A short review of three articles concerning the teaching of L2 writing across cultural contexts
by Damian Rivers
The subject of L2 writing is central to the field of teacher education because writing forms an integral part of basic human communication. Being a competent L2 speaker alone is insufficient to function within a number of social and academic roles. Matsuda (2001) identifies the area of L2 writing as being neglected in early language acquisition studies due to the dominance of the audio-lingual approach during the mid-twentieth century. Second language writing research only gained prominence during the 1960’s when writing became a component of ESL programs within U.S university courses for foreign students. At this time many teachers had little or no experience in teaching L2 writing yet realized that it was an essential element needed to undertake a university course in which English was the medium of instruction. Ferris & Hedgcock (1998) state that for this reason L2 writing originally emerged as a ‘sub-discipline’ of second language teaching. Furthermore, many early L2 writing courses focused entirely on sentence level structure and emphasized errorless compositions. This controlled composition came from a behavioural, habit-formed theory of learning. The aim was to provide students with “no freedom to make mistakes” (Pincas, 1982, p.91) as it was thought that any free, random, hit or miss activity such as student led compositions or free-writing should be “eliminated wherever possible, so that errors arising from the native-to-target language transfer can be avoided” (Pincas, 1962, p.185). Any support for the notion of fluency over accuracy was significantly lacking during this period of research and a general consensus was reached that “composing writing beyond the sentence must be guided or controlled” (Slager, 1996, p.77). Since this period, several pedagogical approaches have been proposed by a number of researchers representing different conceptualizations of the nature of writing as a part of the wider scheme of second language acquisition theory. One of the earliest paradigm breakers was Kaplan, (1966) who proposed the idea that paragraph and sentence structures were both language and culture specific, suggesting that context played an important role in developing and teaching L2 writing skills. Kaplan’s proposals also led to the realization that “writing is much more than orthographic symbolization of speech; it is, most importantly, a purposeful selection and organization of experience” (Arapoff, 1967, p.33).
Later, Zamel, (1976) argued that high-level L2 writers were in fact similar to L1 writers and could benefit from instruction emphasizing the process of writing rather than the structural confines of writing. Various intervention strategies subsequently emerged including formative feedback, multiple draft composition, and peer analyses. These methods of promoting writing as a process-based event were especially popular during the early 1980’s (e.g. Raimes, 1983). The 1990’s saw the rapid development of ESP and EAP courses which signified yet another shift in theoretical opinion. If instructors could provide language specific tuition bound by context, then students would need to be aware of the multitude of writing contexts that were available to them and how each one differed. The 1990’s was very much a boom period for L2 writing research with Leki & Silva (1992) observing the “explosion of interest in research on composition in a second language” (p.3). This period was also marked by the creation of ‘The Journal of Second Language Writing’ in 1992 indicating “the maturing scholarly communication in the field” (Tannacito, 1995, p.5).
Framed against the changing nature and attitudes toward second language writing, this article aims to review three published journal articles which focus on L2 writing in terms of teacher, student and target reader perspectives. The first article entitled [Sengupta, S., & Falvey, P. (1998). The Role of the Teaching Context in Hong Kong English Teachers' Perceptions of L2 Writing Pedagogy. Evaluation and Research in Education, 12(2), 72-95] takes an in-depth look at L2 writing from the perspective of teacher beliefs, attitudes and knowledge within the Hong Kong public school system. The second article entitled [Atay, D., & Kurt, G. (2006). Prospective Teachers and L2 Writing Anxiety. Asian EFL Journal, 8(4), 100-118] examines Turkish trainee teachers’ anxiety connected to L2 writing in an English language environment. The third article entitled [Al-Khatib, M.A. (2001) The pragmatics of letter-writing. World Englishes, 20(2), 179-200.] focuses on personal letter writing as a mode of cross-cultural communication between L2 writers and L1 readers. The main findings from each article will be highlighted and discussed.
Sengupta & Falvey (1998) examine the ways in which L2 writing is perceived and its pedagogy conceptualized by English language teachers in Hong Kong secondary schools. They adopt the theoretical foundation of Flower (1989), Nystrand et al. (1993) and Silva (1993) who contend that within any writing research, cognitive and contextual factors can be said to significantly influence the teaching and learning process. Flower (1989) acknowledges that how cognition and context interact within the classroom is not well documented and this is where Sengupta & Falvey (1998) aim to provide more conclusive research data. The authors also assert that through their exploratory investigation they wish to explore questions connected with how these beliefs are acquired, justified and explained by the teachers and what social and cognitive implications such justifications have for future curriculum development.
