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Cultural Root

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Culture Root and Academic Writing: Factors That Influence Chinese International Students’ Academic Writing at Universities in North America

By Lan Zhong University of Windsor

Cultural Root Abstract In this paper I examine the three major factors that influence Chinese international students in academic writing: culture, education, and language. The aim of the paper is an

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attempt to understanding the challenge of Chinese international students in academic writing. I conclude with educational implications that students should be aware of challenge based on difference of cultures, educational experiences, and language backgrounds; they should positively modify their approach of attending classes, learning strategies, and to learn ways of developing arguments and presenting ideas in order to adjust their study in a new country without losing their own cultural values. The conclusion also implies the significance for professors both in China and North America to develop the strategies and practice to finding ways of helping Chinese international students writing academically and learning successfully in North America.

1999. physical problems. 1997) in North America. 1996. Hayward. . Silva 1993. 1992.. Gadman. Researchers (e. In other words. Chinese international students have to struggle with resolving difficulties both on an academic level and on conflicts due to cultural. Dong. Ballard & Clanchy. 1995. who are required to do academic writing in English (Dudley-Evans. 1994. and linguistic backgrounds than other students.Cultural Root Culture Root and Academic Writing: Factors That Influence Chinese International Students’ Academic Writing at Universities in North America Introduction 3 There are increasing numbers of Chinese international students studying at universities abroad.. educational experience in the home country. 1995). who have different cultural backgrounds. 1991. As an international Chinese student. 1995). Connor & Kramer. 1998). Zhu. Blunt & Li. 1992).g. the differences between the first language and the target language. There has been considerable research on ESL composition processes by college ESL students (e. educational backgrounds. 1998. and students’ previous knowledge of grammar and writing skills. and slow academic development. 1985. such as Europeans (Casanova & Hubbard. 1997) state that the native culture and the target culture (Kaplan. Brools. but until recently. as they attempt to meet academic writing requirements (Thesen. 1995). educational and linguistic differences. I deeply understand the challenges in academic writing encountered by many Chinese international students as I do. little has been written about ESL graduate level students’ academic writing (Casanova. and how this challenge impacts Chinese international students’ study in North America. Crow & Peterson. Academic writing is not easy for most native speakers.g. It is more difficult for Chinese international students. Failure of the successful academic writing may lead students to emotional stress. low self-esteem. Zamel.

Culture Kaplan (1966) is the first author to state that people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds organize discourse differently. However. Moore and Morton (1999) studied the written genre and text at undergraduate and postgraduate levels in Australian universities. research proposals. according to Hale et al. This aim of this paper (together with follow-up papers) is to contribute to Chinese international students learning successfully. summaries. (1996). in ways that reflect their own language and culture. few in-depth studies have examined the factors which influence Chinese international students’ academic writing. Kaplan (1996) illustrates graphically typical various modes of discourse structure by speakers of several languages as below. in physical and mathematical science and engineering. in social sciences and humanities. The most common written genres for course assignments. include documented essays.Cultural Root 4 influence the graduate second language students’ academic writing. They found that the common written genres include literature reviews. I explore some of the factors that challenge Chinese international students in academic writing. summaries. 2001). . Academic writing in this paper refers to the course assignment writing and the research proposal for a thesis or dissertation (Hu. plan/proposals and book reviews. In this paper. expositive and argument essays are frequently required. and short answers which require reproduction.

1994. values. and language use of ESL/EFL learners. Yu. Wierzbicka. Traditionally. Although this work has been viewed as generally too simplistic. 1995. 1966). That is. 43). Mohan & Lo. 1988). Confucianism sought to teach the proper way for all people to behave in society.Cultural Root 5 The above graphics demonstrate that the “Oriental” pattern including Chinese is an inward turning spiral (Kaplan.” “Tao” in the Chinese language means “way. That is viewed as inductive. Wierzbicka (1990) states the relationship of language and culture: “Differences in the ways of speaking prevailing in different societies and different communities are profound and systematic. 1996. Taoism believes that everything we know is encompassed in nature. 1990) have explained the influence of cultural thinking patterns on the worldviews. Confucianism and Taoism mainly shaped Chinese culture. they do open up what has become a fruitful discussion about the nature of different writing patterns in different cultures. and ruler-subjects-involved a set of obligations. which shows direct. . Confucius claims social harmony and the building of ethical virtues. while writing in English prefer to present the main point at the beginning. Since then researchers (McLoughlin. 1985. which would lead to a just and harmonious society. McLoughlin (1995) holds that traditional writing in Chinese discussed the subject from different angles but in indirect way. and reflect the different cultural values” (p. Confucius is the representative of Confucianism (Chan.” indicating a way of thought or life. while the Anglo pattern is linearity. He claimed the proper patterns to be obedience and loyalty of inferior to the superior: each relationship--husband-wife. behaviors. everyone restrains his or her ego and absorbed the supreme order of ritual. run according to the “Tao. and circular approaches to the topic. The universe and all things in it. The central idea of Taoism is to promote the inner peace of individuals and harmony with nature (Berling. parents-children. 1982). indirect. Wang.

