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Pedagogical approaches to writing | Motives for writing

II. Writing

Pedagogical approaches to writing

In discussions of developing students' writing competence in academic settings, a rather controversial issue has been which pedagogical approach should be adopted: writing as a process or writing as a product. In fact, many educationalists do make a sharp and clear distinction between the two approaches as any decisions made may imply completely different teaching and learning frameworks targeting learners' various learning and developmental needs, and hence, leading to totally different assessment rationales and focuses.

Writing as a process

The construct, writing as a process, is used to describe a perspective about writing in which writing is seen as a complex process of decision-making and activities responding to a particular objective or purpose. Writing, in this respect, is regarded as an expression of the mental process it entails and as a means of communication and interaction, between the writer, the text and the audience. This perspective also implies understanding writing as a series of drafts and considering the endeavor of writing in its entirety. The process includes several stages, they are, as conceptualized by Learning Media, Ministry of Education (1992)1, forming intentions, composing and drafting, correcting and publishing, and, outcomes.

1 Learning Media, Ministry of Education. (1992). Dancing with the pen: the learner as a writer. Wellington, NZ: Learning Media, Ministry of Education.

Figure 1: A model of the writing process2

Stage 1 – Forming intentions

At this particular pre-writing stage, writers clarify the purpose and audience for writing, generate relevant ideas, begin to organize them into rough sections and sequences, and, determine the suitable form of their writing so as to achieve the purpose identified. In order to generate plausible and relevant ideas, numerous techniques can be adopted and they are listed as follows:

2 Adapted from Learning Media, Ministry of Education. (1992). Dancing with the pen: the learner as a writer. Wellington, NZ: Learning Media, Ministry of Education. p.23.

  • Questioning
    • Asking questions about the topic or subject by using question words such as "what", "when", "why", "where", "who", "whom" and "how" is an effective way of getting writers to think about the issue concerned from a range of different angles.

  • Free writing
    • Free writing refers to the jotting down of words, phrases, rough sentences or everything that comes to the writers' mind when they are given a subject to write on. This activity helps writers explore the issue from scratch and the initial ideas noted down will often become clearer at later stages which may probably lead to other impressions and ideas that can enrich the content of one's writing eventually.
    • Free writing is usually made a timed task for which students are allowed five to ten minutes and during which students are pushed to come up with as many ideas as possible. Though some of the ideas generated may not be of any great significance, it has been generally found that this activity does help writers generate a sizeable amount of innovative ideas for their writing.

  • Mind mapping
    • For those who have preferences over visual representations in the realms of communication and learning, mind mapping is a strategy of choice as it allows writers to do their thinking in a visual way with the use of lines, boxes, arrows, circles, bubbles, and so forth to show not only the ideas and details that emerge, but also the relationships they entail on papers. This mental process starts with stating the subject in a few words in the centre of a piece of blank paper with ideas and further details extending outward towards the margins of the paper.
    • Some sample templates of mind maps are depicted below:

Figure 2: Sample templates of mind maps

  • Listing
    • Listing is an endeavor to make a list of everything, one after one, about a topic or a subject without trying to sort out major details from minor ones or trying to organize details in any specific orders. This is like brainstorming and writers try to generate as many ideas as possible during the process without evaluating them until later on.

Stage 2 – Composing and drafting

Composing and drafting is the process of translating thoughts, ideas, and intentions into a structured written form. It is a complex process ranging from conducting research, narrowing the topic, developing the thesis statement, arranging supporting ideas in a logical manner, to writing the first draft. The main focus of this stage is on making the intended messages as clear and forcible as possible in writing.

Stage 3 – Correcting and publishing

Correcting and publishing is a stage during which writers ensure whether their intentions are made clear to the intended audience and whether their intentions are in line with the intended purpose or objective before getting their writing published.

Correcting involves two major phases, namely reviewing and proofreading with the former focusing on the messages intended to be conveyed and the latter the surface-level features or conventions like language form and accuracy. Writers, at this stage, check the organization, coherence and clarity of their communication of their writing to ensure the quality of the "substance" concerned. In the meantime, they double-check their grammar, spelling and punctuation, et cetera, so as to attain mechanical precision in their writing.

