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Interview result

  1. 1. 141assess knowledge of specific content instead of writing proficiency, the topic should bedetermined by the content that is to be assessed, and an achievement test rather a languageproficiency test is needed. The central concern illuminated by these findings pertains to thequestion: what kind of content should be included in the writing task in a languageproficiency test? These findings suggest that the writing task should be checked for bias withcultural informants who share or have experience with the culture of the examinees for thesake of content validity. 4.3 Findings and Discussion for Research Question Three After participants completed the two writing tests, five participants across the threelanguage proficiency levels, basic (Mike, Bing), intermediate (Cho), and advanced (Paul,Hua), volunteered to participate in interviews. Paul and Hua achieved their bachelors’degrees in China before immigrating to Canada eight months ago. Paul majored in physics,while Hua studied computer science. During the interviews, they both expressed happiness athaving the opportunity to release their frustrations about responding to Prompt B and thedifficulties they encountered in English writing at the college. Cho, a South Korean student,had been living in Canada for one year at the time of the interview. Cho was verbally quietduring my lecture providing participants with feedback on their essays, but she was active inresponse to the interview questions, particularly surrounding her perplexities in writing forPrompt B. She said that her goal in Canada was to study commerce or economics at theuniversity level. She frankly articulated her concerns about writing with difficult topics suchas Prompt B on the LPI test, which is a requirement of a local university she was attempting
  2. 2. 142to enter. Mike and Bing had graduated from high school in Taiwan five months before theinterview. They did not hide the fact that they only wrote for Prompt A. They attended thetest for Prompt B but did not complete the task due to their lack of knowledge of the topic, asthey said in the interview. On the whole, the participants felt comfortable with writing about their choice ofstudy (Prompt A), but found writing about federal politics (Prompt B) rather difficult. Fivethemes emerged as the five participants commented on their writing for the two prompts: theeasiness in writing for Prompt A due to topic familiarity, and the difficulties in writing forPrompt B due to a lack of 1) knowledge about federal politics, 2) vocabulary to write onunfamiliar topics, 3) confidence to comment on political authorities, and 4) understanding ofthe cultural expectations of the readers. 4.3.1 Topic Familiarity As they explained why they felt Prompt A (choice of what to study) was easy to writeabout, the five participants consistently said that Prompt A was more interesting than PromptB (federal politics) as it was related to their life and they had prior knowledge for the topic.As Mike said, “Prompt A is easier and that is what I am going to think about after I am donewith my study at this college.” Similarly, Bing firmly confirmed that Prompt A was easier.According to him, “Writing is just like reading, and both needs something you know to helpyou either writing or understanding what is said there.” Cho explained that she had morewords for writing Prompt A compared with Prompt B. As she commented, “You havevocabulary for it [Prompt A]....It[Prompt A] is a daily life topic.”
  3. 3. 143 4.3.2 A Lack of Knowledge about Federal Politics While recounting their perceptions about writing for the two prompts, theinterviewees all felt it difficult to write for Prompt B in depth and breadth due to theirunfamiliarity with the Canadian government systems. As Bing explained in English to theresearcher in the interview: Most of the students here [in this class] came here [Canada] not long and haven’t settled down. What they know seems only something like the names of democracy party and conservative. For other parties, they have no ideas. They are not familiar with the politics here yet. They don’t know the government systems either. So, it is more difficult for us to write this topic.Mike also complained that Prompt B was too difficult for him due to his unfamiliarity withthe topic, commenting: To me, a good writing should be easy and understandable. Also the content is interesting. I sat there thinking for a long time but got no ideas where to start writing about it. You just don’t know it. How can you write about it? Regarding their difficulty in writing for Prompt B due to their lack of topicalknowledge, all interviewees showed a willingness to learn more about the Canadian societyand culture. In this regard, Mike articulated his great difficulty in writing for Prompt B: “I
  4. 4. 144don’t know much about federal politics. I just came here last term. I may learn more about itin the future.” Meanwhile, in his reflective recount, Bing stated his belief in the importanceof practice in English: “I need more practice and write more. [I] also need to increasevocabulary. Also [I] don’t just translate my Chinese thoughts to English .... I need to do morereading and also watch more English TV to influence my thinking way.” The students’ recounts also pointed to the influence of previous education and culturalbackgrounds on their writing. Compared with the Western education system, whichemphasizes creative thinking and problem-solving ability, the Asian curriculum places agreater emphasis on classroom achievements and what students learn from their textbooks.There is still little opportunity for professional preparation in EFL countries, so teachers ofL2 writing often rely on textbooks as their source of pedagogical knowledge (e.g., Matsuda,2005). Teaching English in China is different from that