Raimes (1985) previously contends that L2 writers need to be taught: How to be aware of and make use of the processes involved in their writing; How to develop and organize their ideas and ; How to deal with language related concerns. In the article Sengupta & Falvey (1998) advocate that teachers should be aware of these factors stating “there is much more to the teaching of successful writing than the mere teaching of accuracy in lexis and syntax” (p.73). However, it has been documented that the majority of L2 teachers tend to rely on the teaching of grammatical rules at the expense of other writing areas. As Zamel (1987) notes - “it seems that ESL writing teachers view themselves primarily as language teachers, that they attend to surface-level features of writing and that they seem to read and re-act to text as a series of separate pieces at the sentence level or even clause level, rather than as a whole unit of discourse" (p.700). This is not surprising when we consider that writing is an artifact which has to meet certain standards of social acceptability (Widdowson, 1983). In many Asian societies, this social acceptability is directly gained through the quality of examination results rather than through any form of communicative competence. Indeed, Sengupta (1996) reports that L2 teaching in Hong Kong is primarily teacher dominated and product centered. Tse (1993) had also earlier highlighted that in Hong Kong studying to pass examinations is the norm and the teaching of writing is very much examination orientated.
Sengupta & Falvey (1998) identify two research questions as being central to their research. These were - What is/are the central aspect/s of writing pedagogy that Hong Kong teachers refer to when discussing writing? And, How do teachers rationalize their perceptions? They found that grammatical and lexical accuracy was the most commonly mentioned aspect of L2 writing that Hong Kong teachers referred to when talking about teaching and learning L2 writing. The teaching of writing is very much geared to writing structurally correct sentences. Language as a tool for making meaning was never discussed by the teachers and the quality of the language was paramount. Many teachers felt it was not their job to address issues of developing or formulating ideas. This would seem to support the ideas stated earlier (e.g. Zamel, 1987). It also reinforces those theoretical views from the 1960’s which essentially saw L2 writing as an activity in which there was absolutely “no freedom to make mistakes” (Pincas, 1982, p.91). In those rare cases where teachers were open to alternatives they cited the pressure of student examinations, unsupportive department heads and city officials as well as a lack of teaching ability as obstacles in changing the way L2 writing was taught.
A great deal of prior second language acquisition research has focused on the negative effect of anxiety on performance related phenomena (e.g. Ehrman and Oxford, 1995; Gardner, 1985; MacIntyre, Noels and Clement, 1997). Much of this research though has only centered on difficulties caused through speaking and listening activities. Numerous researchers have drawn attention to the fact that L2 writing anxiety has been found to be a specific type of anxiety unique in nature to the language-particular skill of writing (Bline, Lowe, Meixner, Nouri and Pearce, 2001; Bugoon and Hale, 1983; Daly and Wilson, 1983). As previously mentioned, writing is a somewhat neglected area of second language pedagogy and often students feel deprived of help, support and encouragement. As a direct result of this students may suffer "distress associated with writing" and develop "a profound distaste for the process" (Madigan, Linton and Johnson, 1996, p. 295). As a response to this Atay & Kurt (2006) investigated the anxiety of trainee teachers when undertaking L2 writing in an L1 environment. Claypool (1980) had previously reported a significant negative correlation between teacher writing anxiety and the number of written assignments they set for their students. Daly, Vangelisti & Witte (1988) also reveal that teachers’ writing anxiety affected the way they evaluated students’ written compositions. When compared to teachers with high-anxiety, low- anxiety teachers appeared to be less bound by rigid rules, emphasized more creative expression and effort, and worried less about mechanical sentence based structures. Teachers’ writing anxiety was also found to be negatively related to their use of exercises and activities that demanded writing. The results in the Atay & Kurt (2006) study were primarily based upon responses to the Second Language Writing Anxiety Inventory (SLWAI) developed by Cheng (2004). This data was then used to create three groups. Participants who had a mean score of one standard deviation below the mean were assigned to a low-anxious (LA) group (19%), participants who had a mean score that was one standard deviation above the mean were labeled as high-anxious (HA) (32%), and the remaining participants were considered to have average L2 writing anxiety and they were labeled as average-anxious (AA) (49%). For most of the students in the HA group the inability to organize ones thoughts was considered the most difficult aspect of writing in English. This was also the case for the LA and AA groups suggesting that those researchers who support process-based L2 writing tuition are justified in doing so. The results also found that the biggest single factor that generated anxiety across both the HA and AA groups was the teacher.
