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During my own learning experiences, I find that while different teachers may have different methods in teaching writing in China, there was a lot of similarity in how writing was taught. In my paper, I will examine some key aspects of teaching writing in China, and try to evaluate whether these focuses are effective or not in developing students' writing skills. Then, I will present some aspects which are neglected by Chinese teachers in teaching writing. Finally, I will try to give some possible solutions to improve the current situation in teaching writing in China.
II. Some focus points of teaching writing in China
A. Focus on accuracy of grammar
When doing a piece of writing in second language, grammar, vocabulary and patterns are essential (Hyland, 2003). In China, the accuracy of grammar is considered to be the most basic element for a good piece of writing. So, in teaching writing, teachers pay a lot of attention to provide grammatical points to students, which they think may lay a solid foundation for students to construct sentences in writing.
For example, in a writing class, teachers may present students a particular sentence structure, such as 'there be'. And then, students are encouraged to do a writing, using 'there be' to describe a classroom. Another typical activity in writing class is error correction. In many writing classes, several paragraphs of a passage which contain some grammatical errors are provided to students. Sometimes teachers may choose paragraphs which are from students' writing. Then students are asked to find the errors and finally to correct them. Such a process of correcting errors may make students more aware of some grammatical rules, and also decrease the amount of similar errors in future writing.
For teachers who teach writing by focusing on the accuracy of grammar, 'accuracy and clear exposition are considered the main criteria of good writing, while the actual communicative content, the meaning, is left to be dealt with later' (Hyland, 2003, p.4). However, grammar-centered teaching may cause serious problems. As is mentioned by Hyland (2003, p.5),
The goal of writing instruction can never be just training in explicitness and accuracy because written texts are always a response to a particular communicative setting. No feature can be a universal marker of good writing because good writing is always contextually variable.
So in my view, focusing on grammar is helpful to teach writing, because it is struggling for a reader to read a passage with too many grammatical errors. But, it is not wise to pay too much attention to grammar, because grammar is just a small part of good writing. Writing is not just a language skill to be learned, but a way for students to generate ideas and communicate (Reid, 1993).
B. Focus on vocabulary which are relevant to a specific topic
In China, it is very often to see teachers introducing vocabulary relevant to a topic to students before they write something.
In each writing class, teachers may first introduce the topic for today's writing. Then teachers may ask students to think about some vocabularies related to the topic. And for some which are new to students, teachers may introduce them as well. Sometimes, teachers may give students written vocabularies or ask students to take notes of the vocabularies. More importantly, students are required to remember all these vocabularies and almost each day teachers may ask students to do dictation. For example, when talking about "tourism", a teacher may give students many words related to tourism. After teachers' introduction of related vocabularies, students may write words down like this (See Figure 1):
All these words and phrases are related to the topic "tourism", and some may be used in students' writing, or may give students some hints of what to write in their passages. Students are needed to remember all these words and use them in their writing.
This kind of vocabulary teaching for writing is somewhat effective, because students can know more related words in one specific area. However, many complaints can be heard from students because students may find it difficult to remember all the words introduced by teachers. And on the other hand, according to Peacock (1986, p. 72), 'One problem associated with the 'key word' approach is that the strategy often acts as a constraint that shapes the writer's response to a task'. So students' writings are not as creative as enough. When coming cross a familiar topic, their existing knowledge of the topic is delimited by related words they have learned.
C. Focus on text structure
Structuring is certainly a very significant step in writing. Good structuring is much more emphasized in writing class in China. As a language learner, I was always told by my writing teacher that a reader could be clear about what the author was going to write if a passage was good structured.
In China, fixed structures of a whole passage and a paragraph are introduced to students. Generally, there must be three main parts in a whole writing, opening, body, and conclusion. Teachers may give students many model sentences of opening and ending. Additionally, specific structure rules in each paragraph are also given to students. A paragraph should also contain several small parts, a topic sentence, supporting sentences and finally a conclusion sentence. To a certain extent, focus on text structure is similar to the product approach, which students try to mimic a writing model. Students are required to pay more attention to how to organize a passage and how to develop paragraph according to pattern-product models (Reid, 1993).
Focus on text structure in teaching writing has its unique advantages. Students may find it easier to write a passage by following these steps. And it is easier for readers to understand what the writer is going to write because such a passage is well structured and more methodical. However, students which are taught by the same teacher may write similarly. They may find their writings are restricted because they have very little room to develop their writings. Their writings are without any creativity in structure and even in content.
