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The Sample Approach: Teaching riting ith Cam!ridge "#amination
Classes
Nigel Harwood, Canterbury Christ Church University College, UK
This paper argues that the three principal methods of teaching writing, the product,
process, and genre-based approaches, are not mutually exclusive. Neither is adhering
to just one of any of the three approaches always appropriate given a teacher's
circumstances. It is claimed that in ambridge examination classes these approaches
can be combined and implemented as The !ample "pproach, which developed out of
the traditional product concept of using models for the students to imitate. #ather than
exemplary pieces of text, however, the approach uses deliberately flawed 'samples'.
1. INTROUCTION
The aim of this paper is to argue that neither of the two approaches to writing which have
predominated in English Language Teaching (ELT) contexts-the product and process
approaches-can fully meet the needs of learners taking writing examinations such as those which
are a feature of the Cambridge irst Certificate! "dvanced! or #roficiency papers$ "fter providing
a brief outline of the various difficulties which the teacher will typically be forced to confront
when preparing an examination writing class (section %)! the tenets of the product and process
approaches are summari&ed (section ')! before a third approach to the teaching of writing is
described! which emphasi&es genre and academic convention (section ()$ " brief review of the
literature on the use of models in the ELT writing classroom follows (section ))! before the
*ample "pproach is exemplified via material written for a Cambridge "dvanced examination
class (section +)$ *ection , defends the material against criticisms commonly levelled at taking a
more conventional model-based approach! and section - closes with a summary and some
concluding remarks$
!. "R#$%" &RITIN' ( $ R#$% C%$))ROO* )ITU$TION
.orowit& (/0-+1 /(/) recounts an exchange which took place at the TE*2L 3-) conference
during a round table discussion on writing1
4*5peaker after speaker stressed the need for students to produce multiple drafts of papers in order
to allow the process of evaluation to go forward$ "t one point! someone in the audience asked the
panel to relate this dictum to essay examination writing$ 2ne of the members of the panel! having
no ready answer! simply dismissed examination writing by claiming that it was not 3real3 writing$
.owever 3real3 we 6udge such writing to be! the fact of the matter is that for many ELT teachers
around the world! 3helping students pass exams3 is probably a fairly accurate 6ob description$ 2r
at least this is how the directors of the teachers3 institutions-and some of their students-see their
teachers3 role$ *ince 7 anticipate some readers of this paper in more privileged positions ob6ecting
to this assessment! 7 now sketch out a typical scenario in institutions where 7 have worked which
will hopefully illustrate the necessity of using an exams-based approach to the teaching of
writing at times$
7t is early-to-mid-2ctober$ 2n the first day of the new term! 7 find myself with a class consisting
of students who (it rapidly transpires) have scraped a pass at irst Certificate level8 or! indeed!
have not even taken the CE exam in the first place$ 9hat a number of them have in common is
that
(i) they are poor writers
(ii) they write as infre:uently as possible in academic contexts! even in their own language
(iii) they are only ac:uainted with (as opposed to being comfortable with) the conventions which
lie behind only a limited number of genres and text types in English (formal and informal letters
and discursive compositions! perhaps)$
The C"E exam is in ;une! or! if 7 am particularly unfortunate! in <ecember! seven weeks away$
<espite the fact that 7 already know after one or two classes 7 would advise a good proportion of
them to defer! it will make no difference1 the students have already registered for the test$ =et!
according to the CAE Handbook (/00-1 /0) they could be asked to write any of the following1
• newspaper and maga&ine articles
• contributions to leaflets and brochures
• notices
• announcements
• personal notes and messages
• formal and informal letters
• reports
• reviews
• instructions
• directions
• competition entries
• information sheets
• memos
>y 6ob is to try to e:uip these learners for the task$ *omething drastic is needed?
