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June 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

Writing in Foreign Language Teaching

Dr Pérez Viñas is a teacher and researcher at the University of Pinar del Río “Hermanos Saíz Montes de Oca”. She has been a language teacher for more than 30 years. She began her career at the Pedagogical Institute of Pinar del Río. She´s currently working at the Center of Study of Educational Science of the University of Pinar del Río. Vilma´s main areas of research are writing in foreign languages, foreign language strategic instruction and learning, and the training of professionals. Email: vilma.perez@upr.edu.cu

Raquel Guerra Ceballos, (MSc) is a teacher and researcher at the Foreign Languages Department of University of Pinar del Río “Hermanos Saíz Montes de Oca”. She has been a language teacher for more than 30 years. Raquel´s main areas of research are writing and reading in foreign languages, foreign language strategic instruction and learning and initial teacher training. Email: raquel.guerra@upr.edu.cu

Elisabeth Dumpierres Otero is a young teacher at the Languages Center University of Pinar del Río “Hermanos Saíz Montes de Oca”. She teaches English and French. Elisabeth´s main areas of research are writing and foreign language strategic instruction and learning. Email: elizabeth.dumpierres@upr.edu.cu

 

Abstract

In order to provide a critical understanding of the treatment given to writing in the historical context of foreign language teaching, this article examines the most influential methods and approaches as included within the tendencies of foreign language teaching recognized throughout history, focusing on the ways in which writing have been understood, bearing in mind characteristics, contributions and criticisms, as well as their impact on Cuban FLT. A search in several data bases was carried out to identify important authors and research on this issue. Several theoretical methods were used, such as: the historical-logical analysis, analysis-synthesis and induction-deduction. As a result, the most accepted tendencies of FLT and approaches and methods of writing, were studied. In each case, philosophical, psychological and linguistic bases are established, and contributions and limitations are discussed, as well as the influence they have had in Cuba.

 

Introduction

The teaching of foreign languages is in constant changes worldwide. Goals, contents, methods, procedures, and evaluation techniques, among other external and internal factors that influence over the teaching-learning process are undergoing transformations. Globalization is an inherent process in the contemporary society (Salcedo, Fernández & Duarte, 2018) and Cuba is not out of this. This phenomenon affects every life and cultural scenario and English has become the common language that allows communication in this globalization.

Regarding the teaching of languages, writing is one of the most complex skills. Writing a coherent, accurate and long text is probably the most difficult thing to do in any language. It is something that most of native speakers never get to master. For the foreign language learners it becomes a huge challenge (Collado, 2015).

Thus, the objective of this article is to analyze the treatment given to writing in the most influential methods and approaches of foreign language teaching.

 

Methods and materials

To identify the relevant information about writing for this article, it was carried out a search in several data bases such as Web of Science, Redalyc, Research Gate, Google Scholar, Dialnet, Scielo, among others. For this, some combination of words was necessary such as teaching-learning process, English as a foreign language, writing in English as a foreign language, and learning strategies. The theoretical methods employed to conduct the research for this article were based on the dialectical materialism conception. The historical-logical analysis was used to determine the characteristics and tendencies that have distinguished the teaching-learning process of English as a foreign language and writing, particularly. The analysis-synthesis method was used to deepen into the theoretical framework of the research. And the induction-deduction method was used to interpret the theoretical information obtained during the process of investigation. The most outstanding limitation of this investigation is the lack of updated bibliography and research carried out in Cuba.

 

Results and discussion

Tendencies, approaches and methods

The study of the teaching of English as a foreign language is seen after Ellis, (1994) and Pulido, (2005). The former identified three tendencies in foreign language teaching (FLT): the behaviorist, the mentalist (which Pulido calls cognitive) and the interactive tendency. Based on the influence of soviet psychology on FLT, Pulido (Pulido, 2005) recognized a fourth tendency known as the historical-cultural tendency. All of them gather approaches and methods supported by philosophical, psychological and linguistic theories, mostly.

The criteria used to conduct the theoretical analysis were:

  • the philosophical, psychological and linguistic movements prevailing in each tendency.
  • the treatment given to writing in the most influential approaches and methods of each tendency, bearing in mind characteristics, contributions and criticisms, as well as their impact on Cuban FLT.

The Behaviorist Tendency, from the philosophic point of view, is based on pragmatism; psychologically, it is based on the psychological trend with the same name, and from the linguistic point of view, it is based on the postulates of the American and British structural linguistics. Learning is explained from laws and common mechanisms to each person. The most influential methods of FLT are the direct, oral and audio-lingual methods. All of them are viewed as structural methods.

