Monday, 14 May 2018

How to Develop your Writing at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

Plus Growing your Vocabulary with Writing

Writing is one of the four core skills that you need to develop when learning a foreign language.

Let’s first define writing. “Writing is a medium of human communication that represents language and emotion with signs and symbols. In most languages, writing is a complement to speech or spoken language. Writing is not a language, but a tool used to make languages be read." [source]

As you know from history, people used to scribble on cave walls, clay tablets, bark, papyrus, etc. This was all writing. In our digital age, we are witnessing a shift from handwriting on paper to creating digital documents by typing.

Handwriting on paper still plays a big role, however, especially when one thinks about education in general and learning languages in particular. After all, there are so many brilliant resources for learning languages in the form of physical course books.

So, in this post, by writing I will mean both handwriting and typing, as learners of foreign languages are likely to be using both modes.

A quick note before you jump to your level below: even if your level is not, for example, elementary, I recommend not to skip this information as a lot of stuff that is relevant for elementary level learners is very relevant for intermediate and even advanced learners, too.

At elementary level, you will mostly be dealing with separate words and short phrases. So, at the start, you will be taking writing in your target language in baby steps, too, and your writing will be limited to separate words and simple phrases or sentences.

As nowadays the tools for correcting spelling are quite advanced and reliable, you might be tempted to skip learning how exactly the words you are trying to remember are spelt. After all, as a busy adult, you don’t have too much time for learning your foreign language and might want to save time on tasks that do not seem too important.

However, you need to be cautious with setting the bar too low here. The reason you can get away with spelling mistakes in your native language is because they are minor mistakes. For example, in your native language, it’s not a problem if you cannot remember if the word “company” is spelt with an “a” or an “o”, you just type it and a spell checker will correct it. A spell checker is your best friend when it comes to typing: it won’t look down on you because of your gaffes, will never accuse you of being ignorant or uneducated.

With your target language, however, if you set the bar too low and are too relaxed about spelling from the start, you risk skipping more than just correct spelling. As a beginner, who doesn’t know anything about the language yet, you risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Spelling of any language is a system that you need to gradually understand and get used to. So, aiming at getting your spelling correct when writing is far from being a waste of time.

For example, if you learn French, you have noticed that the spelling is not phonetic, i.e. there is a big gap between pronunciation and spelling of the words, so spelling is an extra pain in the rear when you learn new words. It doesn’t mean that French words have some random spelling, though it might well seem so for you as a beginner. There are certain combinations of letters that produce certain sounds, so as you keep writing in French and aid your practical efforts with theory, you memorise these combinations of letters and get more comfortable with these weird clusters.

Another example is Russian. Once you have come to grips with the Cyrillic monsters, the spelling system is not as bad as French but still not phonetic, so you have to learn correct spelling. While you probably don’t have to obsess about spelling adjectives with one “n” or double “n” (“н”/“нн”) correctly (even native speakers can get it wrong), other spelling rules help you with adequate language acquisition. For example, spelling of nouns with an “o” or an “a” (“o”/“a”), an “i” or an “e” (“и”/“е”) in the roots of words correctly helps you recognise related words by the same root and not get lost among all different forms of these words.

Even if you aim at getting your spelling 100% right, you will be making spelling mistakes from time to time. That’s where a spell checker comes in: it will correct your minor mistakes and typos. So, don’t get paranoid about spelling but keep your eyes and mind open to learning how words are spelt and when writing the words you are learning aim at spelling them correctly.

With the writing exercises in vocBlocks’ Memoriser, we have been trying to keep this balance of using your time efficiently when learning new words and practising accurate spelling. By default, the tool will accept minor spelling mistakes and typos so that you could progress with your task quicker. However, if you see that the spelling mistake you have made is not a typo and you would like to make sure you get the spelling 100% accurate, you need to click the thumb down button below the answer before you proceed to the next word. Thus, you will signal to Memoriser that you are not happy with your answer and would like the word to be shown again.

One of the very effective and level appropriate activities at elementary level is simple dialogues. So, in addition to writing separate words and sentences, you could practise writing dialogues that you are putting together from the phrases and words you are learning. Of course, here comes a question of time as usual: it is much quicker to copy and paste. However, if you would like to remember the words and phrases better, you’d better type them from scratch: it will take longer but it won’t be a waste of time as you will eventually learn the words and phrases from these dialogues quicker as well as the whole dialogues to perform them in front of a mirror or with your language partner/teacher.

As you progress to intermediate level, you will be able to manage more complex input, i.e. read and listen to more complex materials in your target language, and also produce more complex output yourself both in writing and speaking.

How much you speak and how much you write depends on your language goals which could be set by answering the question whether you need to use your target language in oral or written form more in order to achieve your personal or professional goals.

However, even if your primary goal is speaking rather than writing, you shouldn’t neglect writing if you are serious about your target language acquisition and would like to take it beyond casual conversations. Compared to speaking, writing gives you more precision and accuracy with your grammar and vocabulary.

First, when writing, you are likely to use more precise and advanced vocabulary and grammar, simply because you have more time to think, verify your ideas with some language community/a native speaker/a teacher, refer to a dictionary or other source, etc.

Second, while grammar and vocabulary mistakes don’t sound too bad when you speak, they are very visible when you write. And it is not only easier to catch these mistakes, it is also easier to correct them: with writing you get a second chance, you can go back, reread and amend.

