Problem Exists In Chinese English Learning English Language Essay

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It is well-known that Chinese students are very good at taking exams. However, when it comes to writing compositions in international English exams, the results are not that good enough. According to the statistical analysis from the IELTS official website (2009), the average writing scores for Chinese students were 5.23 for 2006, 5.12 (the full score is nine) for both 2007 and 2008, which is only a little bit higher than some middle eastern countries such as Kuwait, UAE, ranking at the bottom of around forty countries. The same situation happens to GRE analytical writing. Although many students obtain very high scores in Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning tests, the performance in analytical writing part is not satisfactory. Some of the author's friends and previous classmates, who though graduated from some of the most prestigious universities of China and who possess skillful English ability, failed in the writing part in the GRE exam, receiving only 3 to 3.5, of which the total score is 6. Many universities and institutes in the US and UK deem that applicants with a writing score of less 4 are not qualified for the academic writing in their future studies. Thus, applicants holding these scores might lose good opportunities to study overseas.

What are the reasons that caused the Chinese students' lower writing scores? An eminent Chinese IELTS writing teacher You (2008) from New Oriental School of Guangzhou summarized as followed:

1. Lack of the attention to the writing section

When preparing for international English tests, such as IELTS, GRE, TOFEL, most students spend much time in remembering vocabulary and doing model tests. They do not pay enough attention to the writing part, so that they lack practice and experience in writing. Some students have not even finished one complete composition before taking the exam.

2. Relying too much on model compositions

In order to save time demanded by independent thinking and composition, many students choose to copy the model structure and even content. The consequence is that more and more similar compositions appear which absolutely leads to lower marks.

3. Unfinished or off-topic compositions

Since some students do not have enough writing drills before the real exams, they do not have a clear idea about the controlling of the time on the writing section. Some of them cannot finish the composition in the required time, or some compositions obviously lack the necessary number of words (e.g. the required words are 300, the actual words were only 150). Some students' writings are far away from the topic as they write the composition. With any of these situations happening, students cannot receive a satisfactory score.

4. The mentality is narrow and the writing lacks a convincing coherent argument

Many exam-takers are students, who do not have much life experience. What's worse, they are not concerned about the big events happening in the society, and do not read much literature. Therefore, they do not have many original and interesting ideas when given a topic to write about.

5. Too many errors in grammar and spelling

Although Chinese students can obtain high marks in the grammar section when given multiple choices tests, while applying grammar items freely in writing composition, they do not do that well. Most of the grammar they learnt is from the rules of grammar, but not how to use it to construct a sentence or a paragraph. As to spelling error, this has been referred to before, when preparing for exams, they usually remember a great number of new words, but only to passively know their meanings. Most exam-takers do not know exactly their ways of use or the precise spelling.

6. Lack of good vocabulary and too much use of some obscure words

There goes a saying in Chinese: If you have no hand, you cannot make a fist. As mentioned in 5, though many students know some words, they do not know how to use them. Therefore, they seldom use new words in their writing, but only several very simple words occur time after time. The other situation is that they remember some complex, multi-syllable words from vocabulary lists, in spite of not knowing exactly how to use them, they still risk writing them down in their composition. Many of these usages are inappropriate, some words are even unfamiliar to the examiners.

Writing classes in China

Nowadays, the way to teach writing in most Chinese universities is basically teacher-centered. The outcome of the writing class is not favorable. Most students often feel lost when given an English writing assignment. The reasons are as follows (Liu, 2005; Zou, 2002):

First, from high school to college, the emphasis of English teaching is on intensive reading. With the reformation of college entrance examinations and the modification of the test questions of college English exams band four and band six, in actual English language teaching classes, some teachers lay particular stress on listening and speaking, but they still neglect the writing teaching and the training of the students' writing ability. As it were, English writing drifts away from the whole English language teaching. Therefore, in high school, teachers seldom provide effective writing drills for students. In most cases, teachers do not begin to emphasize writing until students go to the last year of high school. The only purpose is to help students to handle college entrance exams. Moreover, due to the relaxed and undemanding nature of the writing section with vague criteria and mark scales, the effect and the force of the exams are very obscure. This situation objectively hampers the English teachers to supply students with enough training to enhance the level of their writing ability.

