300-Level Spanish Grammar & Composition (Writing-Intensive)

DEVELOPING WRITING FLUENCY IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE


"One of my students told me that finding the right words in Spanish is the true test of one's understanding of the language. That's true. You can really show what you know in Spanish or what you don't know in writing as opposed to speaking. You can get away with lots in conversation using gestures. But you really have to express yourself on paper and be able to manipulate the language when you write."-- Linda Rudoy, Instructor

"The more that you do in language, the easier it is to understand the language. When I write in my journal, I'm trying to write what I'm thinking. Once in a while one of those grammar forms will pop into my writing and I'll say, "Oh, look! I used it!" -- Student

COURSE GOALS

The primary goals of the course are to help students improve their Spanish language proficiency by increasing their knowledge of vocabulary and grammar. These skills are applied in the writing assignments. Part of the course helps students develop ways of getting helpful advice from others through peer groups. In the process, the conscious learning of vocabulary and grammar, and their application in writing, will enhance students' listening and speaking proficiencies.

WRITING ACTIVITIES

1. 'DIARIO' (JOURNAL) WRITING
Students freewrite in Spanish a minimum of 300 words per journal entry each week. Diario topics are determined by the students and can be about any subject -- reactions to current events or class reading, personal experiences, or ideas for compositions. Students are asked to write quickly in the language without stopping to make corrections. Journals are collected periodically, usually every other week, and are not graded. The instructor reads each entry and writes comments, reactions, or poses questions about the entry. Students often answer her questions or respond to her comments in another journal entry.
PURPOSE: The use of journals in a foreign language class serves a variety of important learning and writing goals. Freewriting in the language helps students develop writing fluency. Freed from the constriction of using correct grammar, students overcome their fears of the language and can take risks with the language. They are more willing to experiment with vocabulary and grammar. "The journal was the one writing activity which helped me to learn. I chose to write daily, which greatly improved my Spanish writing abilities because it forced me to think in Spanish."--Student

"I think in English, then in Spanish. I know I should think in Spanish, but it's still difficult. Sometimes the order of the words is reversed in Spanish. That's why it's nice to write whatever we want to in our journals. It makes it easier to think and write in Spanish." --Student

Specific grammar forms or phrases taught in textbook drills will surface occasionally in their journal freewriting. The opportunity to select their own topics allows them to write more meaningfully, and in doing so, put more effort into applying their grammatical and vocabulary skills. The journals also become an informal meeting place between instructor and student where ideas are exchanged freely; rapport is established. According to a student, the journals are "almost like a dialogue we have with one another."
2. WRITING THE 'PULIDO' (COMPOSITION)
A composition of approximately 300 words is due every other week. Writing topics emerge from the weekly reading assignments. Students may select the topics suggested in the textbook or may write on a related topic. In each composition, students must apply the vocabulary and grammar highlighted in the reading and accompanying drills at the end of the selection.

However, the grammar and vocabulary are more often determined by the topics and contexts students choose to write about. For example, a particular type of narrative is better expressed in the subjunctive or an expository piece should use the imperfect tense. Students may also write in the present tense.

"In the compositions we used the grammar and vocabulary from each chapter. We could also give our own opinions on the chapter readings. I learned how to use certain expressions, when to conjugate verbs, and to be able to write creatively in Spanish." --Student

"The fact that we can take our drafts back, go to the instructor for extra help, revise it, and get the highest possible grade is reassuring and comforting. We can improve. Writing is not a one-time shot. She gives us the chance to see our mistakes, to understand why we made them, and make is the corrections. So if my paper is covered with comments or indications for correction, then it makes me feel good that I know what to do to make the paper better." --Student

A typed draft of the composition is due on Tuesday when students read their drafts to one or two other students (the writing response groups are explained in the "Related Activities" section below). After the readings and peer feedback, students submit the drafts to the instructor for her reading and written feedback.

The drafts are returned to students with written comments and indications for grammar correction. The "tabla para corregir las composiciones," a table of correction symbols, is given to students at the beginning of the semester to facilitate correction. For example, the instructor will indicate a writer's problem with "vf" (verbo forma - verb form) or "est." (estructura - structure). The instructor also addresses other writing problems such as organization or support.

The drafts and final typed versions are due on Thursday of the following week. After the final copies have been commented upon and graded, the instructor returns the final copies attached with the composition evaluation criteria. At the beginning of the semester, students are also given a writing rubric which explains the criteria for composition evaluation.

The criteria includes descriptions of excellent to poor use of the following elements: clarity of thesis, organization of support, appropriateness of vocabulary, grammatical accuracy, and mechanics, including accent marks. Each criterion is assigned a number of points so that the total number of points for a composition ranges from 100 to 26 points.

A composition may be revised more than once or until the student and instructor and satisfied with the progress.

