Integrating academic writing skills

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THE PRESENT SITUATION

The demand for teachers of English is very high and this has led to a rise in enrolment in the English Department. Thus teaching the course ENG 314: Critical Theories and Practical Criticism to final year students of English has become increasingly difficult because of the problems of: managing Large class size of between 120-200 students; the use of only lecture method because of class size; Inadequate time on the time table; use of a curriculum that does not prepare students for criticism or academic writing in the lower levels; students not having good writing skills to use to learn content or communicate the knowledge they have acquired effectively. Moreover, there is no integration of writing skills into the teaching of this course despite the benefits of doing so. And the weak assessment and feedback systems also constitute problems that aid the development of shallow knowledge in the students.

INTRODUCTION

I will look at the problem of integrating the teaching of writing skills into the teaching of the content of practical criticism in large teacher training classes in Nigeria. Specifically, it will address the problems of managing large classes, examine some problems of learners of writing address the issue of using writing to learn and to communicate knowledge, and relate ways others have handled similar situations. I will use literature review and experience to suggest possible solutions.

LARGE CLASSES.

Large classes in the college arose as a result of increased demand for teachers in the territory but, the facilities available have not grown at the same rate. UNESCO (2006) is of the opinion that a large class has no "exact size." And for this paper, a large class consists of about 50 - 200 students per class

Xu (2001) citing Hayes (1997) identifies the characteristics of a large class by the challenges teachers face in handling them. E.g. teachers' discomfort by the physical constraints, lack of effective control over the class, inability to give individual attention to learners, lack of adequate evaluation or feedback, and lack of learning effectiveness. I have taught literary criticism at the tertiary level to over one hundred and fifty students and the task is herculean to say the least.

Due to these difficulties, teachers often adopt teacher-centered classroom management. (Ikpeme, 2006 citing Coleman, 1989:16). While this is very possible at the lower levels in Nigeria, it becomes problematic at the tertiary level because there is more academic freedom for students. The tendency here is to devise ways of making the best out of the situation.

Haddad (2006) suggests three strategies for managing large classes. These include creating a well managed classroom community, employing strategic teaching approaches in the classroom and positive evaluation and feedback mechanism. These agree with Hess' (2002) eleven principles of coping in a large class.

Creating Well-Managed Classroom Communities.

The impact of the learning environment on learners is heavy because it is the setting under which learning takes place. Creating a comfortable learning environment has two components, organizing the physical environment and building a positive psycho-social environment. (Hess 2002, Haddad, 2006)

The physical environment can be organized through flexible arrangement of classroom space to facilitate movement within the class, use of space outside the classroom and involving students in class management.

Building a positive psycho-social environment means creating an accommodating learning community. The teacher makes the class to feel small by adding personal touch to classroom interaction. Teachers can reduce the class size, make seating arrangement charts, create student profiles, actively take attendance, establish rules for students' behaviour, and involve students at every stage.

Employing group work as suggested by Collins & Vojtkova, (2010) from experience may help in creating an atmosphere that is conducive in the classroom.

My experience in the college shows that Haddad's useful suggestions cannot be fully implemented. While, the psycho-social aspect is wholly achievable, the physical aspect is only partially achievable because desks and chairs are fixed to the ground making flexible arrangement impossible, even spaces outside cannot be used since there will be no chairs to use.

Teaching Large Classes

In the course of supervision, I have seen teachers that get trapped by problems of management to the detriment of their primary assignments. Both Haddad (2006) and Hess (2002) agree that a teacher needs to be strategic in teaching large classes. They outline three stages: planning, knowledge of content area, and employing a variety of teaching methods.

Planning.

A plan is a proposed line of action an organization hopes to take to achieve set goals. It is so essential in education that even daily lessons need to have them. Hess (Ibidem) recommends that planning should focus around classroom physical and psycho-physical environment, the content of the curriculum; and the process of teaching the content considering the variety of learning styles present if one wants to properly mange a large class.

Curriculum Content and Its teaching

The content of the curriculum refers to the topics as stated in the national curriculum. The teacher and school should determine its usefulness to the student and adapt it to fit local needs. Hess did not have the Nigerian situation in mind when writing because experience shows that management and teachers are more interested in covering stated course work than analysing the curricular for suitability.

From a systematic point of view, Hegarty-Hazel and Prosser (1991) observed that since student learning builds on previous knowledge, a curriculum should exhibit that connectedness that will focus the student's attention on particular aspects of relevant external connections. I see a general link with Krashen's theory of comprehensible input (I+1) in language learning.

Hegarty-Hazel and Prosser's observation is most specific to the situation on ground. It is very possible for us to adapt the Minimum standard and make it more relevant to our needs given the managerial will and the permission of the National Commission for Colleges of Education (NCCE). But even at that, we must ensure that what is adapted is cohesive given that, all the lecturers are qualified to teach at this level.

Large classes make teachers to be at loss when it comes to methodology. Ikpeme (2006) says that adopting the communicative approach was tiring and cumbersome for his large class. But he was talking about the secondary school level where students are young and difficult to control.

