Ronaldo and Writing: How to improve student writing
When Cristiano Ronaldo joined Manchester United from the Portuguese club Sporting Lisbon as a 17-year-old in 2003, his raw talent was already the talk of the footballing world. Rio Ferdinand reports that Ronaldo’s first few training sessions were embarrassing.
Cristiano arrived cocksure and conceited. He considered himself the complete player, believing that his natural ability would be sufficient to dribble around some of the most reputable defenders in the game. Unsurprisingly, they did not take kindly to such treatment, and Rio narrates that there were occasions when Ronaldo was left in a heap on the floor, tears filling his eyes. Teammates would not pass to him in protest at his obsession with skills and tricks, and defenders would rough him up in order to discourage flamboyance. Rio states that this was carried out in Cristiano’s interests, and was one of the reasons that he went on to become the world’s most famous footballer.
The story goes that following a particularly bruising training session, Ronaldo broke down and asked his coaches and teammates what he had to do to improve. The weak points in his game were identified, and Cristiano applied his extraordinary work ethic to enhancing his fitness, speed, and ball-control. On one occasion, his teammates looked around for him in the canteen following training, only to find that he was still out on the pitch, practicing free-kicks. After a while, the coaching staff lost patience with having to deliver additional training sessions for Cristiano. His response was to fly over his own coaching team from Portugal, who conducted further training following the end of team sessions in the morning. Ronaldo is known to meticulously monitor every aspect of his game, desperately seeking areas of ‘weakness’ before relentlessly working on improving them. His attention to detail has resulted in many considering him to be the best player to have ever played the game.
To become a better footballer takes more than just playing lots of football. To genuinely improve requires fitness, tactical awareness, physical strength, and enhanced technique, which is why professional teams spend hours honing particular skills and developing the areas that are lacking. To be an excellent footballer requires the fusion of numerous discrete skills, all of which must be learnt and refined through hours of practice. Which brings me to writing.
Over the years, I have succumbed to the temptation to deal with students who find writing challenging by simply setting them more writing tasks. Witnessing students struggling with a particular piece of writing, I perhaps illogically came to the conclusion that the best course of action would be to set them another similar task and cross my fingers, hoping that the outcome might be improved. It rarely (if ever) worked, and resulted in increased frustration and disappointment. This was not as painful as being kicked by Rio Ferdinand, but had the same effect.
I realized that, like football, becoming a skilled writer necessitates the synthesis of multiple separate components. A student must understand the topic of the piece of writing, which necessitates background knowledge. A student must utilize orthographic skills to be able to accurately transmit the ideas present in her mind onto the paper (or screen) in a manner that the reader can comprehend. She must structure her writing correctly according to the appropriate conventions while simultaneously using language that is effective and accurate. She must pay attention to spelling, grammar, lexis, punctuation, tone, and style. The student’s capacity to master these complex, extensive skills will not improve overnight, and so the notion that isolated practice is the best means by which writing can be improved is evidently lacking.
It is by drawing students’ attention to these composite elements and then creating structured opportunities for the improvement of each aspect of writing that we can best support their journey towards becoming master writers. In this case, we are the coaches and our students are Ronaldo(s). There are numerous practical strategies or approaches that we can employ to help our students on their way, a few of which I will outline below.
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1) Accessing and Developing Background Knowledge
Although language curricula usually focus on transferrable skills, the significance of subject related knowledge cannot be overlooked when considering how an excellent piece of writing is produced. Students must have access to information and ideas relevant to the topic they are writing about. At the basic level, this takes the form of schemata activation, which involves stimulating thought about the topic under discussion, encouraging students to retrieve relevant information or experiences stored in their long-term memory by asking them questions or stimulating discussion. However, it may also be necessary to present new information about the topic of a piece of writing or to spend time collectively generating ideas that can be used at the writing stage. The O Level English Language writing paper offers students the opportunity to write an argumentative essay. This year, my students wrote an essay on whether it is better to own your own business or to work for an established company. In order to help students generate ideas, we read the transcript of an interview with a celebrated entrepreneur outlining the pros and cons of owning a business. This created access to expert opinions on the question which could be analysed and amended prior to being included in their essays. Building background knowledge helps with the process of idea formation and frees up attention to be channeled towards the structure and language used when writing.