The Direct Method emerged at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries. Writing is focused on some occasional patterns, emphasizing on grammatical and orthographic correction; and significantly, written language comes after the oral one.

The oral method emerged in the 1920s and 1930s in England and still remained in the 70s. In reference to writing, the syllabus is structurally organized in sentence patterns; correct grammar and orthography are considered crucial, so the students must prevent misspelling; here the written language comes after the oral one too (Pérez Viñas, 2008).

The audio-lingual method emerged in the 1940s in the United States of America and still dominated in Cuba at the beginning of the 80s. The emphasis falls on oral abilities and the teaching of writing is delayed to be taught in later stages. Form is stressed over meaning, which is completely excluded from the linguistic analysis of written productions in certain situations.

According to Pérez  Viñas, (2008) two writing teaching approaches are related to this tendency. One oriented to the accuracy of language and the other based on the text. They focused on form, and both are oriented to the product approach, following the rhetorical-intellectual organization of the content.

The product approach is concerned with the final result of the writing process. It gives precedence to classroom activities which require from the learner to be engaged in imitating and transforming model texts. In other words, the product approach has its origin in the traditions of rhetoric and focuses its study on model texts in order to make students aware of the text features. It consists in analyzing the students’ writing in order to identify and quantify their strengths and weaknesses. It is clear that when such an approach is adopted it leads to accuracy. In fact, it attempts to make the student familiarized with the conventions of writing through a model, before he gets his final draft. Language instruction is concerned with pre-specified objectives for the learners. Their needs are carefully identified, and syllabus designers are concerned with the provision of the means that would enable these needs to be realized. The product approach is seen as a means-to–an-end, and the writing instruction is language focused.

See Matsuda’s view on product approaches: “In the bad old days of current-traditional rhetoric, the story goes, students learned modes of discourse and applied them to write their five-paragraph themes on topics assigned by the teacher, which were then graded without the opportunity to receive feedback or to revise” (Matsuda, 2003).

However, not everything is that bad. The advantages of the product approach consist in the linguistic knowledge it supplies the learners with. This knowledge satisfies the students’ needs in terms of rules and structures. On the other hand, using a model text gives a clear idea about the organization of words and sentences. After all, imitation is one efficient way among others through which students can learn (Dumpierres & Guerra, 2018).

In Cuba, writing has been also dominated by the product approach focusing on the students’ final piece of writing rather than on how it was produced. Today it is recognized that writing was evaluated on the basis of the final product and on grammatical accuracy, while very little attention was given to the whole process of writing. Actually, neither teachers nor students were interested in generating ideas or rewriting; it is fair to say very few still are. From this picture, some scholars started debating on the failure of the product approach which emphasizes form and neglects content. By content it is also meant process skills, all knowledge about texts and the way these texts are organized.

There have been plenty of criticisms made to the structural methods due to the incomplete description of the grammatical system; the limitations concerning the grammatical generalization; the excessive emphasis on supporting factors; the exclusion of treating meaning/content that affects written and oral comprehension; the consideration of language as the only variable and the lack of creativity in teachers and students in the study of the language.

In spite of this, product approaches have been acknowledged as the first ones recommended for foreign language teaching based on linguistic and psychological theories trying to spread language learning to a great amount of people, although with a low level of abstraction.

The Cognitive Tendency arose around the 1950s. It follows the psychological trend with identical name. Its philosophic foundations stand in rationalism while the linguistic bases vary, depending on the teaching method applied in pedagogical practice. This tendency sees the emergence of the cognitive method and the first models of the communicative approach.

Cognitive views appeared as a reaction to the audio-lingual method. The theoretical grounds are based on the theories of Chomsky and Hymes on communicative competence.

The interest in the cognitive processes of communication is quite significant. This implies the recognition of form, the perception of meaning and the relationship between universal and particular phenomena. Written language is intended to be used in a meaningful, creative and more communicative way.

Then, the first models of the communicative approach appeared, named notional-functional; as well as cognitive and humanist psychologies and the linguistic theories of the functions, communicative competence and the acts of speech (Richards, 1985).

The notional-functional models brought important issues to writing. It is now considered as an independent skill, bearing a relationship with speaking, listening and reading. Teaching activities have the purpose to communicate ideas (Pérez Viñas, 2008), as a result of what Richards and Rogers believe is the basic postulate of the communicative approach, that language is communication and learning a language is learning to communicate (Richards & Rodgers, 1986).

The approaches of writing instruction which are related to the notional functional approach are those focused on the text, fluency and purpose. All of them provide the students with guidelines to produce the different kinds of written texts they could find in educational, institutional and personal situations.

