Informal Essay

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I received an education from elementary school through college in Shanghai, China. As Shanghai is an international city, its education authorities greatly value the importance of English learning and English is thus one of the mandatory subjects taught beginning in elementary school. Chinese students can score high marks and even outscore native English speakers on tests such as the GRE and GMAT, but on writing sections, Chinese students’ performance lags far behind the average. Why does this happen? What should be the proper teaching strategy in an ESL/EFL writing classroom? This paper shares my perspectives on English writing, teaching, and learning, based on my own experiences.

My English writing classes started in middle school. Before that, my English classes mostly emphasized the teaching of vocabulary and grammar. However, even though I was now a middle school student, English writing was still not treated as an important part of English learning. There was no separate English writing class. Once or twice every month, my English teacher would give us a 40-minute English writing lecture. The ironic thing is, as I see it today, this lecture was still more of a reading class than a writing class, because most of the time my teacher would assign us a certain amount of reading, ask us to underline the sentences we thought were “good” and write them into our notebooks. Although I agree that reading is the foundation of writing, I disapprove of this way of teaching writing. In my second year of middle school, teachers started to “formally” teach writing. We would be given certain simple topics to write about such as “The most unforgettable thing in your life” or “My family”. To begin the writing task, my teacher would first read several examples and carefully help the class analyze why each composition was excellent and explain what we should be aware of when writing about this topic. Another thing worth mentioning is that these examples were usually assigned as rote learning. The only criteria for a composition included length, absence of spelling or grammar mistakes, and the use of new vocabulary. As we can see, the content of the compositions was completely overlooked; instead, grammar and vocabulary alone still played the key roles in our writing education. Limiting the scope of this paper, I will not continue on with a summary of my high school and college English writing education, because I believe these early experiences already suffice to represent the usual methods of teaching writing in China. Today, whenever I reflect on my past learning experiences in writing, I meet with some difficult emotions. I can say I am a skilled writer in my native language, but I still lack confidence in English writing. I feel I am a victim of English education in China because I always have a hard time outputting what is in my mind with decent English. Whenever that difficulty arises, I feel awful, as if I am linguistically and cognitively deficient. Also, having been educated for so long in China, where repeatedly writing model compositions is the fundamental approach in improving writing, another weakness of my writing is its lack of creativity and critical thinking. My thoughts are restricted into a limited space and I am just accustomed to recalling whatever is already filed in my repertoire of writing expressions, drawn from those model compositions. One year ago, I enrolled in a GRE writing course in Shanghai to prepare for my GRE test in which the only materials handed out were two books. One was a 28-page book with all kinds of model sentences this organization had arranged in a list, and the second was a thick book covering all the likely topics (about 130 topics in all) to be tested in the GRE writing section with sample compositions. Although the instructor offered some insightful writing skills, the implication was obvious to everyone—for those unable to write a composition themselves, just repeat the sample sentences...
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