1980, on my first day of teaching a college writing course in Taiwan, I asked my Providence College students to write an in-class essay on the Mid-Autumn Festival. To a young, naive American who had taught English only in the United States, this seemed like an easy assignment for my Freshman Composition students and a good way for me to gather information about my new class's writing skills. The class, however, looked at me in dismay, and one frightened student timidly raised her hand and asked, "Write? In English?" With a sinking heart, I thought about what a long semester it would be, both for my students and for me.
Teaching Writing as a Process to Build Confidence
Decades have passed, and students in Taiwan are less surprised that teachers and future employers may require them to write in English. Indeed, quite a few high school and university students are now required to write in English in their English courses and written English is part of some standard tests. For instance, seven teachers colleges require their students who wish to become elementary school teachers to take the General English Proficiency Test, which includes a writing section. Also, companies like Shihlin Electric and Engineering Corporation and Cathay Life Insurance Corporation require people seeking promotions to take the same test. Nevertheless, fear of writing in English is still widespread in Taiwan. One way to deal with this fear is to use the process approach to teach writing. This process presents writing as a series of steps and emphasizes the pre-writing stage. Not only does such an approach make writing a less threatening task, but as years of research with native speakers of English indicates, it is also a good pedagogical practice that leads to more developed compositions.
Linking Reading with Writing Assignments
While I have always understood the pedagogical value of the prewriting stage of the composition process, now that I am a more experienced teacher, I have come to see prewriting as perhaps the most important stage, especially for ESL students. When I returned to Taiwan to teach at Tunghai University in 1991-92 and 1994-96, I spent my first day of writing classes teaching prewriting strategies, and I made sure to build in multiple prewriting activities for each writing assignment. ESL students always benefit from approaches that integrate the four skills, listening, speaking, reading, and writing. For most students in Taiwan, reading is the least intimidating of these skills. I often used a short article from a newspaper, a magazine, or our textbook as a prompt for a writing assignment. Readings not only provided models of good writing, but also suggested ideas students could address and introduced specific vocabulary related to the assignment. The Taipei Times newspaper even includes a section with vocabulary that follows the articles. Several students told me that the time I spent going over vocabulary helped them enormously since many students in Taiwan perceive their lack of a sophisticated English vocabulary as one of their greatest weaknesses as writers.
Linking Speaking with Writing Assignments
Another way to integrate different skills into prewriting is by linking speaking and writing assignments. In a general English course or a dual-focus course that grades both writing and speaking, like the Composition and Oral Practice courses that foreign language majors at Tunghai University take, it is easy to develop assignments that include written and oral components. For instance, a teacher can link a debate on a controversial topic with a persuasive paper that students will write on the same topic after the debate. Although most universities do not combine composition and oral practice courses, even in a class that deals only with writing, a teacher can use informal speaking activities as prewriting activities. For instance, two students can interview each other in front of the class as a prelude to a paper based on the interview. Similarly, for a personal experience narrative, one student can tell the class his or her story, and the other students can ask questions about confusing parts and indicate where the student needs to fill in more details.
Creating Topics in Groups
Regardless of the assignment, one very useful prewriting technique that I frequently use both in the United States and in Taiwan is to have students work in groups to generate topics. Most students find tasks less threatening if they can work with others, and students in Taiwan are used to cooperating and sharing ideas. As research on collaborative learning indicates, social interaction can be a key factor in students' learning to write. Once the groups have listed a number of possible topics, I ask each group to write its topics on the board and to explain them to the rest of the class. The rest of the class will then provide written or oral feedback on the suggested topics. For written feedback, I distribute a form on which students rank each group's suggested topics in terms of how interesting, how feasible, and how appropriate for the assignment they are. With oral feedback, I encourage students to ask the other groups questions about their topics to determine whether the topics are feasible and how they could be developed.
Encouraging Brainstorming, Diagramming, and Clustering
After students select the topic on which they want to write, I ask them to brainstorm individually on their topic by listing as many details as possible on paper. Some teachers prefer that students use a diagram to show the relationships of their ideas by drawing them like a tree with the trunk as the main idea and the supporting ideas as branches and twigs. Similarly, students can use clustering by enclosing their main idea in a circle in the center of a blank page and then connecting this idea to circled supporting ideas and drawing lines between related details. Some people like using tree diagrams and clusters since they contend that these methods stimulate the pattern-making part of students' brains and help with organization more than a simple brainstorming list does. While there are some differences among these methods and some teachers prefer one more than another, each method should help students generate many valuable details.
