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Investigating Malaysian ESL Students' Writing Problems on Conventions, Punctuation, and Language Use at Secondary School Level

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Investigating Malaysian ESL Students' Writing Problems on Conventions, Punctuation, and Language Use at Secondary School Level
  Journal of Studies in Education ISSN 2162-6952 2012, Vol. 2, No. 3 www.macrothink.org/jse 130 Investigating Malaysian ESL Students' Writing Problems on Conventions, Punctuation, and Language Use at Secondary School Level  Neda Ghabool (Corresponding Author) School of Educational Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia 11800 Penang, Malaysia Tel: 60-12-442-6106 E-mail: ghabool.neda@gmail.com Mariann Edwina A/P Mariadass School of Educational Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia 11800 Penang, Malaysia Tel: 60-12-453-7904 E-mail:wina_e29@yahoo.com Seyyed Hossein Kashef School of Languages, Literacies and Translation, Universiti Sains Malaysia, 11800 Penang, Malaysia Tel.: 60-10-509-9220 E-mail address: mhkashef@gmail.com Received: June 3, 2012 Accepted: July 8, 2012 Published: August 1, 2012 doi:10.5296/jse.v2i3.1892 URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.5296/jse.v2i3.1892 Abstract This study aimed at investigating the challenges in three aspects of writing development  process, namely conventions, punctuation, and language use (proper use of grammar) in secondary school level from students and teachers experiences. The data was collected from 30 ESL students as the student participants of this research, from the upper and lower secondary school, Form 1 to Form 5, and 10 teacher participants teaching English language for upper and lower secondary levels with different teaching experiences. A questionnaire and an essay examination were utilized as the instruments of the study. The findings revealed that Malaysian ESL students have problems in writing tasks, especially in language use (grammar)  Journal of Studies in Education ISSN 2162-6952 2012, Vol. 2, No. 3 www.macrothink.org/jse 131 and punctuation. The first language interference was also very tangible in their writings. The study suggests some practical methods in order to cope with writing difficulties. Keywords : Writing problem, Conventions, Punctuation, Language use, ESL context  Journal of Studies in Education ISSN 2162-6952 2012, Vol. 2, No. 3 www.macrothink.org/jse 132 1. Introduction This part discusses background of the study, statement of the problem, objectives, research questions and significance of the study. 1.1 Background of the Study Individuals with writing problems may have difficulties in one or more aspects of writing skill such as proper use of grammar, conventions, punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and some of the basic and initiating aspects of writing. It is also an unpleasant piece of work for  both teachers and learners in ESL classes. This subject of study is provoked not only because of the researchers' interests as teachers in the second language field, but also due to interest as researchers who are engaged in ESL writing classes in order to make a picture of what carries on in these classes. Leki (1992) claimed that ESL students complain about learning and focusing on the English word order or word forms. According to Adams and Keene (2000), cited in Al-Khasawneh (2010), today English, as the means of instruction, makes a strong contribution to education and students’ efficiencies in communication are on top of institutional demands. Learners are expected to master content areas which are all taught in English, such as “mathematics, social studies, science, and business”. Such conditions have increased the profound need of teaching and learning English that can help all students cope with their academic tasks successfully. Hence, in order to handle academic tasks, ESL students need to do their best to write proficiently. Pak-TaoNg (2003) has asserted that the first idea which comes to mind is that when you think about writing, it is a part of obligatory course work. The thought seems to be true for students who should write long or short assignments. If writing is just an anxiety for students, it means they should do nothing except a chore. They are not likely to go beyond learning. Moreover, Pak-TaoNg (2003) suggested that writing consists of a lot of activities which result in understanding. Such an understanding includes a process of thinking about the topic, notes gathering, data collection, etc. which makes a reflective thought for you at the end. 1.2 Statement of the Problem Writing has always been a difficult task for individuals especially for ELT practitioners. ESL teachers in Malaysia confirm the problems in writing development, especially in conventions, and punctuation. “There is therefore, a considerable need for the future generations of Malaysians to master the language. The English language had played a dominant role as a compulsory subject and medium of instruction in English medium schools which formed the  backbone of the education system of pre-independence Malaysia” (Ambigapathy, 2001, cited in Voon Foo, 2007, p. 1). “Writing is such an important learning tool because it helps students to understand ideas and concepts better” (Voon Foo, 2007, p. 4). Thus, based on the importance of writing, all Malaysian policy makers have decided to emphasize it in their mainstream courses. Lack of English language proficiency is the main cause of lots of difficulties that ESL learners have in their writing tasks. Furthermore, all ESL students face more complicated problems, which may be either cultural or linguistic ones (Musa, Lie, & Azman, 2012). These problems may create difficulty for both teachers and ESL writers, so giving attention to different aspects of variation can help ESL students adapt themselves to  Journal of Studies in Education ISSN 2162-6952 2012, Vol. 2, No. 3 www.macrothink.org/jse 133 the writing standards. According to Leki (1992), ESL students are also disappointed with difficulties in understanding word implication and meaning. It is obvious that there is a disparity between writing in the first and the second language. They are also tackling with difficulties in writing assignments, meeting deadlines as well as getting the best quality of their final writing. As a result, the current study not only concerns about some of the common writing problems among ESL students, but also suggests some solutions based on teachers and the researchers’ experiences which can be helpful and supportive in developing writing skills. 