In Search of an Effective Writing Program for Non-English Majors

By Edna Morris,2014-08-30 10:26
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In Search of an Effective Writing Program for Non-English Majors


    Nowadays it is not uncommon that many second-year or even first-year college students simply stop learning English after obtaining their CET 4 certificates, and then graduate with a less than satisfactory command of English . To tackle this problem, our university runs a special program –“Advanced English” – for

    non-English majors who have passed CET 4. Its participants are

    low-advanced learners from various departments with various academic backgrounds, who are required to making use of their limited free time (summer vacations and weekends) to further develop their English skills. And it is due to their time shortage and varied language needs that almost every course for them needs to be specially designed.

     This paper is an attempt at developing a short-term writing program for low-advanced learners in our “Advanced English”


     As this course development is tackled as a procedural work instead of a mere borrowing from existing writing textbooks, it is helpful to divide the whole process by which we arrive at our


    specific course content and methodology into two stages: Planning and Developmental Stages.

1. Planning Stage

    One central task in this pre-design stage is to identify the specific learner group this program is intended for. How well do our students write as low-advanced learners? What contexts of language use will they encounter in future? What are their learning styles? While seeking answers to these questions I have come to a deeper understanding of the problems our students are grappling with in their process of leaning to write effective English.

    1.1 Fossilization Problem

     My experience in learning English writing to low-advanced learners shows that weaving words sand sentences into a grammatical and meaningful whole poses little problem to them. However a close examination of the student writings reveals that their manipulation of sentence structures is monotonously repetitive and their textual patterns boringly stereotyped. And it is not difficult for the students themselves to realize the frustrating fact that despite


    their continued intensive writing practice they still have difficulty producing texts that communicate effectively and in an interesting way. Their writing competence, after its repaid improvement in the initial stage, seems to have lost its momentum and slipped into a “fossilized” state.

    1.2 Uncertainty about Future language needs

    Our students’ interest in learning English writing is, understandably, miscellaneous and unstable. They may hope to acquire knowledge on business correspondence; they may also be leaning to write for academic purpose; and it is not impossible at some point they have no other aims than passing an exam. This is natural because most of them have no way of knowing what job they will eventually land and to what uses they will put their writing abilities. This vagueness about future language needs creates no small trouble for predicting what types of discourses our students will have to process and produce. And all the more difficult it becomes for us to help students focus their limited time and energy on the writing difficulties inherent in particular text types.


2. Developmental stage

    2.1 Determine the course goal

    The existence of the above-mentioned problems indicates that our present writing program does not adequately meet the student needs. We have been taking an accuracy-oriented and genre-based approach, first following a “sentence-paragraph-text” formula and

    then focusing on introducing rhetorical principles and patterns of basic text types. This approach has proven effective for elementary learners of writing whose object is to grasp major writing conventions and whose grammatically correct yet rigidly stereotyped sentences are deemed acceptable. Nevertheless, as they progress into higher stages, where fluency (communicative ability) is valued over accuracy, they are expected to write more coherently and appropriately. But it is doubtful that a mere knowledge of rhetorical rules, even with ample writing practice, will automatically lead to coherent and appropriate writing. We once adopted an “improving-writing-by-writing” principle, by which

    students were given large quantities of written work and expected to sort out their writing problems through intensive practice and turn


    into more skillful writers. This type of teaching turned out ineffectual because the students showed little constructive progress toward fluent writing. Obviously, more guided training is needed to teach them how to knit their discoursal threads coherently and how to express their particular intents appropriately.

    Can we try a “functional approach” that starts with predicting the “functions” (the intents to be conveyed) most relevant to the student needs and concentrates on teaching linguistic means for expounding and sequencing these functions? The answer is likely to be negative. To begin with, with a class of students from various departments holding varied or unidentifiable needs, this approach suffers difficulty in deciding whose aims to satisfy and what functions to teach. Besides, even if we managed to work out a list of relevant functions we would still be confronted with the fact that, with non-stereotyped nature of communicative needs, any generalizations made on what language forms expound what functions tend to be oversimplified and inadequate. As Keith Johnson puts it, “A slight change in intent will necessitate a change in utterance”, and “A slight change in context will render


inappropriate an utterance previously appropriate.” These complex

    intent/utterance and context/utterance relations make it difficult to teach explicitly about the “right” utterances for a particular intent in a particular context.