Second, when it comes to the college study, several problems exist in English classes, such as lack of enough teaching time, lack of attention from both teachers and students, etc. As far as I am concerned, many non-English majors do not have independent English writing classes. Most universities only offer intensive reading and listening classes. English writing teaching can only be undertaken in the squeezed time from limited reading classes. The process of the writing teaching is mostly constituted in three parts, first, the teacher offers a model composition and analyzes it; then, it is students' work to imitate the model to write; finally, the teacher amends the students' assignment and gives feedback.

From the description of the above, it is known that the students' whole writing processes are controlled by the teachers. Quite often, it takes teachers a great deal of time and energy to amend a composition, however, they frequently focus on the structure but not the content. Teachers automatically place the linguistic skill first, highlighting the grammar, the vocabulary, spelling, punctuation, etc. By doing this, teachers always feel laborious and hard-pressed, but the outcome is not that good. What's worse, after receiving the feedback only concentrating on these aspects and stressing students' weakness, often tends to lead to their aversion of English writing.

Writing classes in the US

Writing classes are more lively and interactive in the US. One of the prominent characteristics is that the emphasis of the writing classes is shifting from the teacher's sole presentation to the literature that the students are required to read on their own. The process of composing a creative work is more inspired from the reading of the literature than from the coercion from the teacher. The outcome of the writing classes shows that the way to bring in literature reading in writing classes is successful. To further explore attitudes towards literature-inspired writing, I have interviewed a student from the US and she talked about her writing classes in her high school time.

I was able to gain some insights into the way reading and writing are integrated in the US by conducting an interview with my cousin, who emigrated to the US when she was twelve years old. Her writing ability is very good now, even compared with her Native American classmates and friends. She talked about how her writing ability was trained and improved to such a high level in her English reading-writing classes.

I read the most amount of English literature in high school, not when I first came to the U.S. I was in an ESL class for a couple years when I first came to the U.S. I had regular English classes at that time too, but I don't think I learned as much as I did in high school.

My experience in high school English classes was more about improving my English rather than learning English. I had the basics down when I entered high school but I needed to bring myself to a college professional level. I don't remember specific assignments for my English classes since I took them more than 7 years ago. I only remember I was required to read on average at least 1 novel per week and had to write a paper about the novel. We focused a lot on symbolism and writing styles of the authors. The intense reading/writing requirements were from one Honor English class (High School Junior Year) and 1 AP English class (High School Senior Year). The two teachers graded papers thoroughly and wrote a lot of honest comments on the papers. I learned to critically analyze literature and write an organized/concise paper in my junior year, and I built on those skills to develop a more elaborate and unique writing style of my own in my senior year.

Having reflected on the problems encountered by students with their writing development in China, and compared this with the more progressive and encouraging experience of my cousin in the US, I have hypothesized that linking reading programs with writing development classes may be a fruitful way of achieving good learning outcomes. Questions then arise about what reading to specify, how to link writing to reading and, fundamentally, what the essential relationship between reading and writing is. These issues will be explored in the following sections.

The relationship between reading and writing

Carson and Leki (1993) have asserted "reading can be, and in academic settings nearly always is, the basis for writing". Spack (1985) also summarized particularly that "perhaps the most important skill English teachers can engage students in is the complex ability to write from other texts, a major part of their academic writing experience." Hirvela (2001) pointed out writing with or from source texts is an act both of reading and writing, because the demanding writing material that used is acquired through reading.

In L1 contexts, a number of seminal studies on reading-writing relations appeared in the 1980s. In these studies, researchers probed the connections between one's reading and writing abilities, the roles that writers and readers play in both reading and writing contexts, and the approaches by which learners have tried to improve their learning by combining reading and writing exercises together. By 1990, the research on these topics in L1 contexts was consolidated, and researchers also started to propose more probing questions and extend the earlier work, and this series of work has continued into this century. A chain of discoveries from this series of research have made great contribution to teachers that are committed to finding a wide range of approaches to make use of the connections between reading and writing in the composition teaching (Grabe, 2002).

