Writing on Academic
Topics: Externalizing Rhetorical Processes in an Intercultural
This paper takes the form of a critical
review of pedagogy with regard to English-language academic writing. It reviews
learning theories and cultural rationales to discern problems for Japanese
students composing in English. One problem is learners' incompatible emphases
regarding, on the one hand, sentence-level grammatical accuracy and, on the
other, the communicative demands of larger discourse units like the paragraph and
the short essay. Another obstacle for Japanese college students is their
unfamiliarity with the dominant function of rhetorical norms that drive
communication in English-language paragraphs and essays, norms such as
definition, exemplification, and so forth. The paper analyzes how this second
problem is rooted in profound cultural contrasts with respect to what constitute
necessary and sufficient ways of creating written discourse in Japanese and
English. Finally, specific classroom approaches and samples of student writing
are examined to illustrate generic ways of helping Japanese college students
become more fluent writers in English.
Accuracy and making
To take up the first problem of incompatible emphases, we
can view this as symptomatic of conflicts within the universe of foreign language
education. When we teachers demand accuracy, students work very hard to be
accurate, but given the constraints on working memory, their ability to do so is
typically limited to small-scale units such as the phrase or sentence. Further,
Hattori et al. (1990) report that Japanese teachers' felt obligation to respond
to students' errors in writing is so time-consuming that teachers avoid giving
large-scale composition assignments. Once accuracy is made the focus of
classroom activities, moreover, language learners will pay close attention to
explicit rules and they will attempt to apply the rules, yet according to the
Monitor Hypothesis (Krashen 1982, 1984), as students monitor (that is, as they
attend to) their language production, their ability to make and acquire meaning
diminishes significantly (Krashen 1984, Jones 1985).
status of errors: Focus on meaning
Nonetheless, since we teachers
are sticklers for accuracy, we face the continual dilemma of how to treat
developmental errors on the part of students in the making meaning -- that is, in
speaking and writing. Problems of students attending to linguistic features at
the expense of spoken communication are offered a partial solution by Nobuyoshi
and Ellis (1993); for some speaking errors they suggest "focused communication
tasks" in which learners are enticed into more accurate production by way of
communication-based requests for clarification. Here is their example featuring
a verb tense error in a conversation between a non-native speaker (NNS) and
native speaker (NS).
NNS: He pass his house.
passed, he passed, ah, his sign. (204)
Nobuyoshi and Ellis recognize
limits. They question how such tactics apply to morphological errors that have
little impact on meaning. Focused communication tasks, however, are suggestive
of one way to bridge the accuracy/meaning-making dilemma in
English-as-a-foreign-language (EFL) composition. This is a point I shall return
to in the last section.
The process approach and academic
With respect to writing, questions of over-monitoring, of
meaning-making, and of focusing tasks on developmental issues such as learner
errors are even more complicated. As noted, when emphasis is placed on
linguistic accuracy, the unit-size of the discourse is perforce small in scale.
Here in Japan, for instance, Yamada (1993) reports that most students' EFL
writing in high school centers on spelling and grammar while translating from
Japanese at the sentence level. Advocates of the process approach to writing
would say that these students require opportunities for composing on a more
meaningful scale about subjects with which the individual writer can interact
engagingly, even personally (Zamel 1982, 1987; Krashen 1984; Krapels 1990;
Raimes 1991). The process approach conceives of the learner's task as an
interaction in which a writer creates multiple drafts, each draft providing the
student a chance to "discover" what kinds of meaning might be desirable or
necessary to communicate. Rigg (1991) describes such writing opportunities
within the context of learners using "whole" language to compose from personal
Critics such as Horowitz (1986) and Silva (1990) point to a
disparity between language students writing on personal topics and writing for
academic and professional purposes. Silva argues that in addition to process
methods, approaches are needed in which writers learn to fulfill the contextual
demands of academic subject matter. Japanese college students (majors in
medicine and some sciences, for example) face the prospects of researching and
reporting in English about their fields of study as they proceed to graduate
school and assume their professional duties; for these students, the
practicality of academic writing seems obvious. But with the incorporation of
academic subject matter in EFL composition, we confront new questions about
guiding writers' development as well as the timing, frequency and method for
focusing on developmental errors. Responses to these questions circulate within
a matrix of intercultural contrasts and diverse educational experiences.
