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APPLYING CONSCIOUSNESS-RAISING METHOD TO A WRITING CLASS

Patrisius Istiarto Djiwandono

Universitas Ma Chung, Malang, Indonesia

e-mail: patrisius.istiarto@machung.ac.id

Abstract

Consciousness-Raising (C-R) has been around for some years, and while studies on
the effectiveness of C-R has mainly focused on the learning of grammatical features, more
attention needs to be paid to the mastery of other language areas. The present study is a
small-scale research that explores the impact of Consciousness-Raising (C-R) technique on
the learning of some elements of written business communication. Several intermediate EFL
learners were exposed to models of good business letters and instructed to notice three
elements, namely the rhetorical moves, the grammatical patterns, and the expressions.
Afterwards, they were assigned to write letters on their own. Their mistakes were counted
and analyzed for the kinds of mistakes in each of the elements above. The result shows that
they did very well in arranging the ideas in correct rhetorical moves but made much more
mistakes on grammatical features and appropriateness of expressions. The explanation
offered to account for this finding concerns the learners’ allocation of cognitive capacity to
different demands of task complexity. The more complex the task, such as writing in correct
grammar or writing appropriate expressions, the less they devote their attention and effort to
language formal features. A suggestion concerning focus-on-form activities is then offered to
teachers.

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Background

Consciousness raising has been proposed as a method that aims to improve learners’
language proficiency by making them aware of the important features of an authentic
discourse. Rutherford (1987:19) maintains that consciousness-raising provides “data that are
crucial to the learners’ testing of hypothesis, and for forming generalizations”. The method
draws their attention to the language features, make them notice the features, use them to
restructure their interlanguage system, and subsequently use these attended features to
produce a stretch of discourse on their own.

Rutherford (1987) also proposes the notion of grammaticization, a process by which a


learner’s interlanguage is becoming a closer approximation of the grammatical system of the
target language. Grammaticization is manifest in the learner’s increasing ability to (1)
grammaticize topic-comment into subject-predicate, (2) to utilize grammatical devices to
express relations between form and meaning, (3) produce more verbs with more arguments
and produce verbal noun, and (4) to produce more subordination than coordination. Implied
here is that consciousness-raising is mainly concerned with the syntactic aspects of the target
language.

A question that the writer has been pondering upon is whether the same principle of
consciousness-raising is also applicable to other linguistic areas. A special area that is the
focus of this paper is the mastery of rhetorical moves and expressions that are typical of a
particular context, namely, business correspondence.

A substantive amount of literature has supported this notion, all converging on the
idea that consciousness-raising is an effective method for language teaching. However,
whether the method works effectively as it is often claimed has yet to be seen in a context of
teaching writing. The paper draws on a small-scale exploratory research on the effect of
consciousness-raising on the writing ability of some Indonesian EFL learners at Ma Chung
University. A group of 18 juniors were exposed to models of business letters, and were
instructed to notice the linguistic features that included the rhetorical moves, the tenses, and
the formal expressions of the letters. The tasks that followed mainly served to intensify their
attention on those features. Then, they were instructed to draft letters of the same topics. The
drafts were analyzed for its rhetorical organization, tenses and sentence patterns, and the
appropriateness of the expressions used. The mistakes were classified into local mistakes that
did not severely affect comprehension and global mistakes that impaired comprehension.

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Language Teaching Methods

Language teaching methodology is rich with a variety of techniques for making the
learners learn linguistic elements. What is traditionally called PPP (Present – Practice –
Produce) has been refined, modified and even replaced with newer techniques along with the
greater awareness of the learning mechanism inside the learners’ mind. Mc Carthy and Carter
(1995) proposes III (Illustration – Interaction – Induction). The technique starts with
Illustration which provides the learners with real actual instances of language use in certain
contexts, followed by Interaction which engages the learners in consciousness-raising activity
where they notice how language is used for interpersonal purposes and for meaning
negotiation, and finally concludes with Induction where the learners are prompted to notice
how lexico-grammatical features fulfill various functions.

Sa-ngiamwibool (2007) conducted a study on the impact of Consciousness-Raising


(C-R) activity on the accuracy of structure and written expression of TOEFL, and came to the
conclusion that C-R activity positively influenced the subjects’ accuracy of the patterns and
expressions.

