Learning to Write English in an EFL Setting by alendar

VIEWS: 194 PAGES: 11

More Info
									18th Annual EA Education Conference 2005

Successful EFL Writers from the Gulf
(reprinted with permission from TESOL Arabia)
Jane HOELKER, The Qatar Foundation, Doha, Qatar
Awil HASHI, Zayed University, United Arab Emirates

        This case study will document and analyze the attitudes, techniques and strategies
        implemented during the process of learning to write in the L2 by these students in an
        environment that most researchers might consider less conducive to learning an L2 than
        an ESL setting. The two students, from a non-English medium, government-directed
        school system, enrolled as low beginner students in the English for Academic Purposes
        Program to prepare for entry into a tertiary institution. Within four months the teacher
        observed that the two students improved their proficiency level to one comparable to or
        even better than that of the students who started the program months prior to their
        enrollment in the EAP Program.


In an ESL setting a teacher knows that he/she is not the only one who is teaching English to the
students. For example, language learners are taught by the community, friends and even the
media. In this scenario, student success could be attributed to a variety of factors. Conversely, in
an EFL setting students get less exposure to the target language due to lack of need and
opportunity. In this setting, it is relatively safe to hypothesize that student success in learning the
L2 is mainly due to factors such as student motivation, aptitude, diligence, resourcefulness and
perhaps effective classroom teaching.

This paper will document and analyze the attitudes, techniques and strategies implemented
during the process of acquiring the L2 by two students in this environment. The two students,
from a non-English medium, government-directed school system, enrolled as low beginner
students in the eight-level English for Academic Purposes Program to prepare for entry into an
Emirati tertiary institution. Within four months the teacher observed that the two students
improved their proficiency level to one comparable to or even better than that of the students who
started the program months and, in some instances, a year prior to their enrollment in the EAP
Program. An analysis of the syntactic maturity of the language through T-units (Briere, 1977;
Gaies, 1980; Hunt, 1965) supports the observation.

E-interviews (Bampton & Cowton, 2002; Brown, 2002) were selected as the initial research mode
appropriate to this EFL setting because of certain advantages: (a) time to reflect on responses
before using the L2; (b) an opportunity to seek clarification in the L2; (c) a degree of anonymity in
which the interviewee might admit to behavior that could be considered culturally diverse; and (d)
a written record of the exchange. The learners also reflected on their learning through a
Presentation for Students by Students and, finally, through tape-recorded, face-to-face interviews
with the two authors.


A T-unit is, “. . . a main clause plus all subordinate clauses and nonclausal structures attached to
or embedded in it.” (Hunt, 1970). The following example, while correct, would be syntactically

        Fatima walked to the store.
        Fatima walked slowly.
        Fatima bought some bread.
        The bread was one day old.

English Australia
18th Annual EA Education Conference 2005

        The bread was on sale.
        Fatima returned home.

When sentence-combining transformations are performed on the sentences, a syntactically
mature sentence, containing one T-unit and one embedded clause reads, “Fatima walked slowly
to the store to buy some one-day-old bread, which was on sale, and returned home.”


The entry requirement to the EAP program at Zayed University for all students is 500 on the
TOEFL examination. Ms. A achieved this goal within 10 months of entering level four in the
Readiness Program and Ms. N within 12 months. Analysis of Ms. A’s language in the first and the
final assignment reveals production of 12 error-free T-units, totaling 87 words, thus averaging 7.3
words per error-free T-unit. The number of correct T-units produced by Ms. A increased from 8%
in the initial assignment to 29% in the final. (See Appendix A). Ms A produced a total of 44 error-
free T-units out of a total of 197 T-units or 22% in the fourteen writing assignments she wrote.
(See Appendix C.) Ms. N produced 23 error-free T-units, totaling 163 words in both assignments,
or an average of 7 words per error-free T-unit. The number of correct T-units produced by Ms N
increased from 26% in the first writing assignment to 45% in the final assignment. (See Appendix
B.) In her nine articles, Ms N wrote a total of 43 error-free T-units out of a total of 147 or 30%.
(See Appendix C.) Thus, a steady growth in syntactic maturity is confirmed for both students.


Errors are developmental and reveal the systematic learning process the L2 learner is engaged
in. An analysis of the errors produced by these two writers reveals recognized patterns of eight
errors typical of L2 writers from a native Arabic background as well as two unanticipated results.
Spelling errors are the most common errors (Thompson-Panos & Thomas-Razic, 1983). Arabic
has only six vowels, three pairs of long and short vowels. The thirty-one spelling mistakes out of
the total 139 mistakes made by both learners accounted for 22% of the total errors in the writing
of both students. The article dated September 2nd by Ms. A offers some examples; student and
attending for intending.