Contrasts in education and skills application
ample indications that difficulties for Japanese college writers result from
differences between the Japanese and English-language conventions with regard to
rhetoric, education and, more broadly, cultural orientation. First, in
comparison with British and North American educational practice, Japanese
students spend less time learning to write in their first language (L1). Hinds
(1987) notes that most Japanese stop studying writing in L1 by the sixth grade.
Second, many skills Japanese students acquire in learning to write in L1 cannot
be easily transferred when they begin to compose in English. While there is a
paucity of research in contrastive rhetoric, recent data suggest rhetorical
skills in L1 writing are not readily transferred in the second language (L2). In
a study of Japanese college students composing in English, Carson et al. (1990)
find a weak correlation, at best, between L1 and L2 skills. Third, when Japanese
students take up English composition practice, they are typically underexposed to
rhetorical and invention devices that they would need to become fluent writers.
As noted, Yamada (1993) maintains that high school students expend their energies
creating grammatically correct translations of sentences from L1 to L2. Yamada
further asserts that
"discourse and rhetorical organization are totally
Of the various
intercultural differences between growing up as a NS of Japanese and learning
EFL, the most critical are the standards for what constitutes good rhetoric in
Japanese versus the rhetorical conventions of English. For example, among
general commentators, Edwin Reischauer avers that in comparison with the
English-language bias toward directness, speakers of Japanese "cultivate
vagueness" (1988:381). Among observers of written discourse, Hinds (1987)
describes elements such as 'vagueness' (to use Reischauer's term) as part of an
array of conventions that dispose Japanese rhetoric toward placing responsibility
with the reader for understanding the meaning of a text. This is of course in
direct contrast with English-language convention in which the writer assumes
responsibility for conveying meaning. Fister-Stoga (1993) traces the influence
of classical Chinese rhetoric on Japanese composition and (citing Oliver 1971)
itemizes formidable differences with Western norms. Here is a sample (adapted
from Fister-Stoga, 136).
Western Style: variable, lively
Motive: social harmony
The contrasts between Japanese and English cut more deeply than rhetorical
style, motive, tone, etc. Indirection, suggestion and silence are not classified
as primary elements in English-language discourse, but they are pragmatic forms
of eloquence in Japan (see Ishii and Bruneau 1991; Fister-Stoga 1993). Indeed,
silence in the form of ellipses is a distinctive feature of Japanese semantic
structure. O-Young Lee (1984) demonstrates this using a commonplace expression
as his example.
Japanese words and phrases are often abbreviated into a
"head." This results in a degree of linguistic truncation rarely found in other
languages. It is exemplified by the much-used expression domo, the basic meaning
of which is "very [much]," "quite," "somehow." Since domo is an adverb it
functions at most as a kind of hat or gloves covering the word modified. Its
role presupposes that there is a verbal "head" or "hands" to be covered, but the
Japanese often cut away the word modified, leaving just the adverb domo.
With respect to written discourse, a brief review of the Japanese
ki-sho-ten-ketsu is instructive. This is a pervasive form of essay writing
consisting of an introduction (ki) followed by development of the introductory
theme and loosely analogous subthemes (sho and ten) and a conclusion (ketsu) in
which the essay makes its main point (see Hinds 1983, Loveday 1986, Fister-Stoga
1993). What stands out here is how topsy-turvy the form seems in comparison with
English-language prose development. It is quite proper, for instance, to
introduce one topic in ki and insert a second or even a third topic in the middle
sections for the purpose of leading up to an argument fixed on possibly another
topic in the concluding ketsu section. When we refer to "topic" and "argument,"
in fact, we are imposing English-language categories that will not adequately
account for elements like pacing and temporal proportion as agents of formal
reasoning in the millennia-long tradition of ki-sho-ten-ketsu. Nevertheless, of
immediate interest as points of comparison are (a) the formatting of multiple
"topics" in ki-sho-ten-ketsu in contrast with the privileging of a single topic
in a well-formed English-language essay; (b) the emergence of
ki-sho-ten-ketsu's "argument" in the concluding section while customarily
academic English prose argues from beginning to end.
I draw this
contrastive picture to suggest that beyond questions of Japanese writers'
linguistic accuracy in EFL composition, there are complexities of rhetorical
tradition, prior education and the subtleties of cultural attitudes embedded
within rhetoric and education. In considering these intercultural complexities,
educators can create alternative opportunities for helping students develop
fluency in writing.
Providing writers with appropriate
Academic writing in L2 makes new demands on the language
learner. From the teacher's perspective, the new demands entail far more than
introducing additional language items such as grammar rules and vocabulary. In
reviewing current L2 research, Krapels (1990) offers that NNS students'
underdeveloped skills in EFL composition are caused more by a lack of competence
in writing strategy than in general language. We can further define Japanese
students' lack of competence in terms of their inexperience communicating in
English-language academic contexts, a lack of communicative competence of a
A primary requirement, then, is to initiate writers
to the best possible strategies and rhetorical tools in English to apply what
they know, and they need to use these tools organizing, writing and rewriting
ideas related to academic contexts like ethical debate, literary summary and
scientific analysis. Indeed, rhetorical norms and organizational structures for
writing about such topics are what Cummins (1981) identifies as strategies for
developing "cognitive/academic language proficiency" (CALP), that is, a
communicative competence to exploit discourse conventions of academic
potential benefits of increasing college writers' level of CALP, I'll focus on
written discourse in science. I find one advantage to scientific discourse is
that it is unburdened with cognitive abstractions like "irony," "paradox," and so
forth. Since basic science writing concerns itself with facts or theories
derived from verifiable sense data, general-education students, science majors
and non-science majors, can enjoy reading and writing about nature and scientific
discoveries without intensive preparation with regard to specialized mental
constructs and abstractions common even at the beginning level of writing about
the arts and social sciences. Students also enjoy writing on science topics as
the experience of doing so underpins their broad understanding of the world.
Their enjoyment is an enormous advantage for engaging them in the rhetoric and
patterns of organization required of fluent writers.
Externalizing the writing process
To summarize, with
regard to the intercultural contrasts between growing up as a NS of Japanese and
acquiring fluency in EFL composition, college writers' most immediate need is a
re-orientation to the preferred rhetorical and invention structures determining
the organizational patterns of academic prose in English. Re-orientation is the
right term here because, as Kaplan (1987) asserts, all rhetorical modes are
possible in any language but each language has its preferences. Japanese,
similar to English, has rhetorical devices for conveying cause and effect,
definition, and the like, but the predominance of particular devices in
determining English-language content and organization requires the Japanese
writer in EFL to become intimate with their various functions in shaping
scientific and other academic arguments.
Japanese college writers in
this sense are serving a "cognitive apprenticeship," a developmental term coined
by Collins et al. (1989) to describe a situation in which students engage in
expert practice in order to become experts themselves. To extend the
apprenticeship metaphor, the instructor assists students by externalizing the
thinking and writing processes that comprise the expert's knowledge. For
Japanese college learners, the know-how of writing can be rendered more explicit
by means of instructors' modeling assignments that call upon processes of
thinking and writing in English and coaching writers with hints, reminders, etc.
The modeling-a-process perspective thus helps establish methodological
priorities, foregrounding learners' development.
Methods for modeling
and coaching vary depending on students' level of development and the
instructor's interests. One sound way to craft a methodology is to consider
current research. Given the strong link between reading and writing skills, for
example, Carrell (1987) has reviewed reading research and finds the following
implications for teaching composition. EFL writers need exposure to "top-level
rhetorical, organizational structures of expository text"; they also need to
learn how to select suitable structures in the process of composing, as well as
"how to signal a text's organization through appropriate linguistic devices"
(54). These findings argue for teaching a rhetoric of invention, particularly
the invention devices that pertain to science: cause and effect, description,
definition and classification. Trimble, identifies these devices as "cohesive
ties" and "rhetorical functions," each essential for organizing scientific
analysis and "capable of being isolated and studied separately" (1985:69).
A case in point
Working with both literature
and science students at Kyushu University, I found Trimble's idea of isolating
rhetorical functions an excellent point of departure for introducing and
reviewing what I would call the basic, generative elements of scientific written
discourse in English. Trimble suggests, for instance, that classification is
simultaneously one of the most essential rhetorical functions in science and one
of the most readily understood. Taking Trimble's cue, I invited students first
to talk over topics that are easily classifiable, sports, hobbies, cars, and the
Then students were asked to read aloud a list of "key
vocabulary" germane to both the science content and the rhetoric featured in the
unit, in this case, classification. To illustrate, we reviewed words like
"category," "to distinguish" "specific/general," etc. in order to address
exercises that explain and expand the concept of classifying. Students also read
aloud "sentence patterns" and examples of "organizing rules" that furnish the
linguistic tools that they would soon employ in their writing. Models of the
patterns were reviewed: "Canines can be classified into groups." "The class
canine is divided into categories." I tried not to introduce too many patterns
or rules, just enough to give students a good sense of the various words and
phrases available. From the apprenticeship perspective, when students are
provided these linguistic tools, invention structures that fluent writers use
Before asking students to write original
paragraphs using the appropriate patterns, I had them work on a set of
preliminary exercises that required independent thinking and some writing, but
simplified the writing task to make the organizing rules more apparent.
Ideally, these preliminary exercises would interrelate and, in aggregate, prepare
young writers for more autonomous and more challenging work. In a unit on
comparisons and contrasts, three preliminary exercises moved from recognition to
partial- and then to full-application of organizational patterns. The first
exercise had students read sample paragraphs and identify words and phrases that
specify comparisons and contrasts; a second exercise required completion of
sentences; the third exercise asked students to read raw data about items of
comparison, a nighthawk and sea gull, for example, and to rewrite the data into a
paragraph, using words and phrases that indicate comparison and contrast.
For purposes of demonstrating the effects of the apprenticeship approach, I'll
present work of three students identified as A, B and C. My purpose is not to
display representative or linguistically exemplary items, but to give hopeful
insights into the feasibility of the approach. I'll start with responses to a
first-day exercise that has nothing to do with science , but is designed to
elicit a first-day, let's-get-to-know-you response. The writing prompt was,
"Write a few things you know about the U.S. or the U.K." A's response: "My
knowledge of US is 'dangerous country.'" B: "Gun". C: "The U.K. is famous for
the origin of Pank Rock." The tentativeness of A, B and C's responses are
illustrative of the reticence of many writers. Their initial responses are more
interesting, though, in light of responses to writing prompts later in the
For example, in a review unit that directs students to
integrate rhetorical norms related to classifying and describing, I furnished the
following prompt. "Write a paragraph in which you classify the general school
subjects you like, subjects you have studied or are now studying in
school...describe one or two courses... Use transitions..." I'll present two
responses. First, A:
Even though we are studying many subjects,
subjects are divided into two groups: practice courses and lecture courses. For
example, physical education is divided into practice course. In the physical
education class we play volleyball, basketball and so on. Experimental physics
is practice course as well. We examine the length of the wave which Hg spectrum
has. On the other hand, history or basic geology are divided into lecture
courses. We learn the things which happened in many years ago, or we learn the
structure of igneus rock, from teacher.
