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Unpublished
Title of Study: Essay writing and Decoding Strategies

Team Members:
Mathew Lim (Team Leader)
Ruth Fung
Norzian Mohamed Yunos
Ali Sharif
Muhamed Khairul
Claudine Fernandez
Mary Choo

School: Tampines Junior College (Singapore)


Department: Humanities

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INITIAL REFLECTIONS
A common problem found in student examination essays for Humanities and
the Arts subjects, such as Theatre Studies, History, Literature and Art, is that
students are unable to achieve the rhetorical goals set out by the examination
questions. Often, there is a disjuncture between the questions‟/ examiners‟
expectations and the students‟ responses. Notably, although conscientious
students might produce syntactically fluent responses and demonstrate
substantial mastery of content knowledge, their essays reveal their
insensitivity towards tasks expectations. In some other cases, students might
have a tacit appreciation of the question but produce inarticulate or facile
responses to the essay questions. Ultimately, these students will not be
awarded high marks for the essays they attempted.

Traditional pedagogies to help students improve their essay writing skills in


Humanities subject include the error-focused and modeling approaches:
Humanities teachers often correct errors made in the essays and, where
appropriate, punctuate their essays with annotated feedback. These teachers
might also provide „model‟ answers or outlines in the hope that students would
„model‟ the answers made by the teachers in future essays.

Even though these traditional approaches may be efficacious in guiding


students, they normally benefit students who have already developed the
cognitive and genre sensitivity in tackling questions. For the weakest students
however, teachers sometimes find that students merely regurgitate
preconceived answers from „model‟ answers or outlines with little or weak
attempts in addressing a newly encountered question in a satisfactory manner.

In order to help students meet the expectations of the essay questions and
demands of examiners, there must be an approach that aid students in
developing a global level cognitive and genre acumen in analysing and
addressing examination essay questions

PLANNING
After rounds of deliberations and discussion, we devised a set of decoding
strategies to help students analyse essay questions in the hope that they
could produce relevant and focused responses to essay questions.

Literature Review

The decoding strategies are based on a few theoretical assumptions, mainly


the cognitive process of writing and the genre approaches to writing.

Cognitive Process of Writing

In a seminal work on the cognitive process of writing, Flowers and Hayes (1981)
stress the need to consider a framework of writing that captures “the inner process of
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the person producing it” (Flower & Hayes, p.367). From their analysis of the „inner
process‟ of mature writers, they have found that these writers are always influenced
by the complex interplay of three elements of writing: the task environment, the
writer’s existing knowledge of the subject-matter or topic, and the writing processes.
The interplay of the three elements is shown in diagram 1:

Diagram 1 (Flowers & Hayes, p.370)

Flowers and Hayes further add that the most important part of writing is the task
environment, which, in itself, is a rhetorical problem, comprising a prescribed topic,
the implicit writer-audience‟s relationship and the exigency of the writing task.

While Flowers and Hayes present a generic view of the writing process, examination
writing tasks tend to present different challenges to student writers. Firstly, the
rhetorical problem is defined by the examination question and the exigencies are the
examiner‟s expectations of the students‟ written responses. Concomitantly, the
audience is the examiners themselves. Secondly, for most Humanities and Arts GCE
„A‟ Level examination sittings, students are normally expected to complete an essay
within a time limit (e.g. forty-five minutes). Therefore, given the time constraint
under examination condition, students normally start off with quick planning before
translating the plan into actual written work, with limited time for monitoring and
almost no time for reviewing. Thirdly, students have to tap into their long-term
memories, which include their understandings of the subject, their content knowledge
or any other earlier written work or plans, harnessing them to meet the demands of the
rhetorical problem. In sum, even under an examination setting, there are, in Flowers‟
and Hayes‟ own words, essentially three forces “struggl[ing] for influence” (p.380), as
represented by the diagram 2 :

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Diagram 2: The cognitive process of writing under examination condition. Modified from the diagram
by Flowers and Hayes. (p. 37)

From the above analysis, we may also conclude that mature student writers who do
well for in a written examination is able to deal successfully with these three forces of
writing. One essential reason for this success is that mature writers are able to
interpret and define the rhetorical problem of an examination question, and in turn
derive clear rhetorical goals that meet the examiners‟/audiences‟ expectations
(Flowers and Hayes, p.369, 377; Chandrasegaran, 2000, p.25; Chandrasegaran et. al,
2007, p.4). Conversely, we are also find that weak students, even if they are well-
versed in their content knowledge, are unable to cope with these three forces,
resulting in a misfit between the students‟ responses and the rhetorical problems at
hand (Chandrasegaran, 2000, p.25).