Vocabulary offers a second challenge to Arabic students of English because an Arabic dictionary
organizes all words under their root derivatives (Thompson-Panos & Thomas-Razic, 1983).
Hence, composer, decomposed, composing are listed under the root, compose. Thus, the
dictionary is not the place where students learn more about Arabic, but where they confirm what
they already know. Twenty-eight of the 139 errors or 20% were vocabulary errors. For instance,
Ms. N wrote in her September 12th task, “It (bank) will not have (few) customer thin.”

Arabic students (Scott & Tucker, 1974) typically have difficulty using the article correctly. While
the definite article is marked in Arabic, the indefinite is not. The indefinite article was omitted six
times in the written production of the students. A fourth difficulty is the proper use of verb tenses.
Arabic has only two verb tenses: the perfect is used when the action is completed, and the
imperfect when the action is not completed. Out of 139 errors, 15 or 11% were verb tense errors.

Finally, single examples of the following four errors occurred. The redundant use of the auxiliary
with a verb is found in the sentence, “I (am) always help him to study English,” written by Ms. N
on December 31st. In addition, Arabic writers often repeat the pronoun after the infinitive, or use
prepositions to express meaning contained by another word in the sentence. Arabic learners of
English often use the past participle instead of the infinitive as in this writing by Ms. A on March
23rd, “. . . women wear black (block) dress with (a) shayla (clothes) to cover (covered) her hair.”

While the two writers made eight errors typical of Arabic students of English, they demonstrated a
skill untypical of those writers: they showed considerable syntactic dexterity using relative
clauses, subordinate adverbial clauses, noun clauses and transitions. In other words, they were

English Australia
18th Annual EA Education Conference 2005

competent in exploring the relationship of ideas and the hierarchy of concepts. Moreover, they
demonstrated this skill despite two challenges posed by mother tongue interference. First, the
Arabic paragraph develops in a series of parallel constructions so that it reads like a list of
sentences connected by coordinate conjunctions. Thus, the challenge for the students is how to
decide which structure should be made subordinate, for example, in distinguishing between
cause and effect (Thompson-Panos & Thomas-Razic, 1983).

The second challenge for Arabic learners of English is that the relative clause is not subordinate
on the surface structure. When the antecedent is definite, interference from the mother tongue
often results in a sentence like, “I saw the boy who (he) has red hair.” When the antecedent is
indefinite and there is no relative particle, the learner might produce a sentence like, “I saw a boy
(he) has red hair.” Ms. A used relative pronouns correctly, but Ms. N did not use any relative

Chart one summarizes the use of coordinators, subordinate clauses (relative, noun and adverbial)
and transitions utilized by Ms. A. In the September 2nd assignment, Ms. A used one subordinate
relative clause and four subordinate adverbial clauses as well as two transition words, but no
coordinators. In her March 23rd task, she used seven subordinate relative clauses, two noun
clauses and four subordinate adverbial clauses for a total of 13 subordinate clauses along with
seven coordinators and 17 transition words.

Chart 1. Analysis of Coordinators, Subordinate Clauses (Relative, Noun and Adverbial) and
Transitions Utilized by Ms. A.
  Sep 2, Main & subordinate                    Mar 23, Main & subordinate
  clauses                       Total Total clauses                         Total Total

  Coordinators                       0       0      Coordinators                         7        7
                                                    But (1), and (6)

  Subordinate relative clause        1              Subordinate relative clause          7
  Which (1)                                         Which (5), who (2)

  Noun clauses                       0       0      Noun clauses                         2

  Subordinate adverbial clause       4       5      Subordinate adverbial clause         4        13
  Because (4)                                       Because (4)
                                                    Transitions                          17       17
  Transitions                        2       2      So (3), such as (5), however,
  So (1), finally (1)                               in addition, also (2), on the
                                                    other hand, similarly, in
                                                    contrast to (2), so

Chart two reveals that Ms. N employed two coordinators in the September 12th assignment, two
subordinate adverbial clauses and three transitions. In her final writing task on December 31st,
she used one noun clause and nine subordinate adverbial clauses for a total of ten subordinate
clauses as well as one coordinator and three transition words.

Chart 2. Analysis of Coordinators, Subordinate Clauses (Relative, Noun and Adverbial) and
Transitions Utilized by Ms. N.
 Sep 12                                      Dec 31
 Main & subordinate clauses Total Total Main & subordinate clauses         Total Total

 Coordinators                    2       2        Coordinators                       1        1
 And (2)                                          and

English Australia
18th Annual EA Education Conference 2005

 Subordinate relative clause     0               Subordinate relative clause        0

 Noun clauses                    0               Noun clauses                       1
                                                 I really want you to know that I
                                                 have one brother & one sister.

