English as a second language (ESL) first-year university students often face challenges with academic writing because of the linguistic, cultural, and instructional differences between the education system in the U.S. and their home countries (academic writing conventions in English and their first languages). This paper aims to present an ethnography of writing as a framework to familiarize the ESL first-year university students with the basics of academic writing, which directly speaks to the educational, social, and cultural contexts of U.S. higher education. The paper concludes that ESL students benefit immensely from using Grabe and Kaplan’s (1996) ethnography of writing as a framework to introduce academic writing in English to cope with their academic writing challenges.
Keywords: academic writing challenges; freshman ESL learners; ethnography of writing; U.S. higher education; linguistic, cultural, and instructional differences
My Tutoring and Teaching Academic Writing Experiences
I have gotten an opportunity to become an ESL educator for different aged students in different educational contexts. First, I have been an ESL teacher in Nepal. I have taught reading and writing to high school and undergraduate students. Second, I worked as a writing tutor at a regional level teaching university in the Midwestern region of the U.S. I tutored both domestic and ESL international undergraduate and graduate students. Third, I have been teaching reading, vocabulary, and writing courses in the Intensive English Language Program (IEP) at the Midwestern U.S. university for four years. Primarily, I follow a process-based approach (Zamel, 1983; White & Arndt, 1991) and the genre-based approach (Hyland, 2004; Swales, 1990; Tardy, 2008) to teach academic writing to my ESL students who come from diverse educational, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds. I guide my students by helping them explore resources, services, and contacts in and outside of the university. These learning resources are essential to alleviate their academic writing difficulties in the U.S. higher education context (Chauhan, 2021). Sharing experiences of ESL instructors’ academic journey, including coping strategies, is critical to improving their academic writing skills (Odena & Burgess, 2017). However, existing literature shows that academic writing in English is challenging for ESL students at both undergraduate and graduate levels (Chauhan, 2021) because they come from diverse social, linguistic, and cultural backgrounds (Duff & Anderson, 2015). The diversity of their backgrounds can also be an asset to acknowledge and utilize for enhancing their academic writing skills in English.
Nature and Scope of Academic Writing in Higher Education Context
Academic writing (AW) refers to the writing used in the college and university-level writing courses (Johnson, 2016). Additionally, AW has become the primary communication medium between scholars in academic subjects and disciplines in a higher education context (Greene & Lidinsky, 2015). AW is simple, clear, focused, and formal. It is also technical, objective, impersonal, concise, logical, and well-organized. An academic writer must meet genre-specific expectations and stylistic conventions (Ferris, 2018; Giltrow et al., 2014; Osmond, 2016; Starkey, 2015). AW is specific to context, task, purpose, and audience (Ferris, 2018; Grabe & Kaplan, 1996; Starkey, 2015). In parallel with these ideas, Gottlieb and Ernst-Slavit (2013) stated that“[t]he distinct purpose, audience, and context of communication result in clear differences in terms of language use in the selection of words, formality, sentence construction, and discourse patterns” (p. 2). AW is seen differently by scholars based on the features mentioned above. Osmond (2016) argued that AW projects writers’ in-depth knowledge, critical thinking skills, and analytical skills while studying different academic subjects within their disciplines and majors. It is also seen as an inquiry because writers can discover their values, beliefs, strengths, and areas to improve when they engage in the writing process (Starkey, 2015). Grabe and Kaplan (1996) recommended that each writer understands AW from the lens of an ethnographic approach. Echoing similar ideas, Ferris (2018) has summarized the features of successful academic writers and standards of writing used in academia.