but also as a principle of discourse organization at the text level. (2) put the important word and idea to the end. people should be selfdiscipline. Chinese writing system. condition. As McLoughlin (1995) states that paragraph organization and overall coherence also reflect cultural variation in thinking and logic.(2001) state that “the syntactic organization of discourse follows a modifier-modified unit” (P. To avoid expressing what they want to say overtly and openly. Taoism believes that everything in the world is wholeness and connected. both in spoken and written language. Chinese traditional culture not only influences people’s behaviors. but also the writing system. Chinese writers tend to put the less important first. often places the key words or important ideas towards the end of the sentence or paragraph (Wang. is mainly featured as following: (1). 1991). 1991). Using long sentence. Confucianism advocates social harmony. 1998) when people express their ideas.Cultural Root 6 In sum. ways of thinking patterns. Thus. Chinese logical structure. 420). Wang (1991) states that Chinese rhetoric patterns tend to produce longer orientation to the theme of a sentence or discussion than English native writers. sentences with complex clauses. and avoid being too aggressive and offensive. obedience and loyal to the superiors. and gradually express the main ideas to invite easy and harmonious agreement (Leki. which can date back five thousand years ago. This Chinese cultural based rhetoric pattern and idea presentation makes sense as Chinese . People should be modest and be oriented towards the collective. modesty.Chinese writers often start the main idea by first stating the purpose. Kirkpatrick (1993) explained that the sequence of modifier-modified in Chinese language is not only present in word pairs. and harmony characteristics (Chan. This way of presenting an idea and organizing discourse reflects Chinese traditional culture value in self-discipline. human and nature should be in harmony. Conzalez et al. location or reason before they go to the main ideas. the views of the world.

and demonstration. and speak more frankly. that it should be short. as it showed in Kaplan’s graphic as “Oriental pattern” -. direct thesis . a tradition of adversarial debated. Casanova & Hubbard. they use to transfer the writing patterns that they have been familiar with in China. When Chinese students are required to writing academically in Northern America universities.12). this writing pattern often places the primary emphasis or key idea at the front of the sentence. formal logical argument and analytic deduction flowering in Greece The North American cultural pattern expected thought sequence in linear in its development. logical and to the point. And many of them find it is difficult to present academic writing in an acceptable form (e. Goode (2000) states that western thinking has existed at least since ancient times. and circularly approaches (McLoughlin.. and convincing reasons (McLoughlin. 1995). Helen Fox (1994) confirms this assessment with her own observations of what most college teachers expect academic writing to look like: In its simplest form an academic argument is just a clear.an inward turning spiral (Kaplan. In addition to its "natural" structure. Crow & Peterson. 1992. 1995) to the topic. Unless the intention is to connect with the previous sentence. followed by convincing reasons that support it. . then. 2000).. 1995). with either explicit or implicit attention paid to possible objections.g..Cultural Root 7 writing is inductive. the argument should sound assertive and confident. indirect. simple sentences. Westwood. and Westwood. Education It is most difficult for Chinese international students to conduct academic writing which require critical thinking and analyzing because the students’ previous education almost never not require such thinking (Grierson. The Chinese writing system was established almost five thousand years ago. and that its tone should be polite and reasonable rather than strident or badgering (p. 1996). without irrelevant digressions. Northern America academic writing expects short. develops statement by defining.