in an English-speaking country due toa group of related factors, such as Chinese culture, pedagogical traditions, and test-basedteaching (He, 2002). In addition, Chinese culture is known for its long literary tradition. Oneexample of the tradition is Civil Service exams (196 BC – 1905), which tested one’s abilityto write a rigid Chinese rhetorical pattern known as the “Eight Legged Essay.” Followingsuch a tradition of focusing on the product rather than the process of writing, many Chinesestudents and writing instructors still believe that learning means copying models whiletesting means writing model texts from memory (e.g., Ergaugh, 1990; You, 2004). Bymemorizing model texts, some Chinese students are able to pass various exams including theTest of Written English. Students receiving schooling in China are used to being tested ontheir memorization of class notes and textbook content. Accordingly, when students had to
  5. 5. 145write about Canadian federal politics, which was beyond what they had learnt or memorized,they felt lost. Such different educational backgrounds may account for the reasons why Binginsisted during his talk, I wish my teacher could talk something about Canadian politics before they asked us to write about it. We are not taught. It [knowledge about Prompt B] is not in our textbook.As such, students with Asian cultural backgrounds in this study might assume that learningEnglish in the host country was done in the same manner as in their home country. Forexample, while sharing his previous experience of writing English essays in China usingTOEFL materials published by a private language school, Hua said, I often went to writing samples published by the New Oriental school and looked for some transition words I could use in my own writing, like which word was used in the introduction, conclusion, and so on. Those sample essays could give me some good expressions.From a reader-responsible culture that emphasizes flowery and ornate prose, Hua tried toinclude more “good expressions” in his writing. When these students were faced with PromptB, they felt suddenly alienated, since they had not accumulated such knowledge in the targetlanguage. As Mike commented,
  6. 6. 146 Something you have experienced before can make it easy to write about it [Prompt B]. At least you are clear how to express in Chinese… If you’ve never experienced it, it is certainly difficult to write about it.Cho also stated frankly, “I like to write something related to my experiences.” Similarly,Hua aired his opinion that the precondition for writing a good essay was “not the type ofWriting but something you are familiar with.” During the conversations with the interviewees, I noticed that the meaning of theword “experience” in their recounts had a broad sense referring to knowledge from bothexplicit and implicit L2 knowledge accumulation. Learning English writing, therefore, can beseen as a progressive process involving their real-life exposure to the target language in thehost culture as well as classroom learning. Some of them even believed that topicalknowledge could influence their preferences for certain discourse modes. As Huacommented, “Narrative topics about [personal] life is easier than argumentative ones sinceyou generally have something to say there.” At this point, all interviewees unanimously concurred that a lack of topicalknowledge on Canadian federal politics blocked both an active writing process and anoptimal writing performance on Prompt B. The student’s recounts were consistent with thedetected statistic analysis results in Phases One and Two. The students’ previous experienceof L2 writing instruction in EFL contexts shows that we cannot take for granted that L2writers have a static knowledge base. Rather, the more exposure and access a writer has to
  7. 7. 147the target language and culture, the more it can help a writer reshape his or her knowledge forcomposing in the target language. 4.3.3 A Lack of Vocabulary to Write on Unfamiliar Topics Interviewees also expressed that a lack of vocabulary was another obstacle whilewriting for Prompt B. Some considered that without the necessary subject words for federalpolitics they could not develop their thoughts and ideas for the essay. For instance, Chorecounted that she was cautious and struggling while writing for Prompt B: “I thought a longtime thinking about Topic 2, but finally I still couldn’t write more and I give up. I don’t wantto write something wrong. I need to know more words to express my views.” Paul told methat he had no words about Canadian federal politics to communicate his thoughts: I needed to express “ ” (“run for” in Chinese), but I did not know which word I can use…. There were many situations like this in writing Topic 2 [Prompt B]. It was a test and we were not allowed to use a dictionary. So, I was stuck there most of the time…. To write Topic 2 well, you need to know a lot of words about the topic. Otherwise, you can write or only talk about something superficial.Students’ talk also indicated cultural and linguistic barriers between languages. It was notedthat interviewees had memorized a certain number of English words based on the denotation(i.e., dictionary meaning); however, these words learned as a foreign language in their localcultural contexts did not carry identical connotations in the target culture, and thus might fail