Writers must have at least an adequate grasp of the content they are writing. They must understand the rhetorical situation, including the purpose of the writing and the knowledge and expectations of their audience of readers. They need to appreciate the constraints and boundaries accompanying genres, tasks, and text types. Further, writers need advanced control of the linguistic features (vocabulary, spelling, grammar, cohesive ties) and extra-linguistic features (punctuation, capitalization, formatting) appropriate for their text’s content, genre, and target audience. (p. 75)
Ethnography of Writing as a Framework to Introduce Academic Writing
As I mainly tutor and teach academic writing to freshmen ESL first-year university students, I am well acquainted with their writing challenges based on my teaching experience and research study. Current research study has also found that ESL undergraduate students faced many challenges with academic writing in the U.S. university context.
To illustrate, Chauhan (2021) concluded that ESL “undergraduate students experienced academic writing challenges [including] content (gathering information/ideas), organization, academic vocabulary, genre awareness, grammar and mechanics, and citing and referencing sources” (p. 148) because the standards and genre-specific expectations of AW in English are different from those of in ESL students’ L1s (Ferris, 2018; Giltrow et al., 2014; Osmond, 2016; Starkey, 2015).
To address the AW challenges of my ESL first-year university students, I employ Grabe and Kaplan’s (1996) ethnography of writing, which provides a theoretical framework to understand AW regarding its social and cultural contexts in U.S. higher education. Before creating any written text, all writers must ask this fundamental question: “who writes what to whom, for what purpose, why, when, where, and how?” (Cooper, 1979, as cited in Grabe & Kaplan, 1996, p. 203). They further stated that this framework considers academic writing as a combination of writer, reader, subject matter, and text as a writing triangle in which the writer persuades the readers in terms of logos (reason/text), pathos (credibility/writer), and ethos (values, beliefs/audience). Overall, the ethnography of writing is one of the best frameworks to introduce AW to the freshmen ESL students because this framework examines the text’s audience, the writer’s purpose, the genre required by the task, and the situation in which the wiring is used (Grabe & Kaplan, 1996).
Taxonomies of Ethnography of Writing
Grabe and Kaplan (1996) introduced eight types of taxonomies of ethnography of writing to discuss further how this framework operates in a broader academic context. Their framework is further explained together with how I employed this framework to teach writing to my ESL first-year students in a Midwestern U.S. university.
Grabe and Kaplan (1996) state that the first parameter of ethnography of writing is a taxonomy of who, i.e., writers. Knowing the writer and their background is critical to understanding writing well. It is essential to understand whether the individual is a beginning writer or a mature writer and whether the writer is a student who will be evaluated by their teachers or an independent scholarly writer who writes for an academic journal. This background information of the writer influences the audience for whom the writing is produced.
Considering this parameter, I often emphasize the writer’s role in my writing class. As an L2 writing instructor, I know that my students come from different first language (L1) backgrounds. The writing system in their L1s works differently from the writing system in English. I am aware that they are beginner writers in L2 and need more explicit instruction, support, and encouragement from me. I do understand that they are at the initial phase of creating their identity in L2 writing. In the meantime, I am also aware that their authorial voice is critical. So, I orient my students to use academic language and concrete words that embody meaning in the academic context (Bailey, 2018; Brun-Mercer & Zimmerman, 2015; Johnson, 2016), which ultimately helps the writers to make their voices strong. Also, I ask my students to use active structures to strengthen their authorial voice.
The second taxonomy of ethnography of writing is writes, which focuses on the linguistic nature of writing. This taxonomy of ethnography considers the entire process of text construction, its different linguistic parts, and their organization (thesis statement, topic statements, coherence, cohesion, word choice, reference, transition words (Grabe & Kaplan, 1996), sequencing information (Atkinson, 1991), and overall rhetorical arrangement of information (Bruthiaux, 1993). Overall, in the process of text construction, the writer considers audience, purpose, context, and the genre requirement (Grabe & Kaplan, 1996), discipline-specificity, and disciplinarity (Christiene & Maton, 2011; Flowerdew & Costley, 2016). There are two approaches that I use to teach writing: a process-based approach and a genre-based approach.
