Why it is so hard to learn writing

Writing skills for English learners

The webinar ‘Make your writing work for you’ has happened, and I am more than happy about it! I am delighted to have seen more than 20 people come, and the ones participating in the chat were so active. It was like a little miracle: see people learning in front of my eyes! I will never get tired of that.

I had a minor problem about the chat room capacity, and not everybody could take part in the discussion. I am a bit disappointed with myself that I hadn’t checked it before the start, but well… a valuable lesson has been learnt. The good thing was to hear from the ones who couldn’t enter the chat room how much they wanted to get in and take part in the conversation! I am a bit surprised – I hoped, of course, to make it as interactive as possible but people were even more active I could have hoped!

What did I talk about?

– de-stereotyping approaches to learning how to write, and how everyone can write well;

– how your stylistic mistakes can cost you your professional reputation,

– how formal and informal styles work;

I also gave my professional advice on how to focus your learning of English not to waste your time on something which doesn’t work.

I will present you a short review of my thoughts on the matter here. Watch the replay to get to know the details if you feel interested!

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I hear a lot of feedback from my students and people willing to learn English about how hard the writing in English feels.  And I started thinking why

Why does writing seem to be so hard?

Well, yes, writing is the highest skill in the hierarchy, and it feels you need to learn as much vocabulary and grammar as possible to learn how to write. Well, it is a big, fat stereotype which is, of course untrue, as it happens with many of them. Writing is a skill, therefore the question is not how much information you pile up in some deep corners of your memory, but what you can do in the language.

There are 4 basic language skills which make up our language ability:

Hierarchy of language skills

 

Reading and Listening are receptive skills (they help you receive the information), and

Speaking and Writing are productive ones (they determine how you produce your own messages).

Receptive skills are more about practising of input, and productive ones have everything to do with doing things in the language you’re learning.

What is the most productive way to learn a language?

You start with Speaking – develop a productive skill, getting the concept of producing (saying, pronouncing, participating in the conversation), then enrich your knowledge through Listening and Reading, and then you learn a new productive skill – Writing. In this kind of approach, you can produce at any level. The new knowledge will only increase the level of sophistication for your messages, but will not be absolutely necessary.

The sad story is that many foreigners start learning a new language (in our case, English) through reading (if lucky, listening). Thus, the concept of a SKILL is not developed because language learning is seen as just learning another science through collecting the biggest amount of knowledge possible. I am talking about the traditional school approach we had to go through, for example, in Russia. And I hear a lot of opinions from people in other countries in Europe complaining about too formalised, too reading-centered learning they are forced to do (and as a result, having big difficulties with speaking the language they had been taught).

And from that moment, it’s a vicious circle. Any productive effort (doesn’t matter, speaking or writing) feels frustrating because the comfort zone lies in the area of reception. Being taught at school that the more you know means the better you feel, people get back to what they CAN do – reading and learning more stuff. But the miracle doesn’t happen: productive skills do not form themselves. So, we feel we haven’t been trying hard enough, get disappointed with ourselves and so on, and so on. If we have to use the language due to some external factors (like moving to another country or getting a job), we have to overcome our fears and develop the skills somehow (sometimes we are lucky with the teacher, or sometimes it’s just a lot of pushing through), but the majority give in to the fear trying to figure out what they have done wrong.

The key to success is the shift in approach. You need to accept the fact that practical skills are trained, not learnt, and work in that direction.

The skill works a bit differently from the knowledge. There are three elements to it, not two  as most of us are used to thinking:

webinar2

 

The function is exactly what you will be doing in every message (in our case, writing) you create. What practical thing are you doing in every message? It’s not just an I-am-writing-because-I-am-writing thing. You have some goal in mind, or you have to learn how to formulate it. We have done a practical training with examples in the webinar, so feel free to follow my exercises and write your examples in the comments section – I will check and give feedback about everyone.

So, how do the functions work for writing?

Further, we covered one of the important functional elements of writing: the style. When you create your message, you want to make it well-appreciated by the other side, and here the style comes in handy. You cannot afford to lose an important contract because of a lousy style of your emails or sounding too stupid being unable to write or speak informally. I cover different elements which show formal or informal styles in writing, and you can learn from the examples on my slides or even download the guide I have made which will help you learn these nuances.

And another myth – your mistakes ruin everything. Is it true?

The last, but not the least, myth I tell about briefly is the concept of mistakes – yes, our belief that people think that we are idiots if we make any kind of mistake in our speaking and writing. This kind of grammar perfectionism I hear about every day. There are some mistakes which can ruin your message, like when people literally don’t understand what you are saying (and most of them are not grammar ones, what a surprise!), and there are some I call the mistakes of reputation: if you make them, people hardly notice (yes, it’s true, we checked!) but it doesn’t break communication, so your goals are achieved. It is not an academic approach, it’s my observations how the language works. I hope my 15-year experience advocates enough for that. You can have a look at the examples of these 2 types of mistakes:

Types of language mistakes

 

You must have noticed that the left column (where nothing terrible happens) contains grammar which we have spent the biggest amount of time on throughout the years! But in reality, we need to concentrate on the things from the right column and it doesn’t always happen. So, not the number of hours spent on our language learning matters, but the focus. With the right focus, training the necessary skills and working on the zones which are crucial to communication, you can start functioning in your target language quite fast saving yourself a lot of time and frustration. Your learning should be directed, I will never get tired of repeating that.

I hope you will enjoy the webinar replay. Try to use the pauses while I am waiting for the answers and practise with us. I hope to see you at the next events! And as usual, ask me any questions on the matter here or at any social network you’re following! Hope to hear from you!

Feel free to practise while watching and comment!
If you want to download the Style Guide of Formal and Informal writing I mention during the webinar, just click on the picture below.

Please share it with your friends if you find it useful.

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