The Process Approach

How Should Writing Best Be Taught? Current Ideas and Debates
National Formosa University
Assistant professor,
Wu, Wei-Shi, Hsin, Chia-Lin
Teaching English composition in an EFL environment can be a challenging task
for novice EFL teachers. The traditional concept of teaching EFL composition used
to be viewed as teaching sentence structures and correcting grammar. Correcting
grammatical and syntactical mistakes seem to be an obsession for both EFL teachers
and students in Taiwan.
However, not all the EFL composition teachers have received formal training in
teaching composition, nor do they know the current ideas and theories related to how
writing should be taught. The paper intends to explore the current ideas and debates
about how writing should be taught as guidance for novice EFL composition teachers.
Understanding current debates and ideas about teaching composition can help novice
teachers to have effective EFL composition instruction.
In a study of 58 EFL college-level English composition teachers’ views and
methods of teaching English composition in Taiwan, 75.9% of the respondents
believed that correcting grammar and words can help students write better (Chen,
1997), in the same study, 89.7% of the teachers (52 out of 58) wished to teach English
courses other than EFL composition. Thus, novice EFL teachers can be likely to be
assigned to teach EFL composition because experienced teachers would rather teach
courses other than EFL composition. Teaching EFL composition can be a
challenging task for novice EFL teachers. However, the novice teachers may not
have received formal training in composition instruction, nor do they know the
current ideas and debates about how EFL writing should be taught. The traditional
concept of teaching EFL composition used to be viewed as teaching sentence
structures and correcting grammatical mistakes. This paper intends to provide a
framework related to current ideas and debates about how writing should be taught..
Understanding the framework can be beneficial for novice EFL composition teachers
to have a more effective EFL composition instruction.
Raimes (1993) identified three principle ways of teaching writing: 1. focus on
form, 2. focus on the writer, and 3. focus on the reader. The current-traditional
approach is text-based, focus on the form. The process approach concentrates on
writers’ writing process, focus on the writer. The genre approach centers on the
purpose of communication between the readers and the writers; therefore, it’s focused
on the readers. The researcher attempted to examine each approach from the
following perspectives: principles and methods; application and implications.
1. Controlled Writing
1.1 Principles and Methods
The controlled writing approach is basically language-based. Silva (1990) and
Reid (1993) both stated that the approach is derived from audio-lingual method
(ALM). According to the characteristics of ALM, the “I say—you say” method,
language is a habit formation. Forming a habit in language learning is the key to
fluency. Doing drills and sentence structure practice will benefit students through
the formation of their linguistic habits. Pincas (1962) also stated that writing can be
learned by fixed patterns and these patterns can be imitated by learners. Learners are
guided to the writing process in this approach. Writing practice based on this
approach is to habituate students to language structures and learn to “write” on their
own gradually. Under this learning process, writers are manipulating language
structures; readers are the ESL (English as a second language) teachers who were
concerned about linguistic structures only. And textbooks provide a collection of
sentence structures and patterns for learners to adopt and imitate (Silva, 1990).
Adapting ALM in this approach, with behavioral psychology as its foundation, Reid
(1993) indicated errors should be eliminated or prevented since positive reactions are
reinforced. Since the correct linguistic habit is formed, little errors or no errors will
occur in their writing, learners are ready to write on their own.
Controlled writing is suitable for teachers to adopt in lower-level class since this
is a language-based approach. While helping students construct their writing by
practicing language structures, lower-level students are actually building up their
confidence with writing. It’s appropriate to use this approach in the beginning
writing classes since it assists students in both the language and confidence awareness.
Raimes (1983a) sees controlled writing as a tool to train students before they actually
start free writing.
1.2 Application and Implications
It’s not surprising to see teachers doing sentence or grammatical practice in
writing classes because the controlled writing approach is focused on the language
structures. Raimes (1983a) suggested five types of controlled writing tasks. Each
task is discussed and given an activity as followed.
