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Writing is very important in education today so everyone wants to know the best way to teach it. But that can be a challenge because there are so many different ideas out there. Besides finding the best methods to teach writing, there is also another important area that needs to be highlighted while teaching writing which is assessing the writings. Assessing writing is indeed a tedious but very important task that needs to be done carefully. But one questions need to be asked; how do we assess the students? Based on the form of their writing or the meaning of their writing? Therefore, this paper aims to discuss about this "form versus meaning in teaching and assessing writing" issue. Opinions and theories form both camps; form camp and meaning camp will be presented. The last part of this paper will conclude everything by highlighting with approach is the best to teach and assess writing; form or meaning?
Since nowadays, communicative approach seems to conquer ELS, explicit grammar instruction was downplayed.
Background of the Problem
Learning the process of writing is a difficult skill for students to develop and learn, especially in ESL context, where exposure to English is limited to a few hours per week. Students, learning English composition as a second or foreign language, struggle with many structural issues including selecting proper words, using correct grammar, generating ideas, and developing ideas about specific topics. More importantly, they have trouble developing functional language skills, such as proper natural language use in different social contexts and using language in creative ways. This problem has worsened because writing teachers nowadays tend to focus largely on teaching students grammar, and proper language structure, rather than given the freedom to the learners to become expressive in their writing. These factors tend to hamper students from improving their classroom interaction and keep them from developing more active learning in writing. To be honest, there many teachers who are still confuse in choosing the best methods to teach writing; whether they are to allow students to be expressive and at the same time turn blind eye to the grammatical mistakes done by the students or to focus on teaching grammar explicitly but bear the risk that the students become passive.
As for me, having teaching secondary school for almost 3 years, there are a lot of things that I've gained and learnt especially in teaching and assessing students' writing. The clashes between idealists which totally depend on the greatness of theories and realists which based on what actually happened inside the classrooms do have impact on my teaching. Even between idealists, the 'battle' between form camp (FRM) and meaning camp (MEN) has prolonged for quite some time. Though many people nowadays prefer the later camp for it seems "more communicative" but there are also concerns being voiced out and some teachers also have their reservations towards this 'communicative' approach. Widdowson (1990) criticizes the MEN approach by saying that "learners do not very readily infer knowledge of the language system from their communicative activities". Lightbown and Spada (1993) support this argument by stating that "there is increasing evidence that learners continue to have difficulty with the basic structures of the language in programs which offer no form-focused instruction". However, our National Syllabus strictly implies that all language teachings should be based on communicative approach, which in this case should focus on MEN approach rather than FRM approach.
Due to this, there were times in which I was totally confused and trapped between these clashes. The most prominent problem faced by me is when dealing with students' writings. It is worth to note here that students at secondary level are being evaluated most of the time based on the writings. Whether in PMR or SPM, they are expected to be able to produce good or at least mediocre writings. Therefore, it is not my aim to take side on either camp but rather to consider which approach is more suitable in teaching and assessing students' writings.
Until 1970s, teaching grammar explicitly was the only method to be used in language teaching. Grammar-translation method, audio-lingual method, direct-method to name a few, were among the approaches used by many language teachers in their lesson. In all these approaches, the place of grammar in instruction is dominant. Ellis (2006) defines focus on form as "any planned or incidental instructional activity that is intended to induce language learners to pay attention to linguistic form". However, he also adds that this focus on form should take place "within meaningful and communicative context". Many researchers believe that errors made especially in writing should be corrected immediately to avoid 'fossilisation' and forming bad habit. Ellis later suggested that "advanced speaking and writing proficiency for achievement of students' academic and vocational goal, may require form-focuses instruction". Long (1998) says that "Focus on form is an approach to teaching grammar vocabulary, collocation, pragmatics, and more, through helping students map forms, functions and meaning, in context, and with the timing of treatment determined by the learner's internal syllabus". Pole (2005) conducted a research in language teaching the results of his study suggest that focus on form instruction has the possibility for being most beneficial for learning vocabulary. According to cognitive view, "learners assimilate and internalize knowledge through ample practice which leads to reinvesting the knowledge" (Handbook on how to deal with grammar for elementary-level English as a Second Language teachers, 2002)
Even in writing, a research conducted by Chandler (2003) showed that explicit grammar correction in writing helped the students to improve their language competence. This claim is supported by Ferris (2004) and Bitchener (2008), based on their research on the effects or direct corrective feedback in writing. Both of them agree that students would benefit if they were to be corrected directly. However, Truscott and Hsu (2008) counter-back this claim by saying "explicit grammar correction is ineffective in facilitating improvement in student writing". Other linguist who shares the same opinion is Ellis (2006) in which he says "second language is a tool rather than an object to be analyzed".
Another issue that makes FRM approach losing its popularity is within motivational aspect. Frequent correction will raise students' affective filter and indirectly will de-motivate the students. Seeing all red marks will hamper their interest in writing. Controlled activities which are promoted by FRM approach will hinder students' creativity and eventually will make them lose interest in writing. Linguists then were searching for new approach that can overcome all the problems mentioned.
In 1980s, communicative approach emerged and gained its popularity. Even until now, many language practioners still think that communicative approach has all the answers to language learning problems. According to this approach, meaning and fluency are more important than form and fluency. Students seemed to use the language to communicate actively in English. But, not all people were satisfied with this approach. Ellis (2002) says that "the teaching of linguistic forms, especially grammar, still plays a fundamental role in language pedagogy". Many researchers argue that limited exposure to language is not enough; they advocate a more form-focused approach to communicative language teaching. Findings from various studies suggested that in experiential and meaning-focused language classrooms, some linguistic features do not develop to target like levels (see for example, Harley, 1998; Swain, 1991, and Lyster, 1998) This is so despite years of meaningful input and opportunities for interaction. Eventhough the students are exposed with enough comprehensible input, the lack of environmental support hinder the language acquisition. Environmental support in the form of comprehensible input is necessary for language learning. For this reason, any approach that isolate linguistic structures in teaching a language were considered less effective. Therefore, it is best if the students are taught using a method that put fair emphasis on meaning and form.