1991. The individualist cultures are more likely to want to show up in class. give answers. 1997. he or she usually does not stop the teacher immediately. listening and taking notes. but tend to maintain formal and distant relationships with teachers. The desks and chairs are usually fixed and can seldom be moved because teachers dominate the class. Young. The collectivist culture makes this student not want to bother the teacher’s talking and interrupt other students’ listening to the teacher in this way. In contrast.. The long-established Chinese culture emphasizes authority (Chan. Teachers talk more in the class than in Canadian classrooms. learning by listening and reflection (Cortazzi and Jin. They are often . and engage in debate. Instead. to ask questions. Hu.g. he or she usually will wait until the class is over. organizer and friendly critic (Jiang. 2001. an authority. 1996). 2001) show that Asian students tend to show respect to the teacher. Cortazzi and Jin (1997) argue that Chinese students are more likely to view a teacher as a model. Students sit in the class.Cultural Root Roles of Teachers and Students Teachers are viewed as authority figures in China who embody knowledge (Jiang. 1988). 8 2001). power distribution. Most of the times teachers stand in front of the classroom when they deliver classes.” students are also more likely to see their own roles as result-focused. they may see the western students’ frequently interrupting teachers by asking questions in class as rude and not good manners. Teachers are expected to impart knowledge to students almost completely and clearly. and a “parent. Studies (e. Jiang. the North American students view the teacher as a facilitator. In addition. To question and debate the authoritative teachers is generally regarded as an inappropriate challenge to teachers and a disrespect to teachers (Ballard and Clanchy. rule-governed family and society and collective. 2001). If a student does not understand what the teaching is talking about. 1994). The students’ duty is to acquire knowledge from teachers and obtain wisdom. they are critical of too much informality in the classroom and lack of respect for professors.

in North America there are a variety of class activities that require students either work on their own. are the activities most used by English teachers (Cheng and Wang. or with the whole class: group work. such as multiple choice and fill in the blank. via using computer-based technology in and out of class. discussion (small group discussion. Northern America teachers expect their students to develop independence. Classroom activities not only increase students’ cooperative ability. such as the Internet. Classroom Activities As described above. and stimulate critical thinking. Students’ deeper understanding can be achieved through dialogue and collaboration with their peers and their teachers (Biggs. and Videoconference. students have few opportunities to participate in activities. but also enable students to share ideas. WebCT. generally. students are required to complete their work on their own. essay writing. 1985). Additionally. and Internet. report writing. open students’ minds. and projects (Foster. 1994. oral presentations. Mainly. shed new light on topics. reflection writing. since teachers dominate the class in China. books. In contrast. engage in dialogue and develop critical thinking (Young. Vygotsky (1962) asserts that each individual’s learning is facilitated by his /her social interactions with others. an critique evaluation of articles. students obtain rich resources for academic writing. Take English courses as an example. 2004). in groups. whole class discussion) work with others gathering and using information from journal articles. problemsolving. . 9 Reading comprehension and grammar exercises.Cultural Root seen as competitive. view a topic in different aspects. Students usually reread the text books and notes they took in the class from the teacher’s talking if they have problems in doing their homework. 1999). 2003). Toomey.

In addition. based on the memorizing and rote learning strategy. students have to obey the teacher. Instead. Moreover. analyzing. there is a sudden enlightening of the meaning. 1996. . 1997). 2001). 1996. The benefit of the recitation learning strategies is reflected by an old Chinese saying: recite three hundred poems from the Tang Dynasty [very famous classic poems in Chinese literary history]. understanding concepts rather than knowing facts. analyzing rather than rote learning. Ballard and Clanchy. western cultures value competition. 1989. Harris.. According to recent studies (Biggs. and recite the famous poems and articles in the textbooks. Initially. Kember & Gow. Clanchy & Ballard. 2001). 1996. In contrast. and they encourage students to develop as independent learners by training students’ questioning. criticize. through repeated memorizing. 2001).Cultural Root Learning strategies 10 Use of memorizing and rote learning is the Chinese students’ major learning approach (e. For instance. one can compose one poem (Hu. 1990). which functioned to help students memorize the classics. the process of memorizing leads students to understand materials gradually (Biggs. 1990). memorization and rote learning strategies stress recitation of Confucian classics. out of context. in academic writing. and criticizing. 1991. academic writing is required to analyze. 1997).g. No critical thinking is trained. and express the author’s own opinions (e. and confined people to old books without anti government ideas (Jinag. evaluation.. 2001). However. This learning strategy is commonly based on Confucian heritage cultures. be rigorous in organization.g. teachers encourage students’ questions. the students’ academic writing is usually more reproductive (Watson. Ballard. they are used to repeating other authors’ opinions rather than giving their own opinions in developing conclusions in their assignments (Watson. rather than remembering facts in isolation. Kember & Gow.

