More than a year ago, in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) group in Linkedin, there was a discussion on the lack of ideas that students exhibit while writing an essay: Natalia Borodina’s topic: ‘Dear colleagues! I would like to ask your advice about a peculiar problem Currently quite a few students really lack ideas when it comes down to writing an essay. Thanks in advance!’
I’d like us to think about this.
Writing involves sharing of thoughts on a topic that interests an individual or that the individual has to write about. Writing goes hand in hand with thinking on a given subject only after years of practice, write as you think, that is, without rough drafts. It’s too much to expect school children or even college students to perform this feat—it’s a feat indeed for these learners, given the fact they hardly hear or use English to express their thoughts at school, at home or in the neighbourhood.
To form sentences, you need ideas, and ideas come only through thinking on a topic. The base for thinking then is the topic. The topic can be a dry one, as in ‘what’s the purpose of life?’ or an exciting one as in ‘Twitter/ Facebook / Whatsapp as a social media is doing more harm than good to its users.’ If you asked your students to write on the first topic, they, being children, are very likely to find it difficult to think about it, even in their native tongue. Whereas in the case of the latter topic, the learners maybe more comfortable because either they are themselves users or know from their peers’ or relatives’ or friends’ experiences. Now they’ll have some related thoughts in terms of what the application is, how it operates, how users use them, its advantages and/ or disadvantages, and of course opinions. So, the sequence is topic®thinking®formation of ideas®putting on paper® organising them—[sentences (lexis and structure)—paragraphs (writing a topic sentence with major and minor thoughts through elaborations, repetition, expansions, examples]®essay®editing (for appropriateness of word and sentence choice, unity, cohesion and coherence, thought sequencing and logicality)®the final product for submission.
But it’s not as if the teacher announces a topic, expects his students to produce an essay, feels disappointed, annoyed, upset with their performance, gives up after several sincere attempts and lets them to their fate. The teacher has to bear in mind the limitations of their students’ general (world) knowledge and choose accordingly or accept students’ choice(s). Then they can decide on either letting their students write and then invite ideas from them about how they’ve performed or get students to map out on the blackboard before the actual writing. In either case, they can highlight the need for the right choice of words, of tense, the number, the gender, pronouns, sentence connectors, punctuation and so on.
However, before all these, students need to learn to express thoughts in single sentences—simple, complex and compound, then in a string of four or five sentences, then from small to large paragraphs, from one paragraph to several.
Yes, it’s a lot of work but then success will be rewarding.