As previously highlighted the teaching of L2 writing rarely includes process and idea formulation but instead focuses on sentence level structures. The study has a number of implications for English language education in general as well as for teacher education programs. With reference to the former issue, Atay & Kurt (2006) suggest that writing in English should not be limited to controlled exercises. Production-based writing at the university level seems to cause anxiety in students who are not used to this kind of writing. That is, students should be encouraged to express their ideas and knowledge in writing from the early stages of education (pre-university). If L2 writing is to be a pleasant experience, it seems crucial to establish a learning environment where students can write in their L2 without embarrassment, where every student writer’s contribution is adequately valued and where self-confidence is built up. To this end, instructors need to offer more encouragement and positive feedback, and allow experimentation without evaluation.
Within most L2 writing research efforts, it is not explicitly stated who the compositions are produced for. In a study based in Jordan, Al-Khatib (2001) addressed personal-letter writing as a form of communication between L2 Jordanian writers and L1 British English speakers. Within the context of cross-cultural written communications there are a number of culturally bound issues such as a lack of shared knowledge which can create obstacles in mutual understanding and comprehension. As Nystrand (1986) highlights - “text is not just the result of composing, it is also the medium of communication, the very information structure of written communication, for example, depends not just on the writer’s meaning and purpose but rather on the extent of match between what the writer has to say and what the readers needs to know, i.e., the extent to which writer and reader share knowledge” (p.36). Consequently, Al-Khatib (2001) assumes the theoretical standpoint that L2 writing should target the cultural norms and values put forward by the readers’ native-culture and language (assuming that they are both the same). Therefore, any L2 writing effort will contain peculiarities or errors which are likely to be due to the fact that different speech communities have different ways of organizing ideas in writing which reflect their cultural thought patterns. To support this perspective, Al-Khatib (2001) uses the example of Arabic informal letters. The author claims that they are much more tightly controlled than those written in English cultural environments, pointing out that “all grammatical and stylistic requirements have to be taken into consideration. Even if the letter-writer attempts to liberate himself from the burden of formality imposed on him, he will not be able to succeed” (p.187). This seems to conform to the views of Widdowson (1983) who believes that writing was an artifact which has to meet certain standards of social acceptability, therefore measures of relevance and suitability can only be judged within the cultural and social environment in which it was produced.
Furthermore, different societies function according to different basic principles of interaction. For example, one of the most widely studied context specific communication phenomena is the principle of politeness, something which features heavily in different genres of letter writing. Within 65% of the 120 letters examined by Al-Khatib (2001) it was found that the writers adopted local, culture specific opening greetings. The opening remarks included - First of all, I'd like to ask you about your health, and about your parents and, I want to begin my letter by asking about your health and study and about friend X's health. This offers evidence that although the sentence level structures were perfectly constructed they paid little or no reference to the target readers’ cultural norms. This skill is usually not taught as a part of L2 writing programs. Zamel (1987) confirms such as view contending that “there is evidence of teachers being so distracted by language related problems that they often correct these without realizing that there is a much larger meaning-related problem that they have failed to address” (p.700).
Although the short review presented in this paper has highlighted a number of issues in the tuition of L2 writing across three different cultural contexts, a number of questions remain. Specifically: How can L2 writing be taught without over emphasizing the need for sentence level correctness within low/mid level ESL students? How do educational policies and cultural attitudes shape the tuition of L2 writing? How can students break down the barrier of socio-cultural restriction when communicating across cultures through written composition? How should L2 writing be evaluated efficiently and consistently if little attention is given to sentence level structure and grammatical constraints? Finding suitable to answers to such questions makes the study and research of L2 writing in cross cultural contexts and exciting field for future development.
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|Damian J. Rivers has been living in Japan a number of years and is interested in social issues connected with language development. <www.eapstudy.com>
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