At the tertiary level in Nigeria the teaching approach used is the 'lecture method' Azikiwe (1998) except where a laboratory has to be used for practicals. But it has disadvantages like limited participation by learners, making learning teacher centered and weak feedback.

I agree with Hess' (2002) suggestion on using other active learning strategies in class like brainstorming, short writing assignments, oral summaries by students, simulation, games, concept models, peer teaching, report writing, and presentations.

And from experience Hejmadi's (2007) advocacy for the use of Blended learning in schools is acceptable. This is the use of Computer Aided Learning and face-to-face contact in a teaching environment, I find this useful because it will make learning more participatory and promote communication in the classroom.

Positive Evaluation and Feedback.

Valid assessment in large classes can be problematic due to class size. The sheer size of the workload discourages me from giving many writing assignments to my class and as Reid (1993) noticed this hampers effective and efficient teaching. Harmer (2007) emphasize that for a test to be effective, it must be valid and reliable. Thus, it must cater for all types of learners in the class, be relevant to learning objectives and students' knowledge of the content and skills. This is only possible to an extent because, in a large class it is very difficult for the teacher to provide for individual learners. But, the teacher can make the test relevant to the content.

In addition, I am aware of the need for revision of course work covered during the semester with the students just like Haddad (ibidem) suggests. Haddad does not specify modalities to be adopted in carrying out review sessions. Even though the aim is to make examinations familiar and aid learners to demonstrate learning achievement.

Grading in large classes is a tedious job and Felder & Brent (2001) advice that it should be done either by the teacher alone or using peers. They state that group and individual marks can be awarded for assignments. They however state that it should be made clear to students that performance below average in the examination will mean failing the course regardless of group scores in the continuous assessment.

This in my view is acceptable and practicable and it will solve the problem of unintended mark inflation by teachers.

Feedback system in our context is weak and students are not given the opportunity to assess the teaching process and I find this counter-productive. Haddad (ibidem) and Hejmadi (2007) agree that feedback enables teachers to assess their own performance. It should be prompt and spaced to meet the needs and dynamics of each group.

For without proper evaluation and feedback improvements cannot be made in any system. Hejmadi (2007)

Valid assessment and consistent feedback are important for us because they will help strengthen the teaching -learning process in the college, build confidence in staff, students, and the college.

The Relationship between Writing and Learning

I will look at views on writing and the role it plays in the learning process.

Writing has been variously classified by various people. Hyland (2002) in his overview classifies writing as text oriented, writer oriented, and reader oriented.

Hyland's (2007:7) dimension is concerned with what he calls "the code...encoder and ...decoder" These represent the product, the process used to create the text, and the reader's role in the social dimension. While Harmer (2007) classifies writing approaches as product, process and genre

On the surface these classifications look the same but, there are salient differences. The difference is that Harmer's genre is only concerned with the norms of writing that exist in a discourse community. But Hyland's 'decoder' or reader's role looks at the communicative and social functions of writing in discourse. The implication I see is that it aids the planning of content, the manner of delivery, and the feedback learners get.

There exists a symbiotic relationship between writing and learning and Crowe and Youga (1986) see it from three perspectives. Firstly, writing is seen as a learning device, a record of students' higher order thought processes, and a monitoring device for assessing students' progress in study.

Berridge (2009) citing Peterson (2007) identified the benefits of this relationship to students thus; Writing reinforces and builds better understanding in students. It enables them to connect their own experience with their learning, expands the learning and teaching of concepts, while making learners reflect on their learning experiences. It also aids the design and application of authentic assessment of learning experiences and enriches content learning aside from developing writing skills in the learners.

The former looks at these benefits from the learner's perspective but, the latter in addition to this, brings in the teacher and the system as evaluators and curriculum designers. The latter view is most comprehensive but, I must point out that this does not diminish the relevance of Berridge's contributions.

These views I must say lead to the conclusion that writing is a core literary activity essential for the production and existence of the knowledge of criticism or any content for that matter. How do students account for note taking, answers to questions and even vocabulary development to an extent?

Apart from that, findings from different studies show that writing has a positive effect on students' learning and overall development. Wheeler, Balazs and McDonald's (1998) study concluded that writing can improve technical efficiency and provide a robust educational experience to Engineering students.

While Tynjälä's (1998) study concluded that writing assignments activated Education students' textbook reading, enhanced their comprehension of course knowledge, promoted their critical thinking and communication skills.

McDonald's study shows how integrating writing can enhance the learning of content in a subject area as distinct as Engineering and the relevance of the skill in the life of the learners. And Tynjälä's study is closer to my context and proves the need for integrating writing into the teaching of English courses.

My reason from classroom experience is that, students cannot learn or derive critical theories or explanations from their own experience without recourse to literary texts. And the teachers have to expose them to views, experiences and explanations that according to Wallace et al, (2007) lead to increased literacy and classroom communication.

Writing As A Medium Of Communicating Knowledge.

I will look at the characteristics of the learners I deal with as this will help in foregrounding the discussion on their ability to communicate knowledge in an academic manner.

Going by the student essays I have assessed over the years, I discovered that some of them find it difficult to use writing skills to learn content or even tell others what they have in mind clearly.

