Review: Great Writing

A couple of months ago we ran a two-week ‘Grammar and Writing’ course for teens (aged 14+). I was scheduled to teach these classes but, to be honest, the prospect didn’t fill me with excitement. I enjoy teaching teens in general, but it can be a real chore to motivate them at times. I couldn’t see developing writing skills being that inspiring, and grammar wasn’t exactly going to get them rocking up ten minutes before class in anticipation either.

Well, that was off the mark. There were only 6 students but they were pretty much engaged throughout the two weeks. They produced some excellent work and in a short time I honestly felt like they’d made quite a bit of progress. It’s so nice to actually see improvement in my context – with just two hours a week for each class you never really know what your real impact is. In this case, it seems tangible, and I think the coursebook played a role in that.

Overview

Great Writing 2 from National Geographic Learning is a densely packed 300 pages of introductory material on paragraph writing. It’s actually Book 3 of 6, in a series that covers the basics of sentence construction, spelling and composition, then moves on to paragraphs and a focus on constructing essays.

GW2 is aimed at intermediate level students. In the introduction (to the fourth edition) the authors state that ‘the language level is controlled as much as possible so that dedicated upper beginners and weak advanced students may also benefit from the instruction’. I wouldn’t exactly agree that the resource is accessible for a broad range of levels, more intermediate plus.

There are various vocab and grammar-related activities throughout the resource but the focus is very much on composition. It’s estimated that, depending on the amount of study outside class, the materials could stretch from 60-80 classroom hours. With deviations, additional grammar reviews where needed, more personalisation where necessary and ample time for freer practice (plus peer/self-editing), the book could be the main resource for a course of around 100 hours.

Contents of a unit

The general components for most units include…

Orientation to the writing focus – these are just as useful for teachers as they are for learners. Whatever the writing focus of a unit, this is made clear and fairly student-friendly explanations are provided (for intermediate level). Some of these are great as they make it easy to establish a success criteria for each skill – the list format of some mean they are a ready-made success checklist.

Example paragraphs – these are often introduced through reading tasks early on it the unit. They model correct use of the target language / composition style, etc

Activities – there a plenty of these, from paragraph writing assignments to editing paragraphs, practise using cohesive devices, punctuation-related tasks, ‘building better vocabulary’ activities, peer editing, timed writing, ‘grammar for writing’, etc. Loads, seriously! I guess you’d expect all this from a book aiming to develop writing skills, but there’s just so much variation!

I like the punctuation tasks

There’s also a pretty good reference section in the back which includes word lists, useful vocab and key structures for writing. Plus, the appendix has some good extra practice for ‘building better sentences’.

What’s good about the book?

Practice, practice, practice, practice… practice

Page after page, text after text. Most IELTS coursebooks I’ve used breeze over the whole ‘topic sentence’, ‘supporting sentences’, ‘concluding sentence’ type structure – maybe giving some practice in identifying a topic sentence and writing your own. I know they’ve got four skills to cover and not just one, but most IELTS students I teach need far more writing practice than those books provide. GW2 will not cut corners, and that’s what makes it a great supplementary resource for those teaching IELTS writing tasks.

The ‘focus on topic sentences’ is a great example of what (my) learners (seem to) need. It goes like this…

  • Give them a model paragraph, check understanding, discuss a bit
  • Learners explore the structure of the sentence with the help of some guided questions. This is fairly open to see what they come up with
  • Start focusing on the specifics: a few tasks to help learners recognise effective topic sentences
  • Give them a good, clear explanation of topic sentences, building on what they’ve just explored
  • Dig a little deeper. Explore the nature of a ‘controlling idea’ in a topic sentence
  • Practice recognising controlling ideas
  • More practice recognising controlling ideas
  • Practice adding controlling ideas to make better topic sentences
  • Read a paragraph that is missing a topic sentence. Write the topic sentence for it… TIMES FIVE

Once they get to a freer practice, ‘original writing’ stage they are well away. This comprehensive approach really helped my learners develop their skills in the short space of time we had. The best thing about it? National Geographic Learning don’t seem to care about space. If the learners need five paragraphs worth of practice in writing topic sentences, give them five pages. Each paragraph is accompanied by a nice glossy National Geographic image, and the paragraphs are there to be exploited for new vocabulary too. With ‘reading and writing inextricably linked’, as the authors put it, you’ve got lots of nice paragraphs here to turn into reading texts and expand on.

Be warned:  there’s a proper scary photo of a Komodo dragon on page 57 with lots of saliva dripping from its gob.

Other good points

  • Good vocabulary building tasks – again these could supplement exam-focused courses like FCE and IELTS. Lexical chunky too.
  • Such variation in topics covered – you’re bound to find a good springboard for practicing other skills like speaking too
  • The punctuation practice is great, and again is great supplementary material for my other classes. I recently noticed my Secondary learners were having trouble with commas (ahem, you may have noticed but so do I), so we did some stuff from GW2 – a useful review.
  • Promotion of peer/self-editing tasks. These were great for my learners as they are very product over process, tending to rush things without realising the learning is in the doing! The editing tasks prompted them to engage more with the task in hand. Nice.

What could improve?

I said that explanations of the writing foci were really good and like ready-made checklists. Seeing as Cengage don’t seem that fussed about space, I’d prefer more focused evaluation/checklists in an appendix. There is one for unit one… but give me more! Disclaimer: we don’t have the teacher book or supps if they exist…

A warning before the Komodo dragon photo would also help.

I really like gradual approximation as a technique. The editing and rewriting tasks are similar to this, but I’d like a few towards the end of the book (maybe appendix) that help practice the skills learnt across a couple of units at a time. I’m not sure how plausible this would be, but worth considering.

Rating: 4.6 / 5

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