Thoughts, Theories, and Things to Consider: A Philosophy of Teaching and Learning Writing


Let all the flowers bloom . . . You never know which ones will catch the eye to become tomorrow’s realities.
  Lantolf, “SLA theory building: Letting all the flowers bloom!” Language Learning, 1996, p. 739



Writing is no easy endeavor, and constructing a philosophy behind teaching writing is even a more difficult undertaking. As for my teaching philosophy in general, students and their learning find themselves in the forefront. Regarding writing specifically, my philosophy is centered on the writer and the writing he produces, which is both the final product of and means to achieve their learning. Moreover, my philosophy includes many of the current concepts of teaching second language writing (Hyland, 2003), and possibly most importantly, the concept of safety. I would like to describe my teaching philosophy starting with the most basic principles, and those most central to my beliefs – safety and process. Then I will discuss how some of the current guiding conceptualizations of teaching writing play into my philosophy. And finally, I will consider the directing notion of context. For a visual representation of my teaching writing philosophy you can refer to figure 1.0 below.


Safety

When asked in an interview about how a teacher teaches students to provide the interesting writing all teachers are looking for, writing theorist and practitioner, Peter Elbow (Bush, 2002) responded, “…safety.” Safety is paramount in my classroom. It reduces the fears and anxieties of writers and allows them to experiment, explore, and take risks with language – all traits conducive to learning. Creating a safe learning environment further helps writers find their voice and improve the art of their creations – the less tangibles (and teachables) in writing. Most importantly, a safe classroom offers an environment where writers can value their mistakes – the building blocks of learning – so that they can improve their craft. Safety also forms the foundation of community in the classroom, creating a built-in audience, as well as a reflection of a real audience outside the classroom, for the writers where they do not simply write for the teacher and for a grade, but for each other.

Process

Although “it is no exaggeration to suggest that the number of process approaches might equal the number of classroom writing teachers” (Ferris & Hedgcock, 2005, p. 6), writing as a process at a very practical level is certainly crucial to my philosophy of teaching writing. At the very least, major writing assignments should include some type of prewriting, writing, and revising – after receiving feedback from either/both teacher and peers in the form of writing, conferencing, or otherwise. Another important aspect of my view of the writing process includes promoting and teaching strategies so that writers can heuristically create their own writing processes that contribute to their autonomy as writers.

Guiding Concepts of L2 Writing

Over the past few decades, a number of theories have come about that “are more accurately seen as complementary and overlapping perspectives, representing potentially compatible means of understanding the complex reality of writing. It is helpful therefore to understand these theories as curriculum options, each organizing L2 writing teaching around a different focus” (Hyland, 2003, p. 2). These foci can be summarized into six principle orientations: expressivist, process, genre, content, structure, and function (Hyland, 2003, p. 23). An explanation is needed to illustrate how these orientations complement each other and overlap in my philosophy of teaching writing. First, the expressivist orientation can be described as teaching that encourages writers “to find their own voices to produce writing that is fresh and spontaneous…organized around students’ personal experiences and opinions” (Hyland, 2003, p. 8). The expressivist orientation is key to my beliefs in that the writer’s thoughts, ideas, and opinions are always present in writing – no matter the situation – if not only tacitly. Second is the process orientation, which plays such a critical role that it has its own section (above) and is the central apparatus that gives shape to all other orientations in my philosophy. The third principle orientation is genre, which is characterized by “writing instruction that looks beyond subject content, composing processes and textual forms to see writing as attempts to communicate with readers… concerned with teaching learners how to use language patterns to accomplish coherent, purposeful prose” (Hyland, 2003, p. 18). Genre is definitely weighted heavily in my teaching writing philosophy, mainly due to my propensity towards academic writing and the teachability of generic rhetorical structures and discursive patterns of specific genres. It also echoes my conviction that language and writing are very much a social construct used to communicate and interact within communities. However, it’s worth noting that I consider these standard structures and patterns to be flexible enough to allow for deviations as a result of writer’s background, culture, language, or education – i.e. “a dynamic model of L2 writing” (Matsuda, 1997). Forth, ESL/EFL writing teaching can be conceptualized “in reference to substantive content: what students are required to write about” (Hyland, 2003, p. 14). Content is another heavy hitter in my teaching philosophy also because of my academic writing inclination. After all, writing in school, outside the writing classroom, often requires some type of topic or theme, especially when considering the writing across the curriculum movement and English for specific purposes. The fifth, structure, involves the sentence level syntactic units often called grammar. And the sixth, function, deals with similar structural units, but on the paragraph and essay level. Although form and function are not emphasized as strongly as the other perspectives in my synthesis, I do not intend to take away from their importance in teaching writing. Rather, I most often see form and function as a product of the content and situation of the writing. Furthermore, in learning writing, focusing superordinately on content and genre draws attention to the appropriateness of forms and functions in a more meaningful way.

Context

Because of its overarching influence on any orientation of teaching writing and its effect on my dynamic approach to teaching, context is an pertinent place to end. Considering English as a global language and the ever growing amount of English learners in ESL and EFL settings (Crystal, 1997), contexts for language learning are extraordinarily numerous. Kumaravadivelu (2003) aptly describes the issue of context claiming that “any language pedagogy, to be relevant, must be sensitive to a particular group of teachers teaching a particular group of learners pursuing a particular set of goals within a particular institutional context embedded in a particular sociocultural milieu” (p.34). Canagarajah (2002) has gone even further to envision a critical perspective of an L2 writing context “that expands beyond the writer/reader and the community to historical and social conditions” and considers “how writing is implicated in social conflict, material inequality, cultural difference, and power relationships” (p.7). If the particularities of teachers, learners, goals, institutions, and cultures don’t problematize the creation of a working philosophy of teaching writing, then certainly adding the particularities of history, conflict, inequality, and power will.

This eclectic philosophy may very well be “self-defeating not because there is only one direction in which it is useful to move, but because there are so many: it is necessary to choose” (Geertz, 1973, p. 5). However, context lends the impetus to direct teachers to ideal and necessary choices. For writing teachers, our pedagogical options are manifold; our burden – choice – is hefty. Nevertheless, well-grounded research has produced sound principles on which we can base our decisions, and the context in which we teach channels those decisions into realization.








REFERENCES


  • Bush, J. (2002). A free conversation with Peter Elbow. http://www.etext.org/Zines/Critique/writing/elbow.html. Retrieved from 
  • Canagarajah, A. S. (2002). Critical academic writing and multilingual students. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press. 
  • Crystal, D. (1997). English as a global language (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Ferris, D. R., & Hedgcock, J. S. (2005). Teaching ESL composition: Purpose, process, and practice (2nd ed.). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers. 
  • Geertz, C. (1973). The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays by Clifford Geertz. New York, NY: Basic Book, Inc. 
  • Hyland, K. (2003). Second language writing. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Kumaravadivelu, B. (2003). Beyond methods: macrostrategies for language teaching. Yale University Press. 
  • Matsuda, P. K. (1997). Contrastive rhetoric in context: A dynamic model of L2 writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 6(1), 45-60.