For example, it is very easy for learners of English to mix up different phrasal verbs, especially when speaking. However, if you want to sound more authentic when speaking English, phrasal verbs are a must. So, before you confuse your foreign friends with a sentence: “I’d like to sing on with you, guys” while you meant to say “I’d like to sing along with you, guys”, you need to practise phrasal verbs by doing some exercises or using them when you compose something in writing.

With ready vocBlocks Phrasal Verbs you have exercises where you need to fill in the gaps in sentences by typing a correct verb. Unlike many vocabulary learning applications, vocBlocks allows you to free type your answers and not just choose them from the available options. We believe that writing answers from scratch without any prompts is a more effective and efficient way of learning these words that will ensure that you spontaneously use them later in speaking.

At intermediate level, you can also start using your writing for real communication, especially if you are too shy to communicate via speaking and mainly speak with yourself in the mirror, your cat or your language teacher.

In the old days, when it came to written interaction with native speakers of the language you were learning, you had only “snail” mail. Today, you have at least three modes of online communication in writing at your disposal: texting, emailing and posting.

If you are very new to any of these three modes in your target language, it’s easier to start with emailing. For this, you will need a language partner whom you could actually send your emails. They don’t have to be long at first, and if you and your partner hit it off, you can gradually increase the length of your emails. Obviously, you should be sensible and leave your war-and-peace-volume creations to your journal or diary, otherwise, your language partner might disappear quietly and politely.

Compared to emailing, texting (i.e. exchange of instant messages via Skype, WhatsApp, etc.) is trickier as very often it is real-time conversation albeit in the written form. So, you have to read (+ understand, of course) and type your messages quite quickly. Don’t worry though, the speed means you can be more casual with your grammar and vocabulary, use shorter phrases rather than sentences, slaughter punctuation, shorten those long words you cannot spell properly anyway and cherry top it all with acronyms. When you cannot find the right words, with texting it’s ok to resort to “non-verbal” communication like emojis and pictures.

Parallel to emailing and texting activities, you could practise your writing by creating posts, commenting and posting questions on social media, blogs and forums. For example, there are public and private Facebook groups for those who learn foreign languages where you could find like-minded language geeks and native speakers for general and language-specific advice (polyglots Olly Richards and Lindsay Williams have very helpful Facebook groups, for example).

Please, note though, that the primary purpose of this activity is sharing and getting information while developing your writing skill is a nice bonus. If you need to purely practise your writing, there are places where you can post your masterpieces and ask the community for a feedback and possible corrections. For example, italki’s notebook and busuu’s social have lovely communities happy to help you in your writing endeavours. Please, note, however, that not all corrections are made... hm, correctly, so you need to check the credentials of the user who made them.

At advanced level, you could add other, more challenging, writing activities to your writing range: writing essays or blog posts in your area of expertise or, if you happen to be a vlogger, you could write scripts for videos in your target language to reach new audiences.

For example, if you love travelling, you could practise your writing by blogging in your target language and telling the world about a hairy cow you got spooked by in Scottish Highlands, a scorpion on a stick you munched in China, an ostrich race you cheered in New Orleans; if you are a parent, you could blog and vent about your kids and rant about other parents in your target language; if you love cooking, you could translate into your target language and post some of your favourite recipes that help native speakers of your target language discover your national cuisine; if you are an avid reader and read a lot in your target language, you could write book reviews in this language helping others discover great books and find the ones suitable for them.

Well, the possibilities for writing at advanced level are endless, you just need to keep your eyes open for them and keep your writing development in mind.

Growing your Vocabulary with Writing

Writing plays an important role in growing your vocabulary as it makes learning new words more efficient. Of course, you can pick up new words by reading and listening but if you plug in writing, you can greatly increase your efficiency with learning new words.

With this in mind, we have included writing exercises into vocabulary practice with Memoriser. Once you have selected words you would like to learn from Ready vocBlocks or recorded your own in My vocBlocks and sent them to Memoriser, you are offered a range of exercises with these words. The most challenging, writing exercises conclude the learning stage. With these exercises, you look at the pictures, translation or explanation of the new words you are learning and type them in your target language without any prompts.

So, with reading or listening you need to come across a word multiple times before you remember it. But if you have to recall and write it yourself while doing some vocabulary exercises, with vocBlocks’ Memoriser, for example, or use this word while writing your own texts, you will remember it quicker.

Of course, speaking also helps you remember new words because you have to recall and actively use them yourself rather than just see or hear them. However, compared to speaking, when writing, you spend more time with the vocabulary you are learning, can work with a dictionary and other sources, can research different examples of usage of these words, look at the grammar side, etc.

There is a Russian proverb: “Что написано пером, не вырубишь топором”, which can be roughly translated as “What is written cannot be removed”. While this proverb is not actually connected to learning languages, it perfectly reflects the nature of writing: writing produces tangible stuff. So, when you use the new words you are learning in writing and not just in speaking, you remember them better.

Happy writing!

Want to develop all four core foreign language skills? Check out our other posts to learn how:

How to Develop your Reading at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

How to Develop your Listening at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels

How to Develop your Speaking at Elementary, Intermediate and Advanced Levels (upcoming)

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