At this point, context starts to be seen as an important category since from the cognitive view it is extremely difficult to separate the cognitive studies- where context is used only by the interlocutors- from the socio-cognitive orientation studies- where the concept of context is widely extended, from the concrete situation in which communication is carried out to the social environment where each communicative act is developed. That is the reason why at schools, real writing situations are generated and in this way, students are motivated to take into account the actual characteristics of the process (Aguirre, 2016).

Writing is seen as an indispensable skill for the students to be academically competent. However, in the Spanish-speaking context, studies reflect the weakness of this skill (Mendoza, 2014). Recent studies in Southern America show that challenges when writing still remain, although some goals have been achieved in the teaching- learning process of writing in English (Bañales, Ahumada, Martínez, & Messina, 2018).

The Interactive Tendency came up during the 70s. Philosophically, it is supported on existentialism, though a move towards dialectical-materialism conception is later noticed. From the psychological point of view, in an early period it was based on humanistic theories, then there was a move towards the historical – cultural school, after the international recognition given to soviet psychology, particularly, Vygotsky and his followers. From the linguistic point of view, the theories of the functions, communicative competence, speech acts and context are considered.

The models of the communicative approach associated to this tendency are the so called procedural methods (process oriented and tasks based, as the interactional, the generated by the student, task based learning, group learning and the genre approach with a special influence on writing) (Cerezal, 1995).

Other methodologies started to be used: The Total Physical Response, mostly used as a technique; the Silent Way, considered a very specialized and recommended method to be used in highly motivated persons; the Suggestopedia, considered a direct method; and the Learning of Languages in Community.

Writing undergoes a great progress with the implementation of approaches such as those focused on the writer, on the purpose, on fluency, and on the process of writing. The most outstanding characteristics of these approaches are the emphases on the writer as an independent producer of texts; the special attention given to the cycle of activities in writing, which is considered as a dynamic, resourceful and unpredictable process. The process approach helps students to understand what writers actually do when they write, providing multiple models and individual feedback on writing pieces in progress. Students are encouraged to choose their own topics and purposes for writing, and to write for real audiences. Matsuda, (2003) offers an accurate description when he says: “By far, the contemporary process movement has been the most successful in the history of pedagogical reform in the teaching of writing.” However, as he also says “This is not to say that the process movement was able to replace traditional pedagogy completely with a new set of pedagogical practices” (Matsuda, 2003). Other authors also agree with this view (See Miller, 1991; Shaffer, 2001; Tobin, 1994). In words of Applebee, (1986) ‘there is almost always a gap between educational theory and educational practice, and process approaches are no exception’’ (pp. 97–98).

While the process movement was still on top, a very interesting theoretical debate was taking place due to the influence of process movement tenets on current-traditional rhetoric (Fogarty, 1959) as Miller states, ‘‘‘current-traditional’ or ‘product’ theory appears to have been created at the same time that process theory was, to help explain process as a theory pitted against old practices” (p. 110).

However, although the great contribution of process approaches to writing instruction and discursive rhetoric cannot be neglected, there were critiques referred to the detriment of public and social aspects of writing processes (Bizzell, 1992, p. 24). Similarly, Faigley, (1986) asks for the need for ‘‘a broader conception of writing, one that understands writing processes are historically dynamic — not psychic states, cognitive routines, or neutral social relationships’’ (p. 537); and Berlin (1988) denounces the way in which process pedagogy was used by agencies of corporate capitalism with a dominant bourgeois individualistic ideology.

This debate led to the identification of the major theories of rhetoric in process writing, the early expressive and cognitive views, par excellence, and the social view (Faigley, 1986; Berlin, 1984; Bizzell, 1986) stressing the social and political effects on composing as Bizzell, (1992, p. 24) states, in an attempt to clarify her position which also acknowledged the benefits of process pedagogy and research when advocating the need for smaller classes, the improvement of writing assessment, and the inclusion of a variety of writing tasks.

As a result of this social turn (Trimbur, 1994) process writing is limited to the cognitive view and post-process is associated to the social view of writing. This is considered a significant shift since expressive, cognitive, and social-epistemic perspectives were all ‘‘considered part of composition’s process paradigm’’, up to that point (Ward, 1994, p. 129). The theoretical analysis of post-process movement and its influence over writing instruction deserves a separate work which is already in progress.

Then, focusing on process writing, whether from a traditional cognitive view or much better, including the social aspects of writing, cognitive research on composing is not exhausted. In this sense the study of writing learning strategies remains as a relevant issue in this area.

