I came home from ACTFL with a mile-long list of thoughts and ideas, but one stood out among all the rest: How do we transform presentational writing into a meaningful process for students at all levels?
The presentation that sparked this question was aimed at university-level students, and I knew some of the strategies would be well beyond reasonable expectations for my classes. It was worthwhile, however. If anything, it was comforting to be in a room of people who agree that presentational writing is one of the most difficult skills to address in a purposeful way.
The tricky thing about presentational writing is that it’s intended for an audience who will read the text but not respond to it. The classic “write a letter to a pen pal” is an easy way to give students their first taste of personalized, extended writing, but prompts like this address interpersonal writing, not presentational writing. We can easily beef up our writing with questions to the reader, who we hope will respond.
There are classic presentational writing prompts, too. Write a one-page essay describing your family. Write a paragraph describing items in your French classroom. Write a journal entry about a trip you took. There’s some good in these prompts. They can be fleshed out in a way that allows students to express themselves individually. But there’s one major problem: exactly who is supposed to be reading these texts? Crafting a meaningful purpose and audience is just as important as providing a prompt that allows for creativity and individual expression. Students need a potential audience, and preferably a very plausible one. Who wants to put this much effort into writing something that no one will ever read?
Honing in on Theme, Purpose and Audience
After digesting the ideas from the presenter and from my own reflection, I came up with these minimal criteria for designing a meaningful presentation writing activity:
- The topic needs to be level appropriate and engaging enough to motivate students.
- The prompt should clarify the purpose, and the purpose should be plausible.
- The activity should include a realistic audience
- Students will most likely need to see real-life examples similar to the intended product. In some cases, students may even need to examine specific L2 examples of writing style. An example from the presentation noted how journalistic French relies on the conditional, whereas journalistic English uses modal verbs like “may”, “might” and “could” to indicate reported unverified details.
Those criteria are fairly easy to grasp, but that doesn’t make them easy to implement. My next challenge would be to give this a try. The sample products from the presentation were far beyond the proficiency level of my students. Hacking those exact ideas down to the novice level wouldn’t leave my students much to work with. I wanted an activity that would challenge my students to write a lot, but within the comfortable bounds of their proficiency.
Here’s a thought. What if, instead of a few isolated writing activities, I turn this thing into a long-term process that takes students through all the topics we’ll cover in the two or three years they study with me? What if I can link the short information they write in 7th grade to the lengthy paragraphs they’ll be able to write by 9th grade? Go big or go home, right?
I thought it over for a while and I decided to capitalize on the easiest and most obvious theme that came to mind. I work at a school that welcomes numerous international students every year. Those students need to know all sorts of information about the school, our small town and the surrounding communities. They’ll need to know what kinds of responsibilities they’ll face and what they can do for fun, what kinds of things they’ll need and where they can buy them. Our school already produces tons of documents, visuals, infographics and so on for this very real purpose. We don’t, however, produce them in French.
I have a realistic and very possible audience, a plausible and meaningful purpose, and a totally open-ended theme that can accommodate every topic of presentational language we address from French 1A all the way to French 2.
Designing & Implementing the Concept
My students are already used to completing things like oral presentations and thematic interpersonal speaking and writing activities every quarter. Those activities are isolated, though. Now we have a process that not only addresses the underutilized skill of presentational writing but also leads to a final product that gives students the chance to see how all their skills can fit together as a unified, meaningful whole. That final product: a detailed handbook specifically aimed at French-speaking students who are interested in attending our school.
The only thing left at this point was to decide exactly what students would contribute to this process during each quarter of their years of novice-level French.
At first, I was stuck thinking in paragraph format. That’s what the term “presentational writing” conjures up: stories, blog entries, introductions and conclusions with three body paragraphs. Here I am again facing those same roadblocks. I don’t want contrived paragraphs with all these little subtopics mushed into an awkward union that would never happen in real life. Sure, we might learn weather and family in the same quarter. But how often do people write about what kinds of weather their family members prefer?
It was time to expand and rework my conceptions about presentational writing. Presentation language is, really, any kind of language that will be consumed by an audience without further exchange of information. Presentational language is all around us, not only in stories, blogs, reports and descriptions but also lists, charts and graphs. Just because we have one presentational writing assignment per quarter doesn’t mean we have to stick to one single presentational format. The quarterly contribution doesn’t have to be a series of connected paragraphs. It can be a paragraph about X, and a list or chart about Y. Like any extended document, we can use a variety of language-centered formats to provide information in a way that’s unified and organized but also realistic and appropriate to the type of content being consumed.
One assignment can be a collection of various bits of presentational writing. This is a format that makes sense for novice-level learners. This is a format that reminds students that even limited and succinct writing can have a very meaningful purpose.
With that idea in mind, I was quickly able to plan a rough sketch of how all the different topics of the novice-level curriculum would fit into the final product. Now there are only two things left before I can roll out this idea next fall:
- Create an introduction to the process that establishes buy-in and helps students see the value and purpose in it.
- Organize my notes into quarterly handouts with detailed prompts and rubrics to guide students through the process.
Stay tuned for updates!