Journal of Linguistics and Language Teaching
Volume 7 (2016) Issue 2
Text Composition in a Foreign Language:
The Case of Writing in Spanish
at the University Level in the USA
Marcela Ruiz-Funes (Statesboro, GA, USA)
This article presents an overview of the role and value of writing in Spanish in the foreign language curriculum at the university level in the USA. It examines key notions affecting the approaches used to teaching writing, including the belief that writing competence is transferred from L1 to L2, the concepts of writing as a means to learn the language, to learn content, and to develop composing and critical thinking skills, and the effect of tasks and their characteristics in foreign language writing, among others. In addition, it explores the purposes - social, academic, and professional - for students to write in Spanish across the different levels of language instruction from elementary to graduate-level courses. Suggestions to foster the development of writing abilities at all levels are provided.
Key words: Foreign language curriculum, writing competence, teaching writing, all-level courses, Spanish as the L2
Este artículo presenta una visión general del papel y del valor de la escritura en español en el plan de estudios de lenguas extranjeras a nivel universitario en los EE.UU. Se examinan nociones claves que afectan los enfoques utilizados para la enseñanza de la escritura entre las cuales se incluyen la creencia de que la competencia de escritura se transfiere de la primera a la segunda lengua, los conceptos de la escritura como un medio para aprender el idioma, para aprender el contenido y para desarrollar la composición y habilidades de pensamiento crítico, y el efecto de las tareas y sus características en la escritura en un segundo idioma, entre otros. Además, se exploran las razones - sociales, académicas y profesionales - por las cuales los estudiantes escriben en español a través de diferentes niveles de la enseñanza del idioma desde cursos básicos a nivel posgrado. Se proporcionan sugerencias para fomentar el desarrollo de las habilidades de escritura en todos los niveles.
Palabras.claves: Plan de estudios de lenguas extranjeras, competencia de escritura, enseñanza de la escritura, todos niveles de enseñanza, español como segunda lengua
1 Introduction: Foreign Language Education in the USA
In order to shed light on the role and value of writing in Spanish (or any other foreign language) in the foreign-language (FL) curriculum at the university level in the US, we should first take a look at the role of FL education in this country. In 2007, the Modern Language Association (MLA) presented a report on the challenges and opportunities facing language study in higher education in the US and made recommendations to address the crisis on the teaching of foreign languages, a crisis that came to be called “the nation’s language deficit”. Along these lines, questions were raised about the views about language and its functions reflected in the approaches to the study of language:
At one end, language is considered to be principally instrumental, a skill to use for communicating thought and information. At the opposite end, language is understood as an essential element of a human being’s thought processes, perceptions, and self-expressions; and as such it is considered to be at the core of translingual and transcultural competence. (MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages 2007)
As indicated in the report, FL curricula typically reflect either the instrumentalist or the constitutive view of language in which “a two- or three-year language sequence feeds into a set of core courses primarily focused on canonical literature” (MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages 2007). Traditionally in most FL programs, the first two years of language instruction are devoted to the functional practice of grammar and vocabulary within semi-contextualized themes and as such, the content of the course becomes grammar and lexical items themselves. Cultural and / or literary materials take a secondary or, in some case, even an inferior role. The third year of language instruction usually serves as a bridge between the lower- and upper-division courses and provides a variety of courses in language, culture and literature, and linguistics. The fourth and last year of language study focuses primarily on culture and literature (in some cases with a few courses in linguistics) with the assumption that learners have learned all they need to know about grammar and vocabulary and, as a result, language development is not emphasized in those courses. In the end, students' performance after four years of language study leads to some degree of dissatisfaction that, in turn, pushes for curriculum revisions in an almost endless cycle.