As a prescription, a set of cognitive strategies of „decoding‟ could be introduced that


demonstrates the cognitive operations of a successful student writer in dealing with
the rhetorical problem and formulating rhetorical goals (Chandrasegaran, 2000, p.36),
especially at the „Planning‟ stage of the writing (given also that the time for reviewing
and monitoring is limited under examination condition). Moreover, with regards to
Humanities and Arts based examinations, these decoding strategies may also allow
students to relate the established rhetorical goals to relevant subject-specific or topic-
specific content knowledge from the writer‟s long-term memory. (See Annex A:
Guidelines on the „Decoding Strategies‟ for more elaboration)

Genre Approaches to Writing

The genre approach to writing is based on the assumption that examination essays are
communicative events that seek to meet „genre‟ expectations of the examiners. By
„genre‟, we mean that there is a tendency for a written text or essay to lean towards
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certain stable linguistic patterning or stable rhetorical structure and style that is
expected by particular discourse communities. Quality marks will inadvertently be
achieved if students are able to produce essays that meet genre expectations, since
examiners themselves are often part of these discourse communities.

While mature writers, such as teachers—who are „socialised‟ into the conventions,
norms and practices of particular discourse communities (e.g. academic writings on
History, Literature and Theatre Studies etc.) through their continuous exposure to the
various subjects (Chandrasegaran et al., p.5)—area easily able to producing written
work that meet genre expectations, students preparing for „A‟ Level examinations
may not have sufficient exposure to reenact conventional genre practices. It may be
further added that examination rhetorical questions themselves are laden with prompt
or instructional words that constitute genres in themselves (Horowitz, 1989). Again,
while teachers who possess sound genre acumen have no problem providing
satisfactory responses to these rhetorical questions, the same could not be said of
students who lack genre „conditioning‟.

Proponents of genre-based approaches have thus devised a „Curriculum Cycle‟ to help


students bridge the genre expectation gaps (Callaghan and Knapp, 1989; 1993—cited
in James et al., 2007; Hyland, 2003, p.26). This cycle involves three stages:

1. Modelling
2. Joint Negotiation of Meaning
3. Independent Construction

The first stage has already been frequently practiced by Humanities and Arts teachers
wherein they provide additional notes, supplements and model essays, in the hope that
students would be exposed to characteristics of the genre in question. The third stage,
Independent Construction, assumes that students have acquired the relevant genre
acumen and able to produce decent essays with little support or scaffold from
teachers. As most students are still at early stage of learning the genre, this
necessitates the teacher‟s intervention at the second stage, or the „Joint Negotiation of
Meaning’, in which the teacher provide support and scaffold to help students meet the
genre expectation.

In this regard, the recommended „Decoding Strategies‟ primarily obey the principles
of the second stage, the Joint Negotiation of Meaning. The decoding process requires
the teacher to first analyse the „prompt‟ or „key‟ words found in the examination
question. Then, by relating to the relevant content material delimited by the „key‟ or
„prompt‟ words, the teacher will in turn scaffold possible linguistics and rhetorical
responses that students could use to demonstrate genre sensitivity. The teacher might
also tap on student‟s register or schematic knowledge of the topic, “act[ing] as a
scribe for the class group and shap[ing] the students‟ contributions into… text[ual
responses] which approximate to the genre under focus.” (LERN, 1990, p.11—cited
in Hyon, 1996, p.704) (See Annex A: Guidelines on the „Decoding Strategies‟ for
more elaboration).

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Measurement of Outcomes

We had planned to introduce the decoding strategies to both JC1 and JC2
students doing the Humanities and Arts subjects. To ensure that the
outcomes of our interventions are specific and measurable for the first cycle of
action, we formulated a marking scheme to assess the qualities of students‟
introductory paragraph from a sample of 6 to 10 students per subject at the
pre and post-intervention stages.

Marking Scheme
Not achieved Partially achieved Achieved
Testing Rubrics (1 mark) (2 marks) (3 marks)

A) The student manages to


address the question with a
clear thesis statement?
B) The student correctly
spells out the scope of his
discussion as required by the
question.
C) The student used words
or phrases to show his or her
appreciation of the relevant
content and the topic in
general

At the pre-intervention stage, we carried out a diagnostic test of our students‟


introductory paragraph which they had written in their tests or assignments.
After exposure to the decoding strategies, we conducted a post-intervention
test by getting the sampled students to write another introductory paragraph
and, using the same mark scheme, measure their written pieces against the
pieces that they had written earlier for the diagnostic test.