1.3 Objective of the Study This study had three main objectives. First, it aimed to identify the problems frequently faced  by ESL students in essay writing. Second, it intended to get information about ESL teachers’ feedbacks on students’ writing problems and third, to suggest some possible ways to overcome the writing problems faced by Malaysian ESL students. 1.4 Research Questions Based on the objectives of the study, the following questions are raised. 1. How frequent do Malaysian ESL students make mistakes in convention, punctuation, and language use? 2. What are the Malaysian ESL teachers’ feedbacks on students’ writing skills? 1.5 Significance of the Study Since writing is a very important skill in learning and teaching a second language and due to the existence of many problematic areas in writing, this study intends to make a perception about some ESL writing problems among learners and teachers. Such perception helps teachers adapt their teaching styles according to frequent writing errors of students. Furthermore, the study also strives to offer some remedies for writing problems, paving the way for ESL learners to overcome so many difficulties they may face in their writing tasks. 2. Literature Review This part explains The Importance of Writing, Writing Problems and Difficulties, Writing Problems in Malaysian Schools, Teachers’ Feedback about Writing Errors, and Theoretical Framework. 2.1 The Importance of Writing Al-Khasawneh (2010) argued that huge number of international contacts, regarding non-native to non-native communication and deals are carried out through English in a massive number of settings, including trade, diplomacy, tourism, journalism, science and technology, politics, etc. Therefore, the existence of competent writers and speakers of English is of a great importance for today's world. Regarding the Malaysian ESL context, “being a competent writer of English in the banking sector of Malaysia and the consequences of poorly-written business letters to clients” is what has been emphasized by Puvenesvary  Journal of Studies in Education ISSN 2162-6952 2012, Vol. 2, No. 3 www.macrothink.org/jse 134 (2003, cited in Al- Khasawneh, 2010). According to Tan and Miller (2008), writing is an intentional, social communication that involves literacy as well. Furthermore, it is taken as a means of social practices, through which patterns of participation, gender preferences, networks of support and collaboration,  patterns of time use, space, tools, technology and resources are applied. In addition, through the interaction of writing with reading and written language with other semiotic modes, the symbolic meanings of literacy, and the broader social goals take place. This is exactly what literacy serves in the lives of people and institutions. Zamel (1983), a pioneer in ESL writing research, considered writing process as a “non-linear, exploratory, and generative process whereby writers discover and reformulate their ideas as they attempt to approximate meaning” (p.165). 2.2 Writing Problems and Difficulties Greenhalgh (1992, cited in Tony 2001) mentioned that most frequent advice students receive about their work progress come from ESL teachers of writing. The writing task is challenging  because many practical and theoretical issues are included. The ethical issues of rights and responsibilities also arise in texts. Researchers recommend that students should be supported  by teachers to take control of their own writing. As a result, a responsible teacher would be a reactive reader, a person who helps students recognize and resolve writing problems. Yu (2008), contended that there are different aspects of writing, such as controlled composition model, built-in three- or five-paragraph model, basic organizational and informative assumptions, the simplified writing assignment, the assumption that supposes working without the help of each student or only with the instructor for comprehensive feedback, usage of grammar and handbooks or even lectures, and the linear composition model based on “outlining, writing, and editing”. All these aspects of the writing process have made a remarkable success in ESL classrooms. Within this field of research which is trying to discuss writing processes, the main focus is on comparisons of writing processes included in personal writing processes, topic innovation and development, teacher opinion, student feedback, evaluation of teacher and student feedback, “conferencing”, and “instructional frameworks”. Mourtaga (2004) has confirmed that in contrast to many investigations among different studies which have been done on error correction and feedback in multiple areas, the ESL/EFL writing does not contain many studies on the recognition, categorization, and explanation of writing errors. However, some studies on ESL/EFL context have reported the fact that the first language interference is the main cause of many writing errors. 2.3 Writing Problems in Malaysian Schools A review of the related studies on English language learning in Malaysian schools context indicates that the first language (Bahasa Malaysia) interferes considerably with the second language learning. For instance, Maros, Hua, and Khazriyati (2007, cited in Musa, Lie, & Azman, 2012) examining students’ language learning problems reported that Bahasa Malaysia interference is like a hindrance in the English literacy achievement among secondary school students. The error analyses and contrastive analyses in their study
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