EFL Learners’ Backward Writing Skill Transfer (ETA 2010 Conference paper)

 

   Chih-Sung Wu (吳至菘)   Chuen-teng Huang (黃春騰)

National Changhua University of Education

millerandrose@gmail.com  huangtt@cc.ncue.edu.tw

 

Abstract

 

Among the works on EFL writing performance addressing cross-linguistic influences, the focus of much of such inquiry is on what influence EFL learners’ L1 literacy skills would have on their L2 writing, as opposed to how their L2 writing instruction and experiences may influence their L1 writing performance. Motivated by the apparently lacking evidence for the latter type of study on writing skill transfer, particularly the one through a socio-cognitive lens, this study aimed at uncovering the bidirectional transfer of writing skills made by Chinese EFL learners. To unravel this knotty issue, a cross-sectional design with multiple-data analyses was adopted. Methods used for data collection include a pre-writing checklist, post-writing questionnaires, L1 and L2 writing tasks and semi-structured interviews. One group of English major seniors (N=36) and one group of Chinese major seniors (N=34) were recruited for data collection. Both the quantitative and the qualitative data were analyzed to examine the directionality of their writing strategy use. Results of this study showed some traces of bidirectional transfer of their writing strategies. Such a transfer effect is especially evident in their use of rhetorical and socio/affective strategies. Pedagogical implications regarding the linkage between EFL learners’ prior writing experiences and their writing strategy use were also discussed.

 

INRODUCTION

        Second language writing research, due to its multilayered and interdisciplinary nature, has gained increasing recognition. The development of such enquiry is quite diverse, from controlled text-based, discourse-level, process-oriented to social approaches. When looking back at the landscape of L2 writing investigations, researchers have uncovered inspiring some findings, such as the similarities and differences between L1/L2 skilled and unskilled writers. However, these research strands have scarcely clarified the issue of how previous foreign language (FL) writing instruction and experience may affect learners’ L1 writing strategy, and even fewer have taken a closer look at the directionality of such transfer influence. This study, motivated by the limitations of previous studies, thereby purposed to address how Chinese college EFL learners’ L2 (English) writing experiences may influence their L1 (Chinese) writing strategy use.

        Closely related to the development of learners’ writing ability is the writing instructional experience, especially for non-native English speakers who have always grappled with the L2 writing task. The role of prior writing experiences seems hardly overestimated because it could influence or even shape an L2 users’ writing competence. The condition becomes particularly intriguing when we examine whether there is backward transfer in the English-majored and Chinese-majored college undergraduates who possess different amount of exposure to L2 (English) college-level writing training. Although backward transfer itself is by no means a new notion in second language learning, it is rarely explored in the past (Cook, 2003). To date, although multi-competence may be one of the most promising evidence to explain the benefits of L2→L1 effects, previous researchers often treated such a transfer phenomenon as first language attrition (Huang, 2008; Yu, 1994a, 1994b). Thus, such negative influence, mostly found in English-to-Chinese translation, was often termed “Europeanized Chinese” or “Westernized Chinese”. Therefore, how to draw a line between the positive and negative influences of FL on the L1 becomes unsettled and even controversial at best. On the basis of this controversy, this study attempted to reconfirm the effects of L2 learning experience on L1 by probing into how Taiwanese EFL learners, under the influences of their English writing experiences, adjust their Chinese writing strategy use perceptions.

        Based on the aforementioned rationale and purposes, this study raised the following research questions:

 

  1. What English writing strategies are perceived by the subjects to be more likely to be transferred to their Chinese writing?
  2. What may be the conditions that motivate such backward transfer phenomenon?

 

METHOD

 

Subjects

        This study was designed to examine the potential of backward transfer and thus adopted a cross-sectional research design containing a two-staged subject sampling. At the first stage, the participants were 40 English-majored college seniors (English group) and 40 Chinese-majored college seniors (Chinese group) at the same university in central Taiwan. These subjects were selected to examine whether there is backward transfer because of different amount of exposure to L2 (English) college-level writing training. At the second stage, 12 participants from the same two groups were selected to receive the interview to cross-examine with the results found from the first stage.