Work is under way and some significant progress has been attained to replace this “two-tiered language-literature structure” with a better articulated curriculum in which language, culture, literature, and linguistics are taught as a continuum with a methodology that develops students’ competencies in reading, writing, and oral / aural expression from early on in the course sequence. In addition, effort is being made to build this articulation with K–12 systems. With the impact of the proficiency movement from the late 1980’s and early 1990’s and with the publications of the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines (latest version 2012) and the World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages (latest version 2014) (http://www.actfl.org/publications/all/world-readiness-standards-learning-languages; 08-12-2016), an important shift has been made from an emphasis on the teaching of grammar and vocabulary to one on communication with the vision that “the United States must educate students [of all ages, K-16; MRF] who are linguistically and culturally equipped to communicate successfully in a pluralistic American society and abroad” (World-Readiness Standards for Learning Languages, latest version 2014; 08-12-2016). This shift to focus on communication has been well embraced by the FL profession. However, it has, perhaps inadvertently, led to a marked emphasis on oral / aural skills rather than on the development of writing abilities especially at lower levels of course instruction. This focus on oral production has placed writing in a weaker, almost neglected, position - not only in the FL curriculum but also in terms of theoretical tenets and empirical evidence that are needed to help explore, for example, FL writing and second-language-acquisition (SLA) interfaces (Ortega 2012, Byrnes & Manchón 2014, Ruiz Funes, 2015).
2 Writing in the FL Curriculum
Despite the fact that there is consensus that “teaching foreign language writing is essential at all levels of language study” (Scott 1996: 141), such practice is not always put into effect. In most Spanish programs at the college level in the US, in the basic language courses (elementary and some intermediate level courses), the emphasis is still on the development of oral / aural skills, with reading and writing frequently serving as a support role to oral communication or even to an aadded practice of grammar and vocabulary. The type of writing instruction that would help learners to advance to higher levels of proficiency in writing as they progress further into their language study is often delayed until students reach upper-division grammar, literature, and civilization courses. Not surprisingly, instructors of advanced courses frequently find that the quality of students’ writing is not up to standards and complain that students are not well prepared to perform the types of writing tasks required in their courses.
With the framework of authentic communication as the main purpose for FL instruction, the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines for Writing (2012) provide a structure to help orient the direction of the role of writing in the FL curriculum in higher education in the US. In general terms, these guidelines describe five major levels of proficiency: Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior, and Distinguished that are divided into High, Mid, and Low sublevels and describe the tasks that writers can perform at each level along with the content, context, accuracy, and discourse types associated with the writing tasks at each level.
Typical learners of Spanish as a foreign language who complete a major in Spanish in four years at American universities would move from Novice or Intermediate when entering the program to a desirable Advanced level upon graduation. At the Intermediate level, writers are characterized by:
the ability to meet practical writing needs, such as simple messages and letters, requests for information, and notes. In addition, they can ask and respond to simple questions in writing. These writers can create with the language and communicate simple facts and ideas in a series of loosely connected sentences on topics of personal interest and social needs. They write primarily in present time. (ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines – Writing 2012: 13)
At the Advanced level, writers are able to meet basic work and / or academic writing needs and are characterized by:
the ability to write routine informal and some formal correspondence, as well as narratives, descriptions, and summaries of a factual nature. They can narrate and describe in the major time frames of past, present, and future, using paraphrasing and elaboration to provide clarity. Advanced-level writers produce connected discourse of paragraph length and structure. (ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines–Writing 2012: 12)
Even though in most Spanish undergraduate programs, the advanced level is the targeted level for graduating seniors, writing instruction in upper-division courses pushes learners into tasks typical of the Superior level:
Writers at the Superior level are able to produce most kinds of formal and informal correspondence, in-depth summaries, reports, and research papers on a variety of social, academic, and professional topics. Their treatment of these issues moves beyond the concrete to the abstract. Writers at the Superior level demonstrate the ability to explain complex matters, and to present and support opinions by developing cogent arguments and hypotheses. (ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines–Writing 2012: 11)
To progress from one level to the next, a significantly increasing amount of time of target-language study is required as it is represented by ACTFL's inverted pyramid:
Fig. 1 ACTFL Proficiency Levels (ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012)
As the pyramid depicts, more instructional time in the FL is needed for a student to move from Advanced to Superior than it is required to progress from a Novice level to an Intermediate level of proficiency. This notion of incremental instructional time necessary to progress from one level of proficiency to the next helps to frame realistic expectations and goals for FL curriculum design. Moreover, it serves as a guiding reference for the development of writing skills as it is further discussed in the next section.