 Controlled Composition
Pincas (1982) stated that in controlled composition activities, teachers or
teaching materials present everything and create an error-free practice for students to
copy. At this stage, students “get used to the new writing skill by repeating it in
controlled exercises, and then gradually move toward guided exercises that allow
more freedom (Pincas, 1982, p.18). Classroom exercises in controlled composition
including copying paragraphs and fill-in-the blank exercises.
 Questions and Answers
Using a question-and-answer activity gives students more freedom (than
controlled writing) in constructing sentences. In this activity, students are given a set
of questions after a text. If the text and questions are carefully designed, students
may produce a coherent writing. It gives students a sense of the writing knowledge.
 Guided Composition
The role of guided writing is extremely crucial because it “stands as a bridge between
controlled and free writing (Pincas, 1982, p. 102).” In guided composition,
according to Raimes (1983b), students are given a topic sentence, a last sentence, an
outline or a set of questions to respond to as composition guidelines. Thus, students
are guided with the same instruction and construct a composition that might look
differently from each other.
 Sentence Combining
The sentence combining skill helps students make complex or compound
sentences. Students determine what they want to say in their new sentences and deal
with the given contexts. It provides a good practice for sentence structures that are
more common in writing and gives students a chance to use their grammatical
knowledge to practice sentence structures, according to Raimes (1983a, p.108).
Parallel Writing
Parallel writing is the freest kind of controlled writing. Students are given a text,
and they produce another text with their own on the same theme. The given texts
could be reading passages, tapes, or dialogs, including both written and spoken texts.
This approach has its problem, too. Brumfit (1984) pointed out the problem for
controlled writing was “solely a semi-conscious operation with no construction of
meaning…… only of form (p.25).” Cross (1999) suggested we can use controlled
writing as homework since it’s time-consuming to do mechanic practice like this in
limited class time. Since the approach gives writers patterns and models to imitate,
it’s very important for writers to be constructive and creative in their own composition.
Thus, approaches that focus on the contexts, the writer, and the reader rise to assist
writers expand and develop their ideas in writing.
2. Current-Traditional Approach—focus on the form
2.1 Principles and Methods
Since the mid-1960’, according to Silva (1990), current-traditional approach was
developed to build a gap between controlled writing and free writing. It is
developed with Kaplan’s theory of contrastive rhetoric as a foundation. In his theory,
he discussed the interference of writers’ first language and culture in their second
language writing. As the internationalization of English has moved forward , the
current-traditional approach in ESL (English as a second language) writing has a
tremendous influence.
In ESL classes, teachers are interested in understanding how students’ first
language and culture affect students’ writing. Effective teachers will need to know
how writing is constructed and organized by their learners from different linguistic
backgrounds in order to guide them in the process. Kaplan (1966) pioneered a study
and discovered students’ writing organizations vary from culture to culture. He
studied and analyzed the organizations of paragraphs in ESL essays. His finding
showed that different writing styles embedded in different language systems. From
Kaplan’s point of view, the writing development in English followed a linear route.
On the other hand, essays developed in Semitic languages are based on parallel
coordinate clauses, according to Connor (1996).
Students from oriental language
backgrounds used an indirect approach and come to the point at the end of essays.
Connor (1996, p.15) described essay developments for Russian and Roman languages
as “essays are permitted a degree of digressiveness and extraneous material that
would seem excessive to a writer of English.” Kaplan’s research helps ESL teachers
understand students’ first language influence in writing and will be able to guide them.
Conner (1996) defines contrastive rhetoric using Kaplan’s applied linguistics,
textlinguistics, genre, literacy and translation. This model delivers a message on the
variables about how students’ first language affect their second language writing.
The contrastive rhetoric approach is to build up a communicative channel
between readers and writers. In a language class, the approach is to help teachers
and students communicate. An effective, communicative writing is achieved when a
writer expressed his or her thought thoroughly and a reader perceives the writer’s
thought successfully. Charteris-Black (1997) claimed that it is clear that if students
do not get enough guidance or knowledge from their second language teachers, they
transfer their first language rhetoric into the second language text. Thus, the role of
contrastive rhetoric is to guide second language writers from their first language
writing to second language writing. It also helps readers (in ESL classes, the
teachers) understand students’ individual differences in writing styles and will be able
to guide them in writing classes.