The Treatment

The small-scale exploratory research involved 11 students of English Department at


Ma Chung University who were taking Business Correspondence course from the writer and
estimated to be at the intermediate level of English proficiency. At the outset of the course,
they were instructed to read models of enquiry letters, and to notice the following elements in
the models: the (1) rhetorical moves, or parts of the letter; (2) the grammatical patterns used;
(3) the expressions for instructing the addressee; (4) the expressions used to close the letter.
They were instructed to put the results of their observation into a table. After 10 to 15
minutes of observation and noticing, the students filled in the tables and matched their results
with the lecturer’s version, which is as follows:

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Table 1. Features of the Letters to be Noticed

Move/parts of the letter Tenses used Expressions Expressions


for for closing
instructing the letter
addressee

Enquiry (1) Informing how they Past simple Would you We are
obtained the addressee’s please + looking
name/company [infinitive]; forward to
hearing from
(2) Expressing interests in Present We would you;
simple
buying or doing business appreciate it if
you could + We look
(3) Instructing the addressee to [infinitive] forward to
send a Modal hearing from
sample/specimen/brochures auxiliaries + you
infinitive

(4) Closing the letter


Present
simple/present
progressive

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After a discussion on the table contents, the students were then assigned to close their
textbooks and start writing enquiries on their own based on a problem from the lecturer. They
were specifically told to recall the models of the letters they had just observed and noticed to
accomplish this task. They spent around 35 minutes to finish writing the letters.

The Finding

The results are displayed on the following table that contains the tabulation of
mistakes and accuracy they made.

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Grammar Grammar Expression
Rhetorical Moves:
Enquiry Global Local
Omissi Additio Omissi Wrong
Students on n Wrong form on form Punctuation
0
Fitri 0 1 2
0
Mega 0 2 2
0
Dian 0 1
0
Grace 0 1 1 2
0
Nadia 0 1 1 1
0
Bio 0 4 1 1
Nadariansya 0
h 0 1 1
0
Shavitri 0 1
0
Sano 0 1 1
0
Andre 0 2 1
0
Vania 0 3
0
TOTAL 0 0 1 1 0 12 8 3 0 9

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The results indicate that all of the students were successful in composing letters of
enquiry with the right rhetorical moves. Their letters start with opening, informing the
addressees where they obtained their names, expressing interest in doing business, instructing
the addressees to send a sample, and the closing. Apparently, the rhetorical moves are the
easiest element that these students notice from the models in the textbooks. Quite possibly,
this might be due to the absence of complex details that are involved in remembering such
order of moves. All that is required from the learners are noticing the moves, storing them in
their short-term memory, and retrieving them when composing letters on their own.
Remembering the order of moves demands little from their cognitive capacity.

The results also shows that the learners’ performance in producing correct expressions
for the moves is somewhat poorer than their abilities to produce the correct order of moves.
Again, this may have been attributable to the presence of linguistic details and the
concomitant language rules that are required in producing the expressions. Many of the
business expressions are less straightforward and less frequent than those of daily colloquial
language that speakers use in casual conversations. The word “would like to” is more
preferable than a simple, more frequent ”want”; the phrase “we appreciate it if you
could . . .” is obviously longer, more complex and less frequent than the common “we are
very happy if you . . .” or even “please . . .”. The longer the expressions to use, the more
elements they contain, which in turn requires certain syntactic rules to be applied. The result
is a complexity that tax the learners’ cognitive capacity. In other words, the task of producing
correct expressions is a cognitively demanding activity for the students.

Discussion

Van Patten (cited in Robinson, 2001:189) has shown that when learners pay more
attention to language forms, their attention to language content declines. But, when they are
given freedom to decide which one to focus on, they will likely attend to content rather than
to forms. From this perspective, it is obvious why the learners fare better in producing the
correct order of the moves than in producing appropriate individual expressions. The former
requires them to attend to simple content, while the latter requires them to attend not only
content but also the accurate language forms.

This explanation of the possible cause finds support in Robinson (2001:195), who
maintains that “task which require more advanced structures, or which require the use of
wider repertoires of structures, or greater densities of advanced structures, such as complex
tenses or subordination or embeddings, are more likely to be more complex”. Following this,
he also contends that besides the language (code) complexity above, the cognitive familiarity
with the genre of a discourse also determines how complex a learner perceives a task. This
kind of familiarity can be very well enhanced by careful reading and understanding of the
genre, which does not require careful attention to linguistic rules. If the learners perceive the
code complexity to be more demanding than cognitive familiarity, it is only logical that they
will allocate more effort and attention to the latter when producing a text themselves,

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resulting in a text that is organized according to the genre they have noticed but which
contains significant linguistic mistakes. This is in line with Skehan’s argument that (1998)
poor attention to forms are reflected in inaccurate or simple language, a phenomenon that is
evident in the letters written by the subjects of this current study.

It is interesting to note that when confronted with a demanding task, learners simply
resort to these strategies (Robinson, 2001:197): (1) slow down, (2) forget accuracy, (3) be
simple. This seems to the most plausible explanation for the results of the study described
above.