It should be noted that we were unable to introduce control groups in our


testing due to the involvement of the various Humanities subjects with
distinctive Schemes-of-Work and differing class sizes. To reinforce the
reliability and validity of our testing using the marking scheme, we also
conducted surveys to find out the students‟ opinions and attitude towards the
decoding strategies.

ACTION

We began the implementation of the strategies in Term 2 and Term 3 of the


work year. As the Learning Circle team comprised teachers from various
Humanities subjects, mainly Literature, History, Theatre Studies and Arts, with
different schemes-of-work, implementation was staggered over the two terms,
and embedded in tutorial lessons with both content and pedagogical focuses.

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OBSERVATION

Test Indicators
The results of the pre- and post-intervention stages using the marking scheme
are shown below:

Value-
Mean marks (Pre- Mean marks (Post- added
Subjects and Level Intervention Test) Intervention Test marks
JC2 International History 5.1 6.75 1.65
JC2 South-East Asian
History 4.9 6.1 1.2
JC2 Literature 4.1 6.8 2.7
JC1 Literature 5.2 5.9 0.7
JC2 Art 4.2 6.2 2
JC2 Theatre Studies 3.5 7.1 3.6

In general, the teachers noticed substantial improvements in the writing of the


essay introductions. It should be noted that out of the three Testing Rubrics,
students were able to score the best in Testing Rubric A (refer to the Marking
Scheme) as they were able to produce clearer thesis statements that
addresses the rhetorical problems. We thus surmised that teachers had
successfully assisted students in analysing prompt words and identifying
rhetorical goals via thinking aloud, Socratic questioning and explicit teaching.

Some students nevertheless did not do as well for Testing Rubric C as they
lacked insufficient genre-content exposure or familiarity to demonstrate genre
sensitivity. For JC1 Literature, the result of the post-intervention was not as
significant because students misinterpreted the content of an unseen text on
which the students‟ essays were based.

Still, teachers pointed out that while students generally wrote better essay
introductions, the actual marks of their entire essays did not show a
corresponding improvement. Perhaps more time could be spent on helping
students develop body paragraphs using the decoding strategies

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Students‟ responses

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Mean Responses Index (MRI)

JC2 JC1 JC2 Theatre Average


No. Survey Questions History Literature Literature Art Studies MRI
The question analyses techniques
are easy to understand and
1 apply. 3.6 2.8 2.75 3.2 3 3.07
The question analyses techniques
have helped me to under the
requirements of the essay
2 questions. 3.5 3.1 2.75 3.2 3 3.11
The question analyses techniques
have helped me to write better
3 introductions for my essays. 3.4 2.9 3 2.8 3 3.02
The question analyses techniques
have helped me to produce good
paragraphs for the rest of my
4 essay. 3.2 2.8 2.75 2.9 3.2 2.97

From the survey, it is shown that overall students had positive opinions of the
decoding strategies that were introduced by their teachers. Students mostly
believed that the decoding strategies were well explained and easy to follow
and that, in the words of one student, they were better able to “organise their
thoughts.”

Nevertheless, some students admitted that they still encountered difficulties


producing coherent body paragraphs that meet genre and rhetorical
expectations. They generally felt that more practices were required before
they could produce sound written paragraphs even if they were aware of the
decoding strategies.

Teachers‟ responses

Teachers who introduced the decoding strategies in their classes also found
the strategies to have positive impacts on the students‟ writing as it provided a
systematic framework and scaffolded support for students to analyse
questions and plan their essays.

However, similar to the feedback given by some students, teachers also


revealed that students faced particular challenges harnessing the decoding
strategies consistently to write good paragraphs under test or examination
conditions. The ability to enact rhetorical or genre responses were also
delimited by students‟ differing cognitive abilities or different degrees of genre
and content exposures.

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Mean Responses Index is calculated by averaging the scores of the perceptional responses
to the survey question, using the following scores distribution: Strongly Agree, 4 points;
Agree, 3 points; Disagree, 2 points; Strongly Disagree, 1 point.
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CRITICAL REFLECTION

Previously, Humanities teachers often struggled to teach both their students


essay writing skills as they were an inadequate understanding of the cognitive
and social nature of writing. At the same time, there was a lack of
collaboration between Humanities teachers in joint pedagogical studies as
every Humanities subject focused on different genre and content expectations.