2.2 Application and Implications
Silva(1990) stated that the center of this approach is the form. From the
primary element, the paragraph, to the development of an essay, according to Silva,
“writing is basically a matter of arrangement, of fitting sentences and paragraphs into
prescribed patterns (Silva, 1990, p. 14).” Learning to write is to generate ideas and
put in these patterns. The reader might be confused if the writer’s production pattern
doesn’t meet the conventional pattern of the reader.
The contrastive rhetoric is not a method; it is an approach that we can apply in our
teaching. Grabe and Kaplan (1989) stated that “Contrastive rhetoric is not a
methodology for teaching though some of its findings can be (and indeed have been)
applied to teaching.” Connor (1996) discussed contrastive rhetoric in teaching from
three perspectives.
 Implications from contrastive text studies
Contrastive text studies showed that different cultures have different
expectations toward writing and these expectations are “internalized as patterns of
discourse (Connor, 1996, p.167).” While students are writing, they are
transferring their first language writing strategies into the second language
situation. Teachers should help students be aware of these cross-cultural
differences in their writing and acquire new strategies in their second language
writing since students are likely to adopt their first language experiences in their
second language writing. Therefore, it’s important to help students build up a
sense of thesis, the main idea to control the whole writing during the process.
Activities to improve students’ writing based on contrastive rhetoric finding
include working on thesis statements, identifying topic sentences in texts,
brainstorming a thesis, sorting supportive information and conferencing,
suggested by Grabe and Kaplan (1989).
 Implications from contrastive process-based writing
Connor (1996) indicated that the process of writing should be a collaborative
and sociallinguistic interaction among the classroom. And students, peers, and
teachers interact with each other while the writing process takes place—prewriting,
composition, and revising. However, as cultures are diverse in an ESL class,
there are different attitudes toward group work and peer feedback. Some
students don’t like to make negative response in peers’ writing; some are critical;
and some have limited language background to make responses. Therefore, she
encourages non-threatening activities like brainstorming and discussions and
negotiating to bring out cross-cultural differences during the process of writing.
 Implications from contrastive genre-specific research in EFL (English as a
Foreign Language) settings
Connor (1996) indicated that a non-native speaker’s writing may cause
confusion if they are not aware of the cross-culture differences and do not meet
the readers’ expectations in the international community. In EFL settings,
students’ language environment is their first language; they only use English as a
foreign language where they are required. Connor (1996) valued the non-native
speaker teachers under this situation because they know how writing works in
another language.
If native speaking teachers are not trained in linguistics or
contrastive rhetoric, they will look at students’ writing only on the surface level.
While contrastive rhetoric approach focuses on the differences of learners,
Charteris-Black (1997) reminded us “there is also a need to explore similarities in
how writing is taught across cultures as this could lead to the identification of
universals in writing pedagogy (p.74).” It is also important for teachers to find out
what were the shared difficulties from the same first language learners and make
adjustments in their teaching.
3. The Process Approach—focus on the writer
3.1 Principles and Methods
Since the middle of 1980s, the process approach has its position in ESL writing
since researchers are not satisfied with controlled composition and current-traditional
approach, according to Silva (1990). Raimes (1983b, p.261) stated that
“Composition means thinking.” The process approach is an approach that explores
writers’ thinking process. According to Reid (1993), process teaching reflects the
NES (Native English Speakers) writing school, focusing on personal ideas and
creativity development, using the writers’ narrative voice. As Zambel (1982, p. 15)
pointed out, “ESL writers who are ready to compose and express their ideas use
strategies similar to those of native speakers of English.” From this point of view,
non-native English speaking writers have gone through the same thinking process
during composing.