In L2 contexts, the study of reading-writing relationships has evolved more slowly. In the past three decades, the relationship between reading and writing has attracted more and more attention from both writing and reading specialists. With the intensive study and the development of applied linguistics, cognitive psychologists, linguistics, educators and researchers from various fields of academy have become interested in whether and how reading and writing might reinforce one another and other language abilities.

Writing and reading have long been considered to be related activities. It is well known that the English language learning is like a round cake that can be divided into four essential skills which are writing, reading, together with listening and speaking. This notion was earnestly put forward in the National Conference on Research in English Charter in 1932 (Petty, 1983). The image of a round cake, though can be separated into four different slices, cannot efface the relationship underneath among one another. As summarised by Langer and Flihan (2000), a large amount of great influential research from constructivist perspective (Anderson, Spiro & Montague, 1977; Hayes & Flower, 1980; Spiro, Bruce & Brewer, 1980; Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1982) illustrates that the relationship between reading and writing is more complex and diversified, and featured by more and more complicated rule-governed representations, in which the role of a language learner is an active problem-solver who is affected by background knowledge, text and context. A series of research studies that was done contemporaneously mainly from a sociolinguistic, sociocultural, and sociohistorical perspective (Chafe, 1970; Cook-Gumperz & Gumperz, 1981; Halliday, 1976; Heath, 1983; Scribner & Cole, 1981; Stubbs, 1980; Vygotsky, 1978, 1986) indicates that a learner's life experiences and functions of writing and reading influence both the acts of writing and reading and the relationship between them (Langer & Flihan, 2000).

As far back as in the 1960s, a seminal study of interdisciplinary research into language and thought had been conducted by the Centre for Cognitive Studies at Harvard (e.g., Brown & Bellugi, 1964; Bruner, Goodnow & Austin, 1956; Weir, 1962). Their research findings indicate that writing and reading are related processes. Furthermore, in 1963, Loban confirmed the strong relationship between reading and writing as measured by test scores through his longitudinal study of students' reading and writing development across 4th, 6th and 9th grades. Meanwhile, he found that this kind of relationship became more prominent across the school grades.

In 1983, Stotsky published a review of correlational and experimental studies that investigated reading and writing relationships. After collecting and analyzing a series of the literature on the relationship between reading and writing, she argued that "better writers tend to be better readers (of their own writing as well as of other reading material), that better writers tend to read more than poorer writers, and that better readers tend to produce more syntactically mature writing than poorer readers" (p. 636).

There are a lot of scholars and researchers studying the relationship between reading and writing laying their stress on learners' engagement in the tasks. According to Langer and Flihan (2000) review, their investigations date back to the early stage of the childhood, how the children use signs and symbols (either those in their surroundings or those they invent) to obtain and express ideas, meanings, and the way they originally acquire the conventionally accepted codes. (Bissex, 1980; Clay, 1975; Read, 1971).De Ford (1981) discovered that in primary classrooms there exists a supporting and interactive nature of those two processes. In the description of Goodman and Goodman (1983), the relationship between one another is based upon the pragmatic functions of each. By the way of making efforts to communicate through writing and reading, both symbols and conventions of use in language were gradually adopted. Eckhoff (1983) found that the second grade students she studied tended to imitate the style and structure of the basals used for reading instruction, which influenced the performances of students' own writing, such as organizational structures and linguistic complexity. In 1983, a study of writing and reading development was carried out among deprived children by Chall & Jacobs. It was based on NAEP-like test scores. The resulted indicated that in spite of good scores in reading and writing in grades 2 and 3, there inclined a deceleration in proficiency gains starting in grades 4 and 5 and continuing through grade 7. The results from factor analyses suggested that reading and writing were intensely related. Furthermore, this study indicates that there indeed is an impact upon one another between reading and writing activities. It also suggested that the underlying processes of reading and writing should be better understood and how they connect to one another is worth studying.

