25 June 2014

Why don’t they write the way they should?

By Dr Ida Fatimawati Binti Adi Badiozaman

At the tertiary level, reports have consistently revealed that despite having formal English instruction for eleven years, many Malaysian students still struggle not only in their reading, but also their academic writing. In fact, recent research has highlighted that the ability to write in English, amongst Malaysian university students is unsatisfactory, and that low proficiency students are still struggling to write. To shed light on this rather bleak picture of our second language writers, it is useful to explore some factors that exert a significant impact on students’ writing performance.

Writing involves a series of multiple cognitively-oriented skills ranging from simple to complex. To be able to write well, a sufficient level of lexical, syntactic and spelling knowledge in the target language is necessary in order to express ideas usefully. Thus, writing in a second language is contingent on learners’ ability not only to successfully communicate their thoughts, ideas and opinions, but to do so in the target language.

As such, second language writers, who are still in the process of acquiring linguistic competence, will probably face language difficulties when attempting to become competent in a rhetoric-specific area, such as academic writing. What this means is there is a specific proficiency threshold that learners need to have or cross before they are able to be competent in writing. L2 writers learning academic writing in English not only have to master English, but also gain advanced writing skills.

Students also need to adapt quickly to both the academic and social culture of the university.
The fact that the culture of writing in secondary school [in Malaysia] is different from the culture of writing in postsecondary education also makes the transition [to universities] possibly problematic and intimidating to students. Students not being taught academic writing in their first language in secondary school may also further augment the learning challenges. This suggests that students entering university still grapple with fundamental skills for reading and writing in English.

In the Malaysian context, learning in English may present social and cultural challenges. The meaning represented by the English language and the act of learning English could be interpreted by some Malaysian students as an erosion of their national and cultural identity. Students of certain ethnicities may perceive that learning academic writing in English contradicts the early initiatives of relegating English to the status of a foreign language. Consequently, the cultural conflict represented by English (as a medium of instruction) may result in students’ ambivalence, partial tolerance and resistance, and even absolute rejection of the language and the subject. Since Malaysia has a complex linguistic situation, due to its post-colonial history, the position of English language use is contentious.

That the national language was used for decades as a medium of instruction at all educational levels in Malaysia also contributes to the minimal role that English plays in certain parts of the country. A critical issue this raises is that the English level that students have reached upon entering university will clearly vary and there will be a gap between students who are urban-based and those who are rural-based. This would add further complexities and challenges to the learning experience of academic writing at tertiary level.

There is also a general consensus in research that learners draw on their prior learning experiences when attempting a writing task. This may include knowledge of content and their level of writing skills and language abilities. In the case of Malaysian students, their past learning experience of writing (in secondary schools) may be irrelevant or may even conflict with their experience at tertiary level. Tan and Miller (2007), in their study on writing in English in Malaysian secondary schools, discovered that students’ focus on acceptable writing for school and examination purposes “did not encourage them to develop their writing skills beyond these requirements, but to adopt a range of pragmatic and expedient tactics” (p.124). This view is important since it suggests that linguistic knowledge taught in school may be a mismatch with what is expected at university level. This may also lead to an erroneous understanding of what constitutes learning academic writing in English, at a university.

Overall, learning to be competent in academic writing in English is a challenging task for both experienced and inexperienced writers, since it implies advanced academic literacy acquisition in another language. This task is imbued with linguistic, social and cultural challenges.

Dr Ida Fatimawati Binti Adi Badiozaman is a lecturer with the Faculty of Language and Communication at Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. She is contactable atifaBadiozaman@swinburne.edu.my