September 2001 — Volume 5, Number 2
Richard Harrison (2000)
Reading: Garnet Publishing
Pp. ii + 100
ISBN 1-85964-701-4 (paper)
Better Writing is made up of six chapters in large A4 black and white format (www.garneteducation.com/betwrite.htm). The author addresses different functions in the six chapters of this text such as describing things, describing how something is made, comparing and so on. Each chapter contains a section on language points, writing skills and vocabulary. Prior to chapter one there is a section “To the student” and on page 93 there are notes for the teacher. The book also includes an answer key.
This book is “aimed at students in the Arab world” . Its aim as stated in the section “To the Teacher” (p 93), is “to make students aware of what “better” writing involves: that is, writing which is more cohesive, better organized, more appropriate to the reader and easier to read–as well as writing which is more accurate” . It also states that “through controlled and guided practice, students are gradually led towards writing accurate, cohesive, appropriate and more interesting paragraphs”.
The audience of Better Writing is unclear. It claims to benefit “those studying at secondary and tertiary institutions and adults undertaking training as part of their work or business experience” (back cover). These are very different learner groups with different needs and interests. In our opinion, this book shows limited consideration of the needs of tertiary students and those in the workplace.
Unfortunately, the book does not make its theoretical orientation explicit and there are no references to theories of language or how language is learned. Based on the approach in this book the assumption is that the English language is made up of discreet items that can be neatly pieced together to create text. A bottom-up, structural approach to teaching writing is adopted. Arabic both as a first and second language is also taught in this way, focussing only on reading and writing. This is because Arabic is diglossic in nature and so while the spoken dialects vary from country to country and area to area, there is a standard written form which is based on rules that are as 100% as any rule can be. This means that written Arabic can be taught in the same way, using a bottom-up approach, building text through manipulation of discreet items, throughout the Arabic-speaking world. The bottom-up approach advocated here therefore appears to be suitable for Arabic-speaking students. However, using this approach to teach writing in English can result in the production of stilted, inauthentic texts that bear little resemblance to natural communication in English. We also found no evidence in the literature to suggest the effectiveness of this approach with Arabic speakers.
Students need to learn genres as well as learn how to write them (Rhedding-Jones, 1996; Feez & Joyce, 1998), and this issue is not addressed in Better Writing . Communication strategies go undeveloped and problems for Arab learners appear to be based on personal perceptions as there is no reference to common errors/L1 interference. The book fails to satisfactorily address context of culture and context of situation as it neglects the importance of the social semiotic and meaning making (see MAK Halliday, 1975, 1985; Halliday & Hasan, 1985; Halliday & Martin, 1993; Eggins, 1994; Feez, 1998;).
The teaching-learning cycle (see Callaghan & Rothery, 1993) models texts by focusing on the social function of the text and its schematic stages and language features; it prepares students for joint negotiation of texts and later moves to independent construction of texts. Better Writing, on the other hand, appears to be based on the assumption that repetition and controlled practice are the basis of effective language learning and improved writing, and that editing other people” s errors makes students aware of their own. There is no discussion of product versus process and no opportunity for reflective/reflexive thinking for students in planning, drafting and redrafting. Learner strategies and learner styles are ignored and development of learner autonomy is lacking.
The units are based on model texts but the text types appear inauthentic, as they are not necessarily realised by language features of the genre being modelled. Unit Two, “Describing how something works” (p. 14) presents students with the explanation genre. However, the language focus of the unit neglects to focus on linguistic features related to this text type such as present simple tense, relational verbs for classification, action verbs for explanatory sequence and causal and temporal conjunctions. In fact on page 16, students are asked to focus on imperative forms for instructions. This language is generally found in procedural texts rather than explanations.
Unit Three, “Describing how something is made” (p. 29) includes a combination of procedural and explanation texts. This could cause confusion for students, particularly given the inauthentic nature of many of these text types. For example, recipes (procedural texts) are the authentic social representation for recording how to make food as opposed to the inauthentic texts written for EFL learners such as those found on page 29, 37, 40.
Unit Four, “Reporting what someone said” (p. 4) is a function that is not typically associated with the written form. Reported speech is largely spoken unless one is a journalist or writing up a statement for insurance purposes or for the police. This unit appears to be addressing the genres of recount and narrative. Typically in secondary contexts there is considerable focus on recount and narrative (see Callaghan & Rothery, 1993). Our experience suggests that English language secondary schools in the Middle East also heavily focus on these text types. In fact they are the most common types of writing that students do and they fail to learn alternate genres until they reach university or the workplace. We also question the usefulness of having students write newspaper articles which combine genres and have very specific complex schematic and textual features unlike any other genre. Explicit outcomes statements in the students” and teachers” notes would help the users understand the rationale behind the inclusion of these three text types within Unit Four.