 

Data collection

        In the beginning, each group of the subjects spent 5 minutes to fill out the Pre-writing checklist before their first guided (L2) essay writing, which lasted for 40 minutes. A week later they were asked to write an L1 essay of similar format to the fist one. Immediately after their completion of each essay, they filled out a writing strategy questionnaire. They were designed to elicit a self-report of their L1 and L2 writing strategy use. Seventy copies of the questionnaire data were found viable and complete. Finally, 12 subjects were randomly drawn from the final 70 students to attend the semi-structured interview.

 

Data Analyses

        After the data collection, 70 pieces of checklists and 140 pieces of questionnaires were compiled for analyses. The quantitative data from Pre-writing Checklist, the post-writing Chinese Writing Strategy Questionnaire and English Writing Strategy Questionnaire were tallied to uncover which writing strategies they had learned before and to see if there is bidirectional transfer between L1 and L2 writing strategy use to answer the research questions. The qualitative data from the interview recordings was used to help interpret how such contextual factors as prior L1 and L2 writing experience mediate the participants’ L1 and L2 writing behaviors. The interview scripts were transcribed verbatim for further analyses.

 

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

 

        The following part reported on the outcomes of the data statistics and the interpretation behind these observed phenomena. The data were presented to answer two research questions, including the subjects’ perceived backward transferred writing strategies and the perceived effects of such transfer phenomenon.

 

Results and findings from the checklist and questionnaire statistics

        The backward writing strategy use is discussed in relation to the degree of transfer, as revealed in Table 1. The Chinese group’s writing strategic competences were moved backwardly in five macro-strategies with different degree. The top-three most easily transferred strategies from L2 to L1 were communicative strategies (57.84 %), social/affective strategies (29.41 %) and metacognitive (27.45 %). In a slightly different distribution, the English group’s top-three most easily backward transferred strategies were rhetoric strategies (68.75%), communicative strategies (59.25 %) and social/affective strategies (45.83 %). The percentage of the English group’s backward strategy transfer was distinctly higher than that of the Chinese group in all strategy items. Some similar and different transfer patterns shared by two groups emerged as well.

        The scrutiny of the pre-writing checklist and the post-writing questionnaire was directed to the result that these two groups of subjects tend to transfer their communicative and

 

  Table 1. The Tendency of the Subjects’ Most Easily Transferred Strategies

Strategy

Sub-strategy

Chinese group (N=34)

English group (N=36)

Times

Total

Times

Total

Rhetoric strategies

Organization

13

37 / 136

(27.21%)

54

99 / 144

(68.75%)

Coherence

24

45

Metacognitive strategies

Planning

7

56 / 204

(27.45%)

27

96 / 216

(44.44%)

Evaluation

34

41

Monitoring

15

28

Cognitive strategies

Generating ideas

11

43 / 306

(14.05%)

24

109 / 324

(33.64%)

Borrowing

4

7

Retrieval

7

11

Clarification

5

9

Sense of audience

4

28

Revising

12

33

Communicative strategies

Avoidance

39

59 / 102

(57.84%)

41

64 / 108

(59.25%)

Reduction

20

23

Social/affective strategies

Cooperation

19

40 / 136

(29.41%)

31

66 / 144

(45.83%)

Resourcing

16

18

Reducing Anxiety

5

17

             

 Note. In “Total” column, the numerator means the total occurrences of sub-strategies and the denominator   

 equals to “questionnaire items multiply subject size.” For example, the denominator in Chinese group’s

 rhetoric strategy means 4 (questionnaire items) x 34 (subject size) =136.

 

social/affective strategies. Insufficient L2 proficiency and prior writing experiences may be two chief reasons. As Schoonen, Snellings, Stevenson, & van Gelderren (2009) indicated, the resource-demanding nature of linguistic processing in L2 composing will limit the possibilities of attending to other aspects of text construction, such as content concerns or general textual features. As expected, insufficient L2 proficiency imposes some obstacles for the subjects who may rely heavily on using communicative strategies to lower the error or avert uncertain L2 usage.

