Craft Before Content? Teaching English as a Foreign Language

John T. Trigonis draws a comparison between the craft of writing and the craft of painting in his post Craft Before Content, Part One: The Bob Ross Effect.

What better way to hone that craft than through daily journaling? Throughout my life, ever since I learned to hold a pencil and form words on the page, I’ve kept some sort of journal. There have been periods of time when I haven’t journaled and other times when the journaling has been furious and intense. It helps keep my sanity and helps improve my writing.

As a teacher of English as a foreign language, I encourage my students from day one to keep a daily journal in English. For beginners, I suggest recording any new words they learned that day, and as they progress to being able to write sentences, they’re asked to write just a few sentences about their day. The act of recalling their day – in English – before going to sleep, imprints the language in the brain. How many students do you think actually take up my suggestion?

A few bring me their journals – perhaps a third. Over time, it becomes apparent who is actually learning and acquiring English and who is merely going through the motions of coming to class, doing the gap-fill exercises, and going away and forgetting English until the next lesson.

But those who do apply themselves go on to become proficient users of the language; because they have practised it, in the same ways a native speaker who wants to write English will have practised it. They will have kept an English journal; combined with that, they will have read well-written English and had a good teacher for their spoken English, someone who corrects their mistakes and prods them forward.

John stresses the importance of learning the craft before attempting to write the story. I think I understand what he’s getting at – the importance of grammar, spelling, syntax – but I’m not sure I would go quite so far as to say Craft Before Content. I think the two – content and craft – are developed side by side. It’s the content that drives the writer to write, and without that drive nothing would be written! For creatives, that content stems from the urge to self-express. For students of English as a foreign language, the content is derived from the teacher’s demand for something written in English. Yes, the more honed our craft, the more able we are to express, yet it’s that drive to express that hones!

I sometimes work with advanced learners of English as a Foreign Language, university students who need to refine their English language writing skills to meet academic demands. For these students, they are struggling with how to express in English ideas they may not have even formulated in their own language. Their push to articulate those ideas aids in the development of the idea, and ultimately hones their craft.

What drives you to write? How important to you is a respect for the craft of writing? Do you tolerate misplaced modifiers in your own writing or that of others? Mixed tenses? Poor punctuation? If you’re attracted to read a blog, then land on a poorly written page, do you struggle through it – or quickly click-over to another?

I’m really demanding. I twitch when I see there, where it should be their, or they’re. …and if I see a typo after I hit ‘publish’, I’ll go back and edit. But I’m not perfect. I’m sure someone can find a mistake or two in this post: journalling and journalled! But then that would probably open a stylistic discussion!

By the way, do check out John’s blog. He’s got some great poetry!

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