 Subordinate         adverbial   2       2       Subordinate adverbial clause       9       10
 clause                                          because (5), when (2), if (2)
 If (2)

 Transitions                     3       3       Transitions                        3       3
 So, then, for example                           First of all, also, so

Both student writers showed skill in deciding the relationship of ideas and the hierarchy of
concepts, or how to determine what becomes a dependent clause. What did the data collected
from the e-interviews, the Presentation for Students by Students and the final face-to-face
interviews reveal about the strategies utilized and student motivation?


The e-interview (an interview conducted through e-mail) contains both objective statements,
requiring a tick to indicate student choice from four possible items, and one or two reflective
questions, requiring a student response of a variable length (Appendix D). Strategies chosen by
both students or two student-selected strategies next to each other on the continuum were
tabulated. The four e-interviews revealed that: (a) English was studied outside of class; (b) the
students were fast in their studies and impulsive risk-takers; (c) they read fast to get the general
meaning; and (d) they study English because it is a requirement, and not to please their teacher
nor to get good grades.

The reflective responses from Ms. A indicate that she reads extensively because, “. . . reading is
the main skill to learn English as reading gives us vocabularies and grammar.” She utilizes books
with tapes by listening to the tape first without reading the book. Then, she listens to the tape as
she reads the book. Reacting to the English high school classroom as if it were an EFL
environment, she talked about English in Arabic, used Arabic to express her needs like going to
the girls’ room, and used English only to answer comprehension or grammar questions. On the
other hand, she treated the university classroom as an IEP environment by taking more risks than
in high school and using English to talk about English or to express her needs because she
studied only English.

In three separate reflective responses, Ms. N notes that she reads one book a week as well as
looks for and records new words. On two occasions, she states that she practices writing English
she hears from movies, music and TV. Ms. N comments that she is fast and doesn’t give up when
she makes a mistake which reveals that she is as a risk-taker.


On October 22, 2002, Hashi escorted his level four writing class from the Dubai campus to the
Abu Dhabi campus, where Ms. A and Ms. N gave a Presentation for Students by Students to their
Dubai guests. The peer discussion prompted the two students in the case study to probe more
deeply. Ms. A states that she often borrows books with tapes to practice listening. When she
hears how the words are pronounced, she gets the confidence to use them. She lists new
vocabulary words and even sentences under the title of books she reads, and uses them when
she writes or speaks. An independent learner, she signed up for the eight-week summer program
offered at Zayed University.

English Australia
18th Annual EA Education Conference 2005

Ms. N seeks interesting stories to read and every day writes about the things she does. In
addition, she writes down in her notebook “. . . the beautiful sentences that her teachers use. . .”
in order to use them later in a similar situation. Some examples include: I could see you . . .; and
It was lovely to . . . . She advises her peers to not just read, but to read to learn.


The face-to-face, tape-recorded, wrap up interviews were conducted by the two authors to gain a
deeper understanding of certain strategies that were previously revealed. Ms. A stated that she
used model sentences when she first began to write. Sometimes she used them exactly as she
had copied them down, but sometimes she changed them when, “. . . I think it should be
changed,” which indicates a growing confidence. Eventually, she stopped using them. According
to Ms. A, reading is the first thing that students should do to learn English because a student can
learn vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation from reading. When she reads a word in a second
story, she realizes that it is important. Therefore, in order to remember the specific meaning of a
word in a particular context, she writes them under the title of the book where she first
encountered them. She demonstrates meta-cognitive awareness when she advises students to
record the part of speech of new vocabulary words. Ms. A finds extrinsic motivation in all her
uncles, her role models, who are university graduates. When she says that she wants to learn
English in order to have a career in science, she demonstrates instrumental motivation. She
advises teachers to motivate students by taking them to the library, where they might see an
interesting title on a book, which could encourage them to read.

Ms. N wrote down model sentences, also. She likes to write stories and imagine dialogue
between the characters. She does not just copy the sentences, but changes them, thus
demonstrating a linguistic confidence. When she was reading a dialogue between two people that
sounded like, “. . . a natural way,” she decided to write down the sentences. Although she
guesses the meaning of vocabulary words in context, she later verifies the meaning because she
“. . . worries very much . . .” that she guessed the right meaning.

