About Me

Education, the knowledge society, the global market all connected through technology and cross-cultural communication skills are I am all about. I hope through this blog to both guide others and travel myself across disciplines, borders, theories, languages, and cultures in order to create connections to knowledge around the world. I teach at the University level in the areas of Business, Language, Communication, and Technology.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Types of Writers

As I mentioned before, I am busy transcribing interviews for my dissertation and correcting papers. However, I thought I would upload another part of the paper I wrote with my colleague, Marilyn Easter, a couple of years ago for the AERA conference. This section defines different types of writers that can be found in the college classroom. This is different than the workplace writer. However, I think I will need to start to define the different types of workplace writers for dissertation, so hopefully I'll have those profiles by the end of the year!

The Students

Unlike the universities of the last century, today’s colleges are filled with a diverse population. This diversity includes differing socio-economic levels, ethnicity and languages, life-styles and experience, educational background, with an ever growing representation from communities that were not traditionally represented in the past (Lay, Carro, Tien, Niemann, & Leong, 1999). With this diversity comes a more dynamic learning environment that can present both opportunities and challenges in the professional writing classroom.

In order to understand the professional writing skills of this diverse population, we looked at research for teaching writing at the secondary, tertiary, and professional levels from the fields of composition, business communication, and second language learning. We looked at the three levels of education in order to get an idea of the challenges for the students as they transition from the various levels (high school to college to the workplace), each requiring different types of writing (Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1995; Dias et al. 1999; Harklau, Siegal, & Losey, 1999; Lay et al. 1999; Paltridge, 2004; Rogers & Rymer, 2001; Selber, 2004; Valdés, 1991). The field of composition addresses the academic writing needs for these students, while the field of business communication addresses the professional writing needs. Additionally, in the last two decades, our colleges and universities have seen a growth in non-native, non-standard, or bilingual English speakers resulting in unique challenges for writing instruction (Chiang & Schmida, 1999; Harklau et al. 1999; Myles, 2002; Lay et al.; Syrquin, 2006; Valdés).
In reviewing the literature, four categories of writers emerge: the non-native writer, the poor (or non-proficient) writer; the poorly prepared student; and the good (or proficient) writer. Each group approaches the writing task differently and has a unique skill set that they bring to the classroom. These skills can provide both learning opportunities and unique challenges.

The Non-Native Writer

The literature on the non-native writer can be divided into three categories: international students of English, ESL, and, more recently, minority language speakers. It is important to define each of these labels since the needs and experiences of each group differ, creating different challenges in teaching writing for its members (Harklau et al. 1999; Valdés , 1991).

There are two reasons for students outside of English speaking countries to study the language: the first is for academic purposes and the second is for practical purposes (Myles, 2002; Valdés , 1991). English may be used as the currency for further study outside of the country, access to higher education within the country, or demonstration of academic ability. As a result, the focus on English language study is on the written language for academic purposes. The goal of instruction in English to students outside of English-speaking countries, therefore, often is to minimize syntactic and grammatical mistakes (Artemeva, 1998; Hartman & Tarone, 1999; Sengupta, & Falvey, 1998; Myles; Valdés).

International students motivated by practical purposes, on the other hand, are interested in learning specific genres for limited purposes. Often they learn English as a requirement for official business (when English is the governmental or official second language) or to participate in the global economy (Valdés, 1991). Written communication may be limited to informal e-mail correspondence or a very formal official genre (Ngeow et al. 2003; Valdés). Outside of specific situations in which they have been trained, these non-native speakers have very little need for written English.

Because international students have limited or no access to native-speaking English discourse communities, they often lack the cultural background that allows them to write as a native speaker. A member of a discourse community develops the rhetoric, lexicon, genres, registers, and interactive rules (both written and spoken) that is gained through socialization in that community (Paltridge). Since discourse is a dynamic social process, the rules and structure are both created by and influence the individual members. The current focus on syntax and grammar and the minimization of error by foreign language instructors does not prepare students to participate in these communities thus affecting their writing ability in English (Hanna & de Nooy, 2003; Hartman & Tarone, 1999; Valdés, 1991).

In addition, those that have had some exposure to an English discourse community may be limited by that community’s writing conventions. British English, American English, Australian English, and the dialects of former British colonies such as Jamaica and India may have subtle differences that are not picked up by the non-native speaker. On the other hand, bilingual or non-standard English speakers may consciously use those subtle differences to situate themselves as part of a particular discourse community (Chiang & Schmida, 1999; Ngeow et al. 2003; Syrquin, 2006; Valdés, 1999; Villalva, 2006).

A growing body of work distinguishes the international student, educated and learning English outside of an English-speaking country and the bilingual, minority language, or non-standard language speaker who has learned the language within an English speaking environment and had some formal education in an English-speaking country (Harklau et al. 1999; Valdés, 1999). Unlike the international student, bilingual or language minority students are not necessarily literate in a second language. At the same time, they have learned English within an English speaking discourse community (i.e. school). These students are often placed in ESL classes initially (if they have no or limited proficiency in English) that augment content and skills development. They are, then, moved into mainstream classes with little or no support in learning standard English or writing skills. Because they come from communities and family backgrounds that are unable to support English writing skill development, these students must rely on English classes that assume knowledge of standard written English (Harklau et al. 1999; Valdés, 1999).