Similarities between Writing and Reading Processes

Constructivist theory and related research as well point out that writing and reading are both meaning-making activities (Anderson, Spiro & Montague, 1977; Gregg & Steinberg, 1980). The process of people writing and reading is also the process the meaning is continually becoming and developing. In this process, the human's mind anticipates, reviews, and forms momentary impressions that change and grow as meaning develops (Fillmore, 1981; Langer, 1984). Language, syntax and structure all take effect at the same time both in the texts-in-the-head and text-on-the-paper as the meaning develops. Since writing and reading both involve the process of meaning development, they are considered to be the similar composing activities which require the process of planning, generating and revising meaning. What's more, all of these above chains in the process occur recursively throughout the whole event of meaning-building with a person's growth of his or her text word or envisionment (Langer and Flihan, 2000). Under such circumstance, many scholars and researchers propose that the writer can be considered as a reader and the reader as a writer (Graves & Hansen, 1983; Smith, 1983). Smith (1983) also agrees this point and intended that reading like a writer allows one to actually become a writer. When reading like a writer, the reader not only attempt to make meaning of the text, but also learns from and acquires the author's writing style, techniques, the use of conventions and the like. When reading like a writer, the reader sets up a model writing in the mind from the reading texts and this can be used in his or her later writing activity.

During the process of producing a literary work, at first, the writer always does some related reading ahead. While composing the work, the writer occasionally transfers himself/herself between the role of writer and the role of the readers/audiences, which is to check the comprehensibility of their expression from the reader's perspective. Sometimes, when we concentrate too much in our own thinking and producing, we are bound to neglect some subtle information that should be accounted for. However, due to the missing of this information, readers often misunderstand or even cannot catch up with what is going of the writer's narrative. Similar processes exist also in the process of reading a literary work. The reader is also considered to be a writer because while reading a text, the reader's mind does not merely halt on the words they are reading about, their mind also races ahead to conjecture what is going to happen next ,how to describe the situation and the structure of the piece will proceed (Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1982; Flower & Hayes, 1980). Langer& Flihan (2000) summarized as "not only the message, but also the structure and presentational style of a piece; words are thought of as well as ideas, in ways in which they might appear". In this way, the reader's 'work' can be compared with the author's 'work', but of course not as elaborated and delicate as the latter one's. This sense of writing as reading provides a sense of personal engagement to the reading experience. Readers also sometimes place themselves in the shoes of the author in order to gain a personal or cultural perspective that enriches their own responses or interpretation (Purves, 1993)

Kucer (1987) proposed the two processes reading and writing had four common cognitive foundations when analyzing the relationship between reading and writing:

1. Readers and writers use prior-knowledge to create the meaning of the whole text in both readers' and writers' acts.

2. When produce a text, the writer use a language database to create the meaning; when read a text, the reader also uses the same database to decode the meaning that the write uses before.

3. The reader and the writer have the similar process when transferring the prior-knowledge into the meaningful text.

4. The reader and the writer manifest the similar processing mode when coding and decoding a literary text.

Tierney & Pearson (1983) argued that both readers and writers compose meaning. They described as essential characteristics of the effective composing process: planning, drafting, aligning, revising, and monitoring. Further, they saw "these acts of composing as involving continuous, recurring, and recursive transactions among readers and writers, their respective inner selves, and their perceptions of each other's goals and desires" (p. 578).

Thus, it can be seen that reading and writing are two similar, dynamic, interactive process, both including pre-existing memorizing structure, analyzing the whole text structure, and what' more, both containing the acts of understanding and composing. Xie (1994) has a simpler and clearer explanation of the relationship of the both sides. She suggested that writing is in fact an imitation of reading, the process of writing is the imitation of a reader's reading process; in a similar way, reading is also an imitation of writing in that during the reading process, the readers must play the role of the writer to understand the purpose of the writer.

The reason that reading source texts always happens at the beginning of writing a composition, teachers had better involve reading into their writing teaching. Hirvela (2000) asserted "Attention paid to reading should impact on students' performance as writers, thus necessitating a pedagogical link between reading and writing." Nevertheless, connecting reading and writing also benefits students as readers. Flynn (1982) explains: "Through writing, students gain a fuller understanding of their reading… In all forms, writing forces readers to define ideas clearly, and so results in fuller comprehension. Writing necessitates rereading and rethinking. Material is not simply ingested; it is digested." Bartholomae and Petrosky (1987) have contents," There is no better place to work on reading than in a writing course." Moreover, Troyka (1986) argues, "writing and reading are reciprocal meaning-making activities; one is diminished without orientation toward the other." This is why, as Andrea Lunsford (1987) has asserted, "the teacher of writing must automatically and always be a teacher of reading as well."