Due to this ruckus, another approach comes into sight. This approach is a blend between form and meaning. Seedhouse (1997) calls it as "dual-focus". According this approach teaching language should be focused on accuracy and fluency, on form and meaning simultaneously. Grammar teaching is allowed but need to be contextualized and most of the time only to serve at the end of the lesson. Nevertheless, this new approach allows the students to have some form-focused activities in their lesson. Also supporting this new approach is Celce-Mercia (1993) by saying "grammar should never be taught as an end itself but always with reference to meaning". Most research nowadays supports some attention to grammar within a meaningful, interactive instructional context. "The method that was considered most favourable for teaching foreign languages was one that could focus on aspects of language and communication at the same time" (Linguarum, 2007).
This "dual-focus" approach is also supported by functional camp. Based on functional view, language is seen as a vehicle to express functional meaning. This view stresses on the semantic and communicative dimension. Relatively, this view also shared by interactional side. According to them, "language should always be seen as a mean for realization on interpersonal relations and for the performance of social transactions between individuals", (Seedhouse, 1997). A number of studies on assessing the written work of overseas students have been conducted however there has been a variety of findings. Salvi (1991) supports this new approach by saying "grammar is important to our purpose only in so far as it relates to the meaning that the participant wishes to express. Therefore if a formal error is made which is of no semantic consequence the error can and should be overlooked in an assessment of communicative performance".
Though this approach seems attractive to both teachers and theorists, one question occurs; how is this combination can be achieved in practice? To answer this question, Seedhouse suggest 2 answers;
- a gradual progression from form-focused tasks to meaning-focused tasks.
- While the students carry out a meaning-focused task, the teacher notes down errors and use them for input in form-focuses task.
I provide here also examples of "dual-focus" tasks;
The teacher could start the lesson by using focus-on-form approach which also known as controlled-to-free approach. Based on this approach, the students will be given sentence exercises at first, then paragraphs to copy or to manipulate grammatically. By emphasizing on the importance of form, students are likely to write with less-errors. This approach also stresses ton accuracy rather than fluency and originality. As students improve in term of the basic mechanical aspect of the language, teacher will move on to the second task. Students are assigned with vast amount of free writing on given topics, with minimal correction of error. In this approach, it emphasizes on the importance of meaning and fluency first without having to worry about form. However, teacher will jot down all errors made by the students. Major and recurrence errors will be highlighted at the end of the lesson and corrective feedback will be given. To make the lesson more communicative, teacher could ask the students to exchange ideas among themselves or ask them to present their writing in front of the whole class
Lesson is adapted from Raimes (1983)
From this example, it shows that form-focused activities and instructions should be integrated in interactive lesson. This is not to be mistaken as taking steps backward, but the FRM approach incorporated in the lesson is to enable students to become more aware of the grammatical structures while attending the meaningful tasks. The errors that students make and their questions about how the language works are authentic sources of information. Teachers can gather valuable data from their students' speaking and writing and can use students' errors as a basis for planning form-focused instruction. Student questions about grammar should be answered. These questions signal an emerging awareness and interest in the mechanics of the English language.
Another example of activity is by providing access to resources:
Teachers can plan student access to resources such as word and expression banks, posters, and models for speaking and writing tasks. Providing essential language in the form of posters or word banks will help students speak sooner and more accurately. Modelling of speaking activities and functional language will diminish the number of errors. The teacher can model the targeted language alone or with a student or have two students act out the language.
"Knowledge of grammatical forms has to be viewed as an efficient resource and can provide "correct" models for students developing writing competencies".
(Handbook on how to deal with grammar for elementary-level English as a Second Language teachers, 2002)
There are no simple answers to this dilemma of how to teach and mark writing. It is hard for us to find a classroom where a teacher is so devoted to one approach and neglects the others. There is no one way in teaching writing, but many ways. The best way is to synthesize the existed approaches; FRM and MEN. This 'dual focus' can be achieved by both teachers and learners have mutual understanding on selecting topics which are familiar and meaningful to the learners. By doing this, learners will feel free to write about the topics and teachers' role limit to camouflaged correction. Seedhouse (1996). We have seen that some focus on form can be beneficial to elementary ESL students if it were to be integrated in communicative tasks. Teachers should keep in mind that focus on form is only part of the "bigger" picture which is to provide students with an interactive, meaningful, and challenging language learning experience. If focus on form is delivered to a whole class of students at a time, I think it should not be for every problem that moves, but only after a teacher has observed errors that are recurrence, persistent, and remediable. In practice, I think that a good deal of focus on form should as long as it is done in a meaningful context.
To summate, I do believe that teaching writing should be stress-free and enjoyable. Students should be given chance to be more expressive. However, unlike speaking who need to be acquired, writing is a skill that needs to be taught and learnt. Writing also is a planned process; therefore the end product should be more accurate than speaking. In writing, students should be more aware of the mechanical aspects of the language. Therefore, based on the argument presented above, it can be concluded that in teaching writing, grammar instruction has a dominant role but as what Ellis (2006) has said it should be done "in meaningful and communicative context". Errors should be corrected but at a reasonable pace.