3 Key Notions Affecting the Approaches used to Teaching Writing
In consideration of the amount of time and effort needed for typical FL (Spanish, in this case) majors to achieve a level of proficiency in writing that would allow them to produce written texts of connected discourse of paragraph length and structure (Advanced), it is worth highlighting some key notions / perceptions that affect the approaches used to teaching FL writing.
2.1 Reconsidering FL Writing
In Scott’s (1996) influential book Rethinking Foreign Language Writing, a number of remarks (see bulleted sections in italics below) were made almost two decades ago about the teaching of writing in the FL curriculum that are still valid today and are worth looking into with renewed consideration:
The transfer of writing skills and rhetorical features from L1 to L2 seems at first a proven assertion mainly with regards to the basic organization features of a written text or in relation to content generation strategies. However, the issue of transfer is indeed highly complex. As Rinnert & Kobayashi (2009) indicated, the transfer of writing competence across languages involves multiple factors including, but not limited to,
L1 and L2 writing instruction / experience; disciplinary knowledge / training; individual factors (perceptions, preferences, values and language proficiency); and social context, including audience, genre, task, and topic. (Rinnert & Kobayashi 2009: 41-43).
In addition, the authors emphasize the notion of writing as dynamic in nature, affected by "changing social conditions and individual writers' perceptions" (Rinnert & Kobayashi 2009: 44).1
When writing in a FL, learners have to deal with the challenges of their limited control of the L2 to successfully express their intended meanings in a coherent manner. As such, a focus on grammar and vocabulary helps students develop the basic foundation to express themselves in the FL. However, it should not be assumed that such focus on linguistic features will automatically lead to FL writing competence. In fact, research has shown that
grammar study [alone] does not improve the clarity or craftsmanship of student writing, nor does focusing on grammar correction in writing samples. (Greenia 1992: 33).
Instead, Greenia (1992) suggests that by guiding students on elements of good style, on conventions of format for the genres practiced, and by monitoring them in the writing process, learners will gain mastery of writing skills.
A number of influential L1 cognitive writing models, such as those proposed by Flower & Hayes (1980, 1981), Bereiter & Scardamalia (1987), and Kellogg (1996), have had a significant impact in teaching FL writing as a process. These models emphasized the importance of long-term and working-memory capacity in composing. For example, Kellogg (1996) stated that writers orchestrate the processes of formulation, execution, and monitoring during the act of composing together with the working-memory functions. During formulation, writers resort to working-memory functions, retrieving ideas and knowledge to build a new text (planning) and linguistic elements, including lexical, syntactic, and rhetorical items to express relationships in the new text (translating). These processes operate simultaneously and, depending on the writer’s level of expertise, affect the capacity of his or her working memory. Skilled writers would require less effort to manage the attentional resources that activate the linguistic information necessary for writing performance (Kellogg 2001), whereas less skillful writers would need a more demanding cognitive effort to compose (Abu-Rabia 2003, McCutchen 1996). Within the framework of FL writing, research has shown that the notion of orchestration of these processes in a recursive manner is affected by proficiency:
increased command of the L2 brings with it the possibility of sharing attentional resources among various composing processes, thus increasing the likelihood of their cyclical interplay as propounded in classical cognitive accounts of writing. (Manchón et al. 2009: 115-116).
2.2 Learning to Write and Writing to Learn in a Foreign Language
A second set of notions related to the role of writing in Spanish (or any other FL) at the college level comes from the work done by L2 / FL writing scholars, such as Manchón or Cummings, among others. In Learning-to-Write and Writing-to-Learn in an Additional Language, edited by Manchón (2011), three dimensions of L2 / FL writing are presented:
These three perspectives (LW, WLC, and WLL) derived from different theoretical frameworks, have led to different pedagogical approaches. The learning-to-write (LW) and writing-to-learn-content (WLC) dimensions have resulted in process-oriented and genre procedures to the teaching of FL writing, whereas the writing-to-learn-language (WLL) dimension, framed in cognitive and sociocultural theories of SLA, is linked to pedagogical procedures such as TBLT (task-based language teaching). In spite of their distinctive features, the three dimensions are of value and they need to be considered together for the development of a comprehensive theory of L2 / FL writing (Manchón 2011). This is such because L2 / FL writing should be seen "as a multicompetent (i.e., biliterate and bilingual) act that is situated and understood in its social context" (Ortega & Carson 2010: 52).
