It is generally believed that writing is the most demanding skill among the four. Nowadays, teaching writing is the focus of interest within both first and second language contexts. The ability to write effectively is becoming increasingly important in our global community, and instruction in writing is thus assuming an increasing role in both second and foreign language education. For the learners, it is a means of personal discovery and self expression. Writing encourages thinking and learning for it motivates communication and makes thought available for reflection (J.C. Richards, 2003).
Writing pedagogy over recent decades has given different emphasis to different aspects of writing. Although, the importance of writing and its complexity is clear for everyone, it has remained as one of the marginal skills in the world of pedagogy. There is still ambiguity in definition of "writing". In many popular linguistic textbooks it is used in referring to orthography, written discourse, the act of writing, or even literature. Traditionally writing teachers were mostly concerned with the final "product" of writing. However, modern L2 writing instruction and research have shifted their focus from texts to processes, to genres, and sociopolitical contexts (N. Schmit, 2002).
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From the early 1990s, with the emergence of communicative language teaching in language pedagogy, the focus of attention shifted to learners who were seen as creators of language and were allowed to concentrate on content and message, when their individual intrinsic motivations were considered as the core of learning. Nowadays, writing is seen as an important skill in supporting other learning experiences, and reformulating knowledge. In fact, the new trends have started to view writing as an active communicative, social process involving discussions, interaction with teachers, group work, and peer work. Among all current communicative approaches, content-based instruction (hereafter CBI), and, specifically, it's the most widespread model "Theme-based model" (hereafter TBI) are widely used in second and foreign language pedagogy.
The theme-based model integrates the language skills into the study of a theme (e.g., urban violence, cross-cultural differences, or a broad topic such as change). The theme must be very interesting to students and must allow a wide variety of language skills to be practiced, always in the service of communicating about the theme (Richards & Rodgers, 2001).
In addition, theme-based courses constitute the most common model in CBI thanks to its relative lack of complexity for implementation, as language instructors operate autonomously from the rest of the faculty and there is no demand for organizational or administrative adjustments. In TBI, it is a language teacher, and not a subject specialist, that is responsible for teaching content ( Styler & Grabe, 1997).
Theme-based instruction suggests optimal conditions for learning a second language when the target language and some meaningful contents are integrated in the classroom. It can be implemented within virtually any existing institutional setting, and the theme or the topic can be selected to match students' interests. As a result, it provides opportunities for teaching writing skill and its complex strategies and processes. In fact, one of the most important factors that distinguishes the organization of curricula for L2 writing concerns whether L2 writing is taught as a separate subject or is integrated with other aspects of language, content or subject matter study. Pedagogically speaking, Theme-based language instruction lies close to language-driven approaches with the focus on various thematic, sentential and lexical levels, and many curricula value the integration of instruction in reading, grammar and vocabulary teaching along with writing as complementary aspects of L2 literacy ( Met, 1999, cited in Celce-Maurcia, 2001). To put it in a nutshell, writing features prominently in most L2 curricula that follow principles of content based instruction, though in conjunction with other media of communication, and the study of subject matter knowledge. Consequently, the researcher in the present study attempts to investigate the effect of "theme-based language instruction" on Iranian EFL female students' writing skill.
Statement of the Problem
Nowadays, effective writing is one of the most important issues in second and foreign language environment. Unfortunately many students have had little experience with and no systematic instruction in academic writing in their second language. They have been taught to handle only simple functional and expressive writing tasks. A great majority of novice writers, regardless of whether the language in which they write is their first or second language, need systematic guidance and well-designed instruction to acquire writing competence. Theme-based instruction creates optimum conditions for improving systematic writing by teaching related grammatical instructions, and vocabularies, and providing the students with feedbacks. Processes such as revising, outlining, accompanied by peer and self-assessment equip the students with a critical and systematic view toward the written text and pave their way to being self-independent writers.
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Moreover, a deep view toward the nature of writing reveals that it is the result of utilizing complex strategies to improve the composing process and to gradually develop the text. Recent research tries to find an appropriate teaching model to guide learners into a comprehensive insight over the strategies. Theme-based teaching environment makes the learners involved in various numbers of activities during learning the writing process such as pre-writing tasks to discover and be engaged in a topic, brainstorming and listing to share and utilize the presented information, as well as rapid free-writing, discussions, summary writing.
