First homework for Teaching Writing

1. Read a book (200+ pages) and write an essay focusing on one or two chapters that were somehow interesting or something

2. Answer a couple of questions based on reading an 11 page chapter

Waaaayyy less work than my brain class. Except we also have to write in this online journal thing every day of the week (except weekends). That’s gonna be a chore, but at least we’re only expected to write a paragraph or so, and it’s very casual. No academic nonsense with all that citing of references and whatnot.


Here’s #1:

The Subtle Significance of Hedging

In my short and not-quite-yet illustrious career as an educator, I have taught precisely one class on academic writing. It was, to put it mildly, challenging. The textbook was designed in the most intimidating way imaginable with long, complex passages interspersed with word charts and sidebars and bullet lists and all manner of distractions that culminated in a universal sense of fear and loathing on the part of my students each time the class bell rang. Unlike most other classes at the English academy where I teach, this particular class was not tied to a rigid schedule where X number of pages were required to be completed on X date. Hence, I seized this opportunity to toss most of the book aside and attempt to teach academic writing in a way that I thought would be more effective and, indeed, more palatable to the seven young writers seated before me. Suffice it to say that, while I (and the entire class) was relieved at the removal of the book’s unforgiving structure, I quickly found out how difficult it is to teach others to write within the stiffly starched confines of EAP. I struggled to produce lessons that were clear and focused and I also found great difficulty with teaching my students how to use the proper tone that academic writing demands. Reid and her counterparts touch on the importance and subtlety of tone in several chapters of Writing Myths (2008), but Ken Hyland’s chapter on the myth of making academic writing “assertive and certain” (p. 70) struck a chord with me in particular. The notion of hedging rarely ever crosses the fringes of my mind as a writer and, now that I see its versatility of purpose and how directly it can affect the tone of a written passage, I feel that I have gained something useful that I can research further and pass on to future academic writing classes.

Given that one of the first hedging words most L2 learners encounter is “maybe,” it is easy to understand how overuse of such a word could seem counterproductive to the student writer and possibly to the student’s teacher as well. Certainly, a persuasive essay that is filled with phrases such as “maybe the death penalty should be abolished” or “maybe people should exercise more” could be viewed as weak and lacking conviction. If one intention of hedging is indeed “to express an opinion without demanding that our listeners accept the opinion as a fact” (Reid, 2008, p. 71), and if, for example, the goal of the writing is to persuade, the student writer’s challenge then becomes finding the language required to express the proper degree of strength in the hedge. Keith S. Folse, in his study of vocabulary use and acquisition, quoted a student as saying that he “(couldn’t) say these things in a better way” (p. 2). The context of this quote had nothing to do with the degrees of assertiveness in writing, but the idea is transferrable to the issue of word choice and its effect on how “strong” language is perceived to be. One could argue that persuasive writing has an obligation to be worded with certainty but, as Hyland notes, overly certain and aggressive language is “likely to be counter-productive if we are trying to persuade people to agree with us” (p. 71). It is also worth remembering that, according to Holmes (as cited in Reid, 2008, p. 79), there are over 350 ways to hedge one’s certainty of language. With such a wide variety of words and degrees of strength to choose from, the use of the all-too-common “maybe” should be curtailed by teaching students new and more precise ways of expressing their views.

Hyland’s second reason for hedging took me by surprise, although it shouldn’t have. His assertion that “students need to protect themselves against overstatement and overconfidence” (Reid, 2008, p. 77) certainly rings true, and it is something that I now realize I’ve been doing in various forms since middle school. Though my middle school hedging wasn’t always quite sophisticated enough to “(replace) a personal subject with a dummy ‘it’ or an inanimate source” (Hyland & Tse, 2005, as cited on p. 77), it is a skill that I must have cultivated throughout high school and in my first years of university. In the process of developing as a writer, I suspect there have been many instances where my purpose in hedging has been to shield myself from making direct claims that I was incapable of defending, and my new awareness of this very specific purpose will certainly benefit my future writing students.

Perhaps the most enlightening part of Hyland’s chapter on assertive writing was his assessment of why L2 writers find so much difficulty in using hedges. It is undoubtedly useful to know that Korean students have a tendency to “overhedge and exhibit… hesitancy and uncertainty” (Hinkel, 2000, as cited in Reid, 2008, p. 78). The aforementioned array of 350-plus hedging devices is another obstacle whose broad scope I was previously unaware of. However, one factor that is also new yet not at all surprising is “the poor advice (students) get from their English language textbooks, which tend to either ignore or misrepresent (the) importance” of hedges (p. 79). As a teacher it seems to be a frustrating inevitability that nearly all textbooks are bound to be deficient in one way or another. I realize that future students may have completely different challenges to overcome, but Hyland’s insights into the reasons for L2 writers’ difficulties in using hedges could be a good starting point.

