By Irfan Rifai
Those who have experienced English proficiency high-stakes tests like IELTS and iBT TOEFL must know know how it feels to be put under the pressure of having to synthesize, analyze, and edit their piece of writing in a timed period. The experience may not be a fond memory for some second or foreign language learners / test takers. Especially for those who have not had enough exposure or practices in timed-writing. The writing section of IELTS usually requires test takers to write two pieces of writing: one is to respond to diagram, for the period of 20 minutes and the second one is to write an argument on a specific issue in 40 minutes. Like IELTS, the iBt TOEFL writing section also consists of two tasks with 20 minutes allocated to the first task and 30 minutes allocated to the second task. Unlike IELTS, iBT TOEFL first task integrates other English skills. So test takers need to listen or read and respond in writing. The second task of iBT TOEFL is quite similar to that of IELTS. What do timed- writing measures? How should foreign language learners adapt to timed writing? How do students manage the pressure? I would like to gauge the answers to the questions in the following paragraphs.
Petersen (2010) studied the mental states of students after taking timed-writing tests. He found that some students expressed frustration and negative sentiments toward the test. This is certainly not the objective of timed-writing. Timed-writing or impromptu writing, was designed to measure the test takers’ raw ability in writing and thinking ( analyzing, synthesizing and composing ideas) . Universities in English-speaking countries have required their future students to take timed-writing tests because they want to see the potential of the prospective students in composing ideas : the kind of skill that is highly needed in university. Many international students aiming to study in the universities have been found to face difficulties and challenges in adapting to the rhetorical and composition tasks. The challenges for second language writers may range from lexical to applying rhetorical concept of the targeted language. Problems that can actually be anticipated by composition instructors .
Petersen suggested that second language writers’ instructors to give more timed-writing experiences and writing coaches to the students (2010). By getting students accustomed to the situation of having to write and think fast, the instructor is creating a habit. Like most skills, writing can only get better when it is done frequently and regularly. In a 100 minute writing session, an instructor may allocate 15 minute to do impromptu writing.
With limited face to face sessions at university, it is important that instructors encourage their students to do independent timed-writing practices out of the class. Coaching is also another important thing that composition instructors can do. Second language writers may have to deal with with diction and mechanics issues and , unlike their L1 students counterparts, may need more regular coaching session to improve their writing. Coaching ensures that students get proper feedback from their instructors.
To learn a second language is fun, but to arrive at a certain stage of skill language mastery can be challenging. Like the mastery of all skills, mastering writing skill would take persistence and regularity of practices. Regular timed-writing practices will put second language learners to the habit of synthesizing information, analyzing issues and construct those issues in order, in timely manner. It is paramount that instructors of second language writing provide opportunities for the students with timed – writing session help create the habit for students. To make this as a phase of their learning as second language writers.
Petersen, J. (2010) “This test makes no freaking sense”: Criticism, Confusion, and Frustation in timed writing. Assessing Writing 14, 178 – 193.