"s if all of the above were not formidable enough! consider also the constraints of the actual
examination situation$ Learners are given little time to respond to and write about the topic in
:uestion8 and the topic itself is normally more or less predetermined! since learners are given
only a limited amount of choice regarding the sub6ect of their text$ =et as we shall see when we
review the insights which the process approach has given us into the way text is composed in
section ' below! there is an inherent contradiction between the way that! on the one hand! the
writer needs time to work through the recursive! convoluted writing process! and personal
investment in the text to ensure the writer3s voice will emerge8 and on the other hand! the harsh
reality of exam conditions and simply 3getting through3 the test1
@4"5s test topics are rarely ones with which students become personally engaged! the concept of
in:uiry! of discovering meaning! becomes moot in the context of the timed writing assessment$ @
*imilarly minimi&ed! too! is the role of revision as an integral part of the recursive writing process$
The testing situation precludes substantive additions! deletions! and shifts in organi&ational
structure! changes which@are dependent on the amount of time students have to explore their
ideas@ $ Test situations@allow students to make at best a few surface changes after they have
hurriedly completed their essays$ Thus! in most timed writings! the recursive nature of the revising
process@is reduced to an occasional notation in the margin@ (9olcott /0-,1 (A-(/)
Before 7 present an example of the approach which 7 believe at least partially resolves this
contradiction! however! 7 discuss the product! process! and genre approaches to writing in more
detail$
+. TH# ,ROUCT ( ,ROC#)) $,,RO$CH#)
>indless! repetitive! anti-intellectual@ The product approach to writing has been accused of all
of these$ 7n EL contexts it was rooted in Behaviourist Theory1
The learner is not allowed to 3create3 in the target language at all@4T5he use of language is the
manipulation of fixed patterns8@these patterns are learned by imitation8 and@not until they have
been learned can originality occur@ (#incas /0+%1 /-)-+)
The approach seemed willing to sacrifice learner motivation at the altar of this 3correctness3$
9hen would the 3patterns3 #incas talks of ever be sufficiently mastered to allow for meaningful
student involvementC The approach merely resulted in 3mindless copies of a particular
organi&ational plan or style3 (Eschhol& /0-A1 %()8 and the entire activity of writing was seen as
3an exercise in habit formation3 (*ilva /00A1 /')$
.airston3s (/0-%) seminal paper pointed out further flaws in the product paradigm$ #roponents of
the product approach viewed the composing process as linear! proceeding 3systematically from
prewriting to writing to rewriting3 (.airston /0-%1 ,-)$ .owever! their assertions were based on
intuition rather than on solid research evidence (.airston /0-%1 ,-)! and when the actual
composing process of writers was analy&ed it was found to be in no way linear1
49riting5 is messy! recursive! convoluted! and uneven$ 9riters write! plan! revise! anticipate! and
review throughout the writing process! moving back and forth among the different operations
involved in writing without any apparent plan$ (.airston /0-%1 -))
The product approach led students and teachers to believe that the planning stage began and
ended in the initial period of composition$ =et in reality! not only did proficient writers 3rehearse3
what they wanted to say before any plan was produced! but also planned throughout the writing
process rather than exclusively at the start (Damel /0-')$ Esing a process approach! this finding
was easily transferable to a classroom context where the rehearsal stage could be simulated in the
form of discussions between learners! or between learners and the teacher! at any stage of
composing (;ohnson /00+)$ 7n addition! it was felt that the product approach! while allowing for
a certain amount of revision! seriously underestimated the importance of rewriting generally$
Effective revision would only result from a proper appreciation of the audience the writer was
addressing (lower and .ayes /0-A) and a preoccupation with ensuring the text was reader-
friendly and easy to follow$ Teachers needed to cultivate a sense of responsibility in their learners
for being one3s own critic (9hite and "rndt /00/)$ Fot only did this mean that multiple rewrites
were preferable to the single rewrite which the product lesson normally limited writers to! it had
far-reaching implications for the teacher3s role$ 9hereas the teacher was concerned with
grammatical accuracy in the product classroom! the preoccupation with clarity! organi&ation! and
true self-expression in the process lesson meant that the onus was now on the teacher to
facilitate, rather than merely judge student writing (;ohnson /00+8 Gillingsworth /00')$
-. TH# '#NR# $,,RO$CH
"n approach to writing which stresses the importance of the particular genre the student writer is
attempting to approximate has much in common with what *ilva (/00A1 /+-/,) calls the 3English
for academic purposes approach3! where
learning to write is part of becoming sociali&ed to the academic community-finding out what is