Some students may have fairly limited writing experience even in their own mother tongue, particularly for longer written assignments. In addition, the mother tongue rhetorical strategy for writing may vary substantially. Academic writing in English may therefore be a fairly new and challenging undertaking for some students for a variety of reasons (Mallia, 2017) and the strategic training of this skill would be very useful for all of them.

With high motivation, students will find ways to improve their writing and will persist in the effort. To write well, students need to apply appropriate processes, such as starting early, and applying writing rules. Writing practice helps most when students receive clear and specific feedback about when and how do the same and what and how do differently in the future.

In this period a great amount of research associated to the use of learning strategies, reflection and self-regulation appeared worldwide. Cuba has experienced this influenced some of which we analyze in the next tendency. The Historical-Cultural Tendency (Pulido, 2005) named after Vygotsky’s psychological theory, from which it takes up the psychological bases, finds its philosophical grounds on dialectical-materialism. Linguistically speaking, it relies on the theories of communicative competence, context, acts of speech and discourse.

Interactive methodologies, based on the historical-cultural approach, also called sociocultural, or socioconstructivist approaches, have contributed with important benefits to the teaching-learning process of foreign languages worldwide.

In Cuba, the works of Neufville, (2006); Pérez Viñas, (2008) and Guerra, (2010) about writing were introduced in initial foreign language teacher training syllabus, along with the works of Pulido, (2005) and the extensive work of Acosta Padrón dedicated to foreign language teaching.

Some of the results obtained by these researchers are related to types of strategies (taxonomies), modes of training (explicit or implicit teaching), consideration of the writing process (writing stages), and the description of teachers and students’ roles.

These works consider communicative competence, functions and context when learning a foreign language. They also deal with negotiating with students about the contents, methods, evaluation procedures and other aspects in curriculums designed by objectives and skills of the teaching-learning process.

Mediation is seen as basic in learning, as well as the different kinds of interaction. Learning strategies are employed to optimize learning; and tasks are the core of learning activities which are designed upon diagnostic results; so, instruction, learning and assessment are operationally arranged to consider the zone of proximal development.  Stimulation of regulating processes: self-planning, self-monitoring, self-control, self-evaluation and self-study, among others is also crucial

The teaching-learning process of communicative skills in an integrated way is an essential contribution of interactive methodologies. As for written communication, this means teaching and learning to write in an organic unit with other skills, mostly, reading and speaking.

The link between writing and reading is natural. During the composition of a piece of writing the writer always does a certain amount of reading. And, furthermore, writers often try to place themselves in the shoes of their audience in order to check the comprehensibility of their presentation from the reader's perspective.

In a similar manner, the reader has also been considered a writer. The reader's mind races ahead to anticipate (and thus create) not only the message, but also the structure and style of a text. Words and ideas are predicted as they might appear. These facts evidence the need to acknowledge and take into account the differences between oral and written language as well. (Dumpierres Otero & Guerra Ceballos, 2018).

Collaborative writing has also been an object of interest during this tendency, both criticized and followed. In Collaborative Writing: Priority, Practice and Process, Jones, Jones and Murk, (2012) point out some of the reasons why many people work alone: on the one hand because they cannot find time to meet with the rest of the group; on the other hand, each writer has his/her organizing and writing styles; and, finally, when working with others, they must adjust to the style of the group and get rid of their own; or they reject criticism.

Despite these issues, there are several benefits of collaborative writing which we agree with. Collaboration allows a stronger finished product to be produced. Each member can contribute to the assignment. Working together lets students to mentor each other and interact with one another, which will help them in real world situations, such as job seeking and work environment. While the project may seem daunting, collaboration makes the burden to be shared and there are more eyes for editing the final project.

In Cuba, and particularly, for the context of foreign language teacher training in Pinar del Río, Acosta, (1998) suggests to reflect with the students not only about linguistic aspects, but also about information and methodological issues, which allows the students to see the process from the inside, and to show independence and self-analysis. 

Finally, in our opinion, the deep study of the theoretical and methodological features of the historical-cultural tendency is an imperative for teachers and researchers. It offers an integrative theoretical framework for foreign language teaching and learning, in a context that suffers an excess of paradigms and a strong inclination to accept what is published without a critical reading of its bases and origins.

 

Conclusions

The theoretical study carried out for this article examines the most influential approaches and methods of writing instruction, which are included in the tendencies of foreign language teaching (Ellis, (1994; Pulido, 2005) writing. The description of product and process approaches, mainly, also refer to their impact on the Cuban context, and more specifically, on foreign language teacher training in Pinar del Río. However, these issues are not exhausted. A lot work still needs to be done.

 

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