and homogenous culture increase this difficulty. In other word. 1986). Zainuddin & Moore. 2001). the outgrowth of the language arts” (p. 2003). Language Language proficiency is one of the conditions for writing well in any language (Simpson.26). which require strongly convincing argument with writer’s own ideas (Hu. and thesis. 1998. 1). Chinese international students have problems in selecting vocabulary accurately. Ediger (1999) asserts that “variety in selecting words to convey an accurate meaning is necessary in speaking and writing. Vocabulary The ability to write effectively depends on largely having an adequate vocabulary (Mayher and Brause. the vocabulary and grammar are almost completely different. . exam-based education. critique of articles.Cultural Root With such learning strategies used by Chinese students from elementary schools to universities. Chinese students frequently struggle with choosing an accurate vocabulary to express exactly what they want to say. and quality of this student’s writing. the emphasizing one teaching approach only. Since Chinese and English languages belong to different school of linguistics. 2001). and employing grammar correctly (Hu. using vocabulary variously. and with using variation of words and sentence structures to express ideas (Hu. (1998) share the similar idea: “at any level. the breadth and depth of a student's vocabulary will have a direct influence upon the descriptiveness. such as the 11 reflection paper. 2001). it is very difficult for Chinese international students to completely understand the expectations from professors in North America regarding academic writing. Since Chinese and English languages belong to different school of linguistics. accuracy. written communication is more effective when a depth of vocabulary and command of language is evident” (p. Corona et al.

However. English teachers spent time in teaching knowledge of vocabulary. speaking. such as small group and whole class discussions. However. book reports.Cultural Root 12 In terms of learning vocabulary. little attention is paid to making students practice vocabularies by listening. a few can even memorize the vocabularies in the Chinese-English dictionary. Teachers should provide students a variety of activities to incorporate new vocabulary into their oral and written opportunities to express ideas. the feature of word (e. dangling . noun. Many students can memorize all the vocabularies in the vocabulary handbook preparing for TOEFL and GRE tests. The vocabularies stored in students’ minds are like sleeping volcanoes which is not been made activate by using them. the feature of the word. and doing writing activities. 2005). as Ediger (1999) states. but also. Zhong. they write very few essays and research papers in English before they come to North America (Hu. 2001). 2). and storing large numbers of words in mind. oral presentations. 1998. and verb). students should be able to contextualize the vocabulary terms they have learned and use them in society. p. the meaning. The findings showed that students’ grammatical problems mainly include subject-verb agreement. Hu (2001) explores the writing processes and challenges of these students. although students have the knowledge of the spelling and pronunciation. run-on sentences. according to my experience as a teacher in China. Grammar Another problem comes in grammar errors. spelling. misuse of prepositions and conjunctions. students “will memorize terms and concepts for testing purposes only or largely” (Ediger. Through a multi-case study of fifteen mainland Chinese graduate students’ in science and engineering at a major Canadian university. Therefore. journal writings.. and so on (Corona et al. adjective. In this case. students spend lot of time reciting vocabularies. overuse of the passive. students need not only know the knowledge of the word: pronunciation. meaning. and large stores of words in mind. 1999.g.