Hedge(1988) and Silva (1990) both stated that writing is a complex, recursive
and creative process. Hedge (1988) also described that a writing process consisted
of three parts: prewriting, writing and rewriting, and editing. Therefore, we can
generalize that the writing process is a complex, recursive process that occurs during
prewriting, writing and rewriting, and editing. Hyland (2003, p.11) provided a
process model of writing instruction as follows:
Selection of topic: by teacher and/or students
Prewriting: brainstorming, collection data, note taking, outlining, etc.
Composing: getting ideas down on paper
Response to draft: teacher/peers respond to ideas, organization, and style
Revising: organizing, style, adjusting to readers, refining ideas
Response to revisions: teacher/peers respond to ideas, organization, and style
Proofreading and editing: checking and correcting form, layout, evidence, etc.
Evaluation: teacher evaluates progress over the process
Publishing: by class circulation or presentation, noticeboards, Website, etc.
Follow-up tasks: to address weaknesses.
The writing process itself is also a cognitive process. In Zamel’s (1983) study,
she studied six advanced ESL students in their writing classes. She interviewed and
used “think aloud” protocol to exam learner’s composing thinking process. Zamel’s
study showed some characteristics of writing process. First, the writing process is
“recursive and generative” (Hedge, 2000, p.303); therefore, writers always come back
to any stage of the process again and again while composing. Second, revising takes
place through the whole process. They come back anytime they feel they need to
revise. Third, different learners adopt different writing strategies. The study shows
skilled writers would emphasize on the content more and often come back to revise
while less skilled writers focus on surface structures primarily and seldom revise.
To sum up, Zamel (1983, p.165) reveals that the writing process is a “non-linear,
exploratory and generative process whereby writers discover and reformulate their
ideas as they attempt to approximate meaning.”
3.2 Application and Implications
Brookes and Grundy (1998) indicated two things to focus on while teachers are
teaching process writing. First, they highly value the writers’ ideas. Teachers’ role
here is to help students explore their ideas through various tasks or activities. If
teachers provide a model product for students to imitate, they finally have to come out
with their ideas and create their own writing. Second, teachers need to develop
activities to help student go through the stages of writing process. These activities
should be not only interesting, but also focus on the writers’ knowledge and abilities
and result in the writing process. In ESL writing classes, Raimes (1983a)
encouraged students to explore their ideas about the topic with prewriting activities,
such as “discussion, reading, debate, brainstorm and list making (1983a, p.10).”
Blanton (1987) indicated that students’ anxiety is lowered because they are
encouraged to explore and generate their ideas. She used three kinds of writing to
lower students’ anxiety and improved students’ writing proficiency. The following
table states the three activities she used.
Type of writing
Purpose of writing
Teacher’s role
1. Journal
To unwind and reflect
The writer
Fellow writer
To interact and share
The teacher
Learning log
3. Essays
To practice, get feedback, Mentor and
and exercise thinking and fellow
Assistant editor
Taken from Blanton (1987, p.113)
She believed that through free journal writing, “an organic connection between
language, thought, and feeling is possible (Blanton, p.114).” Her experiences with
students’ learning logs were that students would like to share their thoughts with
others and feel satisfied or achieved. Students feel comfortable while writing essays
through collaborative learning and interaction with their fellow writers and the editor,
the teacher. Her study was a cheerfulness for ESL writing classroom, as Silva (1990,
p.15) claimed that “this approach calls for providing a positive, encouraging, and
collaborative workshop environment within which students, with ample time and
minimal interference, can work through their composing processes.”
Friedlander (1990)’s study showed that students’ writing was enhanced if
teachers planed topics with the students’ topic-area knowledge. In an ESL
environment, in order to help students go through their writing process, brainstorming,
drafting, composing and revising, in English, the second language, we should avoid
choosing topics that are related to their first language background knowledge. For
examples, choosing Qingming (a Chinese Festival) as a topic in English writing class
will not be appropriate.
Teachers’ role is extremely important in this approach. Teachers should be
supportive in the writing process in the class. As Hedge (1988) suggested, teachers
should be a very helpful role in all stages of writing process. First, teachers should
help students develop an awareness of writing process.