D. Focus on brainstorming and outline
Brainstorming can be regarded as a way that teachers make students plan their passages before writing (Harmer, 2004), which is very often used in my experience as a learner in writing class in China. Teachers may choose a topic in each writing class, and students need to have a discussion on this topic individually or in group. For example, if "study abroad" is the topic, students need to brainstorm what might be related to "study abroad". After brainstorming, students may be asked to write an outline of their writing. If a student is going to write the advantage of studying abroad, he may do an outline like this (See Figure 2):
This is a typical brainstorming and outline example in writing class in China. As is pointed out by Scrivener (2005, p. 197), Brainstorming is a way to get the 'ideas creation engine' running. It means 'opening your mind and letting ideas pour out'. It also means not engaging that 'checking' part of your brain that too quickly dismiss things as stupid or useless (because we lose out on a lot of potentially good ideas because we reject them too soon).
In my view, through brainstorming, students can have more ideas and choices of what they are going to write. And they will be much clearer about their own writing after outlining. So it is a valuable way to improve students' writing.
E. Focus on genre
Different genres of passages have distinctive writing styles because of 'the sociocultural purposes they are intended to serve and the way they are structured to achieve these' (Hyland, 2002, p. 61). So in university writing class, teachers attach much importance to genre writing.
Teachers may firstly introduce the characteristics of a specific genre. Or sometimes teachers may give students some writing examples of different genres, asking students to find out the characteristics. After having got the idea of different genres, students are asked to do their own writing according to the teacher's instruction of what kind of genre of writing they need to write.
As to Hyland (2003, p. 18), 'the central belief here is that we don't just write, we write something to achieve some purpose.' In this way, students are aware of different characteristics of different genres. With consideration of these characteristics, students may think more deeply about choosing words, formality, mood and objectivity when doing writings with different genres. However, on the other hand, as Hyland (2003, p. 22) states that,
Untrained or unimaginative teachers may fail to acknowledge variation and choice in writing and so neglect the important step of contextualizing the language so that genre models are presented as rigid templates and forms represented as linguistic abstractions.
If this happens, students' creativity will be delimited because they may consider genre as rules. Therefore, when teachers are trying to introduce how language is used to convey meaning, it is also important for them to facilitate students' activity.
III. Some neglected aspects in teaching writing in China
A. Limited attention to drafting and revising
Because of less awareness of the importance of teaching writing, teachers attach less importance to revision and drafts of students' writing. In China, students usually just write one version. Some teachers may give feedbacks to students, but some may not. If students have received teacher's feedbacks, some may read them carefully, but most students just look at the given feedback and do nothing, and some even just look at the score and do not pay any attention to teachers' feedback. And teachers never give students any pressure to revise their writing and make a second or even third draft.
However, revising one's writing is of great importance. Harmer (2007, p. 326) states that, It might be possible to argue that editing and re-drafting are even more important when we are writing in a foreign language than when we are writing in our first language.
The process approach, which focuses on multiple drafting, may help 'develop students' metacognitive awareness of their processes, that is, their ability to reflect on the strategies they use to write' (Hyland, 2003, p. 12). So teachers should encourage students to do multiple drafts for good writing.
B. Limited feedback from teachers
Students often regard feedback from teachers as the criteria of their writing. Hyland (2003, p. 177) also states that 'providing feedback is often seen as one of the ESL writing teacher's most important tasks'.
However, the majority of Chinese writing teachers give very few feedbacks to students' writing. They regard giving feedback as a task, and do it not as carefully as enough. Sometimes they just look through each student's writing and give a score, without taking any notes. What's worse, some teachers just check whether students have finished writing. Such a phenomenon also makes students less aware of the importance of writing and the improvement of their writing skills.
IV. Possible solutions to improve the current situation of teaching writing in China
A. Open writing
Students often find it boring to write some fixed topic, because sometimes they are not interested in the chosen topic. However, 'writing is a way of sharing personal meanings and writing courses emphasize the power of the individual to construct his or her own views on a topic' (Hyland, 2003, p. 9). Byrne (1988, p. 131) mentions that 'it would be a pity if they were turned off at this early age through boredom or failure'. So teachers need to try to make students feel that writing is enjoyable.
In order to inspire students' interest and initiative of writing, teachers should encourage students to do open writing on topics which are interesting to them, so that writing practice and students' real emotions are connected. Harmer (2007, p. 19) points out that, When teachers set up imaginative writing tasks so that their students are thoroughly engaged, hose students frequently strive harder than usual to produce a greater variety of correct and appropriate language than they might for more routine assignments.
