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Exploring writing approaches in Chinese EFL class.


This article discusses the strength and weakness of three most significant methodologies of teaching writing based on the writing needs of a group of Chinese university students. It is concluded that different approaches to writing are complementary rather than incompatible, that a combination of different approaches with regards to students' specific writing needs and their developmental levels may be proper in China's EFL context.


Three most significant methodologies of teaching writing are summarized, and their strength and weakness discussed in this article. The discussion is based on the writing needs of a specific group of Chinese university students, through which different approaches to writing are shown to be complementary rather than incompatible in China's specific context. Evidence of students' writing needs comes from a small survey among a group of Chinese university students.

Three Methodologies of Teaching Writing

Raimes (1991) summarizes 4 approaches to second language writing instruction with different focuses on form, writer, content and reader. The 'focus on content' approach, with its obvious application in ESL context to attach English writing course to a content course, seems not a significant one in the Chinese EFL (English as a Foreign Language)context. So the following discussion only includes three approaches, which are correspondingly named as product approach, process approach and genre approach.

Product Approach The product approach to writing is in line with the audio-lingual ideology 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, p57). So input that provides important source for imitation becomes the major driving force of language learning. Consequently, the product approach sees writing as being primarily about linguistic knowledge, stressing the appropriate use of vocabulary, syntax and cohesive devises. Most of the time writing tasks encourage learners to imitate, copy and transform models provided by teachers or textbooks. Accordingly, the final product which reflects the writer's language knowledge is highly valued. In this perspective the teacher plays a primary role as an examiner (Zamel, 1987).

Process Approach The process approach comes as a reaction against the product approach and is based on the recognition of the writing process as cyclical, recursive or even disorderly rather than simple and linear. The focus 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, p37). Consequently, the teacher's role as model provider and examiner also shifts to that of a facilitator who helps in a typical four-stage process: prewriting, composing/drafting, revising and editing. (ibid) The provision of input or stimulus is considered to be less important. And it is linguistic skills, not knowledge that are primarily valued.

Genre Approach This is a comparatively new approaches to writing. According to Bamforth (1993 cited in Nunan, 2001):
 Genre theory grounds writing in particular social context, and
 stresses the convention-bound nature of much discourse. Writing,
 therefore, involves conformity to certain established patterns,
 and the teacher's role is to induce learners into particular
 discourse communities and their respective text types. (p94)

This theory perceives texts as attempts to communicate with readers. Hence communicative purposes determine the social contexts in which writing is used, and the text types that characterized by both the grammatical items and the overall shape or structure of the discourse. Writing instruction in this perspective may be 3-staged: modeling the target genre, analyzing the genre through teacher-student negotiation and constructing a final text (Hyland, 2002, p21). The above-mentioned approaches to writing mainly differ in the focuses they put on writing and the ways writing should be taught. In seeking for the most appropriate approach to writing we will have to examine carefully who the writers are and what they are writing for. In the following sections the strength and weakness of each approach is discussed in light of the students' writing needs in my context.

Students' Writing Needs in My Context

My students, the non-English majors in a Chinese public university, are all required to pass a nationwide English examination: Certificate English Test (CET), in which writing is an essential part. What they need to write is a 3-paragraph 120-word text within half an hour. In writing instruction, the teacher typically begins with presentation of linguistic knowledge, such as the usage of transitional words and different ways of developing paragraphs, followed by the second step: practice. Students write paragraphs or whole texts. In the final step, the teacher assesses students' works, scoring and correcting them. In this presentational mode of writing instruction, students imitate models and practice writing similar texts. Writing topics are chosen according to former test topics and test specifications. The evaluation also follows the CET criteria. In short, all writing activities are conducted for the sake of exam because students' writing needs are presumed to be examination writing.

At the first sight, teaching writing here seems very simple. But it is actually regarded as a tedious and unrewarding chore. The reason for this is that the correction of students' work makes the teacher feel like an 'editorial slave' while in most cases students pay little attention to the marked papers. Writing in English is boring and discouraging to them. Hence these questions arise: Do the students only write to pass the exam? Are there other writing needs which fail to be identified and addressed, from the students' perspective? If so, a totally different view of writing instruction should be held. In this case, needs analysis or assessment should be conducted, as Kroll (2001), Ferris & Hedgcock (1998) and many others suggest. For this end, I conducted a small-scale survey through e-mails in March, 2004. Of the 40 students I sent e-mails to, only 32 responded. Among them are 18 sophomores who are expecting the CET Band 4 exam in June, 4 juniors, 8 seniors and 2 postgraduate students. The four survey questions are:

a) What do you think you need to write in English at present?

b) What do you think you need to write in English in the future?

c) Do you think the writing course you are having / you've had satisfies your writing needs? Why?

d) How do you like the ways you are/were taught to write in English?