        The tendency of this avoidance behavior carried over noticeably to their L1 writing knowledge was twice higher than using socio/affective strategies (i.e. 57.84% and 27.45%). Their previous L2 writing experiences may play a role here. This can be supported by the interview data. In the Chinese-majored interviewees’ responses, none of them recalled that their senior high school English teachers had instructed them to use peer-review or search for useful resources including collocation or synonym dictionary to assist their L2 writing. The Chinese group’s writing strategic toolbox apparently lacked this relevant repertoire of knowledge and thus decreased the opportunities of socio/affective backward transfer. But the English majors had been instructed either to do the peer-review activity to proofread their written products or to locate some reference books or useful resources to increase the sentence variety. From their responses, we could infer that they have more strategy resource stored in their writing knowledge and are apt to use them to solve problems. This finding suggests that L2 learners with more L2 writing experiences might possess more writing strategic knowledge to solve writing problems in both L1 and L2 writing.

        A striking different transfer phenomenon was also found—the use of rhetoric strategies (27.21% vs. 68.75%). More and more exposure to English is likely to influence the English college seniors’ learning of Chinese rhetoric, while the Chinese counterpart has very few opportunities to touch upon or even write English. As echoed by Lantolf and Thorne (2006) and Sasaki (2007), it is quite possible for a language learner to be influenced by their personal histories of language education. Therefore, the transfer of English into Chinese at the rhetoric level seems inevitable for the English group.

        This preconceived similarity allows the English majors to transfer backwardly the English rhetoric convention into Chinese writing. Some English-majored interviewees also noted that the English text organization is much more logical than Chinese structure and would rather develop one main idea in one paragraph in Chinese writing. The current discovery concurred with previous studies. For example, Liao and Chen (2009) stated, “The finding that Chinese and English rhetoric share many similarities, including global structure, writing strategies, and a linear way of writing…” (P.711). Furthermore, Kirkpatrick (1997) found that the components of Chinese rhetoric mirrored “Anglo-American rhetorical styles.” The similarity in textual features, along with the reinforcement of L2 writing instruction, may have aggravated the tendency for the subjects to transfer writing skills between the two languages.

        To encapsulate, similar backward transfer shared by two groups included the communicative and social/affective strategies, while the different one was the rhetoric strategies. The possible reasons for this difference may derive from their L2 proficiency levels, different exposure to L2 writing experiences and influences of English rhetoric knowledge.

 

Results and findings from the interview data

        Prior to exhibiting the relevant results, the interviewees’ background information was manifested firstly. Subjects all started to write formal Chinese and English composition since senior high school. In their senior school life, they mentioned that little is known about how to write a Chinese composition. The most impressive Chinese writing strategy for them was chi-cheng-chuan-he. The content of Chinese composition training usually proceeded with the assignment of a title and the instruction to write directly with few illustrations of how to use different tactics to compose. Similar responses occurred in their senior high school English composition course, i.e. a composition assignment followed by direct writing and manifestation of good model essays written by peers. A clear organization, different genres and more systematic L2 writing training were specified in English-majored interviewees’ self-reports about college-level writing experiences. The results of the subjects’ perceived effects of backward transfer were revealed in Table 2 and 3 below.

 

 Table 2. Chinese-majored Interviewees’ Backward Writing Strategy Transfer

              Subjects

Strategies

C1

C2

C3

C4

C5

C6

Rhetoric strategies

Organization

 

 

 

 

v(I)

 

Coherence

 

 

 

 

v(I)

 

Metacognitive strategies

Planning

 

 

 

 

 

 

Evaluation

 

v(P)

v(I)

v(P)

 

v(I)

Monitoring

 

 

 

v(P)

 

v(I)

Cognitive strategies

Generating ideas

 

v(I)

 

v(P)

v(I)

 

Borrowing

 

v(P)

 

 

 

 

Retrieval

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clarification

 

 

 

 

 

v(I)

Sense of audience

 

 

 

v(P)

 

v(I)

Revising

 

 

 

 

 

v(I)

Communicative strategies

Avoidance

 

v(I)

v(I)

v(P)

v(I)

v(I)

Reduction

 

v(I)

 

 

v(I)

v(I)

Socio/affective strategies

Cooperation

 

v(I)

v(I)

 

 

v(I)

Resourcing

 

 

 

 

 

v(P)

Reducing Anxiety

 

 

 

 

 

 

 Note. (P) refers to perceived positive influence, (N) perceived negative influences, and (I) perceived

 indifferent influence.