expected and trying to approximate it$ @The reader is a seasoned member of the hosting academic
community who has well-developed schemata for academic discourse and clear and stable views
of what is appropriate$ The text is a more or less conventional response to a particular task type
that falls into a recogni&able genre$
Hecently there have been a number of corpus-based studies of academic writing (e$g$ .yland
%AAA! %AA/8 *alager->eyer /00(8 *wales et al /00-8 Tang I ;ohn /000) which have deepened
our understanding of the salient features of some of these genres! and which have also
strengthened the case for taking a genre approach to writing$ This is because the diversity of
linguistic features and rhetorical structures from genre to genre revealed by corpus data was
perhaps formerly underestimated$ 7n short! the genre approach teaches us that readers have
certain expectations about what writing in a certain genre will look like! both in terms of
organi&ation and linguistic features$
To summari&e! 7 maintain that while an emphasis on the writing process can offer our learners
many valuable lessons! exam class situations such as the one described in section % above re:uire
something rather distinctive$ 2wing to its reliance on samples and models! traditionally seen as
part of the old product paradigm! together with its incorporation of a review stage associated
with the process methodology! 7 claim this *ample "pproach is an example of a
3genreJproductJprocess3 slant on writing! or what <yer (/00+1 '/+) has called a 3process-product
hybrid3$ .owever! there have been a number of criticisms levelled at the use of written models in
the classroom which are now reviewed before 7 exemplify the *ample "pproach$
.. $ CRITI/U# O0 TH# U)# O0 *O#%) IN TH# &RITIN' C%$))
Eschhol& (/0-A) details various criticisms of using a model approach to writing instruction1
• >odels have the potential to intimidate students! since they are :uite clearly of a higher
:uality than the class themselves can produce
• The models chosen may be inappropriate to the learners3 needs in terms of length and style
• *tudents should be given the chance to engage in the writing process themselves before they
are presented with an ideal
• The study of models can result in the learner sacrificing content to style1
By studying forms and organi&ational patterns first students come to see form as a mold into
which content is somehow poured@4*5tudents have no commitment to what they are writing! and
care only for how they write it$ (Eschhol& /0-A1 %()
• " model approach can mean time which could have been spent investigating the writing
process is spent on reading the models
• The writing process is ignored as the finished product gets priority1
7n essence students are encouraged to know what their essays should look like before they have
written them@all before writing the first sentence of what should be an exploratory rough draft$
(Eschhol& /0-A1 %))
*imilarly! 9atson (/0-%) raises an additional concern1
• The classic 3product approach3 to writing involved students more or less copying or
manipulating the model in various ways1 turning declaratives into interrogatives! for
example$ "s a result! not only is the language produced patently inauthentic! but 3the risk of
boredom is great3 (9atson /0-%1 0)$
.owever! while both Eschhol& (/0-A) and 9atson (/0-%) underline the pitfalls of an approach to
writing which involves the slavish aping of models! they nevertheless come down in favour of
using them to teach composition! 9atson (/0-%1 /') describing them as 3an indispensable
resource3$ 7ndeed! many well-known advocates of a process approach also accept that models can
enhance writing instruction1
475t is important for us to preserve the best parts of earlier methods for teaching writing1 the
concern for style and the preservation of high standards for the written product$ 7 believe we also
need to continue giving students models of excellence to imitate$ (.airston /0-%1 --)
4"5 place exists for a model! but of an abstract kind$ The model is not to be mimicked! but is to
offer a means of organi&ing ideas in a culturally appropriate manner$ (9hite /0--1 /%)
*o it is not a :uestion of being in one camp or the other1 the productJprocess approaches are not
irreconcilable$ 7t is rather a :uestion of how! not whether! to use models1 how to use them
effectively while avoiding the dangers Eschhol& (/0-A) and 9atson (/0-%) identify$ 7 will return
to these warnings later in this paper and attempt to show how 7 believe my materials have
avoided these dangers$
1. *O#%) ( )$*,%#)2 TH# )$*,%# $,,RO$CH IN $CTION
Before providing material which typifies my approach! 7 should first differentiate between
models and what 7 call 3samples3$ By models! 7 mean 3ideal3 compositions which the students
would do well to utili&e and exploit for the purposes of their own work$ These contain no known
generic or structural 3errors3$ .owever! 7 prefer a more critical! discovery-led approach initially
focusing on various samples1 that is! specially-prepared texts composed by the teacher of! or
supposedly of! a certain genre for the class to evaluate! which intentionally fall foul of what I
have found from marking students' scripts to be some of the more common eam 'pitfalls'.