Graham and Harris (1996) in their work in a similar context identified these types of learners as those that engage in little or no planning of tasks, pay little attention to rhetorical goals and adopt a 'retrieve and write method' of composition.

Still talking about writing skills in a more restricted sense, Reece and Cummings (1996) (citing Hayes & Flower, 1983, Matsuhashi, 1982, ) stressed that good writers among other things devote more time to planning, are more willing to make more changes and thought more about the topics than novices.

The consequence of lack of planning like I have seen in my students' essays is inability to resolve problems of content, form, audience, style or organisation in a composition.

In addition, research findings among students in similar contexts in Netherlands shows that they stop writing even before they get to bringing forth useful materials (Graham and Harris 1996).

Furthermore, my experience as an examiner of English Language and Literature for the West African Examination Council (WAEC) and the National Examination Council (NECO) shows that they lay emphasis on content at the expense of expression in literature examinations. Thus, teachers in secondary schools preparing students for these examinations teach content and completely neglect expression. Kalu, (2006)

The effect of this 'backwash' (Jenkins, 2006b) is that students with pass at credit level in literature bring writing weakness to the English department where poor expression is penalized in any written work. This in my view also accounts for students coming to the college with credits in literature but a failure in English language.

Hyland (Ibidem) in his analysis sees writing as a medium of communication and communication as the process of transmitting information. I see this as a functional view of writing that emphasizes exchange of knowledge but it is vague.

Kaminski's (2004) analysed the process thus; the sender sends input (message) through a medium (written composition) with minimum noise to a receiver who decodes the message and gives a feedback and Communication has taken place. I find this analysis as very general and does not consider whether communication has achieved its aims or not.

Moreover, certain requirement must be met by learners while communicating knowledge in writing. Thus Kaminski (ibidem) citing Aristotle specifies these when says that, the sender (writer) must present a logical and ethical argument backed with proofs "pistis" to the audience with the intention to convincing them. But, the speaker (writer) must arrange these proofs strategically, use clear compelling words, and deliver the product appropriately. My experience as a teacher and examiner of literature shows that these skills are hard to come by in many students in Nigeria.

Northedge (2005) echoes the same things but adds that students must never assume that the reader knows and should make use of new knowledge

I must point out that the idea of ethical argument is irrelevant even when the burden of proof on the writer is heavy. This is because literary criticism recognizes that the creative writer and critic have 'poetic license' to express and interpret their artistic views in any way they deem fit.

Furthermore, knowing the process and requirements as discussed by the Kaminski and Northedge informs our ability to integrate writing into practical criticism, design teaching strategies and activities that will develop these skills in our learners. This will make them effective and efficient communicators even after leaving school or active professional life.

ADDRESSING THE PROBLEM

My suggestions will be structured along the lines of managing a large class with a strong bearing on the integration of writing skills into the teaching of practical criticism.

Creating Learning Groups.

I am of the view that the core approach to these issues is by using 'Learning Centres' to structure the classroom into learning groups with skill based activities. This will according to Collins & Vojtkova, (2010) promote learner autonomy and maximize time on task.

For Senior, (1997) achieving cohesiveness will mean giving each group definite directives with recognized roles, harnessing headstrong members, and setting group expectations to give focus and direction. Group approach has its drawbacks as Ikpeme (Ibidem) citing Boughey (1997) concedes, but it aids the activation of quiet students who would have been swallowed in the large class.

Adopt Innovative Pedagogic and Teaching approaches.

On Issues of pedagogy in the classroom I would suggest the use of team and collaborative teaching approaches. E.g. lead and support, co-teaching, and integrated lecture series (Schreyer Institute,2007) provide variety in teaching approaches, less work for individual teachers and easy integration of knowledge across the curriculum. Friction does occur in such situation (Hess, 2001). Thus, I suggest that the department sort out planning, teaching, assessing students, and course evaluation before hand.

in view of the role of ICT in education and the facilities available in the college, I suggest that 'blended learning' (Hejmadi, Ibidem) could be used in course delivery to improve effectiveness and efficiency.

Furthermore, experience shows that Nigerian students tend to obey teachers so, I agree with Xu (2001) that the lecture method should be employed in the large group. But it should be supported with activities that encourage learner participation and development of critical skills.

Positive Evaluation And Effective Feedback.

In order to improve upon the present assessment system I suggest we adopt Felder & Brent's (2001) Suggestions that, assessments come with clear criteria, strict adherence to marking schemes, use of exemplars to guide student efforts, and consistent evaluation of the system.

I will also suggest revamping the weak feedback system to strengthen it.Feedback models described by Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence (2007) could be used e.g. open ended assessment surveys, feedback questionnaire on student reflections on examinations, minute papers by students. I must emphasize the need for acting upon the data collected.

Institutional Roles

The management of the Institution has crucial roles to play, for example, it could spearhead the adoption of a more robust curriculum option with more linkages. Secondly, more time could be allocated on the timetable for the course to enable groups meet at different times each week. Most importantly, students must be involved every step of the way and in every level.

Finally, I would also recommend that ICT training programmes be designed for effective implementation of blended learning in the college.

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