Teaching Composition Writing in English as a Foreign Language (EFL) at the Tertiary Level: A Balanced Curricular and Instructional Approach
This study resulted from concerns about teaching composition writing in English as a foreign language (EFL) at the tertiary level at the universities in Bangladesh since the learners at the level appear to have disappointingly low proficiency in composition writing. It was conducted among 135 undergraduate students, and revealed two major problems in the subjects’ EFL composition writing: linguistic errors and structural anomalies. To solve these problems, the researchers suggest utilizing a balanced curricular and instructional approach, that is, an amalgamation of the product and the process approach to teaching composition writing. Based on the blend of the two approaches to teaching composition writing, this paper advocates some guidelines which can be employed to help improve instruction in and enhance effective learning of EFL composition writing.
Key words: EFL composition writing, tertiary level, low proficiency of learners, concerns about teaching, the process approach, the product approach, a balanced curricular and instructional approach
The science and technology universities in Bangladesh offer a foundation English language course to all the first year students who are enrolled in the four-year B.S.S. / B. Sc. programme in different disciplines. The purpose of the foundation course is to prepare students to comprehend and communicate knowledge in English and to become efficient readers and writers of academic and workplace texts. The foundation English language course constitutes an integrated skill-based syllabus which encompasses review and practice of essential grammar items, writing paragraphs, essays and letters, reading comprehension passages, listening and speaking activities.
However, it is the writing skill which is given paramount importance in the foundation English language course. The course is of one semester duration and offered in four classes per week. The method of teaching this course is consistent with the product approach. Grammar is taught explicitly in the traditional way through definitions and examples, and the students are asked to memorize the rules. In composition (paragraphs, essays, letters, reports, etc.) writing instruction, the teacher typically begins with presentation of linguistic knowledge and organizational principles such as the usage of transitional words, providing formats of different genres and showing different ways of developing paragraph, essay and letter (both formal and informal) writing, which is followed by practice. The practice stage is usually in the form of providing topics by the teacher. Students write paragraphs or whole texts, which are either evaluated in a skimpy manner or not evaluated at all by the teacher. Thus, teaching composition writing is limited to mere discussion and inadequate practice in the classroom. Due to the limited duration of the course and traditional teaching-learning situation, greater emphasis is laid on grammatical accuracy than on communicative competence. And at the end of the course, students sit for a written examination. In short, all writing activities are conducted for the sake of examinations because students' writing needs are presumed to be writing answers in English in examinations only.
Therefore, the present study was designed to address the problem in teaching and learning EFL composition writing at the tertiary level by executing the following tasks:
Firstly, the study endeavoured to examine the two approaches to teaching composition writing: the product approach and the process approach.
Secondly, it investigated the linguistic and structural errors committed by the learners in EFL composition writing at the tertiary level.
Thirdly, it helped the researchers advocate a number of pedagogical measures to be taken to improve instruction in and enhance effective learning of EFL composition writing.
The Product Approach
The product approach to writing is in line with the audio-lingual ideology, that is, with a structural linguistic view that language is a system of structurally related elements for the encoding of meaning, and a behaviorist view that language learning is 'basically a process of mechanical habit formation' (Richards and Rodgers 2001, p.57). The product approach observes writing development as mainly the result of imitation of input in the form of texts provided by the teacher. It considers writing as being primarily concerned with linguistic knowledge stressing the appropriate use of vocabulary, syntax and cohesive devices. The input from the teacher and model texts that provide important source of imitation becomes the major driving force of language learning. Writing tasks mostly encourage learners to imitate texts and transform models provided by teachers or textbooks. Thus, the final product which reflects the learner’s linguistic knowledge is highly valued. In this perspective, the teacher plays a primary role as an examiner (Zamel, 1987).
The product approach involves building up a list of skills that are needed to acquire before producing texts . This can be illustrated by the following diagram:
Figure 1: The Product Approach to Writing
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From the above figure, we can elucidate that the product approach lays special emphasis on accuracy and perfection. Acquiring grammar rules and conventions, accumulating large vocabulary, learning various types and functions of sentences, punctuating sentences appropriately, spelling accurately, learning the conventions of different genre writing, coordinating ideas and opinions, and organizing and developing content are the salient features of the product approach.
However, the product approach is always criticized of attaching more importance to the final products than the procedure of writing. If the final product is evaluated only on the basis of preconceived and fixed notions about good writing, then learner’s skills and knowledge which they bring from outside the classroom as social individuals will be undervalued (Badger & White, 2000); and they would then feel out of place. Hence, such an approach pays less importance to learners’ strategies of writing, his/her previous experience and knowledge and social context in which texts are produced.
The Process Approach
The process approach emerged as a reaction to the product approach. Originated in L1 writing instruction in English speaking countries, the process approach gained popularity until 1980s in the ESL / EFL profession. This approach views writing as a complicated cognitive process (Zeng, 2005) which is cyclical, recursive, or even disorderly rather than simple and linear. Unlike the product approach, the focus in the process approach shifts from the text to the writer. It lays particular stress on a cycle of writing activities which move learners from the generation of ideas and the collection of data through to the publication of a finished text (Tribble, 1996). It looks on writing as the exercise of linguistic skills and writing development as acquisition which happens in situations in which teachers facilitate the exercise of writing skills. The provision of input from the instructor or modal texts is given less importance. The main features of the process approach could be illustrated by the following diagram adopted from White and Arndt (1991) with a little modification: