Writing on Academic Topics: Externalizing Rhetorical Processes in an Intercultural Context

Jack Kimball

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 meaning
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).

The 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.
NS: Sorry?
NNS: He 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 writing
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 experience.
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
There are 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 ignored" (115).

Rhetorical contrasts
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: self-interest
Tone: animated

Asian Style: ambiguous
Motive: social harmony
Tone: unexcited

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. (45)
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 tools
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 particular sort.
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 disciplines.

Scientific discourse
To illustrate 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 like.
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 become "externalized."
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 semester.
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 practice:
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.
Humans resemble 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 cleek!!

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.
Fugu are 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.

Kimball's Research Index


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