As I indicated,
this is not an exemplary paragraph in terms of linguistic accuracy; the writer
shows some of the infelicity of his first-day response, "My knowledge of US
is..." But I find great promise in the breadth of expression and depth of detail
expressed in this paragraph. The potential for the student to do more is obvious
-- and, here, focused communicative tasks (introduced in Section 2, above) can be
best applied. The student can be encouraged to review and revise his ideas by
means of a few well-placed communication-based questions from the instructor or,
even better, from other students. "How do you examine the Hg wave?" "What other
connection is there between history and geology?" Note that these questions are
directed to the content of the writing. The goal here is to have the instructor
or other students provide feedback to the writer as focused communication in
order to facilitate the writer's making meaning in a second draft. (See Oshita
1990 and Shizuka 1993 for details of the benefits of peer feedback in the
Japanese EFL context.)
Writer B (whose first-day response was "Gun")
comes up with a less sophisticated response than that of A, but here as well the
potential for focused revision could lead her to fuller
I study chemistry, English, Chinese, and physics in
college. I'm taught in English by American teacher. On the other hand Japanese
teacher teach chemistry, physics and Chinese classes. Japanese teachers aren't
talkative very much. But American teacher ----. But both Japanese and American
are good teacher.
Focused tasks for B might encourage her
practice in using more organizational structures of classification and
description. Plausible questions include the following. "Besides the fact that
they are taught by Japanese, can chemistry and physics be grouped in other ways?"
"What types of things do you do in Chinese and English classes?" "Can you
describe what your Japanese and American teachers talk about?" In B's case, from
the perspective of the apprenticeship model, one can see the underlined
rhetorical devices functioning as a technology of invention to help the learner
generate more thinking and more writing.
In another teaching unit
students integrated patterns and ideas comparing and contrasting phenomena. The
writing assignment recycled a topic, a comparison of fugu and humans, that
students worked on earlier. Here is the writing prompt. "Japanese pufferfish or
fugu have a backbone, brain and liver. Human beings have a backbone, brain and
liver. The fugu and humans have immune systems. But there are many differences!
Write a paragraph that compares similarities and contrasts differences between
these two species." And here is C's response.
fugu that they have a backbone, brain, liver, immune systems. But they are many
many differences! The contrast is that fugu live in the sea, but humans live in
the land. And fugu swim, but humans walk, run, jump, etc. Moreover fugu can not
speak language, but human can speak language. Fugu has two eyes and a mouth.
Humans have same. But fugu is covered with scales and has a fin. Humans don't
have that. Moreover, breathing way is what Fugu is the gill and humans are the
lungs. But the interesting same point is that when the angry makes a swelling
C's writing is adventurous, especially in the latter
half where he attempts to describe differences in how humans and fugu breathe and
how each experiences swelling in the cheeks when "angry." This student text will
benefit from some help from the instructor in an encouraging, "coaching" mode.
First, the instructor can provide a few hints about unfulfilled patterns and
missing words -- the missing "in" for the phrase "in that" of the first line, for
instance. More important, the teacher can help the student discover well-phrased
equivalents of the highly original ideas contained in the last two sentences.
The teacher might respond to the last sentence in the form of a question that
echoes the idea but employs correct constructions: "Oh, you mean when they get
angry they both have swollen cheeks?" Still not perfect, but a lot clearer, here
is a second version of C's last three sentences.
covered with scales and has a fin and a gill for breathing. Humans don't have
these things but have lungs for breathing. But the interesting similarity is
that when they get angry they make swolling cheeks!
I am suggesting that it can be profitable for
general-education students to practice writing in academic subject areas, such as
science, in units of one, two or more paragraphs. Intercultural contexts,
especially rhetorical contrasts, need to guide methods both for stimulating the
production of student writing and for its assessment. In addition, we might
consider methods that feature communication-based focused revision tasks,
including revision tasks that could involve peer discussion and feedback.
Finally, regardless of method, it seems advisable to conceive of the writer's
role as that of an apprentice acquiring expertise. A corollary would be that the
teacher's function is to externalize processes which will enable the writer to
compose meaningfully and, in time, masterfully.
Earlier drafts of this paper were read at JALT conferences in Kyoto and
Tokyo, November and December 1994. I thank my students and Professor Fumio
Miyahara of Kyushu University for their help and encouragement.
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