Initial analysis of the collected data shows that 65% of the subjects think writing examination essays is the present need, and nearly one third of them think they also need to write E-mail or Internet message, and only 2 identify the need of writing academic reports. For question no. b, 59% of them think of writing English letter in the future. Nearly half of them expect to write e-mail or Internet message in English. Less than 1/3 of them still think of examinations writing and another 1/3 of them think of professional purposes. As for question no. c, more than half of them consider the present ways of writing instruction satisfactory while a little less than 50% of them give negative answers. And more than half of the subjects express dislikes of the present writing instruction. Two things are worthy of note here: first, while currently identifying examination writing to be the biggest need of English writing, the subjects are actually thinking of more functions of English writing in their future; second, although more than half of them think the present ways of writing instruction satisfies their needs, the same number of them show dislike of them.

For closer analysis, I divide the subjects into three groups according to their study levels: sophomores, juniors & seniors and postgraduates. All the sophomores think they currently need to write for examinations simply because they are required to pass the exam. But they identify other kinds of writing needs in the future, among which the need for examination writing is only considered by one third of them. Similar tendency happens in the juniors & seniors group. No difference is found between the present needs and future needs in the postgraduate group, possibly because they are in an advanced stage of study and have a more general view of English usage. For question no. c, 13 sophomores and 5 juniors or seniors think the ways of instruction satisfies their present needs for the reason that the present instruction is test-oriented and it does help them. But both of the postgraduate students give negative answers because they are not writing for exam now, so the instruction they got years ago for exam preparation no longer helps them in academic field, nor will they in their future professional development. Finally, half of the sophomores and more than a half of the junior & seniors dislike the present writing instruction despite the fact that more than half of them think it satisfactory. A student's explanation throws light on this inconsistency:
 I have to write for the exam. But English writing is never
 interesting to me ever since middle school. We are always taught to
 write in the same way. It does help in the exam. But the more I
 write, the more I hate writing. It's so boring. (E-mail
 correspondence, March, 2004)

It is too early to form any conclusive generalizations from a survey with such a limited number of subjects. But the results do lead to some disillusionment with the present writing instruction in my context. In seeking a more proper approach to writing, we need to, first of all, reconsider students' writing needs. Limiting students' writing needs for examination essays, reluctantly or not, is shortsighted and misleading and fails to prepare students for future writing. Secondly, when identifying students' writing needs in a broader sense, we are also obliged to adopt a more humanistic approach so that students' feelings and interests can be taken into account. The following discussion of both the strength and the weakness of the three approaches may help to find a way addressing these needs.

Strength and weakness of different approaches

Product approach recognizes imitation as one of the important ways of learning. So instruction as direct sources of input is given a big role. As EFL learners, my students may find direct instruction of linguistic knowledge essential and economical. But at the same time, product approach is always criticized to attach too much importance to the final products than process skills. If we only evaluate the products based on preconceived and fixed notions about good writing, we are undervaluing students' skills and knowledge which they bring from outside, the classroom as social individuals (Badger & White, 2000). Writing activities are something no more than grammatical exercises. Writing classes are teacher-dominated. And the writers are model and rules observers rather than creators of words. This is why my students find writing disinteresting. The advantages of the process approaches can be generalized as follows. First, they activate student's schematic knowledge (the prior experience they bring to the writing classroom) (Ferris & Hedgcock, 1998) and highly motivated students (Caudery, 1997), which the product approach fails to do and will be very effective if used in my context. Secondly, it increases students' awareness of the process of writing and draw their attention to the importance of writing skills. It points to another aspect of writing--the intangible yet valuable process--for teachers in my context and can help to correct the preoccupation with the accuracy of product, which is the source of students' frustration. Thirdly, the process approach acknowledges writing as a social and collaborative act (Bruffee, 1985) and encourages writers' interaction with the other writers in peer response activities. On this assumption comes the importance that is stressed on audience and purpose in writing. Finally, critical thinking and problem-solving skills are also encouraged in the process of writing. This endows writing with the power of self-discovery and cognitive development. These skills should also be developed in light of our students' future writing needs in personal and professional life.