By approaching our studies from the cognitive process and genre approaches
to writing, we were able to establish a set of decoding strategies as a common
basis of our studies in the teaching of essay writing, demonstrating the
possibility of collaborative research across different subjects and disciplines.

Basing our observations on the test results and students‟ and teachers‟
responses, we were convinced of the merits of teaching the decoding
strategies in lessons to improve their qualities of students‟ essays, and that
teaching of the decoding strategies should be continued in future classes.

Limitations and looking forward

The lack of uniformity in prescribing decoding strategies to students was one


clear limitation of applying common strategies among different humanities.
Apart from genre-subject specific differences, teachers from the same
subjects, such as Literature and History, also had their individual genre or
stylistic preferences. For better students, they welcomed the exposures to a
greater variety of stylistic responses which they could possibly harness in their
writing. Conversely, weaker students were occasionally confused by the
variegated approaches prescribed by the teachers. These confusions arose
mainly because students did not have the meta-cognitive abilities to
understand the „whys‟ of writing.

While there is no easy solution to the abovementioned problem, it was agreed


that there must be an equal emphasis on fostering students‟ meta-cognitive
thinking, including the understanding of:

1) Who my audience is.


2) The possible rhetorical expectations of my audience.
3) The possible genre expectations of my audience.
4) How my writing could best meet the rhetorical expectations.
5) How my writing could best meet the genre expectations.
6) How I could constantly stay focused in meeting rhetorical expectations.
7) How I could constantly stay focused in meeting genre expectations.

Undeniably, developing metacognitive abilities posed an additional challenge


to teachers. This challenge was amplified by the need for constructivist
awareness of the students' backgrounds, learning needs and learning styles.

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To deal with this challenge and looking forward, teachers might want to
design scaffolded worksheets, utilise ICT tools or develop other creative
methods to sharpen students' metacognitive acumens as complements to the
teaching of the decoding strategies. Some possible examples are shown in
Annex B.

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Annex A: Decoding Strategies

For this strategy, the teacher demonstrates, though explicit teaching and
thinking aloud, how a question could be decoded using the whiteboard or
powerpoint.

Othello is said to explore the


“man as devil, woman as angel”.
How far do you agree with this
Prime example
comment? turns
Appear
•Agree that the comment
largely… Diabolical See glimpses of
Fiendish Gender lines Draw (audience‟s)
•Comment oversimplifies. ..omit
significance nuances Poison minds attention to
Savagery Characters are…as..
•Comment fails to take into
Violence
account
“false as hell”
Significant to note Darkness Faithful,
•Appear…in every sense Demonic Kind, pure-hearted
•True to some extent
“fire and brimstone” “grace of heaven”
Misogynistic, Generosity of spirit
•Useful comment… Verbally abusive Good and Benevolent
•Not accounted by the given Shrewish, adulterous Divine; divine harmony,
comment Ugly deeds Angelic qualities
Blood Beautiful images
•Comment glosses over
evil good

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The decoding processes include:

Step 1 : Decoding prompt words

Decode „prompt words‟ to explicitly spell out the rhetorical goal(s) of the
question. This could be done by translating the „prompt words‟ into various
statements or phrases to ensure that the lexico-grammatical structures that
the students use interface with the question.

•Agree that the comment largely…


•Comment oversimplifies. ..omit
significance nuances
•Comment fails to take into account
Significant to note
How far do you agree
with this comment? •Appear…in every sense
•True to some extent
•The comment glosses over
•Useful comment…
•Not accounted by the given comment

Understandably, „prompt words‟ are meant to elicit students‟ responses to


relevant content knowledge and are hence never truly divorced from content
material. Hence, the teacher might also want to demonstrate how relevant
content knowledge can be embedded into these statements or phrases as
well

•Good guide for understanding


the play
•Comment oversimplifies the
How far do you agree play. ..omit significance nuances
with this comment?
•Appear angelic in every sense
• Go beyond the basic
opposition…which are not
accounted by the given comment

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Step 2 : Decode important „key‟ words

To help students further make sense of the question requirement and


determine the scope of discussion, the teacher would demonstrate the
decoding of the other key words found in the question. This process firstly
equips students with a repertoire of words and phrases which they could use
to further exhibit their ability to meet rhetorical and genre expectations.

Prime example
turns
Appear
See glimpses of
Explore Draw (audience‟s)
attention to
Characters are…as..

