Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Invisible writing - get those reluctant scribblers going

In September 2010, Peter Ross made a presentation at Shinshu JALT here in Matsumoto on Invisible Writing. It remains one of the most practical & helpful learning tips I have come across over the years of workshops & conferences I have attended. It is a technique I have occasionally deployed with my learners aiming for exam success.

Keep that plan handy - or you'll get lost!
A never-ending frustration with my learners - and I suspect a nationwide issue at least here in Japan - is how slowly ideas are formulated into words, and how slowly those words are organised/connected/embellished/collocated/contrasted/developed...brainstorming is not a concept familiar to very many students I have taught over the years, and certainly not as a communal effort after primary school age.

An observation as well, from hours and hours spent invigilating Cambridge exams, is how poorly (if at all) candidates plot out their writing. Time is critical in an examination especially, but skipping the thinking & planning stage is a massive mistake - which writing invisibly illustrates beautifully!

So let's assume we have focused on the writing task and identified:

  • The audience - who are we writing to and why? 
  • The format - is this a letter? an email? a memo? a report? an essay etc?
  • The voice - formal or informal? Contractions, abbreviations & emojis going to be suitable?
Let's also assume we have determined the time we have available for this - after the planning stage (please give that about 10 mins if you are at FCE level), and the target word count. Let's also assume we have written on A4 before & know approximately how many words we can get on a line so we know approximately how many lines we need to write (and not count every word back every two minutes?!)...

What stops writers even starting?
  • Blank paper panic
  • allergy to writing joined up ideas
  • lack of muscle memory - how often does anybody use a pen these days?
  • lack of confidence in vocabulary range, grammatical accuracy, spelling, my own voice
  • time stress
Familiarity with the task & a checklist of how the writing will be assessed helps enormously. Small steps first, and build on what you CAN do. Get those hands & brains trained!

What slows the writer down?
  • erasers
  • re-reading or editing on the go
  • re-thinking the plan
  • winging it
  • word counting
When you are planning or blitzing ideas, making a mess is part of the gig. Scribble everything down as it comes to mind & don't stop. Scrap paper is literally that - it goes in the shredder. Once you have blurted ideas onto paper, organise quickly with arrows & numbers. Add extra words or replace repetitions, order logically into paragraphs. Contemplate spelling at this stage & use another word if you are stuck - don't rub stuff out or compose fully fledged sentences.

So far, this invisible writing is kind of invisible! You will need a thin plastic 'wallet' for loose leaf papers, that a pen will be able to make an impression through, within which a sheet of carbon paper sandwiched between a sheet of lined paper (top) & a sheet of plain paper below. Make sure the carbon paper is the right way up. A pen that doesn't work - I prefer a pen the students will usually use (no not a pencil) or even the wrong end of a paint brush! The whole point is that the writer will not be able to see what they have written.

Can you see what we just wrote?
I promise this exercise will transform the way your writers will think about & approach writing tasks. As they are unable to see what they have done/are doing, the following tends to happen:
  • focus carefully on what they are actually doing & where they are on the paper, physically. This stops day-dreaming dead!
  • extra care in writing neatly
  • careful adherence & constant referral to the plan - get everything 'in'
  • maintain a flow (stopping to do anything else means you lose your place)
  • no editing or re-reading
  • erasers are out of the equation
  • writers 'see' their writing in their heads & concentrate hard to keep it there
When your writers have finished, ask them what they were doing. Let them identify what has changed in their writing process. One thing my writers never do - yours too? - is re-read their work afterwards critically. Invisible writers can't wait to review their work...spelling, missing punctuation, word order, grammar. You will never see your students keener, and you may even have to let them do a re-write (that precious second draft!) if they ask. 

I love invisible writing - does it work for you?