Background, problem , Methodology, and Findings
Thesis Title: Investigating Sudanese EFL Learners’ Written Discourse Competence: The Case of the Fourth Year English Students at Some National Universities
Awarding Institution: University of Khartoum
Supervisor: Dr. Leoma Gilley (Ms, American), then Professor of English at the University of Khartoum
Pages: 2000+ appendices
This dissertation was an attempt to investigate the composing competence of the Sudanese EFL learners who were preparing to graduate with a BA degree in English. In general, the students were exposed to a variety of writing courses and a number of language and literature courses, which can collectively contribute to enhance the their performance in writing. In this sense, this research is evaluative in nature: it attempts to assess the extent to which the students have benefited from their skills, linguistics and literature training in improving their composing skills, bearing in mind that writing was a major and often the only assessing medium of the students’ performance.
Generally speaking, language skills are classified along a number of guidelines. One such classification puts listening and reading as passive or receptive skills while speaking and writing are listed as active or productive skills. There is no implication in this classification that certain skills category is superior to the other. However, ELT history does not seem to reinforce the idea that language skills are of equal status. For instance, during the 1920s up to the early 1940s, the dominant reading method, as its name suggests, emphasized the reading activities in the classroom. The 1950s and 1960s, on the other hand, witnessed the prevalence of the listening and peaking skills over the other skills owing to the influence of the audio-lingual teaching method. In each case, writing was considered an auxiliary practice that would reinforce the classroom practice pertaining to these skills (Freedman et al 1883:187; Silva 1990:11-18). Also, Rivers (1981:241) points out that during the audio-lingual era writing skills functioned as “ the homemaid of the other skills which must not take precedence as major skills to be developed, and that they must be considered as a service activity rather than an end in itself” (p. 258). It was only in mid-1960s that writing became autonomous. This period was associated the emergence of the current-traditional rhetoric whose prime emphasis was on developing writing skills as a separate area of language learning.
The closing decade of the twentieth century witnessed a considerable body of research on the written production of the Sudanese EFL learners. However, it can be argued that no research was carried out from proper writing perspective. In other words, there were two ways that researchers adopted in approaching learners’ written production but neither can be said to give a satisfactory explanation of the students’ writing. First, some researchers conducted studies where limited aspects of students’ writing were considered. For instance, Gaibir (1995) investigated the use of cohesive devices only in the writing of the Sudanese university students. While such a study can give insight into writers’ use of cohesive devices, it is not always the case that these devices can alone account for the overall writing quality. It is true that research results have shown that there was correlation between writing quality and the use of cohesive devices, (cf. Jonz 1987 as quoted in Braima 1995), but is unknown whether the use and/or non-use of cohesive devices is the only index of writing quality.
Secondly, research investigated learners’ writing from contrastive and error analysis perspectives (Attia 1990; Mohammed 1995; Ibrahim 1995). The problem with this kind of research is that it did not go beyond the sentence level. Grammatical competence, no doubt, has a role to play in the students’ writing. But emphasis on the structure of individual sentences will overshadow certain writing aspects that have come to be known as discourse markers, discourse coherence and discourse mechanics. Moreover, researchers seemed to be exclusively concerned with giving theoretical frameworks that have nothing to do with writing. In other words, research focused on concepts pertaining to contrastive and error analysis rather than informing of what was involved in writing skills. It can, then, be argued that none was apt to be classified as research proper on writing skills. Viz. researchers did not approach learners’ writing as an end in itself; rather, they employed writing to test certain hypotheses that were contrastive and error analysis-based.
However, since 1970s linguistic interest has shifted from approaches that centred upon linguistic competence to those that have advocated communicative competence. Such scholars as Hymes (1979), Van Dijk (1972) and halliday (1979) seriously questioned the structural and transformational concern with two concepts: linguistics sentence-based descriptions and linguistics competence. Language has come to be conceived as “meaning potential” (Halliday 1979: 27), and that language use to negotiate meaning exceeds the well-formedness of the relevant structure to include their acceptability (Hymes 1979:18). Furthermore, Van Dijk (1972:3) argues that sentence-based descriptions of the structures underlying utterances are inadequate. He, therefore, maintains that the concept of “text” has been introduced as the basic linguistic unit, manifesting itself as discourse in verbal utterances. Technically, this area has been named in a variety of ways including text linguistics, discourse analysis and discourse linguistics – these are mostly used interchangeably in the literature.
The introduction of text linguistics has had far-reaching consequences for writing pedagogy. The influence of Halliday’s systemic linguistics has particularly been acknowledged by writing theorists as a crucial factor that has further given impetus to the functional approach to the written text (Couture 1986:1).Couture reports that the systemic “view of language as social semiotic has dramatic consequences for scholarly investigation of written discourse”. If this turn out to be convincing, Couture maintains, then writing researchers “must break down barriers within traditional investigatory fields that limit” their examination of language in three ways. First, researchers should reconsider the explanation of lexical and syntactic components, and propose, instead, a textual explanation that ‘must account for the semiotic system that language creates and extra-textual meanings referenced by language” (p. 2). Secondly, researchers should conceive of the text as a communicative event rather than something that illustrates a theoretical point. Third, researchers “must seek heuristic universals in explaining textual functions”, i.e. they should seek to develop an adequate functional theory of language that unites speakers, listeners and situation, and also seek the semantic resources. Xu (1991) points out that text linguistics moves the focus of inquiry from the sentence to the text and examines the text as acts of communication rather than individual, static sentences. It investigates textuality rather than grammaticality. Viz. it looks into the relationship between sentences that makes the text coherent. An important feature of text linguistics, Xu maintains, is the way it approaches the text as the product of interactive operations between a variety contextual components.
The study materials were originally written answers to final examinations held in the academic year 1989/1999 at three academic institutions: University of Khartoum (50 answer books), Omdurman Islamic University (forty-nine answer books) and Al-Nilein University (fifty answer books). Answers to one question only in each examination was considered in assessing the composing competence of the relevant group. The rationale for gathering research data from ready-made materials was given impetus by the fact that students would be motivated to perform at their best on a final examination, whereas performance on voluntary basis would be less careful. As to the examinees, all of them were fourth year English students, completing their second semester and preparing to graduate with a BA in English
Major discourse-related findings:
1. 1. The materials were characterized by lack of use, misuse and overuse of written discourse properties, which eventually reduced the overall writing quality.
2. 2. Average student’ writing was characterized by a variety of coherence breaks whether in terms of misleading paragraph division or irrelevance.
3. 3. The study showed serious cohesion errors. Reference and conjunction errors, particularly, stood out as the most mishandled cohesive devices. It also showed that students avoided using substitution and ellipsis. Mishandling of cohesive devices resulted either in unintelligibility or monotony in the relevant texts.
4. 4. Contrary to the view that communication can be achieved at the expense of linguistic competence, many examples showed that the communicative value of the relevant texts was blocked by ill-formed grammatical and textual structures.