Ms. N demonstrates intrinsic motivation when she explains how she reads and listens to three or
two stories with cassettes on the weekend. Every weekend she watches English movies and
turns the sound up very high to hear the pronunciation. She listens to and likes English songs as
much as Arabic songs. She explains that, “. . . from I was young, I say I like English and I want to
be a good speaker. I want to be a good writer. I want to succeed in English.” Extrinsic motivation
is revealed when she says that her family, “. . . gives her the power. They push me. They say
okay do it. . . . .” Ms. N states that her mother tells her that if she wants something to go and take
it, “. . . for her own. . .” In addition, she confesses to being a bit jealous of her cousins, who speak
English very well and, in fact, speak no Arabic. Ms. N encourages teachers to motivate students
by reminding them that, “. . . this is your future . . . .” She advises students to study on their own
because independent work is most helpful. She counsels teachers to change their teaching style
occasionally by taking the students to the LEC or letting them use their computers to learn


In conclusion, this case study of two Emirati female students, graduates of a non-English
medium, government-directed school system and enrolled in the EAP program prior to
matriculating in the university general education courses, has confirmed the initial teacher
intuition that they made remarkable progress in learning how to write English. Analysis through T-
units of the written language produced by the learners confirmed this teacher observation. Further
analysis of the written errors revealed that while the students conformed to the profile of a typical
Arabic L2 student by committing errors in spelling or vocabulary, they deviated in the correct use
of dependent clauses such as relative, noun, and adverbial clauses to express the hierarchy of
ideas and the relationship of concepts. The EFL context isolates factors in this case study such
as student motivation, aptitude, diligence and resourcefulness conducive to such writing

English Australia
18th Annual EA Education Conference 2005

expertise. The data obtained from the three sources (the e-interviews, the Presentation for
Students by Students, and the final face-to-face interviews) support and clarify each other. Both
students read extensively, recorded vocabulary and model sentences, thus compensating for the
lack of comprehensible input (Krashen, 1988). Quick and impulsive, these risk-takers were
independent learners who spent considerable time outside of class studying English. They both
demonstrate intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and Ms. A demonstrates instrumental motivation.

Language teachers and researchers have long debated which type of motivation is the strongest.
Extrinsic or intrinsic? Integrative or instrumental? While much research reveals that intrinsic
motivation is stronger than extrinsic (Brown, 1994; Crookes & Schmidt, 1991; Noels, Pelletier &
Vallerand, 2000) and that integrative is stronger than instrumental (Gardner & Lambert, 1972),
this case study confirms previous findings that extrinsic motivation is indeed very powerful.
Indeed, extrinsic motivation can become intrinsic motivation. The most important motivational
factor is varied activities (Lightbrown & Spada, 1999). If students enjoy learning, they themselves
will discover new and creative ways to learn.

To sum up, the results of this case study reveal some strategies designed by two female Emirati
students to meet their learning needs in order to become risk-taking, independent, extensive
readers who do not just get input, but who also produce output.


English Australia
18th Annual EA Education Conference 2005

Appendix A. Language Production of Ms. A.

                             A. # of T-units                                 E. % correct T-units

                             B. total # of words                             F. Total subordinate clauses

                             C. # words per T-unit                           G. Ratio main to subordinate clauses

                             D. # correct T-units

     13         Sept 2   Sept2       Sept 12        Sept 13   Sept   Oct 5    Oct 15   Oct 22   Oct 23      Oct 30   Nov 3   Nov 3     2002
     articles            test        Draft 1        Draft 2   16                                                     sum     react   Mar11    Mar 23

A.   194        12       11          6              9         6      17       22       14       8           6        12      4       25       41

B.   2137       104      138         83             97        57     164      159      181      186         62       118     47      385      356

C.   11         9        13          14             11        10     10       7        13       24          10       10      12      15       8

D.   39         1        0           0              0         2      3        4        3        0           2        4       1       7        12

E.   20%        8%       0%          0%             0%        33%    18%      18%      21%      0%          33%      33%     25%     27%      29%
F.   33%        3        6           5              0         2      7        1        4        5           2        2       2       13       13
     65/194     3/12     6/11        5/6            0/9       2/6    7/17     1/22     4/14     8/6         2/6      2/12    2/4     13/25    13/41
G.   36%        25%      54%         83%            0%        33%    59%      4%       72%      75%         33%      17%     50%     50%      32%

English Australia
18th Annual EA Education Conference 2005

Appendix B. Language Production by Ms. N.