First, I follow a process-based approach (White & Arndt, 1991; Zamel,1983) to teach writing in my class. For example, selecting topics (they select topics themselves which they are passionate about writing), gathering required information, creating an outline, preparing the first draft, seeking feedback from peers, writing center tutors, and teachers, addressing feedback, editing, and finally submitting the final draft to the instructor for evaluation (Johnson, 2016; White & Arndt, 1991). Each step in this writing process is equally important for them because my students need to undergo various stages of the writing process to write essays. Also, they will receive points for an outline, first draft, and final draft separately.
Another approach that I employ to teach writing to my students in my class is the genre-based approach (Hyland, 2004; Swales, 1990; Tardy, 2008) because genre-based instruction enhances L2 students’ knowledge in four main areas, which include “formal knowledge of target genres’ features and conventions, the process knowledge of the methods used to produce, distribute, and consume these genres, rhetorical knowledge of target genres’ functions, characteristics, strategies, and subject matter knowledge of disciplinary content and skills” (Tardy, 2009, p. 21). By recognising the usefulness of a genre-based approach to writing, past research studies emphasized the responsibility of L2 educators to develop L2 students’ genre knowledge (Ferris & Hedgcock, 2013; Hyland, 2004; Tardy, 2008, 2009). Highlighting the importance of genre, Hyland (2004) stated “to fail to provide learners with what we know about how language works… denies them the means of both communicating effectively in writing and analyzing text critically” (p. 42). As the L2 students are not much acquainted with different types of genres, it is imperative to teach them genre knowledge explicitly. Also, they need to know that written texts are specific to each academic discipline, program, and major (Christie & Maton, 2011; Hyland, 2017).
Therefore, I provide a sample essay to my students, and they are engaged to analyze and identify all parts of the essay. They include an introduction (hook, background information, and thesis statement), three body paragraphs beginning with topic sentences, supporting details (explanations, reasons, examples, data, experiences, observations, etc.), and a conclusion that summarizes the main points of the essay and restates the thesis statement. In doing so, my students internalize all parts of the essay, which will help them to create their essays later. Ferris and Hedgcock (2013) and Tardy (2008) also stress that it is crucial to train beginner writers with skills that enable them to participate in intertextual systems.
The third taxonomy of ethnography of writing is what, i.e., the content or message. Grabe and Kaplan (1996) emphasize that this writing parameter should be described in terms of content, genre, and register. So, this taxonomy of writing seeks to answer these questions: to what extent does the writer need to have background knowledge (content) to create a particular text, what type of texts does the writer produce, and in which fields they are used? The what aspect of writing “must take into account the phenomenological world (a theory of world knowledge), a theory of genre, and some specification of register” (Grabe & Kaplan, 1996, p. 205). In other words, the writer’s background knowledge (schema theory) is crucial in this taxonomy of writing because it provides the writer with the knowledge of the genre and the techniques to organize academic discourse for a specific purpose (Grabe & Kaplan, 1996; Swales, 1990). So, it is critical for ESL writing instructors to allow their students to choose their topics to write.
In my writing class, I do not assign any essay topics to my students. Instead, I provide them with the freedom to choose their topics themselves because I want to promote social justice in my writing class. I also encourage them to choose a topic based on their background knowledge because it is difficult for them to write on a topic that is entirely new to them. For example, the student majoring in Finance ended up choosing a topic from their field, such as Three Ways to Make Money Legally in the U.S. However, the student who is specializing in Sports Management wrote Three Strategies to Improve Cricket. Unlike these two students, the next student who is majoring in Nursing decided to write on Three Benefits of Homemade Breakfast. Besides that, I also provide them with a sample essay to follow because I follow a genre-based approach to teaching writing. This approach allows them to be acquainted with the framework of a text used in the academic context. In doing so, they can write their essays on their topics by following sample essays given to them.
