I wish I could remember – so I could thank – the person who recommended At the Point of Need: Teaching Basic and ESL Writers, by Marie Wilson Nelson (Portsmouth NH: Heinemann 1991). This book deserves to be a classic, not least because it’s about more than simply the teaching of writing. It makes a convincing case for a pedagogy that, rather than trying to second-guess and thereby pre-empt the learners’ learning trajectory, is entirely responsive to it: that is, a pedagogy which is wholly driven by the learners’ needs, as and when they emerge. As Nancy Martin writes, in the Foreword:
The concept of teaching only at the students’ perceived points of need, and as they arise, presents a different view of learning from that of planned and sequenced series of lessons. The former view depends on recognition of the power of the person’s intention as the operating dynamic in writing — and in learning (p. ix).
The book describes a five-year experiment at a college in the US, where writing workshops were offered to small groups of mixed native-speaker and non-native speaker undergraduates, each with a tutor, and where there was no formal writing – or grammar, or vocabulary – instruction. Instead, the students (all of whom had scored below a cut-off point on a test of standard written English) were – in the words of the program publicity – invited to:
- Choose topics that interest you and your group
- Freewrite without worrying about correctness on the first draft
- Revise your freewrites. Your group will help you [...]
- Learn to copy-edit your writing for publication
Instead of pre-teaching or modelling the skills of writing, “this writing program was set up on a dynamic of retrospective planning” (p. viii) whereby “the tutors found that the most acceptable and effective teaching was to give the help the students asked for when they asked for it – that is, as the students perceived the need” (p. ix).
Despite some initial resistance (by both students and instructors alike), the results were spectacular (and carefully documented by the 40 or so tutors over the 5-year period). As Nelson describes it:
Despite the loss of drive some suffered at first without grades, motivation surged when they experienced writing’s rewards: pride of publication…, feelings of accomplishment, influence on others, better grades in other courses, competence, empathy and praise from friends, and … emotional release (p.85).
- motivating students to want to practice and improve
- giving students control of decisions about their work
- limiting teaching to what students needed or wanted to learn
Testimony to the success of the program are the many student ‘voices’ scattered throughout the text. One student, Kamal, for example, recalls:
In WTC [the Writing Tutorial Center] I’ve found that even though my writing is not very good, it’s very important to me, and I like to read it over.
Also, when I read it aloud, my friends said, “Wow, that’s good!” So when they do, my tutors said, “Let’s publish that in Excerpts,” and I felt, “God, I am a writer!”
That feeling makes me come to WTC all the time. I attend five semesters, twice a week. And each time I attend WTC, I learned. That’s why I love it.
Teaching “at the point of need” is, of course, a principle that underpins whole language learning, including ‘reading recovery’ programs: Courtney Cazden writes about “recognising the need for temporary instructional detours in which the child’s attention is called to particular cues available in speech or print” (1992, p. 129, emphasis added). It would also seem analogous to the reactive ‘focus on form’ promoted by proponents of task-based learning, described by some researchers as ‘leading from behind’ (e.g. Samuda, 2001), whereby the teacher intervenes to scaffold the learners’ immediate communicative needs. As Long and Norris (2009) write:
Advantages of focus on form include the fact that attention to linguistic code features occurs just when their meaning and function are most likely to be evident to the learners concerned, at a moment when they have a perceived need for the new item, when they are attending, as a result, and when they are psycholinguistically ready (to begin) to learn the items (p. 137).
In language learning, as in life, perhaps ‘the readiness is all’.
Cazden, C. 1992. Whole Language Plus: Essays on Literacy in the US and NZ. New York: Teachers College Press.
Samuda, V. 2001. ‘Guiding relationships between form and meaning during task performance: the role of the teacher’. In Bygate, M., Skehan, P. & Swain, M. (Eds.) Researching Pedagogic Tasks: Second Language Learning, Teaching and Testing. London: Longman.
Long, M. & Norris, J. 2009. ‘Task-based teaching and assessment’. In van den Branden, K., Bygate, M. & Norris, J. (Eds.) Task-based Language Teaching: A reader. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.