                                                     A. # of T-units                                 E. % correct T-units

                                                     B. total # of words                             F. Total subordinate clauses

                                                     C. # words per T-unit                           G. Ratio main to subordinate clauses

                                                     D. # correct T-units

                    9          Sep 8   Sep 12   Sep 14        Oct 5         Oct 20   Oct 24   Nov 11      Nov 28     Dec 31
                    articles           d #1     d #2

                    148        24      13       12            8             5        12       18          14         42

                    1428       153     129      105           95            55       166      154         208        363

                    96         6       10       9             12            11       14       9           15         9

                    41         6       2        3             1             3        2        6           1          17

                    28%        26%     15%      25%           13%           60%      17%      33%         7%         45%

                    34         5       3        0             1             0        1        3           8          11

                    34/148     5/23    3/11     0/12          1/8           0/5      7/12     3/18        8/14       7/42
                    23%        22%     27%      0%            13%           0%       58%      16%         57%        16%

English Australia
18th Annual EA Education Conference 2005

                                 Appendix C. Correct T-units.
                                                                               Ms A
                                                                               Ms N
            1       2   3    4     5       6   7   8   9   10 11 12 13 14 15

English Australia
  18th Annual EA Education Conference 2005

  Appendix D. Example of an E-interview.

  Ms. A 1. What kind of learner are you?
  Put an X in the letter square that best describes you. Put only one X for each item. Use the
  following guide:
  A       The sentence on the left describes you well.
  B       The sentence on the left somewhat describes you.
  C       The sentence on the right somewhat describes you.
  D       The sentence on the right describes you well.

Example                                        X
I love watching baseball games.            A   B   C     D     I hate watching baseball games.

   Letter B has an X. This means that this person is somewhat interested in watching baseball.
1. I don't mind if people laugh when I A       B      C  D     I get embarrassed if people laugh
speak English.                                                 when I speak English.

2. I study English outside class, on my    A   B    C    D     I study English in class only, when the
own.                                                           teacher tells me to.

3. I like to get the general idea when I   A   B    C    D     I must understand every word when I
read or listen to English.                                     read of listen to English.

4. When I make a mistake, I don't get      A   B    C    D     When I make a mistake, I get upset
upset because I can learn from my                              and feel that I have failed.
5. I enjoy working in groups.              A   B    C    D     I prefer to work alone.

  Next, choose two (2) sentences from the 10 in the Questionnaire above, and give an example
  that illustrates or explains your answer. For example, "I enjoy working in groups." I work in a
  group with Amal and Fatima in vocabulary class when we look the meaning of words up in the

  1. I like to study outside class whether in home or in university. Because learning English in this
  University has not enough reading classes. In my opinion, reading is the main skill to learn English as
  reading gives us vocabularies and grammar.

  2. I never mind if any Arabic person laughed while I speaking; however, I feel upset if any English
  person laughed because I really need person who help me to improve my speaking.

  English Australia
18th Annual EA Education Conference 2005


Bampton, R. & Cowton, D.J. (2002, May). The E-Interview [27 paragraphs]. Forum Qualitative
Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research [On-line Journal], 3(2). Available at:
http://www.qualitative-research.net/fqs/fqs-eng.htm [Date of access: June 4, 2002].

Briere, E. (1977). Quantity before quality in second language composition. Language Learning
16, 141-151.

Brown, H.D. (2002). Strategies for success: A practical guide to learning English. White Plains,
NY: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.

Brown, H.D. (1994). Principles of language learning and teaching. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice
Hall Regents.

Crookes, G. & Schmidt, R.W. (1991). Motivation: Reopening the research agenda. Language
Learning 41, 469-512.

Gaies, S. (1980). T-Unit analysis in second language research: Applications, problems and
limitations. TESOL Quarterly 14 (1) 53-60.

Gardner, R.C. & Lambert, W.C. (1972). Attitudes and motivation in second language learning.
Rowley, MA: Newbury House Publishers.

Hunt, K. (1965). Grammatical structures written at three grade levels. (Report No. 3) Urbana, IL:
National Council of Teachers of English.

Hunt, K. (1970). Syntactic maturity in school children and adults. Monographs of the Society for
Research in Child Development 53, (Serial No. 134).

Krashen, S.D. (1988). Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Prentice-
Hall International.

Lightbrown, P. & Spada, N. (1999). How languages are learned. United Kingdom: Oxford
University Press.

Noels, K.A., Pelletier, L.G., Clement, R. & Vallerand, R.J. (2000). Why are you learning a second
language? Motivational orientations and self-determination theory. Language Learning, 50, 57-85.

Scott, M. & Tucker, G. R. (1974). Error analysis and English-language strategies of Arab
students. Language Learning 24: 69-97.

Thompson-Panos, K. & Thomas-Razic, M. (1983). The least you should know about Arabic:
Implications for the ESL writing instructor. TESOL Quarterly 17 (4) 609-623.

English Australia

To top