PURPOSE: The assigned reading in the text serves as a springboard for composition topics. Although they are encouraged to use the grammar and vocabulary in the lesson, students are responsible for applying the most appropriate vocabulary and grammatical forms in their writing. They discover that the use of correct forms is also determined by the context and form of their writing. The frequency of writing (and discussion in class and writing groups) promotes language fluency. Students are given frequent opportunities for feedback -- in their writing groups and on each revision with the instructor's comments.
A uniform table of correction symbols is helpful to the instructor and students; everyone uses the same terminology when discussing problem areas in the compositions. However, the most helpful writing guideline for students is the evaluation rubric. Students know from the very beginning of the course how their papers will be read and evaluated by the instructor. Nearly half of the evaluation focuses on the content of the paper and the remaining half on the vocabulary and grammar usage, which is the instructional base of the course. "I find the peer feedback very helpful. Sometimes the other student is just as confused as I am. So we look up the corrections together and try to figure it out, trying to choose the correct way to say something. It helps me recognize my own mistakes. I go back to my own paper and see that I did something similar. The feedback also helps me feel better about what I'm writing. The other students tell you if it's good writing or not, or what could be done to improve a story. The success of a peer group also depends on who you work with. Students need to learn how to be tactful." --Student
Finally, the fact that students may revise their drafts frequently (and with the helpful advice from others) points to the importance of revision. Students are allowed to take risks with their writing because they can revise their drafts until the writers are satisfied with their writing. Although the concern for better grades is foremost in the minds of most students, they develop a positive attitude regarding the appropriateness and correctness of the written word.

RELATED WRITING ACTIVITIES

1. PEER GROUP RESPONSE TO THE 'BORRADOR' (FINAL DRAFT)

Every other week, the students are required to come to class with typed drafts, meet in informal groups to read their composition drafts to one another, and to receive feedback. In the beginning of the semester, the instructor explains the "Elbow Response Techniques" which she encourages students to practice in their small groups.
The writer reads his/her draft aloud at least once to be followed by responses from the group. Responders should point out specific words or phrases that caught their attention, then summarize what seems to be the most important idea or feeling communicated in the piece. If time permits, responders may tell what happened to them as they heard the words and show their perceptions of the piece by creating a metaphor for it. Writers listen to the feedback or take notes. They use the feedback to revise their drafts.
In this Spanish class, the instructor allows students to adapt the Elbow techniques according to the needs of the writers. Students read their drafts aloud while the group members listen, or if they are working in pairs, students will read the draft together. Some students will read through the entire draft once, and then re-read the draft, pausing at particular phrases or sentences. Others exchange drafts which they read silently, then students ask each other questions or write comments and suggestions directly on the draft.
PURPOSE: The purpose of writing groups is best expressed in the course syllabus: "Like any other writer, your instructor not only doesn't have all the answers, she also has to go to others for advice. Part of this course will focus on developing ways of getting helpful advice from others. In the process, you will enhance your listening and speaking proficiencies." Thus, frequent participation in writing groups does help students develop a variety of ways of getting helpful advice from their peers.
Sometimes a skillful student writer will explain a phrase or grammatical rule more effectively than the instructor. Students will help one another solve grammatical problems, or together they will look up information in the text. Learning becomes a shared responsibility. In addition, students are exposed to many more grammatical forms and vocabulary terms used in context by listening to other students' writing.
Frequently during the "borrador" sessions, the instructor is free to move from group to group, providing individual help. "Teachable moments" are interspersed throughout writing group sessions -- the instructor explains problems she sees that are common to the group and will conduct "mini-lessons." Because the instruction is directly relevant to a student's writing, application is immediate and meaningful.

(Click here for more information about peer feedback groups.)

Professor Rudoy comments on her class (excerpts from an interview):

In each composition we're working on certain kinds of things and I may see improvement in those areas. In their journals, what they've written in their compositions they forget about in their journals, but in the journals I find them writing more and more each time. The quantity increases. They have much to say and once they get going, they forget about how many words they've written. I think they get excited when they start talking about something and just write and write and write. The value of the journal is getting to know the students. I think the students also become more comfortable with me through the journals. I certainly feel comfortable with them.

Students take risks with the new grammar they're learning. One of the reasons why I keep giving their compositions back for revision is that they can get a hundred percent on them. I allow them to take risks because they can rewrite them as many times as they want. I really think students should be allowed to make all the corrections possible. I'll underline what's wrong without telling them what's wrong. They have to go through that process. And it doesn't take me that long to reread. Certain things are obvious. It's very important to give students the opportunity to rewrite, then they will take risks. If I were a student, I would have liked the opportunity to have a good, finished copy for myself and say -- "This is what I wrote and look at how wonderful it is! This is exactly how I wanted to say it!"

The idea of writing groups in a language class is great because non-native speakers don't know everything about the language. They have problems with English or don't know the corresponding forms in English, so it works the other way around. I used to give a half hour for writing groups, but most times I'll allow 45 minutes because I think the time spent is valuable. I want them to focus on looking at each other's paper. I think they learn a lot that way. It's also much more interesting because they're sharing ideas.

The evaluation criteria sheet helps me and helps students see where they are having problems. I'll underline or highlight terms on the evaluation sheet, for example "agreement" of there are a lot of those mistakes so they can go back and look at them. Accents can be a terrible problem. They can look at the sheet and say -- "aha! this is the area where I'm making most of my mistakes." Hopefully it will ring a bell and make them work harder.