Muhammad Elhabibi, ESL Support, Saint Mary’s University
Hedge (2004) points out that the 1990s saw a dramatic departure from traditional approaches to teaching writing in the English language classroom. The advent of the Process Writing approach recognised that skillful writers did not take a linear approach. Nunan (1998) says that skilled writers are not afraid to make mistakes, and they understand that drafts will undergo many changes in terms of content, structure and ideas during the planning, drafting and redrafting stages, before a final draft emerges. The writer may not have a final product ‘shape’ in mind when they start, but this will emerge during the process. Central to the idea of Process Writing is that the writer has clearly in their mind the purpose of what they are writing and the audience it is intended for.
This is in contrast to the Product Writing approach which is more traditional, and formulaic. Model texts of different genres are analysed, and then organisational, grammatical, and lexical features are identified. Thornbury (2006) says that, “each of these features is then practiced in isolation. They are then recombined in tasks aimed at reproducing the original text and then at producing similar texts incorporating different content” (249). This approach encourages writers to aim for models of accuracy rather than to aim their writing at a real audience with a real purpose.
For the purposes of Academic Writing, Swales and Feak (2004) put forward a model for consideration.
Fig.1 Considerations in academic writing (7)
This model recognises that in academic writing, the audience and purpose for writing are of prime importance with all other considerations needing to take these into account.
Personal Experience and Observation
In my position as an ESL Support, and previously as an IELTS trainer, with most students of Business Communication coming from China and Saudi Arabia, I believe I have some insight into the language preparation that many go through before coming to study at universities in Canada. Most take short IELTS preparation courses and, from experience, many courses offered in Saudi Arabia, China and in some language schools in Canada focus mainly on exam technique rather than improving actual language skills. Even the text books designed to provide practice on IELTS writing with answer keys adopt the same notion. For pragmatic reasons, writing preparation generally follows a strictly Product Approach. Sample answers are presented, organisational features analysed, key phrases memorised and then applied to practice questions. Being aware of the nature of those IELTS training sessions and the samples of students’ writing demonstrated in workshops, the formulaic answers I encountered while browsing the scripts became very recognisable. I got the impression that many had memorised answer templates which accounted for much of their word count, and they simply looked to add some content, depending on the question topic, to their exam responses. Given the marking criteria, it is very possible for a candidate to get a writing band 5.0 or 5.5 after undergoing such training, which is usually enough to secure a place on a university Bridging program course if they are not enrolled in university classes.
The negative backwash became apparent on those previous bridging programs I have worked on, as well as the assignments I currently assess. Since many students had been trained to write short answers under timed exam conditions, relying on large formulaic chunks to make up their word counts, they tend to struggle when asked to produce longer assignments based on independent research (A Saint Mary’s example would be assignment 4 for Comm 2239). As a result, initial writing assignments from these students seemed to be very poorly constructed and some heavily plagiarised.
Also, from my observations it seems the Chinese students have a very different approach to academic writing, and rather than directly address the core topic of an assignment, many tend to write in broad, general terms and then draw vague conclusions at the end. Charteris-Black (1997) points out that a learner’s educational cultural context determines the rhetorical and stylistic features of their writing, as well as their approach to the audience and purpose of writing. Furthermore, I am always surprised when Chinese speaking students tell me that they very rarely visit their university libraries as everything they need to know to pass exams or write assignments is contained in prescribed textbooks which largely need to be memorised.
As a result of the issues discussed above the following general considerations will need to be taken into account when teaching academic writing for pre-university program (ELL) students.
- Presenting Writing as a Genre Different from Speaking
- The emphasis of a Process Writing approach
- Encouragement towards learner autonomy
- Essay / Paragraph structure
- Critical thinking
- Guidance in acceptable referencing systems
- Awareness of the seriousness of plagiarism
With regard to the above, appropriate methods of gauging the students’ needs and abilities will need to be devised. The results will be influential in deciding materials to be selected as well as an appropriate sequence in which classes will be organised.
Charteris-Black, J. (1997). Practice and preferences in second language writing instruction: A contrastive perspective ( Fulcher, G. Ed.). Hemel Hempsted, England: Prentice Hall Europe
Hedge, T. (2004). Teaching and Learning in the Language Classroom. UK: Oxford University Press
Nunan, D. (1999). Syllabus Design. UK: Oxford University Press
Swales, J & Feak, C. (2009). Academic Writing for Graduate Students. USA: University of Michigan Press
Thornbury,S. (2006). An a-z of elt. UK: Macmillan