Teaching Writing in Chinese Universities: Finding an Eclectic Approach

| May 5, 2007
Title
Teaching Writing in Chinese Universities: Finding an Eclectic Approach

Keywords: process approach; genre approach; process genre approach; teaching English writing; contexts

Authors
Jiajing Gao

Bio Data
Jiajing Gao is currently a teaching assistant at Beijing Normal University (Zhuhai campus) teaching college English and IELTS classes. Her research interests include ESP course design, genre analysis and foreign language teaching methodology.

Abstract
This paper outlines an eclectic approach to teaching English writing to Chinese university students. It attempts to address the major problems of college English writing: a heavy emphasis on linguistic accuracy; overlooking the development of students writing ability; over-emphasis on the product ; a lack of input of genre knowledge; and a lack of variety of assessment. Based on the discussion of current approaches to teaching writing, three implications are introduced to improve Chinese college English writing instruction as well as enhance effective learning: implementing diverse types of feedback; extending genre-variety process writing practice; and balancing forms and language use.

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Abstract

This paper outlines an eclectic approach to teaching English writing to Chinese university students. It attempts to address the major problems of college English writing: a heavy emphasis on linguistic accuracy; overlooking the development of students writing ability; over-emphasis on the product ; a lack of input of genre knowledge; and a lack of variety of assessment. Based on the discussion of current approaches to teaching writing, three implications are introduced to improve Chinese college English writing instruction as well as enhance effective learning: implementing diverse types of feedback; extending genre-variety process writing practice; and balancing forms and language use.

Key words: process approach; genre approach; process genre approach; teaching English writing; contexts

1. Introduction
In the Chinese university context, where exposure to English is typically limited to four hours each week, students receive little practice in writing in English. When they do write, they find themselves confused with word choice, correct grammatical use, organization and the generation of ideas. Moreover, students show little knowledge about how to write a contextually appropriate paper and how to develop their process of creative writing. Unfortunately, the pressures of the CET (College English Test) and the College English curriculum force English teachers to focus their attention on grammatical rules, linguistic accuracy and students final piece of work instead of functional language skills. Due to students low level proficiency, time constraints and low motivation, writing still remains a weak point. Teaching college English writing in China is a challenging job for many Chinese English teachers because it not only requires high language competence among the teachers themselves, but also the application of appropriate writing instruction.

This paper aims to provide fresh perspectives on Chinese college English writing classrooms. To achieve this objective, it firstly identifies five major problems of teaching English writing in Chinese universities. Secondly, it reviews the literature on recent strands of writing instructions the process approach and the genre approach. Based on the benefits and drawbacks of the two approaches, the genre process approach is recommended as an eclectic approach to Chinese English writing instruction in universities. Finally, three suggestions for the process genre approach are put forward to be implemented into Chinese college English writing classes.

2. Identifying Problems of College English Writing in China
2.1 Emphasis on linguistic accuracy
You (2004) states that writing instruction in China is carried out under the authority of a nationally unified syllabus and the CET examination system. The Chinese College English Syllabus and the CET syllabus highly value correct linguistic forms instead of students development of creative thought. The desire for high CET pass rates among universities places English teachers in a dilemma. Under immense pressure, English teachers must focus on teaching correct language forms and test-oriented skills rather than helping students develop their creative thinking and language skills for communicative purposes. In the CET, students are required to write a three-paragraph essay based on three topic sentences written in Chinese. This controlled writing format hinders teachers in trying new approaches to writing instruction. Teacher feedback focuses more on grammatical and lexical errors instead of meaning-oriented exploration. In brief, under such a syllabus, students are mainly evaluated by their test scores.

2.2 Overlooking the development of writing ability
Although writing plays an indispensable role in the four basic language skills, it has long been ignored in Chinese universities. According to the national syllabus, reading ability is still regarded as the most important skill. Compared with the other three skills, writing is considered too complicated to teach or not important enough to teach in the class (Zeng, 2005). Zhang (2006) also points out that writing occupies a lower position in Chinese university English classrooms and remains the weak point of university students. As a result, this reading-dominated principle brings about negative feedback from the workplace where there are many complaints about graduates lack of competence their writing and speaking skills (Li, 2002).