Native speakers of English, either second or third generation immigrants or speakers of non-standard English dialects such as African-American English or Caribbean English, have a similar experience in the learning of English writing skills. In addition, the communication patterns of these groups identify them as members of their community. As a result, the use of standard written English has socio- and psycho-linguistic connotations that go beyond the development of professional writing skills (Chiang & Schmida, 1999; Ngeow et al. 2003; Paltridge, 2004; Syrquin, 2006; Valdés, 1999).

For these students to be academically successful, they will need to be socialized into the academic writing required at most universities. Later, as they move into the workplace, they will need to be able to learn the business genres and writing skills appropriate for the discourse community in which they are working (organizational culture) (Alpern, Odett, & Pietila, 2004; Dias et al. 1999; Kress, 1993; Pultsky, 1996; Rogers & Rymer; 2001).

The Poor (Non-Proficient) Writer

It is important that we distinguish between a) students that have proficient writing skills in one context, yet difficulty modifying those skills for a different context, b) students that are still basic writers, unable to encrypt their thoughts into a written format, and c) poorly prepared students that are unable to write because they do not have writing, educational, and/or language skills.

In the first case, students may be proficient writers in other contexts, but as novices within the discipline, they may need more time to learn syntactic, lexical, and rhetoric conventions as established by that discourse community. If students have been limited in the communities in which they have interacted, they may not have experience developing new writing skills or be resistant to change (Berkenkotter & Huckin 1995; Layet al. 1999; Kress, 1993; Paltridge, 2004; Saunders & Scialfa, 2003). In other words, their perception of good writing, having been formed through home literacy beliefs, many years of schooling, and experience in the community (or communities) in which they belong may not correlate to instructors’ and workplace perceptions.

The second case ties into a student’s ability to transfer ideas into the written word. In his seminal work on student writing errors, Bartholomae (1980) recognized that basic writers, adults that were learning to write, in fact had sophisticated language structures and fairly advanced content knowledge. The problem was their inability to transcribe those ideas into an acceptable written format. He found that the greater the language aptitude, the more difficult it was for the student to learn to write since attempting linguistically complex written communication resulted in confusing structures for the reader. This can be especially problematic in professional writing which demands short and direct written structures.

We will look at the third case, the poorly prepared student in the next section. Unlike the other two cases, the poorly prepared student may have both writing and academic deficiencies that interfere with his or her ability to write.

The Poorly Prepared Student

Researchers have looked at the link between writing and learning (Paltridge, 2004). Students that are deficient in academic skills (critical thinking, literacy, organizational, analytical, rhetoric) will have trouble in the transition from high school to college to the workplace (Diaset al. 1999; Layet al. 1999). More importantly is the role of writing in the development of these academic skills (Kress, 1993; Saunders & Scialfa, 2003). Dias, et al. (1999) for example, found that most professional preparation courses expected students to be able to write using the genres of the profession, even though it was not explicitly taught. They also observed that interns that did not participate in the socialization process in the workplace, were not able to understand the nuances required when preparing written documents. These writers may then be perceived as non-proficient since the standards would not meet the expectations of the reader.

It is possible that students are not given practice to develop writing skills. This may be coupled with under funded schools, over crowded classes, poorly conceptualized writing and learning goals, and under achieving schools (Hillocks, 2002; Shiffflett, 2003). While many professional writing instructors believe this is the main reason why students cannot write (Pultsky, 1996), this might just be the most identifiable reason, especially given the current system of accountability and testing in the US.

The Good (Proficient) Writer

As mentioned above, the proficient writer is able to write for any context in an appropriate manner (Artemeva, 1998; Berkenkotter & Huckin 1995; Dias, et al.. 1999; Rogers & Rymer, 2001). What is appropriate in one context, such as academic essays, may not be appropriate in another, such as an on-the-job policy memo. In order to be proficient, therefore, students should be able to analyze the context, have the ability to access content, rhetoric, and stylistic conventions, and be linguistically flexible in order to change their writing to fit the context. At the same time, instructors need to recognize that even the most proficient academic writers may need a period of apprenticeship to adjust their writing to unknown contexts and professional requirements. Unfortunately, students are given the impression in their academic writing classes that there is a standard form of writing regardless of the context. Students are seldom exposed to different writing contexts (Amidon, 2004; Dias et al.).

In their study of the writing requirements for multiple academic and workplace professions, Dias et al. (1999) observed that proficient writers picked up the lexicon, syntax, and genres of a profession through interaction and observation. Often the genres were not explicitly taught, however, students successfully began to structure their writing to fit the requirements of the profession. In fact, it may be more difficult for proficient writers used to writing for one context to change their style. Berkenkotter and Huckin (1995) observed these difficulties in a case study of a doctoral student who was accustomed to writing professionally. It was difficult for him to change his writing habits in order to fulfill program expectations.

To cite anything from this post you may use: Yonkers, V. & Easter, M. (2007). College student perceptions of good professional writing in an international context. American Educational Research Association Conference: Writing and Literacies SIG, presented April 10, Chicago, IL.

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