Stage 4 – Outcomes

The outcomes of publishing (or sharing) provide writers with opportunities to receive feedback and responses from their readers. It is very likely for a myriad of learning to take place throughout the process of publishing (or sharing) for both the writers and readers. On one hand, writers learn to accept justifiable criticisms, taking them into consideration in their future writing tasks and hence benefit from the responses received. On the other hand, readers learn to think and respond critically to the texts presented to them as they are expected to back their points up with justifications and evidence. After all, with this platform, both parties have a chance to look at an issue from various points of view which is regarded to be of pivotal value.

The proposed model of the writing process is a cyclical process rather than a linear one in which writers may return to any previous stages even after doing some editing and revising as a response to any possible changes of the authentic settings. For instance, if the writer finds that there are not sufficient ideas for his / her writing at the final stage of his / her writing process, he / she may go back to the intentions forming stage for more ideas.

In connection with this approach, writing as a process, improving writing means improving the ways students write. Thus writing assessment should take all the aforementioned stages into consideration. Instead of regarding students' writing as the final draft and giving them an overall grade on the final written product, teachers consider their work as different drafts at different stages and students' effort in improving their writing via reviewing and proofreading also constitutes a significant part of the assessment so that the grade they receive can reasonably reflect their progress throughout the entire writing process.

Writing as a product

Conversely, another construct, writing as a product, is employed to refer to a perspective about writing in which writing is considered in terms of the final finished product. Pincas (1982)3, who gives an explicit description of this approach, sees writing as being primarily about linguistic knowledge, with attention focused on the appropriate use of vocabulary, grammatical structures, syntax, cohesive devices, so on and so forth.

In alignment with this perspective, teachers pay tremendous attention and time on the mechanics of form and language usage rather than on the messages communicated in the facet of assessment. It creates an impression, which may be neither comprehensive nor realistic in the field of writing, that it is form and accuracy that matter leaving other aspects of writing which include organization, argumentation, as well as quantity and quality of ideas under-attended and under-valued.

In this sense, improving writing simply means improving primarily the surface-level errors students make concerning the language used regardless of the steps and cognitive effort that are involved in the entire writing process.

It is, however, worth noting that the two models are not incompatible as writing is clearly not a simplistic activity but an intellectually complex one with multiple facets. For instance, while it involves knowledge about language as asserted by the product approach, it also involves skills in using language and other cognitive skills such as selecting ideas, developing thesis, organizing ideas, revising and editing, as put forth by the process approach. pending on the focuses of the courses concerned and the particular needs of students at various stages, to better facilitate students' learning.

3 Pincas, A. (1982). Teaching English Writing. London: Macmillan.


Motives for writing

Writing to learn

It is generally believed that students' thought and understanding can grow and clarify through the process of writing. The importance of writing as a way of learning has also been pinpointed in the 1986 report to the UNC Faculty Council4 by the Ad Hoc Committee on Writing Across the Curriculum as follows,

"writing is at the heart of the educational process. The complex process of writing compels us to analyze, to organize, and to articulate, to think logically and clearly and to come to a better understanding of our subject through an attempt to explain or present it. Not only does practice in writing improve the precision of our manner of expression, but the process of writing can lead to an increased precision in our ideas and concepts.

… The Committee regards this as an extremely important point: writing in courses in all disciplines has as its primary goal not the improvement of writing per se, but rather the improvement of the learning process."

Regarding the notion of writing to learn, though there is a general lack of empirical backing in the field, Newell (1984)5 did identify three measures of learning, namely, recall, concept application, and reception of passage-specific knowledge for better conceptualization of the construct of learning and further examination of the named notion, writing to learn. Briefly speaking, he discovered that essay writing was more effective in enabling students to produce consistently more abstract sets of associations for key concepts when compared to other types of writing like note taking and responses to short questions.

4 Ad Hoc Committee on Writing Across the Curriculum, UNC. (1986). 1986 report to the UNC Faculty Council. University of North Carolina.
5 Newell, G. (1984). Learning from writing in two content areas: A case study/protocol analysis. Research in the Teaching of English, 18, 265–287.