2.3 The Role of Tasks in FL Writing
A third area to be considered is the role of tasks and their characteristics in FL writing (Byrnes & Manchón 2014, Ruiz-Funes 2014, 2015). As Hyland (2003) stated
[writing] tasks are fundamental in learning to write and represent a central aspect of the teacher’s planning and delivery of a writing course. (Hyland 2003: 112).
Tasks are important because they affect students’ learning experiences, setting in motion a series of cognitive mental processes that writers orchestrate during all the steps of composing, from activation of prior knowledge, task representation, formulation of ideas, to planning, execution, and monitoring (Dvorak 1986, Flower & Hayes 1981, Flower et al. 1990, Kellogg 1996). Tasks are meaningful, have a goal to achieve, an outcome to be evaluated, and are of real-world value (Skehan, 1998) as they refer to an “activity with meaning as its main focus and which is accomplished using language” (Hyland 2003:. 112). As such, writing tasks connect the writer with his or her writing environment and the intended audience, thus bringing the value of real-world application and the necessity of attention to meaning, content, and linguistic elements to the forefront (Horowitz 1986a, 1986b, Long 1992, Swales 1986).
Moreover, the notion of task has been defined from various approaches and theoretical perspectives. From a socio-cultural perspective, a key concept is the contribution of the learner in defining or “representing” the task assigned. A claim of the socio-cultural theory is that “participants always co-construct the activity they engage in, in accordance with their own socio-history and locally determined goals” (Ellis 2009: 121). This implies that the execution of a task is linked directly to the interaction between learner and task (Ellis 2009) more than the pure properties of the task itself. In order to complete a task, learners have to “interpret” it, engaging in mental processes to help them establish the objectives of the task and develop a plan to perform it.
From a psycholinguistics perspective, a task engages students in certain types of mental processing that leads them to effective language use and acquisition (Ellis 2009). Two of the most widely influential models that address how the cognitive demands of tasks affect L2 learning are those proposed by Peter Skehan (1998, 2001, 2003) and Peter Robinson (2001a, 2001b, 2003, 2005, 2007). Their frameworks have been used to classify and manipulate tasks during L2 instruction (Robinson 2011) but, more importantly, to investigate the effect of task characteristics on language acquisition and development.
3 The Purpose for Writing in Spanish: The Students’ Perspective
Closely related to these notions about teaching FL writing in American colleges and universities is the value that learners see for writing in Spanish (in this case), particularly, their own perspective on the purposes for writing in Spanish across the language curriculum.
One hundred and seventy-one (171) learners from a range of elementary to graduate-level Spanish courses from a large southeastern university in the USA were asked to complete the statement: Writing in Spanish is important to me because… The students completed this statement in their respective classes and were given about 20 minutes for this task. Table 1 below shows the number of students who participated per course level. The 1000 level includes the first-year Spanish courses offered at the university, also referred to as elementary Spanish courses, the 2000 level referring to the second- year Spanish courses (Intermediate courses). In general, the 1000- and 2000-level courses are a core requirement in most academic disciplines. The 3000- and 4000-level courses in Spanish are taken by undergraduate Spanish majors and / or minors as upper-division courses in their respective programs of study. The 6000 / 7000-level courses are taken by graduate students enrolled in the Spanish Master programs (MA and MAT) offered at this institution:
Table 1: Number of students per course level
From the students' responses, clear patterns for the value / purpose of writing in Spanish surfaced. These patterns were organized into the following categories based on 256 incidents identified across all course levels:
Figure 2 below shows the number of incidents identified in each category. As indicated in this figure, the major categories for purposes for writing in Spanish for the students polled included: focus on grammar and vocabulary (66 incidents; 26%), writing for job / career opportunities (35 incidents; 14%), the development of oral communication skills (34 incidents; 13%), and communication with native speakers (31 incidents; 12%). Writing as a means to help reading skills (18 incidents; 7%), comprehension of the language (17 incidents; 6.6%), and as a means to express thoughts and ideas (17 incidents; 6.6%) were mentioned less frequently. On the lowest end with the least number of incidents were writing as a means to learn content (2 incidents; 0.8%) and writing as academically challenging (2 incidents; 0.8%).
