FROM LEARNING-TO-WRITE TO WRITING-TO-LEARN: AN APPROACH TO WRITING INSTRUCTION FOR POSTGRADUATES
文 / 江介維 (本中心教師)
In most writing courses in Taiwan, students come to the classroom to learn how to write in a grammatically correct, semantically clear, and structurally solid manner; in response to students' learning expectations, most teachers prepare their materials and design their courses accordingly: a bundle of grammar rules, vocabulary notes, and recurrent emphases on the merits of a well-structured piece of writing. To be sure, these elements are the fundamental skills for all writing learners, especially second language (L2) learners, to get acquainted with. However, writing courses are not meant to cease there, serving merely as a tool for language acquisition or idea communication.
Instead, the writing courses held by the Academic Writing Education Center (AWEC) at National Taiwan University (NTU) seek to offer a more holistic and thought-provoking curriculum for a rapidly increasing number of graduate students with rising needs to write and publish in an academic context. More specifically, writing in this postgraduate context is supposed to be approached with a higher-order thinking and a more comprehensive way of deliberation. Graduate students are expected to treat their writing with a higher degree of caution and motivation. To achieve this, we have to reexamine and redefine our long-standing assumption about the role and operation of writing courses—that is, the conventional pattern of learning-to-write shall be modified and recognized as writing-to-learn.
The concept of writing-to-learn may appear unfamiliar to some writing learners in Taiwan. Actually, the idea is not as new as it may sound. Several L2 researchers (Tynjala, Mason, & Lonka, 2001; Indrisano & Paratore, 2005; Bean, 2011; Manchón, 2011) have studied the strategies of treating and utilizing writing as a potential medium for facilitating students’ bridging to content-area learning. The application of writing-to-learn could be understood as "writing in the content areas" or "writing across the curriculum," as Armbruster, McCarthey, and Cummings (2005, p. 71) put it in their clarification of this somewhat indefinite term. They contend and endeavor to justify that writing is no longer just a tool for language acquisition but a catalyst that renders disciplinary knowledge more reflexible and accessible. Quite a few researchers begin to tap into the potential of utilizing writing as an explorative means. For example, Alan Hirvela (2011) elaborates on the pedagogical application of writing as "a mode of discovery or negotiation to acquire greater knowledge of content, culture, or language" (p. 37). All the remarks above seem to present a promising picture of how much writing, reinforced with proper instruction, can do to help learners advance to a higher order of thinking and a broader horizon of learning.
However, the focal shift from learning-to-write to writing-to-learn entails not only pedagogical awareness but also subject matter knowledge. Joan Sedita (2015), for instance, foregrounds a pedagogical challenge to be aware of:
Writing to learn skills in particular are best taught by content teachers because they understand how to show examples of subject-specific writing teach students how to write about subject-specific text, and provide feedback to students about content-based writing assignments. (p. 97)
That is to say, the promotion of writing-to-learn in class is particularly suitable and effective when class instructors are content-area teachers capable of assigning and assessing subject-specific assignments. The premise here, if not a prerequisite to some extent, poses a challenge to those non-subject-specialized language teachers in charge of writing across the curriculum. While Sedita' s case study focuses particularly on secondary-school writing instruction, it also applies to the context of postgraduate writing curriculum. Moreover, how to practice writing-to-learn pedagogy in a postgraduate writing context is even more challenging and, as will be proven, more rewarding. John Bean (2011) approaches this issue neatly in the context of postgraduate writing, in an effort to provide useful suggestions and practical guidelines for combining and enhancing "subject matter knowledge and critical thinking" (p. 5) through the medium of writing as a learning catalyst. His target audience is aimed at university teaching faculty, especially those who instruct writing across the curriculum (WAC).
This WAC circumstance applies exactly to the context of teachers at writing centers. Irene Clark (2008) emphasizes the notable mission for writing centers to instruct and inspire students to not only enhance their grasp of writing as an explorative means but also develop a new perspective on the overall writing process. Robert Barnett and Jacob Blummer (1999) have co-edited a book, a collection of scholarly essays, to describe the role of writing centers as an emergent agent in facilitating writing across the curriculum and incubating writing-oriented programs and pedagogies. In this regard, the courses along with the driving pedagogy behind, offered and fueled by AWEC of NTU, could serve as an example for illustration.