In spite of the types of learning highlighted by Newell (1984), it is also unanimously agreed that writing does play a cardinal role in facilitating students' learning from helping students examine and evaluate information presented in the texts, connect and integrate what they have leant with the rest of their knowledge, beliefs, experiences, thoughts and feelings, to constructing new knowledge and they are all considered to be of great significant value to students' intellectual development not only in the arena of writing.

To summarise, writing helps promote students' learning, as well as their involvement in the course materials through writing. Writing provides students with a platform to:

  • recall what has been learnt and acquired;
  • apply the learnt concepts;
  • intake course-specific knowledge;
  • examine and analyze ideas and information;
  • evaluate ideas and information; and,
  • connect and integrate what has been learnt with their prior knowledge so as to construct "new" knowledge.

With the course focuses and objectives taken into consideration, CAR teachers could adopt, with modifications if necessary, any of the writing tasks listed in the section to facilitate students' learning throughout the course.

Writing to think

"How do I know what I think until I see what I say?" (E.M. Foster)

In a similar vein, due to the intellectual and cognitive load demanded for accomplishing writing tasks, writing does not merely serve as a tool for improving writing competence, but also a device to sharpen one's thinking and reasoning skills. Thinking, as conceptualized by Griffith (1982)6, is a sort of inward activity of mind that enables people to make connections between:

  • ideas and experiences;
  • new materials and prior knowledge;
  • associative and logical thinking; and,
  • unconscious, subconscious and conscious levels of understanding.

6 Griffith, M. (1982). Writing to think. National writing project occasional paper no. 4. Washington: California University.

With the help of writing, students manage to bridge their inner speech with the outer reality together through which a number of thinking processes are made possible or even lively. Besides, writing also allows students to bring vague, disorganized but new perceptions within themselves to a verbal level, which is explicit enough for them to reconsider, further explore, evaluate, modify or extend. Only after going through this ‘essential" stage of the learning process can they expect clearer patterns to emerge and hence possible permanent grasp of new and unfamiliar knowledge can then be achieved.

Writing to think has been validated by cognitive psychologists and it is clearly stated in the Ad Hoc Committee on Writing Across Curriculum's 1986 report to the UNC Council that,

"the writing process regularly involves the types of cognition generally labeled ‘thinking': discrimination, classification, specification, generalization, hypothesis formation and testing. In many cases, writing is not merely an aid to thinking: writing is thinking."

In view of all these, in order to achieve deeper level learning and thinking, it might be worthwhile for teachers to consider assigning writing tasks to students in their courses.

Other motives for writing

In addition to learning and thinking, writing can also be employed to achieve a plethora of purposes and some of them are listed below:

  • writing to report information;
  • writing to explain information;
  • writing to evaluate information;
  • writing to analyze texts;
  • writing to persuade others; and;
  • writing to inspire others, so on and so forth.

The list above can never be exhaustive as writing has a huge potential in achieving both intra-personal and inter-personal communication, literally, in all circumstances. The kinds of writing tasks to be adopted in classes are primarily determined by the learning outcomes or goals intended for the courses, as well as the course planning and delivery of individual teachers.


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> Templates for writing activities

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EWRite is an open access online literacy platform for PolyU community that has two major objectives:

  • to support PolyU students’ literacy development within and across the disciplines
  • to support subject and language teachers to implement system-level measures for integrating literacy-sensitive pedagogies across the university

This platform provides access to generic genre guides representing typical university assignments as well as links to subjects offered by faculties with specific disciplinary genres and relevant support materials.

The materials can be retrieved by students by choosing the genres that interest them on the landing page. Each set of materials includes a genre guide, genre video, and a genre checklist. The genre guide and video are to summarize the genres in two different ways (i.e. textual and dynamic) to fit different learning styles. The genre checklist is for students to self-regulate their writing process. The genre guide and checklist include links to various ELC resources that can provide further explanation to language items (e.g. hedging and academic vocabulary).

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