Fig. 2. Purposes for Writing in Spanish: The Students' Perspective
As shown above the major categories for purposes for writing in Spanish for the students polled include: to help focus on grammar and vocabulary (66 incidents), to use in job / career opportunities (35), to help develop oral communication (34), and to help communicate with native speakers (31). Writing as a means to help reading skills, comprehension of the language, and as a means to express thoughts and ideas were mentioned less frequently, with 18-17 mentions each. On the lowest end with the least number of incidents are: writing as a means to learn content (2) and writing as academically challenging (2).
Within each course level, the following categories were the top highest:
Table 2. Purposes for Writing in Spanish per Course Level: The Students' Perspective
As Table 2 indicates, writing as a means to express thoughts or ideas in an organized manner, taking into account purpose and audience, became salient with students in the graduate-level courses only (6000 / 7000 level). The purpose for writing in Spanish as a means to enhance the students’ job or career opportunities and to communicate with native speakers was more present in the lower-level courses than in the upper-level ones. An emphasis on the value of writing to help focus on grammar and vocabulary was evident in all courses across levels. And writing as a support skill for the development of oral communication in Spanish was present in most levels as well, except for the 6000/7000-level courses.
Two revealing patterns can be deduced from these results:
These findings are a reflection of the role of writing in typical Spanish programs (or most FL programs in general) at the university level in the USA. Oftentimes, writing is seen as a tool to further practice or reinforce linguistic elements, leaving behind the value of writing as a more complex skill that helps learners create and organize their own thoughts and ideas. If we want to bring the value of writing to a more comprehensive level, some fundamental changes need to happen across the curriculum as it is discussed in the next section.
4 Fostering the Development of FL Writing Abilities
To seek a balance among the three dimensions of writing (Manchón 2011) learning-to-write, writing-to-learn content and writing-to-learn language, and to help students progress from one level of writing proficiency to the next with ease and efficacy, some fundamental changes still need to occur in Spanish (or FL) programs. In her book chapter, “Conceptualizing FL writing development in collegiate settings: A genre-based systemic functional approach”, Byrnes (2012: 190-218) highlights the value of a genre-based framework founded on systemic functional linguistics to theorize, foster, trace, and assess FL writing development. Her work has been influential in FL curricular reforms at the college level in the US and provides the framework to pursuit the development of advanced multiliterate writing abilities in FL learners. Following Byrnes’ genre-based, functional approach, Colombi et al.’s Palabra abierta (2007) offers a theme-driven and process-based composition textbook of Spanish, designed to develop advanced students' critical-thinking skills and academic writing proficiency. She presents a functional grammar approach for students to learn about a variety of genres, particularly the academic essay. This type of textbook is used in upper-division courses. Compositions textbooks or instructional units with this same theoretical framework need to be developed for lower-level courses to offer the articulation needed for student to progress in the development of writing abilities in Spanish.
Moreover, to help bridge this gap between lower- and upper-level Spanish (or FL) courses, the following suggestions based on Scott’s (1996) work are worth emphasizing: (Scott 1996: 154-159)
As stated earlier, “teaching foreign language writing is essential at all levels of language study” (Scott 1996: 141), and we, FL instructors, need to seek the means to foster the development of writing abilities that will help students not only to enhance their linguistic skills but that will also lead them to express their thoughts in the target language in a coherent, organized, and critical manner.
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Marcela Ruiz-Funes, PhD
Department of Foreign Languages
Georgia Southern University
1For a full read of their work, please see Rinnert & Kobayashi (2009): Situated Writing Practices in Foreign Language Settings.