Another powerful taxonomy of writing is to whom, which refers to the audience. Grabe and Kaplan (1996) call it a theory of audience or readers because the audience is always at the center of creating a text. Also, the audience plays an essential role in the meaning-making of the text. The writer needs to ponder some of these questions regarding the audience. Are the readers known or unknown to the writer? If they are known, how close or distant are they? How much-shared knowledge exists between the readers and the writer in general? How much-shared knowledge exists between them on a particular topic. Grabe and Kaplan (1996) further state that the audience’s parameter influences the writer’s writing, including the number of persons who are expected to read the text, the extent to which the readers are known or unknown to the writer, the level of status (can be either higher, equal, or lower) between them, the extent of shared background knowledge between readers, and the extent of specific topical shared knowledge between readers and writers.
Building on Grabe and Kaplan’s (1996) framework, recent research studies also highlighted the role of the audience. Before the author writes any text, they need to consider their audience because the type of audience determines their writing (Swales & Feak, 2012). Similarly, Kirszner and Mandell (2015) argued that while writing any text, the audience should be kept in mind because they determine the purpose of the paper. While writing, academic writers envision a specific audience who share knowledge regarding a topic or issue they are writing about (Grabe & Kaplan, 1996; Singh & Lukkarila, 2017). Realizing the significance of to whom parameter, I often ask my students to decide their audience because it is critical for them to know who is going to read their essays. They know that two types of audience read their essays. They include their classmates and their instructor/s.
For What Purpose
As its name suggests, this taxonomy refers to the purpose of producing a text. Grabe and Kaplan (1996) state that every written text is created purposefully. They add that when the writer thinks of purpose, they need to ask these questions: to what extent is it possible to define purpose in a writing task? Are there single or multiple purposes in the task? How does purpose interact with genre and audience? As most writings are meant for audiences, they expect the purpose of the paper when they read them. Therefore, most writers mention their goal of writing to facilitate the readers to make better meaning of the text.
Before writing anything, the writer should be clear about the purpose of writing. Kirszner and Mandell (2015) argued that it is the purpose that limits the writer what to say and how to say it. According to Bailey (2015, 2018), there are three main reasons for writing: (i) to argue on a subject of common interest and give the writer’s view, (ii) to report on a piece of research study and create some type of new knowledge, and (iii) to synthesize research conducted by others on a topic. So, AW is unique because the writer shares inquiry-based knowledge to inform a particular academic community (Singh & Lukkarila, 2017). Considering this taxonomy, all writers need to know the purpose of the academic texts they are writing.
In keeping in mind this taxonomy, I mention to my students that each piece of writing has a certain purpose. My students mostly write five types of essays, and these are five-paragraph essays. For example, when they write a cause-and-effect essay, they show cause and effect relationship of a particular topic. However, when they write a descriptive essay, the purpose is to describe a place, person, object/thing, and process. Unlike these two essays, when my students write classification essays, the objective is to describe three main categories of a particular topic in an interesting way. For example, one of my students chose to write on Three Types of Roommates, whereas another student was interested to write on Three Types of Cell Phone Users.
According to Grabe and Kaplan (1996), the notion of why people write refers to underlying intentions or motives that may or may not be revealed by functional purpose. However, if the writer’s motive is apparent, it helps the readers comprehend the text better. Therefore, genre-based texts overtly express the writer’s motive to facilitate schema instantiation. So, the why component of writing depends on the paper’s audience, topic, and purpose.
In order to make sure my students maintain the why component in their writing, I encourage them to engage in peer review. When they participate in the peer review process in different phases of their writing, they are provided with opportunities to read their course mates essays. In doing so, they not only write on only their topics but also get an opportunity to read and offer feedback on their classmates’ essays. First, they are provided with a checklist (based on a rubric) and asked to give feedback focusing on higher-order concerns such as content/ideas, organization, and vocabulary because they play an important role to convey the writers’ message to their readers. Then, they also give their feedback concentrating on lower-order concerns such as grammar, mechanics, and formatting.