Help students gather their
ideas together in the prewriting stage and help them follow their plan. They can also
provide models for students to refer or to analyze. More importantly, teachers
should encourage and give directions to students while drafting. It’s also important
and helpful for teachers to create an atmosphere of communicative and collaborative
workshop where the teacher advice students and students work with each other.
The approach has its problem, too. Silva (1990, p.16) stated that the writer in
this approach is “the center of attention”, and the focus should be shifted to the
readers. Thus, a reader based approach -- genre approach arises and becomes
influential in the field of teaching writing.
4. The Genre Approach—Focus on the Reader
4.1 Principles and Methods
Genre analysis has been one of the most influential concepts for teaching English
for Academic Purpose (EAP) and English for Specific Purpose (ESP) since 1980s
(Flowerdew, 1993; Brookes and Grudy, 1991). The definition of ‘genre’ given by
Richards et al. (1985) states ‘a particular class of speech event which has certain
features common to that particular event’. Swales (1990, p.58) defined genre in the
following way:
A genre comprises a class of communicative events, the members of which share some set
of communicative purposes.
These purposes are recognized by the expert members of the
parent discourse community, and thereby constitute the rationale for the genre.
This rational
shapes the schematic structure of the discourse and influences and constrains choice of content
and style.
4.2 Application and Implications
Flowerdew (1993) suggested six types of activities to help students understand
genres. These six activities are:
using the results of genre analysis
learning how to do their own genre analysis
‘on-line’ genre analysis by learners as an aid to create their own texts
translation based on samples of instances of a given genre
Bhatia (1993) expanded the first three activities in his work. He discussed
different contexts in various genres and then involves learners (writers) in the specific
social context where the texts are being produced, the linguistic roles in the genre and
lead learners into their own production, according to Tribble’s (1996) observation.
The last three activities are based on a collection of authentic texts examples.
Basically, they are computer-based information. Writers exam, analyze and discuss
the examples in the particular texts they are interested in. Since CALL
(Computer-Assisted Language Learning) has led to a more significant role in
language teaching and concordance is usually computer-based, it’s worthy examining
concordance in writing pedagogy.
Concordancing is a very powerful tool and can affect students’ writing in
genre-based texts. Kettemann (1995) mentioned that concordancing gives students
authentic language data in different genres; thus, it helps writers to learn the language
study not only linguistic features but also genre performance.
Hyland suggests two ways of using corpora concordancing in writing class to
assist students develop a sense of genre. First, teachers design exercises or
worksheet using a corpus based on the target genre. Students learn common
vocabulary or patterns of a particular genre. Second, teachers teach students how to
use a concordancer and use it as a reference when they face problems while writing.
Sun (1999) actually taught students how to use concordance, as a reference tool, to
improve students’ senses of genre by studying collocation.
Bhatia (1993) mentioned that a well designed genre-based task will benefit
ESL/EFL students. He specifies using newspapers in language classrooms. Using
newspapers as a part of course materials will benefit students because there are a wide
variety of genres in newspapers. And the varieties of genres can benefit learners
with various interests.
Brooks and Grundy (1991) reminded us that it’s dangerous to be dependent on
genre analysis because writers could be limited to a predetermined pattern. When
writers are stuck in the certain necessity of a genre, they can not express their ideas
freely. Therefore, Tribble (1996) claimed that if we use genre approach to
complement process approach in teaching writing, it would be very powerful.
Raimes (1983a) stated that, no teachers would limit their teaching to one
approach in their classes. She uses approaches that the students need them instead of
only one approach. Hedge (2000) also suggested that having an integration with
text-based approach and process approach, it gives both the teachers and the learners a
sight of effective writing. To sum up, controlled writing help students in basic
elements of writing—the sentence structures; contrastive rhetoric acknowledges
second language writers’ linguistic and cultural interferences with their writing.
Different approaches give us a chance to consider teaching writing from different
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