Despite establishing the great overall utility of hedging devices, Hyland concedes that hedging “tends to have negative connotations in written academic language” (Reid, 2008, p. 72) and I suspect that negativity stems from the fact that the very idea of hedging in any sense is generally seen as a form of insurance against one’s own shortcomings. Still, he very astutely points to research that shows what many would consider a high frequency with which academic and native speakers use this device, with that rate being approximately one word out of every 50 (p. 74). This led me to wonder just how frequently I use hedging in my own writing; considering that hedging as a writing technique has scarcely crossed my mind in all these years, I truly had no idea how frequently I was using it. After evaluating the hedging language used in three different papers I wrote while in the STG program at Sookmyung Women’s University, I found these results:

FIGURE 1. Hedging frequency in my own writing

Total Hedges/Total Words Hedges Per Word (approximate)
SLA Midterm (“Paper 1”) 20/1615 1 out of 80
Methodology Module 1
(“Paper 2”)
35/3005 1 out of 86 
ICC Textbook Evaluation
(“Paper 3”)
23/966 1 out of 42

 

Papers 1 and 2 both had a relatively low amount of hedging, possibly due to the fact that both papers were largely based on past experiences; Paper 1, my SLA Midterm, was mostly concerned with my past experiences as both a language teacher and a language learner. Paper 2, written for my Methodology class, was an analysis of data gathered from a series of videos I had recorded of myself while teaching elementary school students. Paper 3, with its significantly higher rate of hedging compared to the other two, was indeed a different type of writing in that I was not referring back to real life experiences, nor was I engaging in personal reflection or analysis of hard data. The purpose of Paper 3 was to evaluate a textbook for cultural content, essentially making it a very subjective review of a book by an author whose background and previous work I was entirely unfamiliar with. What I can conclude from these findings is that, under certain circumstances, my tendency to use hedges is just as strong as the statistical average, if not stronger. Furthermore, my findings support Hyland’s notion that “we are far more likely to find hedges in writing in humanities and social science essays” than in other subjects which lean heavily on collected data and tangible aspects of the world we live in (p. 74).

Reid’s Writing Myths was a very interesting read and I will almost certainly be referring to it again in the future. Aside from raising my awareness of hedging and its various purposes, I also found great value in the chapter on student self-correction as well as the final chapter, Students’ Myths. Students’ Myths, in fact, was the very first chapter I chose to read. Overall, I feel that this book provides valuable insight into numerous writing issues that I believe most, if not all, writing teachers contend with on a regular basis. The way the book laid out real world situations alongside research and “what we can do” recommendations was much appreciated, as was this assignment as a whole.

References

Reid, J. (2008). Writing Myths: Applying Second Language Research to Classroom Teaching. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.


Here’s #2:

1. Why should we teach writing to our students?

Raimes (1983) cites three key reasons to teach writing to students. First and foremost, “writing reinforces the grammatical structures, idioms, and vocabulary” that students have learned in the classroom. Like speaking, writing is a chance to apply what they have learned; the main difference is that, with writing, the student has the luxury of taking the time to think about what words to use and how to use them. Raimes also notes that student writers have the opportunity to “be adventurous” and “take risks” when they write. Writing is an exercise that can take many forms and, whereas speaking carries with it the danger of embarrassment, writers are free to explore new possibilities in both use and creative expression. The final reason Raimes presents in her case for teaching writing is that it requires students to become “very involved with the new language” not only through the coordination of hands, eyes, and brain, but also through the thought process required to express ideas on paper. In short, “writing helps our students learn” (p. 3).

 

2. How can we best deal with all the different approaches listed in Raimes (1983)?

I’m not convinced that I know the best way to deal with all of the different approaches presented by Raimes (1983), but my first instinct would be to try all of them at different times based on the focus of the day’s lesson. Even for advanced students I think the Controlled-to-Free Approach could be beneficial for teaching difficult syntax, especially in academic writing. Such students might feel that manipulating and/or combining sentences is beneath their level, but as writing becomes more complex so, too, does the manipulating. The Grammar-Syntax-Organization Approach also seems like something that might be reserved for lower level students, but such an exercise could easily be adjusted to range from describing the operation of a calculator, as suggested by Raimes (p. 8), to laying out the necessary steps for obtaining a travel visa or negotiating a Korean lease agreement. Even Process and Free-Writing, which might intimidate lower level students, could be of great use if presented in a way that stresses language production rather than grammatical and syntactic accuracy.

My experience with writing students so far is that they hate it, and I think one of the reasons they hate it is because they know what’s coming. My English academy’s curriculum involves, for the most part, stringently following a book where each chapter follows a repetitive pattern of instruction. I’m quite certain that giving those students new ways to explore and discover writing would be a welcome change.

 

References

Raimes, A. (1983). Techniques in Teaching Writing. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

posted by Michael in Back to School on 3/12/2015 | No Comments