2.3 Over-emphasis on the product
According to Flower & Hayes (1981), writing is a complicated recursive process instead of a linear one whereby writers are supposed to go back and forth when they compose. In spite of the great influence of alternative Western approaches to the teaching of writing, many language teachers still adopt the product approach in the writing class. Writing tasks are presented in a decontextualized way, neglecting the context and audience. They tend to serve a text-oriented purpose rather than a communicative one (Mesana, 2004). In the Chinese context, the product approach, for many years, has been the dominant mode of instruction in Chinese university writing classes, highlighting the learner s final piece of work instead of how it is produced (Zhang, 2006). This has various consequences; firstly, writing quality is judged on the basis of the final product and grammatical and linguistic accuracy. Furthermore, due to this product focus, students pay little attention to the whole process of writing since they know little about how to generate ideas for writing (Ge, 2005). Consequently, they struggle with text organization, independent thinking and generation of ideas (Chen, 2002).

2.4 Lack of input of genre knowledge
The notion of genre is defined as abstract, socially recognized ways of using language (Hyland, 2003, p. 21) which are purposeful communicative activities employed by members of a particular discourse community (Swales, 1990). In China, for non-English major students, the four language skills are taught in one class. Due to this CET-oriented writing format, writing instruction mainly centers on three types of texts: narrative, argumentative and expositive. Students know little about other genre-specific conventions and contexts in which these genres are used. For instance, from my own teaching experience, non-English major students in Chinese universities know little about how to write an appropriate job application letter, a resume or an invitation. However, writing is not purely an individual act but a social and communicative one (Flower, 1994). Since language occurs in particular social cultural contexts, written production needs to consider the social and cultural context as well as the intended audience. Writers use different text types to accomplish different purposes and to fulfill certain social functions (Paltridge, 2004). As a consequence, writing classes need to help students understand the social functions of multiple genres and how language creates meaning in different social cultural contexts (Hyland, 2003).

2.5 Lack of variety of assessment
In Chinese culture, it has long been the tradition that teachers are responsible for revising or editing their students writing (Ge, 2005). This has led to the situation in which teacher-dominated feedback still remains prevalent in Chinese college English writing classrooms. Due to the high pressure from the CET and heavy emphasis on linguistic forms, college English teachers mainly concentrate on the correction of grammar and spelling and they believe that students can make progress only after teachers identify the mistakes. However, this over-dependence is said to induce a sense of lack of concern among students about the detailed corrections from their teachers because the teachers efforts are taken for granted. Some students just take a glance at what the teacher has corrected, while many others may not even look at the corrections. This results in a mindset in which they fail to reflect upon their mistakes (Wang, 2005). Ge (2005) also points out that one further consequence is that teacher-centered assessment is seen as not only time-consuming, but also an inefficient means to improve student writing level. The end result of this lack of independence is that student creativity and activeness are hindered, and motivation and proficiency in writing remain low.

3. Literature review
3.1 The process approach
The process approach, based on criticism of the product approach, originated in L1 writing instruction in English-speaking countries. Until the 1980s it gained great popularity in the ESL (English as Second Language)/EFL profession. The concept of this approach sees writing as a complicated cognitive process and involves multiple stages: pre-writing, drafting, revising and editing (Zeng, 2005, p. 67). It emphasizes the stages of the writing process as well as the writer s individual and independent production. Importantly, it examines how writers create ideas, compose them, and then revise them in order to generate a text (Zamel, 1983a). Teachers in the process writing classroom plan activities which help students understand that writing by its nature is a process. They also need to guide students through the writing process and help them develop effective writing strategies (Seow, 2002). The major elements of the process approach are students awareness and teacher intervention, the former referring to the consciousness of the nature of writing as a process, and the latter the teacher-student and student-student relationships (Susser, 1994). Teachers in the process classroom should leave learners ample free space to express their own personal meanings. To aid this sense of free space, various types of feedback are adopted for revision including peer review and teacher-student conference (Zeng, 2005).

Although it was considered the most successful (approach) in the history of pedagogical reform in the teaching of writing (Matsuda, 2003, p.69), it has drawbacks. According to Badger & White (2000), it ignores the variety and differentiation of the process of writing in particular social contexts and the fact that certain texts are produced for specific communication purposes. Hyland (2003) also highlights limitations of the process approach from the social perspective, claiming that writers are considered to be isolated individuals who are free to write their own ideas. The process model shows how they write, but it does not explain why they make certain linguistic rhetoric choices. Since the structure of target genres is not taught explicitly in the process classroom, ESL/EFL students could possibly fail to produce contextually appropriate texts.

