Process writing: Making the processes visible

William Green, Sapporo University


Quick guide

  • Keywords: Paragraph writing, topic sentences, process writing
  • Learner English level: Elementary, lower-intermediate
  • Learner maturity: High school, university
  • Preparation time: Five minutes
  • Activity time: 60-90 minutes
  • Materials: Sticky notes of different colours and sizes

The benefits of process writing are widely accepted in English language teaching and it is an approach that underpins many writing textbooks available in Japan. However, it is not always easy to get students to make significant changes to a piece of work once they have finished a first draft. Using sticky notes in the writing classroom helps to make writing and editing more fluid by having students write sentences on notes which are easy to move around when rearranging text. The notes are also obviously not a finished piece of work and so, in the students’ minds, remain open to editing. This My Share activity demonstrates how to get students co-operating to write paragraphs and topic sentences together by using sticky notes. However, the basic idea could be adapted to a range of objectives. One alternative is suggested in the appendix.

Step1: Get a selection of sticky notes of different colours and sizes.
Step 2: Decide on a suitable topic for your students.
Step 3: Prepare suitable sentence starters.

Step 1: Give each student four sticky notes and ask them to write four sentences about your chosen topic, one on each note. A good topic is tourism in your town or area; the students write recommendations for places to visit or things to do. Provide sentence starters, for example, “You can enjoy…”, or “In winter, …”. Encourage the students to put some detail in these sentences.  Other possible topics are included in the appendix.
Step 2: Put the students in groups of three. Each group sticks its notes randomly on an area of a wall, or on a desk if using the wall is impractical. Ask the students to work together to rearrange the sentences into themes. In my tourism example, students often identify themes like events, food and restaurants and shopping. Move around the classroom, asking about the students’ themes and helping with sentences that don’t seem to fit. Try not to impose your own ideas about suitable themes.
Step 3: As the students are finalizing their ideas, distribute more sticky notes. A different size or colour is good for this stage. Each student should have the same number of notes as they have themes. So a student in a group that has identified events, food and restaurants and shopping would get three sticky notes.
Step 4: Ask students to write one topic sentence on a sticky note for each of their themes. If you have done some work on topic sentences already this should be straightforward. I have also successfully used this technique to introduce the idea of topic sentences, in which case I just ask students to write a general sentence to introduce each theme.
Step 5: Students put their topic sentences above the relevant set of sentences on the wall. They should talk together to choose the best topic sentence for each set and leave it at the top, removing the other topic sentences. Final adjustments can be made to sentences in each set, for example, sticking notes with similar ideas together, or improving the sentence order.
Step 6: Each student uses one set of sticky notes from the wall to write up a paragraph with a topic sentence. The body of the paragraph is made up of the information in the other notes in that set. Leftover sets can be used by students who finish quickly or assigned for homework.
Step 7: When students have finished they can return to their group for peer editing­—for example, spelling, punctuation and simple grammar corrections like subject-verb agreement. Students may also suggest changing the sentence order. Because all the students have invested something of themselves in the contents of each paragraph, they are more interested than usual in editing the paragraphs written by their classmates. You can also increase attention to the peer-editing process by treating each group’s paragraphs as one submission and giving the same grade to each member of the group.

This is an easy and attractive activity that particularly appeals to students with visual or kinaesthetic learning styles. It is a visual, physical demonstration of the advantages of the process approach and makes clear that the first sentence a student thinks of isn’t necessarily the best first sentence.

Other topics that have worked for me include Improving our school (sentence starters could include I want to change…because…and The lessons at our school are…). Resulting paragraphs might be about the curriculum, timetable, teachers, library, cafeteria and other facilities, and so on. Another topic that works is What makes a good TV show with sentence starters like A good TV show must…and The people in a good programme…
The activity can also be adapted to enliven other areas of composition, for example linking sentences with conjunctions. Elementary students and lower-intermediate students often write short, simple sentences. One of the aims of writing courses at this level is to get students to write longer, more complex sentences. One way of doing this is to ask students to combine their short sentences using conjunctions such as and, but, if, so, because, and so on. If students write their short sentences onto sticky notes and write a range of conjunctions on to other notes (perhaps of a different size and colour), it then becomes possible for them to experiment with different sentence combinations and complexity without the need for laborious rewriting.