        From examining Table 2, almost all Chinese-majored interviewees, except for the Subject C4, could not discern whether these strategies have any effects on their Chinese writing and thus reported no occurrences of backward transferred writing strategies. But Table 3 exhibited a different picture.

 

Table 3. English-majored Interviewees’ Backward Writing Strategy Transfer

             Subjects

Strategies

E1

E2

E3

E4

E5

E6

Rhetoric strategies

Organization

v(I)

v(P&N)

v(P)

v(P)

v(N)

v(I)

Coherence

 

v(P&N)

v(P)

v(P)

v(N)

v(I)

Metacognitive strategies

Planning

v(I)

 

v(I)

v(I)

v(I)

 

Evaluation

v(I)

v(P)

v(I)

v(I)

v(I)

v(I)

Monitoring

 

 

 

v(I)

v(I)

 

Cognitive strategies

Generating ideas

 

 

v(P)

v(P)

v(I)

v(I)

Borrowing

 

 

 

 

 

v(P)

Retrieval

 

 

 

 

v(I)

 

Clarification

 

 

v(P)

v(I)

v(I)

v(I)

Sense of audience

 

 

v(P)

 

v(I)

v(I)

Revising

v(I)

v(I)

 

 

v(I)

v(I)

Communicative strategies

Avoidance

v(I)

v(I)

v(I)

v(I)

v(I)

v(I)

Reduction

 

v(I)

v(I)

v(I)

v(I)

v(I)

Socio/affective strategies

Cooperation

v(I)

v(I)

v(I)

v(I)

 

v(P)

Resourcing

v(I)

v(I)

v(P)

v(I)

v(P)

v(P)

Reducing Anxiety

 

v(I)

 

v(I)

 

v(I)

Note. (P) refers to perceived positive influence, (N) perceived negative influences,

and (I) perceived indifferent influence.

 

        The distributions of backward transfer for the English group, shown in Table 3, are obviously much more widespread. The interviewees were more sensitive and articulated about the influences of backward transfer, and could specify positive, negative and indifferent transfer phenomena. Based on their overall responses, it was found that rhetoric, cognitive and socio/affective strategies transferred across languages positively, while rhetoric strategies sometimes transferred negatively. Metacognitive as well as communicative strategies were not found to have obvious transfer effect.

        The positive L2 to L1 transferred writing strategies include three types—rhetoric, cognitive and socio/affective strategies. More specifically, the participants consciously sensed that these reverse transfers could help them develop logical thinking, organize their paragraphs purposefully and resort to viable resources to search for more background knowledge or more vivid expressions. As previously stated, the English-majored participants, with more L2 writing training than their Chinese-majored counterparts, tend to backwardly transfer the L2 writing strategies they perceived beneficial to their scant L1 writing knowledge. These positive backward writing transfers could be called for to be implemented in future Chinese writing instruction. The following examples present the subjects’ awareness about these transfer phenomena:

 

        E2: 結構會受影響,我覺得是負面的耶..寫中文覺得表達得太直接會覺得

        不太好中文比較需要華麗的文字修飾覺得正面的部分一段一個

        supporting idea…我覺得這樣寫比較有邏輯…(rhetoric strategy)

            ‘The structure would be influenced…I think it was a negative influence…Writing

        Chinese this way is too direct…I think it is not so proper…Chinese writing

        needs ornamental and fanciful word choice…As for the positive influence…One

        supporting idea in one paragraph…I think writing it is more

        logical in this way…’ (rhetoric strategy)

 

        E4:在對中文寫作方面就是學了英文寫作之後就會在中文裡計劃地計畫

       去發展段落....這是在中文裡實驗到的..(cognitive strategy)

           ‘As for the influences on Chinese writing…after I learned English writing…I

       would plan to develop ideas in Chinese writing…This is what I experimented with

       Chinese composing…’(cognitive strategy)

 

        E6:像我..我都會用peer-review..或者是查一些期刊字典等等..