.ence igures /-( below consist of a typical Cambridge "dvanced Examination (C"E) :uestion8
an intentionally flawed sample text 7 have written in response to this :uestion8 worksheets which
ask the learners to evaluate and identify the strengths and weaknesses of my sample text8 and
teacher3s notes which summari&e briefly the sample text3s main strengths and weaknesses$
The sample text (igure %) is of the brief note or message genre the C"E candidate is expected to
have mastered$
$igure %& Typical "' Notes()essages *uestion
=ou are studying English at your local college$ "s part of the course you have to do a pro6ect on the different types
of English spoken around the world$ =ou have received three notes connected with your pro6ect$ Head these notes
carefully! and then! using the information in the notes! write the letters listed below$
Fow write
(a) a note to the English library (write about 50 words)
(b) a note to ;ane (write about 50 words)
(c) a letter to Chris *mith (write about 150 words)
igure % below comprises the intentionally flawed sample text 7 composed in response to
:uestion (b) in igure / above1
$igure +& !ample note, written in response to part ,b- of $igure % above
lat /'%!
*tudent .alls!
*t ;ohn3s College!
2xford$
'rd >arch %AA%$
;ane!
Thank Kod for your letter?
Like you say! 73ve 6ust got too much stuff to do$ "nd yesterday! guess whatC The
library informed me the book 7 re:uested would take between - and /A weeks to
arrive?
*o please tell Chris this is what 7 need to know about1
- 9ords J idioms only used in .ong Gong
- #ronunciation
- Krammar
- "nything else he thinks would be relevant
Thanks a million?
Gate
#*
2h-73ve only got a few weeks left-so 73d appreciate it if he3d get a move on?
105 words
igure ' asks learners to grade the sample text in igure %1
$igure .& !tudents' tas/s centred on the sample note
i) <iscuss the strengths and weaknesses of the note in groups! then
mark it out of ) according to the categories in the table below$
3.
$,,RO,RI$C4 O0 )T4%#
OR'$NI5$TION
%#N'TH
R#%#6$NC#2 O#) IT $N)&#R TH# /U#)TION7
ii) Fow state the main strengths and weaknesses of the note1
$A%& ST'"&(T)S
$A%&
"A*&"SS"S

inally! igure ( provides details of what are! in my view! the main strengths and weaknesses of
the sample text$ 2nce the learners have attempted to evaluate the sample and identified the text3s
strengths and weaknesses individually and in groups! the teacher could use the notes below to
ensure learners have at least identified the most salient points1
Figure 4: Brief teacher's notes on the tasks
$A%& ST'"&(T)S+ %n,ormal language wor-s well here ./Than- (od/0 /Li-e you
say/0 /stu,,/0 /guess what1/ etc2 + (ood openings3closings .c,.
/4ane/ vs. /5ear 4ane/0 /PS/ etc2 + List o, !ullet points
$A%&
"A*&"SS"S
6uestion has !een misinterpreted: this part o, the tas- is not to
get 4ane to write to Chris7 !ut to than- 4ane ,or suggesting
Chris as a source o, in,ormation 1 Address unnecessary
Language !ordering on rude in places: .e.g. as-ing 4ane to tell
her uncle /to get a move on/2 1 Lac- o, interest a!out 4ane
could !e seen as o,,ensive 8ar too long
8. 9U)TI04IN' TH# )$*,%# $,,RO$CH
7 now return to Eschhol&3s (/0-A) and 9atson3s (/0-%) criticisms of models and defend my
*ample "pproach against some of the criticisms made$
• !odels have the potential to intimidate students, since they are "uite clearly of a higher
"uality than the class themselves can produce
ar from being intimidating or of a vastly superior :uality! my samples intentionally include
what 7 have found to be the classic 3traps3 students can fall into when attempting to compose in
the specified genre$ The sample text 7 have included here (igure %)! for instance! makes the
common mistake of misreading andJor misinterpreting the rather complex situation and task-a
mistake! in fact! many of my students have made when 7 have set them comparable C"E writing
tasks in the past$ *ince the evaluation of samples is carried out in pairs or groups at some stage!