Meanwhile, the overwhelming values of the process approaches are being reassessed, too. Criticisms also come from several aspects. First of all, the psychological factors in writing are overemphasized and at the same time, the demands of the writers' environments, the contextual factors which define, shape, and ultimately judge a piece of writing are ignored. This is why Horowitz (1986a) believes the process-oriented approach fails to prepare students for 'at least one essential type of academic writing' (p141)--the essay examination writing. Actually we can find that examination writing is what our students are usually required of and how their writing abilities are judged by in many contexts, ESL or EFL. While the process approach encourages students to choose topics most appealing to them, most of the time they have to write whatever topics are required in the exam. While the process approach allows students to write and revise the drafts again and again, they have to finish a piece of writing in a timed exam. In this sense, a complete adoption of process approach will bring about problems with regard to students' present need of writing for exam. Secondly, the process approach downplays the various expectations and conventions of professional and academic communities (Hyland, 2002). For EFL students and for international students in English-speaking countries who probably only write in English as part of their educational requirement and not at all thereafter, the approach might be suitable. However, for those who are more likely to write for many different contexts in their professional lives, it is far from enough Raimes, 1991). Hence many writing teachers find it hard to apply this approach in all settings.

The genre approach brings an important concept to writing: a powerful outside reader. It helps to generalize about the rhetorical forms of writing that a reader will expect and teach those forms as prescriptive patterns (Raimes, 1991). Furthermore, by acknowledging that writing takes place in social situations, it provides a link between private act and social recognition. It attaches equal importance to both the constraints of the writing situation and the writer's mental processes, a dimension that is missing in the process approach. Finally, it also understands that learning happens through imitation and analysis. A genre approach is extremely helpful to learners studying English for Academic Purposes (ESP) or English for Specific Purposes (ESP) (Harmer, 2001; Hyland, 2002). But at the same time, criticisms of the genre approach come similar to the product approach. First, in this approach, writing skills are also undervalued with more focus on forms and styles. Secondly, learners in this approach are largely passive since model presentation and analysis make up most of the teaching activities.

Obviously the discussion cannot provide a definite answer to the question that which approach to writing is the best in my context. Instead, the idea of seeking the best method is misleading. The product and process issues should be seen as 'both/and' rather than 'either/or' entities (Raimes, 1991, p415), so is the process and genre issues. In fact, all these approaches are complementary to and compatible with each other (Ferris & Hedgcock, 1998; Raimes, 1991; Hyland, 2002; Nunan, 2001). Hillocks (Dyer, 1996) suggests the 'environmental mode', which is the process/product combination; Badger & White (2000), Caudery (1997) and Hyland (2002) propose the process genre approach; Raimes (1991) practices two types of writing with her students: writing for learning (a process approach) and writing for display (a product approach). Viewing learners' writing needs developmentally, it may make sense to suggest a product process approach for intermediate level of the students in my context and a process genre one for advanced level of students.


I have come through a discussion of product, process and genre approaches and both their weakness and strength with regard to students' writing needs in my context. The analysis does not mean to come out with the best approach. Instead, it stresses the importance of reconsidering various factors involved in writing, especially a specific group of learners' writing needs in a specific context. Proper approaches will emerge if writing is treated as purposeful and contextual act.


Badger, R. & White, G. "A process genre approach to teaching writing", ELT Journal, vol.5, no.2 (2000).

Bruffee, K. A. A Short Course in Writing: practical rhetoric for teaching composition through collaborative learning. Toronto, Little, Brown & Company Limited, (1985).

Caudery, T. "Process Writing" in Writing in the English Language Classroom. London, Phoenix Prentice Hall, (1997).

Dyer, B. "L1 and L2 Composition theories: Hillocks' 'environmental mode' and taskbased language teaching", ELT Journal, vol.50, no.4, (1996).

Ferris, D. & Hedgcock, J. S. Teaching ESL composition: purpose, process, practice, Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, (1998).

Harmer, J. English Language Teaching, Harlow, Pearson Education Limited, (2001). Horowitz, D. "Process, Not Product: Less Than Meets the Eye", TESOL Quarterly, vol.20, no.1, (1986a).

Horowitz, D. "What Professors Actually Require: Academic Tasks for the ESL Classroom", TESOL Quarterly, vol. 20, no.3, (1986b).

Hyland, K. Teaching and Researching Writings, Pearson Education Limited, (2002).

Kroll, B. "Considerations for Teaching an ESL/EFL Writing Course", in M. Celce-Murcia Ed. Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language, Boston, MA, Heinle & Heinle, (2001).

Nunan, D. Second Language Teaching and Learning, Beijing, Foreign Languages Teaching and Researching Press, (2001).

Raimes, A. "Out of the Woods: emerging traditions in the teaching of writing", TESOL Quarterly, vol.25, no.3, (1991).

Richard, J. C. & Rodgers, T. S. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, Cambridge University Press, (2001).

Tribble, C. Writing, Oxford, Oxford University Press, (1996).

Zamel, V. "Recent Research on Writing Pedagogy", TESOL Quarterly, vol.21, no.4, (1987).

Miao Yang, Shantou University Medical College, China

Yang, MA TESOL, is an English lecturer in the Foreign Languages Department of Shantou University Medical College, China.
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Title Annotation:English as a foreign language
Author:Yang, Miao
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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