3.2 The genre approach
The genre approach shows a powerful response to the deficit of process models. In contrast to process approaches, genre-based approaches view writing as a social and cultural practice. This involves not simply activities in a writing process, but also the purpose of writing, the context where the writing occurs, and the conventions of the target discourse community. In this sense, relevant genre knowledge needs to be taught explicitly in the language classroom. The philosophy behind effective writing implies that writers not only write of their own choice, but also in different contexts, for different purposes, and in different ways (Zeng, 2005). The genre approach to teaching writing, as Paltridge (2004) claims, emphasizes the teaching of particular genres students need for later social communicative success. The focus could be the language and discourse features of particular texts and the context in which the text is used. With direct instruction of particular text features, students can better understand how to make a piece of writing more effective and appropriate to the communicative purpose (Reppen, 2002, p.322).

However, there are still possible limitations to consider. As Paltridge (2001) states, genre knowledge includes both textual knowledge and social, cultural knowledge, therefore, identification of the exact knowledge is a difficult task. Teachers, especially non-native speakers in EFL contexts, might lack the knowledge of some genres themselves. Further argument concerns the learners passive performance in the process of modeling the given text. It also claims that a genre approach over-focuses on the reader while paying less attention to learner expression (Swales, 2000). The emergence of genre theory does not attempt to replace or suggest abandoning the process approach to writing, but draws on the demand for a more balanced approach to teaching ESL/EFL writing (Kim & Kim, 2005).

3.3 Process genre approach to teaching writing
Considering the limitations of both disciplines, the process genre approach characterizes not only the learner s creative thinking and the act of how writers form a text, but also the knowledge of linguistic features as well as specific discourse community where a particular genre performs.

A process genre approach, as the term suggests, combines process models with genre theories. The concept not only draws on ideas from genre approaches, such as knowledge of context, the purpose of writing, certain text features, but retains part of process philosophy such as writing skill development and learner response. In this approach, teachers should provide a situation for learners to identify the purpose and mode (a spoken or written text), field (particular topic), and tenor (intended reader) of the writing. With adequate support, learners can use appropriate writing skills to complete their text (Badger & White, 2000). In brief, it provides learners with opportunities for developing their individual creativity as well as helping them fully understand the features of target genres (Kim & Kim, 2005).

4. Implications
In response to the major problems of college English writing instruction in China, three suggestions are presented based on the genre process approach to writing instruction. Due to the various EFL teaching contexts in Chinese universities, no definite model of teaching writing is provided but suggestions are addressed according to a number of related aspects.

4.1 Diverse types of feedback
Besides the teacher written feedback, Chinese college English teachers may provide diverse feedback in their classrooms in order to provide more constructive assessment for learners. In peer group response, peers, as the potential audience, help to enhance writing skills development through negotiated peer interaction. Many studies have been conducted on peer feedback in ESL contexts, which shows positive reactions towards peer reviews (Fei, 2006). However, opponents argue about the quality of peer assessment and have found that ESL learners prefer teacher feedback when asked to state a preference (Berger, 1989; Leki, 1990; George, 1991; Zhang, 1995). Teacher feedback is generally seen as far more credible and appealing than peer feedback to ESL writings.(Zhang, 1995, p.213)

In Chinese contexts, students prefer receiving written feedback from their teachers since they tend to feel uncomfortable when asked to judge and evaluate their peers writings. This stands in contrast to Wang’s (2005) empirical research among non-English majors in a Chinese university, which shows that the advantages of peer review far outweigh the disadvantages. Peer groups give students a sense of audience and help them understand that they are not writing for themselves but for readers. It also raises students awareness of writing as a complex process and offers them the opportunity to analyze writing. One recommendation in addressing this contrast between research and the realities of student preference would be to make peer feedback more meaningful and productive. To do this, it is crucial for Chinese English teachers to prepare students to participate in peer feedback actively. Clear instructions on what to look for in peers compositions and how to look for should be provided in order for students to help each other (Fei, 2006).

Due to the large English classes and teachers heavy workload, self-assessment is also essential part of the writing process. A self-report checklist would help to promote learners motivation; raise consciousness of writing skills and strategies; and strengthen their positive attitude towards writing (Mesana, 2004). Chinese students can also be taught to be self-sufficient editors through a three-step process in which the first stage is to convince students of the necessity of being a good self-editor. The second focuses on training students to recognize major error types. At this stage, teachers need to select those frequent and global errors as well as give input on major error patterns not individual ones. Thus students may become more conscious of similar problems in their own writing (Ferris, 2002). The third stage is one in which teachers could also encourage students to do journal writing, or free writing with the emphasis on fluency rather than accuracy (Raimes, 2002). Before free writing, teachers need to introduce the basic skills of grouping ideas and clarifying the writing format (Ge, 2005). As a note of warning, though, for EFL Chinese learners, free writing should be carried out under the teacher s guidance because EFL Chinese students may not know that for different genres, the format varies. Therefore, in order to make an acceptable draft, learners need to understand how to start writing, what to write about and how to write well (Ge, 2005).

Another alternative style of feedback that may be applied to the Chinese English writing classroom is teacher-student conferencing, which refers to face-to-face conversation between the student and the teacher. The advantage here is that it enhances the teacher-student negotiated interaction through face-to-face talk, compared to the traditional teacher written feedback (McCarthey 1992). However, whether it is applicable to large English classes in Chinese context needs further study and evidence.

4.2 Genre-variety process writing practice
The practice of the process concept includes three stages. In the pre-writing stage, teachers are supposed to help students generate ideas through brainstorming, reading materials and group discussion. Based on the collected ideas in the pre-writing stage, students are encouraged to make their first draft and express their ideas freely. When the draft is completed, students are advised to revise their draft alone or in peer groups. At this stage, the transformation of the writer-reader role provides students with the opportunity to judge their writing from the perspective of the audience. With the feedback from the teacher and their peers, students should then be ready for their final drafts (Ge, 2005).

As previously mentioned, due to the current writing practice employed in the classroom, Chinese college students may exhibit inadequate knowledge about various text types in their later workplace practice. Since no prediction can be made about the range of genres students will be exposed to in post-college social communication, teachers should raise learners awareness of a variety of genres in addition to the three traditional writing practice categories of narration, exposition and argumentation. Teachers also need to guide students to discover how genres differ from one another; how the same genre may vary in different social cultural settings (Flowerdew, 1993; Johns, 1997). In Hyland s (2003) teaching learning cycle (see Figure 1), the means by which control of a genre can be developed is identified. The model includes three stages: modeling, joint construction and independent construction of the text. In the modeling stage, first of all, a particular genre is provided. Based on the teacher s direct instruction, the text features, context and language of this genre are discussed and analyzed. The focus in this model is on form and function of the genre as well as the process of writing a text. After students have gathered knowledge about genres and the writing process, they are then asked to produce a similar text in loose collaboration with their teacher. In the independent construction stage, learners finish their first draft, and then embark upon peer review, self-editing and teacher-student conferencing, finally constructing their own final product with confidence. This teaching learning cycle may help Chinese students acknowledge the stages of writing processes and also understand the way language is used contextually to express meaning.

teaching-learning-cycle-Hyland-2003

 

Figure 1: The teaching learning cycle (Hyland, 2003, p. 21)

4.3 Balancing form and language use
Over-emphasis on linguistic accuracy and grammatical rules in Chinese university writing classes calls for a more balanced writing instruction between form and the use of language in relation to its particular context. Knapp and Watkin (1994) proposed a genre-based view of grammar which focuses on language at the level of the whole text and how meaning is conveyed through grammar and vocabulary. As a whole, it examines language through the three levels: at text level, sentence level and word level. While concern for grammar at the sentence level is necessary, it also necessary to analyze the writing from the level of the whole text (Celce-Murcia, 1990). Learners also need to recognize the relationship between the language forms and how they express appropriate meaning. Therefore, Chinese college English teachers should help their students understand forms and grammatical rules, and additionally, the relation to their function in context.

5. Conclusions
Approaches to teaching ESL/EFL writing have long been a topic of controversy for language teachers and researchers. The two more recent major strands of writing instructions of the process approach and the genre approach both have their benefits and drawbacks. It is claimed that the process genre approach could help to develop learners process writing skills as well as the knowledge of various genres in particular contexts and their social cultural communicative purpose. Based on the notion of the complementary approach, three implications are provided for the improvement of Chinese college English writing instruction. Genre-variety process writing practice calls on Chinese college English teachers to develop students writing ability through implementing stages of the process writing practice. For this purpose, teachers need to scaffold learning through the explicit instruction of genre knowledge in order that learners can understand certain text features and contexts to be able to finally produce their own texts independently. Diverse types of feedback are recommended to help students become more active writers. Besides teacher written feedback, alternative feedback could be introduced into the writing classroom, such as self-assessment; peer group feedback; student-teacher conferencing. Balancing form and language use can help learners understand how a particular form functions in a particular context. In this way, the current English writing situation in Chinese universities can be improved and Chinese learners writing proficiency can be enhanced.

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