       決這些問題…(socio/affective strategy)

       ‘Well…I would use peer-review…or look them up from some journals

 or dictionary…to solve these problems…’ (socio/affective strategy)

 

        On the other hand, some interviewees regarded different rhetoric conventions in Chinese and English as negative sources for their written products. In line with Mu’s (2007) and Liao and Chen’s (2009) findings, negative transfers of rhetoric strategies were found evidently in Chinese EFL learners’ L2 writing when they were not reminded of the differences of rhetoric preferences between Chinese and English. The L2 writing experts’ empirical evidence proved this finding again and again; and now, the evidence from the current study also indicates that L2 learners could consciously detected negative effects brought about by the different rhetorical conventions. The detrimental effects caused by L1 and L2 different rhetoric conventions should be cautioned.

        Besides the positive and negative transfer, the third possibility was the indifferent L2→L1 effect. In this condition, the interviewees would consider L1 and L2 writing knowledge as two fundamentally different entities and thus reported neutral or even no occurrences of transferred strategy use, especially for the Chinese-majored participants. The insufficient L2 writing experiences may be the best explanatory variable for these EFL writers. In Kobayashi and Rinnert’s (2008) investigation, participants who merely received English instruction did not develop the perception of L1 and L2 writing knowledge as sharing the similarities and transfer English textual features into their Japanese writing. In the present study, the lack of L2 writing training requires these Chinese-majored interviewees to rely on their earlier junior and senior high school composition training. Moreover, these subjects’ attitudes towards the importance of English also prevented their L2 writing knowledge from transferring into their L1. The interview data manifested that they believed that their Chinese writing ability is much more important than their English composing ability for their future employment (i.e. being a Chinese high school teacher). They were so afraid that their L1 writing competences were “contaminated” by their L2 knowledge that they may subconsciously strive to deter such backward transfer.     

        Through the understanding of these Taiwanese EFL learners’ backward strategy transfer, we are able to see that EFL learners’ foreign language learning context takes some priority to influence or even determine their writing strategy use. To better research the interaction between writing strategies training and the educational context, researchers may further inquire into the role of language learning/use context in how the L1 and L2 interact with each other in language learners’ minds (Collentine & Freed, 2004).

 

CONCLUSION

        The overarching research enquiry of this study was to investigate the relationship among Taiwanese EFL learners’ writing strategy perceptions, previous writing experiences and strategy transfer, especially the backward transfer. A cross-examination via pre-writing checklists and post-writing questionnaires, with the explanatory information of interview data, was implemented to ascertain the occurrences of backward writing transfer. The results were quite observable, especially for the English group who possessed more exposure to L2 and who with higher L2 learning motivation. Through scrutinizing interview data, the research found that possible effects of backward transfer could be categorized into positive, negative and neutral transfers. Despite the undeniable merit of offering valuable insights into the transfer of writing skills, this study has some limitations. More efforts might be called for to control the topic effect, enlarge subject size, rectify insensitiveness of the instrument to probe the L2→L1 effects, and soothe subjects’ writing anxiety in future scholarship.

        Pedagogically, this investigation was able to indicate that developing a solid foundation of L1 writing skills for EFL learners can hardly be overestimated. The insufficient attention paid to the development of L1 writing competence may impede EFL learners’ L2 writing processes. The results of this study indicated some traces of bidirectional transfer across languages. Put it simply, EFL learners may transfer their writing competence from L1 to L2 and the reverse direction, from L2 to L1. The above-mentioned positive transferred writing strategies could be taught in L1 firstly to benefit EFL learners’ future L2 writing developments. Kobayashi and Rinnert (2002) also uncovered this situation. For students who received intensive training on how to express ideas clearly and logically in L1, they performed better sense of coherence in texts than those who received no intensive training in L1 writing. The L1 and L2 classroom practitioners should notice these strategy inventories and impart specifically how to apply these writing strategies. After all, the more auxiliary tools students possess, the more likely they are to utilize to solve their L2 writing problems.

        To conclude, this study has provided further evidence on the influence of EFL learners’ L2 writing training experience on their L1 writing. Perhaps one of the most significant conclusions to be drawn from the findings is that an L2 user could apply their writing skills in two directions. The findings also evidenced that such skill transfer across languages may enhance or hinder the EFL learners’ writing performances in either language. 

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