    Now it becomes clear that what we are seeking is a “panacea “ writing program that prepares diverse learners to handle real-life

    communicative events of non-stereotyped nature, and accordingly takes care of their various needs. In our effort to establish such a program, we turn to the very core of the matter the students

    themselves and focus on building their communicative writing potential, which is just like a substantial resource pool that a writer builds over the years and draws on when needed. When fully developed, it will be adequate for various communicative needs. To be more specific, this writing potential comprises three parts: linguistic skills (how to write grammatically), sociolinguistic skills (how to write appropriately in contexts), and discourse skills (the ability to produce coherent text). Many teachers are quite successful in helping their students develop linguistic competence, yet feel at a loss about a better way of teaching the other two skills.


    Then how do we develop this learner communicative writing potential? To solve this problem, we turn to a traditional means of developing writing ability: by studying model texts. The underlying assumption for this approach is the mutually reinforcing interaction between reading and writing activities (Grade 1991). There is no denying that a good write must be a good reader in the first place. And a good reader, who goes beyond a mere comprehension of text contents and who is able to enhance, through his reading experience, the vocabulary, sentence structural and textual awareness as well as to build his background knowledge, invariably paves his own way toward successful writing

    The idea of improving writing through reading is age-old and we have often taken it for granted, thus failing to provide detailed instructions on how to conduct a systematic study of instances of good writing. To benefit from their reading of model texts, our students need training in discourse analysis skills, which will help them work out features and patterns of different text types. They also need practice in reproducing those features and patterns. The cultivation of the skills and discourse analysis and the skills of


    exploiting this analysis in one’s own writing is essential to the building of communicative writing skills. Because it not only promotes active knowledge accumulation through continuous learning from accessible resources but also provides

    ever-sharpening tools for processing and producing various types of writing.

    So far our discussion has taken us to the ultimate course goal: to help students build their writing potential through developing their skills in discourse analysis and in using what they have learnt from the analysis in actual writing.

    2.2 Determine the Course Content

    The well-defined course goal has offered a meaningful direction to the organizing of our course content. With an emphasis on the role of discourse analysis, it seems appropriate that our low-advanced composition class be taught in an “integrated-skills”

    framework, with reading and writing activities combined into an organic whole. About this integrated course, there exist two general implications:

    First, the course is discourse-based, consisting of a sufficient


    number of carefully selected model texts. Besides ample exposure to authentic reading selections, considerable text-related questions are also planned, leading students into a systematic exploration of various aspects of written discourse such as development of ideas, organization, style, coherence and appropriateness (I. E . utterance/intent and utterance/context relations). During this material development, we must take into account the following factors: Does the topic of the model texts engage students? Are the reading selections authentic enough to allow for varied analysis? How to design effective reading tasks that focus on the analysis of rhetorical forms and discoursal features?

    Second, after a substantial “reading and analyzing” component, the students are assigned writing tasks based on what they have just read and analyzed immediate opportunities for students to apply whatever rhetorical principles derived from their discourse analysis. Each writing task should be set up in a certain context with clearly-specified writing purpose and audience. Concentrated practice in producing contextual zed pieces of communicative writings may both heighten students’ awareness of writing as a


    communicative activity and foster in them the ability to select appropriate content and style on the basis of potential readers. 2.3 Methodological Concerns

    While trying to translate our course content into classroom activities, we find our methodological concerns strongly influenced by on factor: the short-term teaching situation. To make full use of precious class time, students are made to follow a rigorous procedure:

    Step 1. Preview: Students receive a handout of model texts accompanied with a list of reading tasks covering both the content and language sides of the text.

    Step 2. Teacher-centered class discussion: Students come to the class for a 30-minute discussion, exchanging their preview findings. To avoid a dragging, out-of-focus exploration, a good measure of teacher talk is desirable to guide the students toward a quicker discovery of the lexical, textual and functional features of the model texts.

    Step 3. Note-taking: At the end of the discussion, students are given 10 minutes to write a short summary on how and why the


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