Unit Five is the only unit to mention rhetorical patterns (comparison). There are a variety of different text types in this unit. For example, the models are letters and later students are asked to write two paragraphs in the discussion genre (page 71). If the unit aims to address rhetorical patterns of comparison and/ discursive text types we believe that the editing exercise in unit 5 (p. 74) should support the discussion genre rather than focuses on the description genre.
The text types in Better Writing should address student needs e.g. Unit 4 newspaper reports. Whilst the text type models are sometimes multi-paragraph, the students are usually asked to produce only one paragraph and the rationale for this is unclear. “Free writing” is actually semi-controlled practice of structure based on a model and the vocabulary is limited to the specific model. Reading activities are inadequate to help students with reading and writing. There are very few reading tasks that focus on reading for gist (genre learning), main ideas and specific detail, including deconstruction of the text through language.
The book also raises questions such as “Who is the learner?” and “How would a teacher unfamiliar with the Arab world perceive their students based on this book?” It appears to encourage the users of this book to make some assumptions about “students in the Arab world” and Arab culture. Is the text designed for EFL or ESL students? Are the students Arabs? If so, it is important to acknowledge that Arabs are not mono-cultural. In our opinion this book fails to adequately consider its student audience. How does it address the needs of professionals, writers, academics, and shop assistants, taxi drivers and so on? The assumption implicit in this approach, suggesting that the Arab learner lacks sophistication and cannot deal with an analytical approach to teaching, and learning writing is also questionable. The Garnet Education website claims “It should also be easy for students to write neatly in the book, where this is practicable (www.garneteducation.com/betwrite.htm)”. Wouldn” t it be more beneficial to the teacher to outline possible errors based on L1 interference and previous learning experiences, rather than making the decision for them as to whether the student can write in the book or not?
The input in this book needs to be realistic and not based on assumptions and stereotypes. There is a need to show students how they can produce realistic texts that address a specific audience for a given purpose. How do students move from the production of a paragraph to the text level? There is a need for independent writing tasks that take the learner beyond the paragraph stage.
Better Writingneeds to define what it means by “better writing” in relation to field, tenor and mode. The author needs to define “more accurate, easier to read, appropriate to reader, more interesting” (p.ii) in relation to the audience and purpose for writing. What will the learner be able to do on completion of the book? If it is based on outcomes, then they should be clearly stated with the necessary criteria of communicative competence, relevance, lexical choice, accuracy, schematic structure and coherence. At what standard will they be able to write? Can they now enter the workforce as a competent writer?
In summary, we query the rationale for using the approach to English language learning and teaching methodology advocated in this book. Our main question is “What drives Better Writing ?” Teachers thinking of using it in the classroom, should ask themselves, “Will my students be more effective communicators as a result of using this book?”
Callaghan, M & Rothery, J (1993) Teaching Factual Writing: A Genre Based Approach Sydney: DSP Printery
Eggins, S., (1994) An Introduction to Systemic Functional Linguistics London: Pinter Publishers
Feez, S (1998) Text-based Syllabus Design Sydney: NCELTR, Macquarie University
Feez, S & Joyce, H (1998) Writing Skills: Narrative and non-fiction text types Sydney: Phoenix Education
Garnet Education (2001), Better Writing (web site), www.garneteducation.com/betwrite.htm. .Retrieved 22 May, 2001.
Halliday, M.A.K., (1975) Learning how to mean : Explorations in the development of language. London: Edward Arnold
Halliday, M.A.K., (1985a) An introduction to functional grammar London: Edward Arnold
Halliday, M.A.K., & Hasan, R., (1985) Language, context, and text: Aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective Victoria: Deakin University Press
Halliday M.A.K., & Martin J.R. (1993) Writing Science: Literacy and Discursive Power London: Falmer Press
Rhedding-Jones, J, (1996) Researching Early Schooling: Poststructural Practices and Academic Writing in an Ethnography, British Journal of Sociology of Education 17 (1) pp21- 38
© Copyright rests with authors. Please cite TESL-EJ appropriately.
Editor’s Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page for purposes of citation.