2) Presenting Subject Related Vocabulary
A broad vocabulary is key to producing a high-quality piece of writing. Pre-teaching key terms and useful chunks of language serves the dual purpose of enhancing students’ vocabulary bank and helping them to organize and structure their writing. The presented vocabulary does not have to be limited to content words, although this can be valuable for students. Linking devices, sentence starters, and useful phrases or expressions all ensure that students know how to produce a cohesive piece of writing, a skill which can be transferred to other writing tasks. It has become common to identify words or phrases by their ‘tier’, with tier 1 words being those which are used every day. Tier 2 words represent high-utility academic words that can be used frequently in a variety of contexts. Linking devices and sentence starters would be included in this tier. Tier 3 words are highly subject specific, such as scientific terms or parts of the human brain. I have found that the most effective way of enhancing students’ vocabulary is by focusing primarily on tier 2 words with a smidgeon of tier 3 thrown in for good measure. Teaching too many complex terms is ineffective, as students rarely feel confident enough in their understanding to utilize them when writing. It is important to remember that students rarely fully grasp the meaning of words the first time they engage with them, and so spaced repetition and retrieval exercises in addition to exposure to target vocabulary in various distinct contexts helps students cement their understanding.
3) Talk it Through: Speaking before Writing
When students write personal statements for university applications, their natural insecurity often results in the inclusion of overly complex words and convoluted sentence structures in an attempt to demonstrate their intelligence. When reviewing a particularly confusing paragraph with a student, I asked her to explain what she wanted to say. She produced two wonderfully concise sentences that perfectly summed up the hidden meaning. Speech is generally less restrictive and regulated than writing. Errors and false starts are more common and less permanent, and do not require an ugly line through words prior to editing. I have found that having students describe what they are going to write before they write it serves two useful purposes. First, it acts to encourage planning, offering students the opportunity to gather their ideas prior to writing. Furthermore, it permits students to ‘hypothesis test’, facilitating the throwing around of ideas, vocabulary, and sentences in a low-stakes environment. Students can check their ideas with their peers, measuring how accurate their language is or how coherent their points are against the comprehension of a partner.
4) Language Work: Sentence Structures and Grammar
The written word is only meaningful if the language employed is accurate and appropriate. Hence, in order to help students improve their writing, we must introduce and practice relevant grammatical forms and sentence structures. Many teachers and students shudder at the thought of grammar lessons, but I believe language work is fundamental to improving the standard of student writing. There are two ways to approach this, the first is proactive and the second is reactive. Prior to teaching a particular type of writing, I identify sentence structures or grammatical forms that may be useful. The directed writing marking scheme for O Level English paper 1 states that sentence types should be varied for particular effects, and so I have introduced students to the acronym C.P.R., which stands for ‘Conditionals, Passive Voice, and Relative Clauses’. During the course of the year, these sentence structures were gradually introduced and repeatedly practiced with students to encourage comprehension and mastery. Students were then encouraged to use these sentence structures when appropriate in order to inject variation into their writing. In the recent Qualifying Exam, I was pleased to see the acronym scrawled across the top of students’ scripts, with most students remembering to include at least one of the sentence types.
The second approach is essentially a feedback strategy. Teachers will be familiar with the tense shift evident in many students’ narrative writing. After assessing a number of pieces of writing, I asked my students when they believed it was appropriate to use the auxiliary verb ‘had’. They replied that they had little idea and used it whenever they thought it ‘sounds right’ which is fair enough. However, inaccurate usage cannot be overlooked. We termed this common error ‘hadaches’, and worked consistently on trying to improve their comprehension and use of the past perfect tense by means of practice tasks. The accurate use of the tense was included as one of the success criteria for future pieces of writing, drawing students attention to an evident weakness and encouraging action. This approach was relatively successful, although I still find the odd gratuitous ‘had’ looking lost in the midst of an otherwise well-written sentence.
Paired with the development of lexis mentioned in point 2, intensive language work is central to improving the quality of students’ writing. Ideas can only be communicated through accurate language, and the accuracy of language rarely improves without a strategic focus on necessary sentence structures and repair-work on evident areas of weakness.
5) Models and Comparisons
The final strategy is to ensure students are aware of exactly what they are attempting to achieve by providing examples of an excellent piece of work. Whether the model is an essay written by the teacher or a high-quality example produced by a student, careful engagement with model texts provides students with tangible illustrations of how to successfully complete the task. When a sample essay is available, comparison can be extremely useful, particularly after the student has produced a piece of writing. Comparison permits students to identify elements of their own work that are lacking. Models of successful vocabulary use, accurate sentence structure, and correct essay structure all act to make concrete otherwise abstract concepts and provide students with ideas as regards how to replicate these features in their own writing. When appropriate, students can be encouraged to identify language chunks that could be used in their own writing. Requiring students to explain exactly what they learnt from reading the model answer helps to cement the metacognitive gains associated with the task.
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