by Setiono Sugiharto
In the academic context, it is saddening that many students, even lecturers, still perceive writing as a daunting task. It is undeniably true that writing is the most difficult skill to acquire, certainly more so than speaking. Unlike speaking, writing is not an innate, biologically endowed ability; it must be learned.
Which, of course, means that for someone to be able to write, they must be taught. Research on literacy has illuminated that teaching methods make the difference between poor, average and excellent writers in later life.
That many students cannot write skillfully is often blamed on deficient instruction. In many schools, students are not frequently encouraged to compose paragraphs or essays. Instead, they are taught the theory of writing, which deals mainly with the accuracy of grammar rules and the rhetorical structure of the written text.
Considerable emphasis on prescriptive principles and the dominance of sentence-level analysis have become the teaching objective that students are exhorted to master in order to write well. While theoretically, students know what good writing entails, it does not necessarily follow that they can write well.
Furthermore, students’ writing assessments are seldom created using open-ended questions, which foster writing ability. Instead these tests use the notorious multiple-choice format, which cannot demonstrate writing competence. These tests do nothing to help students acquire writing skills.
In a 1999 survey of writing instruction at the university level, Alwasilah found some major weaknesses of college writing in the Indonesian context. The statistics make worrying reading: Students got no feedback from their instructors (68.9 percent); teachers emphasize theory more than practice (55.2 percent); students do not realize the importance of writing (37.9 percent), and perhaps the most depressing, instructors are competent in teaching writing (34.4 percent).
These findings certainly have some serious implications in the teaching of writing.
Since writing activities still put a heavy emphasis on theory, students often find it difficult to develop their ideas logically and coherently in a paragraph. As a result, when they write, their work is characterized by the flow of disorganized and unintelligible thought.
As feedback is hardly ever given to students, they never learn how to communicate effectively to their audience. Also, they will not know whether they have been successful in communicating to their audience the ideas from the text they have constructed.
Knowledge of one’s audience is of paramount importance in writing, since the lack of this knowledge will create a gap between the writer and the reader.
Incompetent teachers of writing who are assigned to teach the skill — as has been the case — will not be able to produce competent student writers. It is a common knowledge that teachers who teach writing here are often not practitioners or have few first-hand experiences in writing, either for pleasure or commercially. No wonder, they cannot produce students who can write skillfully.
Probably, not many teachers are cognizant that students’ problems in composing emanate from their unfamiliarity with the conventions of the written language. Thus, it would be fair to say that a student’s lack of ability does not necessarily reflect his or her personal or cognitive inadequacies. Rather, as a renowned linguist Stephen Krashen once said, “”The students have not yet developed a feeling of what good writing looks like.””
A feeling of what good writing looks like can be developed, provided that the students have an awareness of what writing conventions entail. In the academic context, it should be apparent that teachers of writing have the responsibility to encourage their students to develop this awareness so that they can construct a text that hopefully corresponds to their readers’ expectations. This can be done by integrating the teaching of writing with the teaching of reading.
Above all, the true challenge for the teaching of writing is not merely to instill students with theory of writing and linguistic knowledge, but to assist them to negotiate an approximate meaning, and more importantly to take risks during the writing process. In so doing, students will adopt positive attitudes toward the written work assigned to them, and will in the end demonstrate real growth in writing performance.
The writer is a lecturer at the Atma Jaya Catholic University, Jakarta.