>> Sunday, November 8, 2009
It all started at a meeting to moderate how we mark our midterm essays. Eight benchmark essays were sent to us the day before and I was the only one who knew the scores awarded to each essay. My team of six members got through the first three essays without any hangups or major differences in scores we gave for each. The FOURTH one left us confused and divided. The confusion – partly because everyone in the team agreed that the essay deserved a non failing grade as indicated by the senior tutors. The student writer showed some understanding of how to organize ideas in paragraphs and connect ideas to the topic.
The essay, however, did not have explicitly written thesis statement and topic sentences. Clara, one of the teachers pointed out that the student writer’s lack of “thesis statement” was actually made up by a group of key phrases and sentences in the introduction that he or she explains later on in the essay. Clara added that she thought that this was a very creative student writer. But Walter, another teacher argued, “Isn’t that against what we’ve been teaching our students here – to have a sentence at the end of the introduction and a sentence to indicate controlling idea in each body paragraph? Alicia, another teacher interjected and said that she had not heard of thesis statement and topic sentences until she started teaching with us. One other member in the team agreed with Alicia. That comment threw me as I thought anyone having taught EAP would know the importance teaching these elements especially to novice writers.
Hours later …
I was in the midst of marking my stack of essays when I came across an essay that generally read well but had similar problems with benchmark essay # 4. What seemed to be a thesis statement was spread over two sentences in the middle of the introduction paragraph and the paragraphs had implied main ideas in them. With everyone else out administering an exam of sort, I had to approach Alicia for a second marker’s opinion.
As we were discussing our scores for this essay, we couldn’t help but refer back to our discussion earlier this morning. Alicia felt that teaching students thesis statement and topic sentences would only stifle their creativity as writers because she found it too prescriptive. She further added that topic sentence are not always present in all paragraphs written in academic journals so our students should not be expected to do it. My counter argument to that was teaching these elements would help give students a good base for organizing their ideas in an essay. Right at that time, another teacher, Joanna walked into the office. She shared Alicia’s opinion and added that she had learned to write academic essays through “osmosis” – analyzing and following how other writers write. In other words, professors did not prescribe what student essays should have even though they were in their first or second semester at the university. My question to the both of them was “Can this “osmosis” or non prescriptive method of teaching essay writing work for ESL/EFL students?”
Joanna said, “Well experts in the ELT field are in two camps on that one, so how can we ever know?” I was also struck by another thought - while we have always been focussing on training non-native students the skills of academic writing in EAP, how do native speaker students pick up the skills?