the class very rapidly establish they are not dealing with towering models of excellence$
• #he models chosen may be inappropriate to the learners' needs in terms of length and style
The samples tackle each writing type as specified in the examination rubric in turn$
• $tudents should be given the chance to engage in the writing process themselves before they
are presented with an ideal
Clearly the *ample "pproach does not present an ideal for the class to imitate8 rather! it
encourages active criticism and indirectly promotes the interaction of the reader with the text! a
tenet of process methodology$ This in turn should eventually lead to students becoming better
critics of their own work (cf$ 9hite and "rndt /00/)! as they come to reali&e clarity of meaning
can be elusive$ .owever! we should beware of necessarily subscribing to Eschhol&3s views here
in any case$ 9hile models may intimidate and interfere with the learners3 composing process if
presented at the beginning of the lesson! 7 do not believe this is inevitable$ Both native and non-
native speakers can learn much from examining samples of texts from genres with which they
are unfamiliar! 3adopting and adapting3 them to meet their needs rather than by slavishly copying
them (lowerdew /00'8 Tribble /00+)$ The fact that 7 ask learners to compose in the given genre
after criti:uing my flawed samples ensures that! while they are now familiar with some of the
genre3s conventions! the danger of mindlessly imitating the texts they have been provided with
has been avoided due to the samples3 many (deliberate) imperfections$
• #he study of models can result in the learner sacrificing content to style
7 refer here to the classroom scenario 7 described earlier in section %$ 2ne of my priorities in this
situation is to e:uip the class with a working knowledge of the genres they will face on the day
of the examination$ 7ndeed! 7 see the *ample "pproach as acknowledging the importance of both
style (see the 3appropriacy of style3 and 3organi&ation3 categories in igure ') and content (see the
3relevance1 does it answer the :uestionC3 category)$ 2f course! the charge could be made that
there are more categories concerned with style than content here$ "ccordingly! the teacher could
add a 3content3 category to the learners3 task in igure ' part (i) to redress this perceived bias$
• A model approach can mean time which could have been spent investigating the writing
process is spent on reading the models
7 believe the time students spend reading my flawed samples is time spent investigating the
(examination) writing process! since the categories the learners use to evaluate the samples
(3"ppropriacy of *tyle3! 32rgani&ation3! 3Length3! etc$ (igure ')) focus the class on the practical
aspects of writing an examination task successfully (.ave 7 answered the :uestionC .ave 7
organi&ed my answer correctlyC etc)$ "lthough a writer in a non-exam situation may not ask
themselves the same :uestions (especially with regard to! say! the length of the text! since writing
a formal letter in a non-examination situation does not confine the writer to a predetermined
number of words)! this is part of 3the writing process3 where exams are concerned$
• #he writing process is ignored as the finished product gets priority
3The finished product3 in this case is a sample which! despite having strengths! will also have
been roundly critici&ed by the class in terms of both style and content$ .ence its weaknesses
mean there is nothing 3finished3 about it! as the learners are well aware$ By focusing on possible
improvements! the process rather than the product is to the fore$
• #he classic 'product approach' to writing involved students more or less copying or
manipulating the model in various ways% turning declaratives into interrogatives, for
eample& As a result, not only is the language produced patently inauthentic, but 'the risk of
boredom is great'.
9hile the class may exploit some of a sample3s strengths in subse:uent compositions! this is
clearly more than mimicry$ The very fact that the *ample "pproach is so obviously based around
the examination in :uestion should increase the learners3 motivation and the task3s face validity$
:. CONC%U)ION
The *ample "pproach! 7 believe! combines aspects of the three prevalent orthodoxies of writing
methodology! the product! process! and genre approaches$ Like the #roduct "pproach! it provides
the learners with a form of textual input8 like the #rocess "pproach! it recogni&es the importance
of composing reader-friendly text! and of peer consultation to facilitate this8 and like the Kenre
"pproach! it acknowledges the fact that readers have certain expectations of how a text will look!
and that learners would do well to familiari&e themselves with these generic conventions$ #art of
the appeal of the *ample "pproach lies in its economy and efficiency1 it is extremely effective
when time is short and many text types need to be mastered$
inally! a word about the classroom scenario 7 described$ or the record! 7 am no fan of exams in
general or writing exams in particular-perhaps examination writing is not in fact 3real3 writing$
=et unless conditions change! many teachers around the world will be obliged to deliver a
consistent approach to teaching exam writing$ The *ample "pproach offers a possible way
forward$
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