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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Writing Test Anxiety

Picture this. You announce an in class writing test at the end of the week, and virtually every student in your Upper Advanced level class visibly shudders. One student jokingly asks,"Can you tell us the topic the day before?” You equally laughingly reply, "You know I can't do that. Then it wouldn't be a  real test ”   .

On test day, you arrive to a group of silent, frozen-faced students. Gone are the smiles and the hellos, as they stare at you awaiting to be told  what the dreaded writing topic will be. Will it be something they can write about, or is it going to be a topic that leaves them completely blank?
 
As the instructor, you think you have prepared them. The students have read several articles about the topic, worked on building topic related vocabulary, they've discussed aspects of the topic, and even retold stories. As far as you are concerned, given that you have given the tools they need,  they should be ready to write about it. 

Unfortunately, the one tool neither you, nor any other instructor seems to be able to give them is the kind of confidence it takes to pick up a pencil, brainstorm a topic they actually DO know something about and then begin writing with ease and a high comfort level .

Instead,  a dozen or more students look at the page blankly, forgetting all the vocabulary they've  acquired, along with most of the ideas they have read and discussed. Panic and anxiety have brought them to a place in which they find themselves writing, wordy and often redundant sentences with some content, but a lot of basic level errors and minimal vocabulary. Many of the sentences are either short, choppy, and poorly connected, or long, awkward and unwieldy, with the wrong connectors and a drastic need for more punctuation. 

In some cases, a burning desire to sound like the well educated professional accountants, dentists and engineers they were in their former lives, leads these students down the forbidden path of thinking in their own language. Perhaps if they think out  what they want to say in Chinese, Russian or Spanish, and just put it into English, they will communicate what they really want to say. Unfortunately, the result is more like English word soup than elegantly phrased English prose.  
The final result is frustration for both instructor and students. The instructor is frustrated  because she had much higher expectations, and didn't quite understand the underlying panic producing the final writing product. The students are frustrated because they had hoped their newly acquired vocabulary would not desert them once again. They had also prayed that finally, they would be able to convey their ideas using more details, and a relatively error free sophisticated sentence structure.  

So here's the question. How do we make our highly educated adult ESL students comfortable enough to be able to write under pressure without having full blown panic attacks that produce writing that does not reflect their true abilities. 
  • Do we have students do breathing exercises before writing tests? 
  • Do we have them perform physical exercises that might help reduce anxiety?
  • Do we brainstorm vocabulary related to the topic on the board? 
  • Do we put appropriate sentence structure words and transitions up on the board to help them remember complexityor is all of this providing too much help in a test situation?
 Should we be actively helping these students who now live and work in our country to succeed by helping therm to deal with their anxiety, or should we just expect them to  learn  to deal with their anxiety on their own, and get on with the job of writing under pressure just as native speakers do 
.
Please be the first to comment on this question.

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