When and Where
According to Grabe and Kaplan (1996), this parameter refers to text creation’s time and place. This taxonomy of writing plays a more minor role than the rest of the taxonomies. However, its relevance depends on the type of text. For example, in official emails and letters, the date and place they are sent may be more critical for both the writer and receiver (reader).
In my writing class, when the parameter is crucial for my students because every writing assignment has a fixed deadline to complete and submit to me. The deadline is clearly mentioned in my writing course which every student is provided with both printed and digital copies of the course syllabus on the first day of the class each semester. Also, the deadline for each writing assignment is also mentioned on D2L (an online learning platform used in most U.S. universities and colleges). My students strictly follow the deadline to submit each writing assignment. If students are unable to submit their writing assignments due to any unexpected circumstances, they inform me via email and request an extension of the deadline. In that case, I extend the deadline depending on each student’s situation. In that case, I also provide additional time for individual conferencing with that student to support their writing development.
Although this is the final parameter of the writing’s ethnography, this is probably the most important because it examines how the text is created. Therefore, this parameter is also called “a theory of online writing production … or a theory of writing process” (Grabe & Kaplan, 1996, p. 213). Mainly, there are two things this parameter emphasizes. First, writing is a recursive process because the writing process stages, namely planning, drafting, revising, editing, and sharing, do not come in a neat linear sequence. Instead, the writers move backwards and forward several times to create a text (Hyland, 2003; Zamel, 1983). Next, the cognitive mechanism remains at the center of this parameter because it “provides [the writers with] the means for exploring notions such as audience, content, and writer intension from a composing perspective” (Grabe & Kaplan, 1996, p. 213).
This parameter is crucial for my students. For each writing assignment, they must go through all writing stages. They also know each stage has its significance in terms of learning and assessment. For example, they are aware that they cannot create a good outline without gathering sufficient information on a topic. Similarly, no good first draft can be written without a good outline. Without seeking and addressing feedback on the first draft, the final draft does not turn out to be perfect. My students understand this process; therefore, they love to follow all phases of the writing process because they receive separate points for outlines, first drafts, and final drafts.
To sum up, I have found that Grabe and Kaplan’s (1996) ethnography of writing is a useful framework to introduce AW to my ESL first-year university students. My students have developed an understanding of the basics of AW after I employed this approach. This framework has been very effective for me for two reasons. First, this framework promotes the teaching and learning of AW by asking the ESL students to analyze the writer’s process before composing any written text. As Paltridge (2017) stated, the students are asked: “to undertake any analysis of the context in which the text they are writing occurs and consider how the situation in which they are writing impacts upon what they write and how they write it” (p. 12). Second, this approach considers the intended audience, their background knowledge, values and understanding, conventions, genre awareness, and discipline-specificity and disciplinarity (Christie & Maton, 2011; Paltridge, 2017) because of people working in the academic community share “ideas, beliefs, values, goals, practices, conventions, and ways of creating and distributing knowledge” (Flowerdew & Costley, 2016, p. 11). Therefore, the ESL writing instructor’s responsibility is to train first-year university students to familiarize themselves with these elements when writing for academic purposes.
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Author’s Bio: Dr Padam Chauhan works as a Retention Specialist for the International Center and an ESL Instructor for the IEP at Minnesota State University (MNSU), Mankato, Minnesota, USA. Prior to that, Padam worked as a Writing Consultant for MNSU’s Writing Center. He has earned MEd in English Education from T.U., Nepal, MA in TESOL, and EdD from MNSU, Mankato. Before joining MNSU, Mankato, he taught ESL at the high school level and served as a high school (10+2) principal in Nepal. Padam voluntarily served NELTA Central Committee as its member, treasurer, and general secretary. Padam has presented at the NELTA, IATEFL, TESOL, AAAL, and TESL conferences in Nepal, the UK, the USA, and Canada. His current research interests include academic reading and writing, Writing Center tutoring pedagogy, and equitable access to English language education.