Grammar-Based Teaching Method Switch to Communicative Approach For several decades prior to the early 1980s. 2001) was introduced in China. and many might have received high marks in examinations on grammar. most students understood grammar forms well. students made more grammar mistakes both in speaking and writing (Zhong. and the Situational Teaching Approach) dominated the English classroom (Richards & Rodger. Consequently. Chinese English teachers spent most of their time on explanation and analysis of grammar points and rules. Few meaningful communicative opportunities were provided for students (Chastain.based approaches (Swain. traditional grammar-based teaching approaches (the Grammar-Translation Approach. 2001) in China. Hu comes to conclusion that having knowledge of grammar and a high mark on the TOEFL test does not mean one can use the language well. In the English teaching and learning classroom. although among the fifteen participants. . the Communicative Teaching Approach (Richards & (Rodgers. but they had difficulty expressing what they wanted to fluently and appropriately in both conversation and writing (Swain. 1995). This teaching approach moved attention from explicit grammar instruction to fostering learners’ communicative competence. and required students to do exercises such as multiple-choice questions and fill in the blanks. 1998). 1988). 1998). students memorized these grammar rules and did many grammar exercises which were isolated from meaningful conversations in context (Liu. In the mid 1980s. 2005). and non-parallel structures. in the Communicative Teaching Approach without teaching grammar.Cultural Root modifiers. However. the Audiolingual Teaching Approach. some of 13 students had a good mark on the TOEFL test. Students who were taught via the Communicative Teaching Approach were more likely to express themselves in the classroom and could express themselves more fluently than the students who were taught via the grammar.

teachers teach to fit the contents of the examination. when examination is coming. which stressed on literary skills. was given every year. high rates of students who pass the university entrance examination is judged by the public as meaning a quality school. school teachers can get more bonuses and other benefits. the case is that the he results of examinations are related to students. and schools foster test-trainers. But present exam paper is mainly knowledge focused (Liu. Civil-service 14 examination. So I have this first-hand information). Take English as an example. Chinese English teachers provide writing models to simulate the format of the university entrance . China is examination-based education. The best students passed the examination were to be offered appointment to lesser offices in the central and local administrations. China has developed a well-organized examination system in the world. to satisfy the need of examination in writing. which implies a good future. Some of my university classmates are working at schools. Good marks for student means obtaining the ticket to enter university. and school administrators. anyone who wants to be enrolled in a university has to take English exams. (As a student-teachers’ supervisor.While writing ability is included in the English examination for university entrance recently. Accordingly. I keep close relationship with secondary schools in my home town.Cultural Root Examination-Based Education Traditionally. teachers. the school can gain more financial support both from government and parents. it represents only a very small percent of the total score. Being associated with the educational ideal “universal education without class distinction” (Confucius). Since ancient time. parents. Also. Examination is still important to many Chinese today. 1995). Thus. parents would like to choose such a school for their children. Consequently. Writing ability training and learning is paid little attention in daily classroom teaching. Based on my over ten years experience as a university teacher and student-teacher supervisor. According to the Chinese Education Commission.

students have little opportunity to practice English socially outside of English classroom. the grammar teaching usually is included little. and set phrases which are frequently used in the examination. while communication is stressed in some schools and universities recently. let alone use critical thinking. educational system. English journals are limited. It is also a painful experience for each Chinese international student . and many might have received high marks in examinations on grammar.Cultural Root 15 examination in English writing. previous educational background. Language Learning Environment English language is a foreign language but not a second language. Cultural background. Consequently. except English textbooks. but they still have difficulty in expressing what they want to fluently and appropriately in both conversation and writing (Swain. but seldom to express their own opinions. A student’s only chances to practice English is in class. Furthermore. the language. most students have knowledge of vocabulary and understood grammar forms well. weather. as well as food. and life styles. which impact on Chinese international students writing academically. Conclusion It is a challenge for Chinese international students in North American universities to write academically. 1998). and language background are major aspects that influence Chinese international students’ academic writing. Neither Chinese English teachers nor students’ have sufficient opportunity to experience North American culture and to employ vocabulary and grammar in context. As a homogenous culture as China is. Students memorize the formats and set phrases. Now. It is so confusing when Chinese international students first come to North America and find out that many things are dramatically different from what they have been familiar with since they grew up: the culture. other subjects textbooks are written in Chinese. among which culture is the root of the other two aspects.

However. Understanding the major factors that impact on their academic writing can enable educators’ both in China and North America to develop strategies and practice to help Chinese international students to learning successfully. educational experiences. learning strategies. and satisfy the academic expectations in North America. further study in finding ways to help them have success with academic writing in English is of vital importance. learn completely new concepts (or ways of doing 16 things). and language backgrounds modify their approaches to attending in class. . it is very important and necessary for Chinese international students to be aware of challenge based on difference of cultures. Therefore.Cultural Root who has to rediscover their self-identity. and to learn ways of developing arguments and presenting ideas in order to adjust study in North America universities while do not lose their own culture values. even though some of them have successful academic experience in China.

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