Allowing Bilingual Brainstorming
Research varies on whether ESL students produce better compositions if they brainstorm in their native language or if they brainstorm in English. In my experience at universities in Taiwan, most of my students used a combination of English and Chinese, depending upon the topic. For a topic more rooted in Chinese tradition or Taiwan's political situation, students tended to use more English in their brainstorming than for a topic related to Western culture. Personally, I do not think students should be forced to brainstorm in English since the purpose of this stage of the writing process is to produce ideas, not to produce English. I do not need to be able to read every detail a student has listed; even in the United States, a student's brainstorming list is often hard for anyone other than the student to follow.
Generating Ideas through Freewriting
Once my students have brainstormed a list of details, I then assign a focused freewrite. Freewriting is a technique advocated by Peter Elbow and Ken Macrorie in which students write without stopping and without worrying about grammatical correctness or even organization. In freewriting's purest form, students write whatever is in their minds without focusing on a particular topic. The concepts behind freewriting are that students can discover that they have ideas by writing and that students generate richer, more detailed writing if they are not paralyzed by the demand for grammatical correctness, which should be dealt with at a later stage in the composing process.
Focusing Ideas through Freewriting and Looping
Moreover, students can also get a sense of their topic as a whole if they freewrite before they begin their first draft, which can help with organization. Some teachers use a sequence of freewrites, sometimes called looping, which begins with an unfocused writing and then moves though increasingly focused freewrites on a specific topic. I usually assign freewrites that are at least loosely connected to the student's topic. For instance, if I have assigned the class to write papers that propose solutions to a problem in Taiwan, each student would freewrite his or her own ideas about the specific problem he or she has chosen before doing any research. For me, a freewriting is like what Donald Murray has called a "zero draft," a version of the paper that comes before the first draft and is much rougher.
Focusing Ideas through Prewriting Questions Called Heuristics
Another prewriting technique that helps students sharpen the focus of their papers is to use a series of ordered questions, sometimes called heuristics, about the topic and about its audience and purpose. These questions can be as simple as the traditional journalistic "who, what, when, where, and why" or can be lengthy and very detailed, depending on the assignment and the level of the student. For example, for a paper about a contemporary problem in Taiwan, students could ask themselves some of the following questions: What has caused the problem? Whom is the problem affecting? What are possible solutions? Which solution would be easiest to adopt? What type of evidence do I need to use to prove that my solution would work? On the other hand, for an assignment in which students have to write a paper about one of their grandparents, the student would ask quite different questions that dealt with the grandparent's background and experiences. Teachers who like using heuristics can easily prepare a list of questions for each type of writing assignment or, in an advanced class, can ask students to work in groups to develop their own questions for the assignments.
Applying Prewriting Techniques Beyond the English Classroom
The ideas that I have discussed are only a few of the many types of prewriting activities. Because students have varied learning styles and because different writing assignments require different types of preparation, teachers should experiment with several of these techniques to see which ones best suit their needs. What is important is that emphasis on the invention stage of writing helps students gain confidence and produce a wider range of ideas. Most students in Taiwan are not encouraged to spend time on prewriting activities when they are taught to compose in Chinese, so those of us who teach students to write in English need to stress the importance of this step. To my great delight, I have found that students value this training and that prewriting activities also help students compose in Chinese. In January 2003, I saw one of the students who had been in my Composition and Oral Practice II course at Tunghai University in 1994-95. As we were reminiscing about the course and I recalled his role in the play and in the inter-class debate, he surprised me by telling me that one thing that actually meant more to him than those starring roles was learning to take time for prewriting activities. While the glory of winning the debate quickly faded, the valuable prewriting skills have improved his writing both in English and Chinese in ways that will help him throughout his life. Like all teachers, I love hearing that a technique that I have used in a course has helped a student both in and beyond the classroom. I think that you, too, will find that greater emphasis on the prewriting stage of the writing process eases students' fear of writing and leads to richer, more developed compositions.
Catherine Dibello（黎白露） received her Ph.D. from Indiana University's English Department in 1983. An associate professor in Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania's English Department, she teaches courses ranging from Basic Writing to graduate seminars. Dibello has also spent four years teaching composition and literature in Taiwan; 1n 1980-81, she taught at Providence University, and in 1991-92 and 1994-96, she taught at Tunghai University. She is the co-author of At the Source: A Basic Writing Textbook