AN EXTRAORDINARY ACTIVITY
We have been involved over the last three years in an exciting project set up by the Instituto de Ciencias de la Educación (Education Science Institute), a centre of the University of Seville whose mission is to offer extended academic and professional training to the university staff. This specific project aims at providing English language teaching to a group of university professors and researchers whose purpose is to get the ECFRL C1 accreditation in English by taking the Trinity College London’s ISE III exams. This academic year 2014-15 is the third edition of the course at the University of Seville, the first two editions having been highly satisfactory as far as teaching/learning experience and exam results are concerned.
The ECFRL C1 Trinity College London’s ISE III exam is a thorough evaluation/accreditation tool applied to assessing the candidates’ command of the four communicative skills of the language: reading, writing, listening and speaking. In fact, the acronym ISE stands for Integrated Skills in English, attempting to consider the different skills as linked and interdependent. Besides, the examination assesses their ability to use different conversational functions in a variety of topics, mainly educational.
We have organised the material accordingly. A set of files have been produced, each one dealing with a subject matter from the official Trinity College London syllabus, i.e. The media, Lifestyles, Advertising, The arts, The school curriculum, among others. With the general subject matter as a consistent framework, each file provides students with direct four-skill practice of the tasks in the final exam, which is divided into two broad sections: reading/writing and speaking/listening, adapting so to the official ECFRL requirements for the C1 level.
One important section in the exam under discussion is the so-called Extended Writing, which consists of a 250-word-long writing task in which the candidate responds to a prompt. The output genre in this task can be one of the following: a descriptive essay, a discursive essay, an argument essay, an article (magazine or online), an informal email, an informal letter, a formal letter or email, a review and a report. As pointed out above, the different theme files offer the students in our groups a wide range of exercises proposing different written tasks that follow the format and requirements of the exam so that the potential candidates will be familiarised with the type of writing exercises and trained accordingly. In fact, it is usual to receive a written task every other week from the students who are given the corresponding feedback.
There is a period, however, coinciding with the month of February, in which the number of these written tasks submitted for practice decreases, the reason for this being found in the exam period that the members of the groups are involved in. And this has happened all the three years. We should not forget that the components of the groups are mostly university professors and exams are administered (and marked) for the students of the University of Seville during February.
Knowing that English is not likely to be the priority for these groups, but wanting it to be one of the first three priorities for them in their academic sphere this year, we tried an idea to motivate them to write at least an essay or any other text type during that period. The idea was to encourage them not to stop writing in English at advanced C1 level for a long time. It had to be something attractive enough to make them think that it was necessary for them to comply with it.
After studying the profile of the students and adapting the teaching/learning principles to this, we customised an exercise that would be in line with the competitive nature of the group members. The idea of a ‘prize’ was essential, even if it was an immaterial one. Once the motivation was achieved, we had to take advantage of it by setting a series of rules to comply with. These rules arose from the requirements of the real exam, namely:
- the official word length should be taken into account (although we were flexible in this as it ultimately was a class exercise);
- text organisation is of paramount importance: number of paragraphs (3-5), paragraph organisation (topic sentences and supporting sentences), introduction, development, conclusion;
- signposting devices must be used to give coherence and cohesion to the text;
- proper vocabulary of the level must be used depending on the chosen topic;
- use of phrasal verbs and collocations of the level;
- use of the set of grammar points as suggested in the ISE III syllabus: 2nd, 3rd and mixed conditionals, should/must/might/could + perfect infinitive, verb patterns after hope and wish, verbs followed by gerund and or infinitive, complex forms of passive with modals, structures to convey emphasis (inversion, fronting, cleft sentences).
With all those considerations, we explained the activity and our intention with it in class and presented our Creative Writer Extraordinaire contest. First, students had to write a text (any genre or text type) showing creativity to be submitted in class the following week. All texts had to begin with the sentence It had been raining all morning (or finish with the sentence I had never been so surprised in all my life, for the first two years). After that, the teacher would check all of them and make the corrections on the expression mistakes, but respecting style and approach. So the following week, all the texts would be read out loud in class and all students would vote for the three best creative texts in an involving voting session. The winner would be appointed Creative Writer Extraordinaire of the group/year.
We then sent an email to all the members of each group reminding them of the contest and especially informing those students who could not attend the class in which the contest had been presented. The email was aimed at reinforcing motivation to participate and it read as follows:
In class today, we have called for a writing competition in which all of you can (will, should) participate due to its interest and its benefits for our purposes.
The winner of this writing competition will be awarded the title of Creative Writer Extraordinaire, a unique distinction which will be the pride of the whole class.
The topic to write about is:
(Creative writing task)
Write a story (approximately 250 words) for a writing competition beginning with the words ‘It had been raining all morning.’
Papers will be handed in on Tuesday, March 10 by 18:00 in the classroom. Depending on the number of assignments, these will be read out in class either on Tuesday 17 or Thursday 19 and then the jury will decide on the best one according to the following criteria: accuracy, vocabulary and structures of the level, and task completion.
This information has been given in class and is especially addressed to those of you who didn't turn up.
Should you require any further information, it'll be a pleasure to provide it.
Have a good week.
The outcome was just extraordinary, with more than 90% participation rate and a really enjoyable class, not less enjoyable was the process of creating the text, most of the times a short story. We are proud to present those texts for the reader’s enjoyment.
Andrés Sánchez Ortega
Philologist. English teacher