Secondly, this process potentially allows students to demonstrate their


sensitivity towards the relevant content and their appreciation of the
genre/subject/topic. The teacher may decode the cue words by linking them
with associated words or phrases (i.e. paradigmatically sense related words,
such as hyponymy, meronymy, synonymy, antonymy) found frequently found
in the content material. Teachers might also tap on students‟ schematic
knowledge by eliciting their responses to these key words.

Diabolical, Fiendish, Poison minds


Devil Savagery, Violence, false as hell”,
Darkness, Demonic, “fire and brimstone”
Misogynistic, Verbally abusive
Shrewish, adulterous, Ugly deeds, Blood

Faithful, Kind, pure-hearted, “grace of heaven”


Angel Generosity of spirit, Good and Benevolent,
Divine; divine harmony, Angelic qualities
Beautiful images

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Step 3: Translating the decoding process into actual text

After decoding, the teacher needs to demonstrate how the decoding


processes could help students write better introductions. Prior to this,
teachers would have already pre-taught the basic components of an
introduction (e.g. Background to the question, Interpret the question, Thesis
statement etc.). The teacher shall then demonstrate how an introduction
could be derived and formulated from the decoding processes. Alternatively,
the teacher could highlight selected words from a sample introduction and
explain how these words are derived from the earlier decoding process.

Othello is said to explore the


“man as devil, woman as angel”.
How far do you agree with this
Prime example
comment? turns
Appear
•Agree that the comment
largely… Diabolical See glimpses of
Fiendish Gender lines Draw (audience‟s)
•Comment oversimplifies. ..omit
significance nuances Poison minds attention to
Savagery Characters are…as..
•Comment fails to take into
Violence
account
“false as hell”
Significant to note Darkness Faithful,
•Appear…in every sense Demonic Kind, pure-hearted
•True to some extent
“fire and brimstone” “grace of heaven”
Misogynistic, Generosity of spirit
•Useful comment… Verbally abusive Good and Benevolent
•Not accounted by the given Shrewish, adulterous Divine; divine harm ony,
comment Ugly deeds Angelic qualities
Blood Beautiful images
•Comment glosses over
evil good

Sample Introduction
It is tempting to see Othello as a play
where the battle between good and evil
are played along gender lines, and we
see “man as devil” and “woman as angel”.
After consideration, I do agree that the
comment largely provides useful
framework to understand the play.
Unfortunately, it also oversimplifies the
play by omitting significant nuances, as
will be explained as the essay continues.

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Annex B: Examples of methods to foster meta-cognitive thinking

Example 1: A template with meta-cognitive guidelines is used to help students think


about the genre and rhetorical expectations.

Example 2: The interactive whiteboard is used to promote meta-congitive thinking of students’


with visual or kinesthetic learning preferences. In this slide, students are tasked to label the
different parts of the introduction using the highlighting or colouring functions.
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Example 3: The Web 2.0 online tool Webspiration provides a platform for students to practise
applying the decoding strategies visually and collaboratively. Note that Webspiration also
allows students to instantaneously transform their mindmaps into an actual essay outline.

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References

Chandrasegaran, A., Chua, F. D., & Kong, K. M. C. (2007). From theory to


instructional materials. In Applying a Socio-cognitive Model to the
Teaching of Expository Writing. Paper 1: Symposium conducted at the
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http://conference.nie.edu.sg/2007/paper/html/LANSY004.html

Chandrasegaran, A. (2000). An analysis of obliqueness in student writing.


RELC Journal, 31, 23-44.

Flowers, L. and Hayes J.R. (1981). A cognitive process theory of writing.


College Composition and Communication, 32, 365-387.

Horowitz D. (1989). Function and form in essay examination prompts.


RELC Journal, 20, 23-35.

Hyland K. (2003). Genre-based pedagogies: a social response to process.


Journal of Second Language Writing, 12, 17-29.

Hyon, Sunny. (1996). Genre in three traditions: Implications for ESL.


TESOL Quarterly, 30, 693-722.

Literacy and Education Research Network (LERN). 1990). A Genre-Base


Approach to Teaching Writing, Years 3-6: Book1. Introduction.
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James, J. E., Chua, F. D., & Lim, P. L. P. (2007). A pedagogy for shaping
Student thinking and genre practice. In Applying a Socio-cognitive Model
to the Teaching of Expository Writing Available from:
http://conference.nie.edu.sg/2007/paper/html/LANSY004.html

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