writing task on Henry VIII using gradual approximation

Teaching writing is something I’ve hardly ever done. I mostly work with groups that visit England for a week or so, and want intense listening and speaking practice. During my DipTESOL I really had to think about what teaching skills and experience I needed in order to develop. How to teach writing, and how to make it interesting, was an area which I had to work on.

For a lesson plan on Henry VIII and a writing task, skip to the end of the blog. To learn a bit about writing in the classroom, read on.

Considerations when teaching writing

Spoken language and written language are very different. Whilst the linguistic elements of spoken language carry a lot of meaning, an utterance can also be supported by paralinguistic features or suprasegmental features of pronunciation (stress, intonation, etc) to further emphasise what is being said. Written language doesn’t have this luxury, so there is often more importance placed on the actual linguistic elements of writing compared to speech.

I read during a diploma module on writing that people don’t write much anymore, but I don’t know if that’s completely true. Emailing and texting seem pretty common, so it could be that the medium through which people write has changed. Anyway, shifting patterns like this are important when considering a good context for writing as a form of authentic communication.

There are three stages in writing production – manipulation, structuring and communication. Manipulation is actually making the letters/words and structuring involves organising the writing at sentence level. There is a suggestion that most problems for learners occur at ‘communication’ level, where learners have to be aware of how social practices may differ between speech and writing. Basically, we use specific sets of phrases in certain types of communication (e.g. legal correspondence, formal applications, etc) and learners must be sure to use these correctly.

Writing must be a meaningful personal or social activity if it is to be of any use to learners. This means composition work can be a bit contrived and not authentic. Linking writing to certain school subjects is one way to make it relevant to younger learners, though it doesn’t automatically make it interesting. Creative writing is another way to introduce writing into the L2 classroom (see previous post for an example) but from what I’ve read it doesn’t seem that everyone is sold on this as it doesn’t focus on grammatical competence.

There are ‘product’ and ‘process’ approaches to writing. A product approach is concerned with the end result of a composition – its grammatical accuracy, whether it’s fit for purpose, etc. The process approach is concerned with the means by which a text is created – the editing, rewriting and development processes undertaken by the writer.

Put the theory into practice

Widdowson mentions how all writing should be directed towards meaningful discourse. Bearing this in mind, and thinking about connecting lessons to school subjects, I chose to create a lesson on a famous historical figure, with the main task being to write a biography. Actually, I covered three angles – teaching students about British history, creating a purposeful text, and preparing students for a trip to Hampton Court.

I read about a great process approach to creating a written passage called GRADUAL APPROXIMATION. Put simply, this is what it involves:

  1. Find a text that you want the students to create. I used a text from projectbritain.co.uk. This is a really good site that gives simple information/facts about British culture – a very good and adaptable resource for the EFL classroom. Here is a snippet of the text:

Family Life

Henry Vlll wanted a son to rule after him. He first married his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon but divorced her when she did not produce a male heir to the throne. He married three times more before a son was born. In total he married six times!

Accessed through projectbritain.co.uk

  1. Next, break the text down into simpler sentences. Taking the verbs out of the sentences to create a gap fill makes this an exercise in producing communicative meaning:

Put the correct FORMS of the given verbs in the blank spaces in the following sentences

BECOME                 DIE             MARRY             AGE            BURY           

HAD                    RULE            BE           DIVORCE                BORN

(you will have to use some verbs more than once)

i) Henry Vlll wanted a son ________ after him.

ii) Henry VIII first _________ Catherine of Aragon

iii) Catherine of Aragon was the widow of Henry VIII’s brother

iv) Henry VIII __________ Catherine of Aragon when she did not produce a male heir to the throne

v) Henry VIII married three times more before a son __________.

vi) In total he ___________ six times!

vii) Henry Vlll ___________ three children – Mary, Elizabeth, and Edward in that order.

viii) All of Henry’s children ____________ a monarch

ix) Henry VIII’s son, Edward Vl ____________ for six years after Henry’s death.

x) Edward VI _____________ King at age 9. He ____________ at age 15.

xi) Henry’s daughter Mary _____________ for the next five years. She also died without children.

xii) Finally, Henry’s last surviving child, Elizabeth I ____________ Queen. She ____________ for 45 years.

xiii) Henry ____________ in St James’s Palace, Westminster, around 2 am on Friday 28 January   1547

xiv) When Henry died, he was ___________ 55 years.

xv) Henry VIII’s funeral procession to Windsor ___________ four miles long.

xvi) Henry ______________ at Windsor Castle beside his third wife, Jane Seymour.

  1. Next, you need to create a structured set of questions which require the learners to alter and upgrade the sentences. This involved adding cohesive/anaphoric devices, connecting sentences appropriately, and organising the text:

A) Look at sentence ii), v), ix), x), xv) and xvi). Take out any information that has already been given and replace it with a pronoun.

B) Look at number x). Combine the two sentences. Do the same with number xi).

C) Now combine sentences ii) and iii) to make one sentence. Also combine sentences xiii) and xiv)

D) Go back to sentence viii). Rewrite it, beginning with the word ‘Each’

E) Rewrite your new sentences in three paragraphs. The paragraphs should be titled ‘Family Life’, ‘Henry’s children’                 and ‘Death’

  1. Once the students have created this fully structured text, give them the original passage and they can compare how similar/different their own passage is.

I think this is method is a great way to teach writing. The students I’ve taught (at about intermediate level) seem to enjoy constructing and editing the text, and it gives a well-scaffolded practice of using cohesive devises. However, some intermediate groups have found it too simple. The major problem with this technique is how long it takes to create the resources! As far as writing tasks go, you could do a lot worse – I’d give it a solid 7/10 for level of engagement.

Anyway, I’ve built a lesson around the full biography of Henry VIII on projectbritain.co.uk: Henry VIII intermediate

If you are just interested in the gradual approximation task, you can find that here:  gradual approximation task

Let me know how it goes, and I’d love to see any similar tasks that you create yourself!

p.s. Thanks Ian MacIntyre for introducing me to this method!

Categories: grammar, Lesson Ideas

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2 replies


  1. Review: Great Writing (Cengage) | ELT planning
  2. How to get a DipTESOL Distinction | ELT Planning

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