We have courses designed to engage students in utilizing writing as a thinking and production mode. That is, we assume that our graduate students have already been equipped with a decent degree of English writing proficiency. Thus, instead of focusing on the technical part of writing solely, we endeavor more to delve into the structural, logical, and cognitive aspects of writing. More precisely, students in our class are not as much bothered about how to produce a neat piece of writing (as most of them can do that well on their own), as constantly confronted with how to manage an intricate piece of writing in a particular setting or field. In this respect, their concerns go beyond mere semantic expression and consideration to a more comprehensive vantage point of viewing and evaluating all the subtle steps involved in writing and forming knowledge. As is often the case, different fields develop their own patterns of written discourse; students from varied disciplines are spurred to reflex on the rationale behind their writing community and invited to defend or even challenge the established practice. Moreover, we often have students write down their initial thoughts toward a certain issue after a brief brainstorming. These still rough thoughts often serve as the freshest material for representing the depth and width of a student' s present cognition state. Through it, we become familiar with the linguistic and cognitive benchmark of students at this stage. Subsequently, we pose questions, rather than solutions, to identify students' blind spots in their writing samples, whereby they can simultaneously revise their own work and review peers' work. During this process of constant discussion and revision, students would begin to understand that their writing per se acts as the most crucial medium to get their thoughts across in an academic context. Seen in this way, writing turns from a barren land of grammar and sentences into a fertile soil on which they can not only deepen their thoughts and synthesize ideas from others, but also extend its possibilities into discovery learning and critical thinking.
The preliminary picture above is meant to give a glimpse of writing-to-learn practice in class. Hopefully, it helps illustrate the concept and practice of writing-to-learn on the rise: a potential and practical way of teaching that elevates the role of writing in intellectual exploration and academic discourse.
Armbruster, B. B., McCarthey, S. J., & Cummings, S. (2005). Writing to learn in elementary classrooms. In R. Indrisano, & J. R. Paratore (Eds.), Learning to write, writing to learn: Theory and research in practice. (pp. 71-96). Boston, Massachusetts: International Reading Association.
Barnett, R., & Blummer, J. (Eds.). (1999). Writing centers and writing across the curriculum programs: Building interdisciplinary partnerships. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press
Bean, J. C. (2011). Engaging ideas: The professor' s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom (2nd ed.). San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass.
Clark, I. (Ed.). (2008). Writing in the center: Teaching in a writing center setting. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt.
Hirvela, A. (2011). Writing to learn in content areas: Research insights. In R. M. Manchón (Ed.), Learning-to-write and writing-to-learn in an additional language. (pp. 37-59). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Indrisano, R., & Paratore, J. R. (2005). Learning to write, writing to learn: Theory and research in practice. Boston, Massachusetts: International Reading Association.
Manchón, R. M. (Ed.). (2011). Learning-to-write and writing-to-learn in an additional language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
Sedita, J. (2015). Learning to write and writing to learn. In M. C. Hougen (Ed.), Fundamentals of literacy instruction and assessment, 6-12. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.
Tynjala, P., Mason L., & Lonka, K. (Eds.). (2001). Writing as a learning tool. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic.
I had a lot of fun participating in NTU 3MT-2015. I was happy to see NTU host its own 3MT competition. Being a non-native speaker of English myself, I was amazed to see the high level of competition and caliber displayed by the Taiwanese students. I hope there is a bigger turn out next year with more students coming forward to participate. I must also commend the people responsible for bringing this competition to fruition. Their tireless planning and hard work made the whole competition a memorable experience for me.
3MT is definitely a competition far beyond my expectation. It impressed me with Academic Writing Education Center's great efforts and enthusiasm. Every detail in the competition made me feel professional but profoundly warm and friendly. Though the competition was a long journey, it gave me a brand new academic experience about how remarkable fantasies can exist in a 180-second presentation with only one slide. Though I didn't make it to the top three, I never regret participating in this great competition and very proud of being one of the finalists. I strongly recommend 3MT to graduate students who are asking for challenges and excitements. You never know the limit of yourself.
~ I-An Su (Department of Psychology) Photo credit: Hsin-Ning Wang
Thank you for hosting such great event, I am the second place winner Chia-Yuan Chang. I would like to share this achievement with those who have been helping me a lot. First, is my professor, Dr. Feng-Cheng Chang(張豐丞老師), who leads me in this great research and strongly recommends me to attend this competition. Moreover, the brilliant idea of combining spider-man and our research is also his credit. Secondly, the future great photographer, George Sagan who also is my instructor at word choice, grammar and winning strategy. Final thanks allow me to save it for myself. Because I think I've done a great job, no matter you like me or dislike me, I've done my best.
For those who wants to participate in this competition, I have a suggestion and that is to be confident. Good luck.
~ Chia-Yuan Chang (Department of Forestry) Photo Credit: George Sagan
3MT is a very meaningful competition to me. It made me think of how to rationalize my research and clearly present to the audience in three minutes. Through the competition (from the first round to the final round), my academic English writing skill and presentation skill were tremendously improved. Thanks to Academic Writing Education Center for holding this challenging competition. It was a really special experience to me because it gave me an opportunity to share my research to people who are unfamiliar with my topic. Thanks to professor of academic writing and presentation class, Miguel, who encouraged me to participate in this competition. Thanks to teaching assistants of academic writing and presentation class, Alex and Amy, who revised my speech and accent. Thanks to my girlfriend, Su I-An, who backed me up during the competition. She helped me practicing, gave me feedback, pointed out my flaws, and was a respectable competitor at the same time. I learned a great deal from this competition. I am looking forward to seeing more graduate students to participate in 3MT in the future.
~ Jiun-Wei Hu (Department of Mechanical Engineering) Photo Credit: Alex Chang
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