  8. 8. 148to convey ideas accurately for writing on a culturally bound topic like Canadian federalpolitics. Research to date has found evidence of a greater and more direct reliance on L1lexical knowledge (Mánchon & Roca de Laros, 2007; Wang &Wen, 2002) and on sourcetexts in L2 writing (Moore, 1997; Shi 2004, 2010). This may account for Mike’s response: It [English] is different from what I learned before. Sometimes I am not sure what those words really mean and how to use them correctly although I know them. For example, I know “political “is something related to government. But I heard people use it to say about a persons, saying something like “You are political.” I feel English words are more complex. We need to know lots of words about government and politics for Prompt B. I am just poor at them. 4.3.4 A Lack of Confidence to Comment on Authorities The four interviewees from China said that they felt nervous about making commentson federal politics for Prompt B. During the interview, Paul relayed his ideas using the caseof Lai Changxing, a Chinese smuggling ringleader of ‘most-wanted’ status by the Chinesegovernment. Recently, the Canadian government issued Lai working authorization inCanada. Paul showed puzzlement at such permission from the Canadian government whilemaking comments on the case: You really don’t understand Canadian politics, so you dare not to make more comments on it. This made writing topics 2 [Prompt B] more difficult. It’s not just
  9. 9. 149 writing, actually what’s right or wrong also made this topic hard. I feel somewhat nervous about saying something wrong there. At this point, I noticed that those participants from China appeared more cautious atthe beginning and asked about the purpose of this study although they had been informed ofthe study in detail. In my view, the Chinese students’ nervousness may be attributed to theinfluence of the Confucian culture that values morality, stability and harmony and thefulfillment of morals between the ruler and the ruled through social stability and obeisance toauthorities. In Confucian culture, revering authorities was viewed as morality, while a “good”piece of writing should be judged by its reverence to authority, among other criteria. The fourinterviewees’ lack of confidence to comment on Canadian federal politics suggests thatConfucian philosophy still influences some areas of Chinese behavior even though itemerged in China in the late sixth century B.C, one millennium ago. 4.3.5 A Lack of Understanding of the Expectations of Readers When the interviewees were asked about what they found most difficult in writingPrompt B, they said that they were not clear about what they were expected to write in termsof the appropriateness of form, content, and accuracy to satisfy the readers, who were localinstructors. They found that translating their thoughts in the manner of their home languagedistorted their desired meaning. As they described, they often fell into a dilemma where theycarefully looked up new words in the dictionary and double-checked their meanings beforeincorporating them into the essay, but their essays turned out somewhat awkward, lacking
  10. 10. 150clarity and accuracy, according to their instructors. Paul shared his difficulty in reading thisaspect: The most difficult thing to me [in writing Prompt B] is I don’t know which words can be used, which words not look awkward to the people here [Canada]. Sometimes you have certain words in mind, but after you use them, you can feel that they are so awkward but you don’t know why.As interviewees indicated, they needed not only vocabulary for communicating their ideasfor Prompt B, but also an understanding of the cultural connotations of words. Intervieweeshad no idea of how to meet the expectations of readers in the target language context. Suchlack of understanding of the readers’ expectation in the target language may help explainPaul’s puzzled behavior in his writing for Prompt B: For example, to express “ ” [in Chinese], English says“learn a lesson”, but we write in our Chinese way and say “receive a lesson”. We translate word for word from our Chinese way. Also, to express an idea, we often have to look up the words in the dictionary. Actually [foreigners] here don’t use those big words but very simple and common words. Most of the time my writing sounds so awkward although I spend a lot of time.... Also, in Chinese we first say year, then month, and last date,
  11. 11. 151 but in English it is just opposite. Most English are in this way. You have to think in an opposite way in English. Interviewees also commented on what makes a good English essay and theirunderstanding of how to balance between form and content. As Paul said, Sometimes content should be more important than form, in my opinion. Even if you write a perfect form like English way, but if you don’t have content there, to me, that’s not a good writing. But the fact is if we don’t match English form, our writing is considered bad or off topic. Also, you can’t write English too fancy like you use so many beautiful words in Chinese.In this regard, Hua emphasized that language development must be based on “absorbingother cultures and toleration of other cultures.” Hua thought highly of the current study,commenting it was an action of “exploring the development of a language in cultures”, andso did other participants.4.4 Summary of Results In summary, the quantitative data analyses consistently show statistically significantmain effects of prompts on students’ overall writing performance across all three proficiencylevels. The main effects of prompts were also shown on the three components (content,organization, and language) along with their indicators of various textual features. In
  12. 12. 152addition, there was an interaction effect between prompt and proficiency for the overallwriting scores, but no such interaction effects on components of content and organization andmost of the indicators. The qualitative interview data in Phase Three were consistent with thedetected quantitative results in Phases One and Two: participants found Prompt B morechallenging than Prompt A because of their lack of specific knowledge about federal politics,specific vocabulary for an unfamiliar topic and the expectations of readers. Some participantsalso expressed their lack of confidence in commenting on government authorities.