Teaching composition is not just about technicalities

Setiono Sugiharto ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 05/24/2008 12:23 PM  |  Opinion

Few people would dispute the fact that teaching composition requires a great deal of prowess. It is not merely a matter of helping student writers produce “correct” writing, but also a matter of translating this writing into intelligible reading materials.

The inherent complexity of this activity poses a great challenge for teachers of writing to make their teaching effort successful.

Many teachers of writing complain that their efforts to help their students compose in English rarely produce fruitful results in making the student writers skillful in writing. It seems that most of the teachers are too pragmatic in their teaching instruction.

They have no coherent perspective, no clear philosophical outlook and no model-theories, upon which teaching instruction must be based. They seem unwilling to let ideology shape their pedagogy.

Instead, they rely primarily on their experience in dealing with composition in the classroom. At best, they adhere to what is prescribed in composition textbooks (written by English native speakers), which unfortunately offer very practical, yet simplistic views of writing and don’t acknowledge the complexity of the composing process.

In addition, the books present a mechanical view of writing and don’t show students how messy, discursive and painstaking composing can be, especially for non-native speakers, thus repudiating the possibility of teaching students how composed products come into being.

The pragmatic attitude toward the teaching of composition presupposes a wild assumption about the nature of composing. Wild assumptions can lead someone to think simplistically and even fallaciously.

We often naively assume, for example, that composing is an act of mastering graphic conventions, sorting accurate dictions to fit the desired meaning, manipulating sentence patterns to fit the desired style and expressing as well as elaborating ideas. The resulting perception then is that good writing is tantamount to “correct” writing at the superficial level.

However well-founded this assumption may sound, it by no means captures the real essence of true communicative transaction manifested via written medium. Moreover, it provides us with a very limited and simplistic view of what the act of composing really embodies.

Questions related to ideology — What are the students’ purposes in learning to write in a new language? What type of writing should we teach to the students? To whom is their writing addressed? In what context are they writing? How can the student writing be judged, given the students’ diverse cultural backgrounds? Is there a clear connection between good writing and good reasoning? — are hardly thought of by teachers who vehemently adhere to pragmatism.

Such questions however do reflect the importance of understanding philosophical outlooks that are of value in shaping composition pedagogy in classrooms.

The following are some of fundamental philosophical perspectives that can hopefully give a coherent view of what the nature of writing is and help illuminate, though not totally resolve, some problems teachers face in teaching composition.

Further, these perspectives are of paramount importance since the conception of what writing is hinges, to a large extent, upon teachers’ attitude toward the way they treat their student writing.

First, writing is a linguistic phenomenon (formalist view). Those espousing this view (in fact this is a widely held view among our composition teachers today) might conceive writing as simply an artifact that is shaped and produced by virtue of the writers’ linguistic maturity. They tend to attend primarily to linguistic components in judging their student writing over the other salient components.

That is, writing is more likely to be treated in terms of the product of a writer who has the capability and skill to use standard syntax, spelling, diction, graphic convention. In essence, good writing is judged in terms of linguistic correctness.

Second, writing is a cognitive phenomenon (cognitivist view). Before coming into a product, writing is best seen as a process or undertaking that involves a complex cognitive processing of the writers’ mind. This implies that writing is a craft before it becomes an artifact. It is this notion that has been least understood by composition teachers.

Writers undergo numerous mental processes in their attempt to produce a piece of writing. They plan what to write by generating and organizing ideas, and setting goals, translate these ideas into verbal forms, decide what strategies should be employed to fulfill the needs of the audience, and review what has been written by rereading, editing and revising. In this perspective, writing is deemed as an ongoing process of discovering meaning.

Third, writing is socially constructed (social constructivist view). Writing doesn’t take place in a social vacuum. It is an act of communicating to different audiences in different settings, implying that writing cannot be validly abstracted from its setting since it is inextricably bound to the social context or discourse community in which it takes place.

The writer is chief editor of the Indonesian Journal of English Language Teaching and has taught English composition for 10 years at Atma Jaya University, Jakarta. He can be reached at setiono.sugiharto@atmajaya.ac.id

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One thought on “Teaching composition is not just about technicalities

  1. “They have no coherent perspective, no clear philosophical outlook “. Students must understand principles. Teachers have to know students think. See “Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better” on amazon.

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