Open writing can increase students' enthusiasm and willingness to express themselves, which can also develop their creativity in writing. As to Hyland (2003, p. 9), 'in contrast to the rigid practice of a more form-oriented approach, writers urged to be creative and to take chances through free writing'. Students can write what they are interested in a more comfortable and positive atmosphere.
B. Much feedback from teachers
The revision of students' writing from teachers is the indispensible and important step in teaching writing. Hyland (2003, p. 177) says that 'this kind of informative feedback aims at encouraging the development of students' writing and is regarded as critical in improving and consolidating learning'.
When giving feedback, there are some important points need to be considered by teachers.
Firstly, giving feedback to students' writing should be without delay. Doff (1988, p. 158) mentions that, 'Correcting work immediately in class (rather than returning it the next day) means that the teacher can draw students' attention to problems while they are still fresh in their minds.'
If teachers give feedbacks to students' writing after a long time, some students may forget what they have written before, and the feedbacks from teachers will not be effective enough to students.
Secondly, symbols are quite important in revising students' writing. Students should be trained to be aware of the correction symbols. As Byrne (1988, p. 126) says that 'this approach certainly makes them more aware of the kind of mistakes they are making and is therefore likely to result in something being learned'. Different teachers may have different ways of showing correction symbols. My suggestion is Harmer's lists of some frequently used correction symbols (Harmer, 2004, p. 111) (see below).
Thirdly, if there is enough time, face-to-face revision or mini-group revision with teachers is of great value. As is mentioned by Grabe and Kaplan (1996, p. 391), 'the teacher is able to work with students intensively, on a one-on-one basis or in small group, and the teacher gets to know the students better on a personal level'. In this way, teachers can go into students' heart and know well about students' thinking process in writing. Hyland (1998, p. 26) also points out that,
Teachers need to allocate some time for face-to-face discussion with the individual student on feedback issues, to gain an awareness of the student's perspective and an understanding of what each individual student brings with them to the course in terms of past experiences and expectations.
Therefore, if there is enough time, face-to-face revision is very valuable to students of different language levels.
Lastly, students are sensitive and vulnerable, so teachers should be careful about the words and sentences they used giving feedback. For example, Harmer (2004, p.108) maintains that,
We might respond by saying hoe much we enjoyed reading their work- and then recommend that the student have a look at a book or website which has more information about the same topic. When responding, we are entering into a kind of affective dialogue with the students. That is, we are discussing their writing rather than judging it.
In this way, students' self-esteems are protected and they will be more confident and interested in writing.
Students always consider teachers' response as a criterion for measuring their writing, so teachers should consider themselves as readers when giving timely feedbacks to students, paying much attention to the art of giving feedback. In this way, students can gradually polish and improve their drafts.
C. Individual revision
In China, students are trained to revise their own Chinese writing when they are in junior middle school. Teachers always ask students to revise Chinese sentences, using correction symbols. This kind of revision can also be used in English writing. As Harmer (2004, p. 117) mentions, 'we need, therefore, to train them to read their own work critically so that they can make corrections and changes with or without our guidance'.
Mostly, students always pay much attention to grammatical errors and vocabularies, and with little attention to the content and structure of their writing. So it is necessary to give students some guidance of self-editing, such as the points students need to pay attention to when doing revision.
Self-revising can give students another opportunity to think about their writing as a whole. In this aspect, students have become readers of their own writing, which may help cultivate their responsible and serious attitude and also can make students learn how to ponder a problem deeply.
D. Peer feedback
Because of large number of students in a class and limited time and energy, teachers in China may always find it a huge project to give feedback to students' writing. Except of self-revision, teachers can also ask students to do peer correction.
As Harmer (2004, p. 115) says, 'it has the advantage of encouraging students to work collaboratively, something which, in a group, we want to foster'. Leki (1990) and Zhang (1995) cited in Hyland (2003, p. 198) that,
Students not only benefit from seeing how readers understand their ideas and what they need to improve, but also gain the skills necessary to critically analyze and revise their writing.
On the other hand, if students know that their classmates will become readers of their writing, their attitude may become more serious and they will be more careful and conscientious in writing because of awareness of competition. Similarly, in the process of peer correction, students' identities are also changing. They become the readers and revisers of their classmates' writing, which can fully arouse and exert students' motivation and initiative. Additionally, peer correction helps increase students' communication and unity between each, which will create a positive and harmonious atmosphere for language learning.
Therefore, although peer response is a good way in teaching writing, teachers need to try to design it diligently, making it as effective as enough.
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