In addition to the above-mentioned issues, there are some pedagogical pitfalls in teaching and developing curricula in EFL and ESL environment. In fact, there is no single grand theory of L2 writing because of the various, conflicting demands, contexts, and interest. it is difficult to identify foundational concepts with the desire to provide a single, guiding basis to organize L2 writing curricula comprehensively. Pedagogically speaking, there are three main approaches in teaching writing. In text-based approaches writing is seen as a final product of a writer. In these approaches, the focus is on language forms, both grammatical and discoursal. On the other hand, in writer-based approaches the focus shifted to the self-expressions of the writers, and writing is seen as a creative act of self-discovery. Recently, there has been a movement toward content-linked, field-specific instructions, where the writing activities are organized around a set of themes or topics of interest that establish a coherence for the course to make the whole process of learning easier to understand and recall ( Johnson and Johnson, 1999). The theoretical and practical foundation of TBI not only represents all the aspects of field specific instructions, but also it enjoys the desirable characteristics of the other approaches.
Significance of the study
The pedagogic justification for the present study tends to be that it mirrors nearly all characteristics of a perfect TBI course. Courses designed according to the TBI usually feature a variety of text types, discussions, along with written materials. The key characteristic of these courses is the interest in the concept of integrated skills. The topics presented are commonly grounded on reading. The written texts always serve as an optimal foundation for further exploring other areas of grammar, vocabulary, and language awareness. Also, these texts are used for acting as devices for the practice of productive skills such as making presentations and oral reports, engaging in discussions and debates, giving oral or written response to questions or issues associated to the topics, writing summaries, and commentaries. Different skills and language analysis are therefore integrated around the selected topics in a meaningful, coherent and interwoven manner. In other words, in case of utilizing theme-based instructions in teaching writing curricula curriculum planners, course designers and teachers would considerably benefit from an excellent tool for the integration of language and content (M. Duenas, 2004).
In the current research, thematical unity, integration of skills, and diversity of exercises and texts have been brought about to provide the Iranian learners with a comprehensive teaching writing material, which can be implemented for all proficiency levels. In fact, TBI writing curriculum is an ideal replacement for the product approach in teaching writing which is currently implemented in many educational centers in Iran.
Another justification of using theme-based instruction in teaching writing lies on the fact that information composed in a network of related, coherent information promotes better learning(Styler & Leaver, 1997).
Research has revealed that coherently presented information and thematically organized materials improve writing because they are easier to recall and learn. Also, interconnected practices used in teaching writing create better opportunities for learners to use information in new situations.
As a result, the present research, devises a proper way to motivate Iranian EFL learners in the skill of writing by gradually increasing their ability to succeed in complicated tasks.
This study attempts to provide answer to the following question:
Is there any significant difference between the product and theme-based approaches in improving the writing skill of the Iranian EFL female learners?
Based on the aforementioned research question, the following null hypothesis is proposed:
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There is not a statistically significant difference between the product and theme-based approaches in improving the writing skill of Iranian EFL learners.
Definition of Key Terms
Theme-based language instruction: TBI is considered as the most common model of content-based instruction. In this approach, language is used to explore content and develop learners' communicative proficiency. A language curriculum is developed around selected topics or themes drawn from content area. An attempt is often made to integrate the topic into the teaching of all skills. The goal is to assist learners in developing general academic language skills through interesting and relevant content. The theme or the topic can be selected to match students' interests (Richards and Rodgers, 2001).
Theme: A theme is a topic, concept, problem, or issue providing both a focus and organizing framework that guide the development and implementation of a cohesive, interrelated series of lessons or activities (Richards and Rodgers, 2001).
Product-based approach: Writing is viewed as "mainly concerned with the knowledge about the structure of language, and writing development is mainly the result of the imitation of input, in the form of texts provided by the teacher". It is therefore teacher-centered, as the teacher becomes the arbiter of the models used. (Noridin & Mohammad, 2004)
Writing skill: Writing skill is specific ability which helps writers put their thoughts into words in a meaningful form and to mentally interact with the message (Kaplan, 2001).
This study suffers from the administration problem of using more than one class in the experimental group and control group. In addition, due to the researcher's limitations in randomization, the participants will be chosen from intact groups. And they cannot be selected randomly considering their age and proficiency level. Moreover, it should be noted that the number of subjects in this study is limited to 60 students in both groups.
The study will focus on two approaches in teaching writing, product-based in control group, and theme-based in experimental group, and ignores other approaches such as genre-approach or process approach in writing pedagogy. Also, it will investigate the effect of using theme-based approach among only female students studying at the intermediate level. All the participants will be adults; consequently, the results of the study will not be generalized to all age groups.