The Follow-Up

The result described above hints at the necessity of repeating the same procedure with
an additional effort to focus the learners’ attention to the forms and expressions that they still
often mistake. Thus, another C-R session was done with the focus on letters of complaints.
Again, the learners were instructed to read the model letters and notice the moves of
complaining, the grammatical patterns, and the expressions. The lecturer informed them that
their grammatical accuracy and formality of expressions were still poor in the previous
assignment, and stressed the need to notice these elements more. Then, they were told to
close the models and started writing a letter of complaints on their own. A brief reminder
was given concerning the need to focus more on their accuracy and appropriateness of
expressions. The following table shows the mistakes they made in their letters:

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Gramm
ar
Rhetorical Moves: Incorrect
Complaint Global Local exp.
Additio Wrong Omissi Wrong
Student n form on form Punctuation

Fitri 0 2 2
Mega 1 2
Dian 0 2 1
Grace 0 2 2
Nadia 0
Bio 0 1 1 1 1
Shavitri 0
Andre 0 1 2
Vania 0 1 3
TOTAL 1 0 2 4 10 1 0 0 7

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Results

The results indicate that all of the students were successful in composing letters of
enquiry with the right rhetorical moves. Their letters start with opening, informing the
addressees where they obtained their names, expressing interest in doing business, instructing
the addressees to send a sample, and the closing. Apparently, the rhetorical moves are the
easiest element that these students notice from the models in the textbooks. Quite possibly,
this might be due to the absence of complex details that are involved in remembering such
order of moves. All that is required from the learners are noticing the moves, storing them in
their short-term memory, and retrieving them when composing letters on their own.
Remembering the order of moves demands little from their cognitive capacity.

The results also shows that the learners’ performance in producing correct expressions
for the moves is somewhat poorer than their abilities to produce the correct order of moves.
Again, this may have been attributable to the presence of linguistic details and the
concomitant language rules that are required in producing the expressions. Many of the
business expressions are less straightforward and less frequent than those of daily colloquial
language that speakers use in casual conversations. The word “would like to” is more
preferable than a simple, more frequent ”want”; the phrase “we appreciate it if you
could . . .” is obviously longer, more complex and less frequent than the common “we are
very happy if you . . .” or even “please . . .”. The longer the expressions to use, the more
elements they contain, which in turn requires certain syntactic rules to be applied. The result
is a complexity that tax the learners’ cognitive capacity. In other words, the task of producing
correct expressions is a cognitively demanding activity for the students.

Discussion

Van Patten (cited in Robinson, 2001:189) has shown that when learners pay more
attention to language forms, their attention to language content declines. But, when they are
given freedom to decide which one to focus on, they will likely attend to content rather than
to forms. From this perspective, it is obvious why the learners fare better in producing the
correct order of the moves than in producing appropriate individual expressions. The former
requires them to attend to simple content, while the latter requires them to attend not only
content but also the accurate language forms.

This explanation of the possible cause finds support in Robinson (2001:195), who
maintains that “task which require more advanced structures, or which require the use of
wider repertoires of structures, or greater densities of advanced structures, such as complex
tenses or subordination or embeddings, are more likely to be more complex”. Following this,
he also contends that besides the language (code) complexity above, the cognitive familiarity
with the genre of a discourse also determines how complex a learner perceives a task. This
kind of familiarity can be very well enhanced by careful reading and understanding of the
genre, which does not require careful attention to linguistic rules. If the learners perceive the

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code complexity to be more demanding than cognitive familiarity, it is only logical that they
will allocate more effort and attention to the latter when producing a text themselves,
resulting in a text that is organized according to the genre they have noticed but which
contains significant linguistic mistakes. This is in line with Skehan’s argument that (1998)
poor attention to forms are reflected in inaccurate or simple language, a phenomenon that is
evident in the letters written by the subjects of this current study.

It is interesting to note that when confronted with a demanding task, learners simply
resort to these strategies (Robinson, 2001:197): (1) slow down, (2) forget accuracy, (3) be
simple. This seems to the most plausible explanation for the results of the study described
above.

It is apparent that there is a slight improvement from the previous results. The
accuracy of the moves remains the same, while the number of mistakes of global, local
grammatical errors and expressions drops slightly. Admittedly, a fair comparison cannot be
drawn here since the tasks involved two different letter functions and the treatment was not
rigorously arranged to allow for internal validity. However, from the perspective of a small-
scale classroom research, the results have probably suggested a few points worth considering.
First, the effectiveness of C-R technique may have been evident in a limited area. Those skill
areas which are not internally complex may be much more amenable to C-R than those areas
which demand attention to detailed restrictions and rules. Second, given the notion of
selective attention discussed above, it is necessary that a C-R approach be complemented
with a focus on form techniques that make the learner work more intensively on more
complex language elements like grammatical patterns and formality of expressions.

Conclusion

The paper is based on a small-scale study on the effect of consciousness-raising on


the abilities to produce business letters with the right rhetorical organization, accurate
grammar, and appropriate expressions. A group of learners were instructed to notice those
three features on good models of letters of enquiry and complaints, and to produce letters of
the same functions afterwards. The results showed that consciousness-raising may have
assisted the learners in learning some of the linguistic features of the models yet came short
of making them learn a few other grammatical points. The explanation that is offered for the
result is that the C-R technique has a positive effect on the mastery of global, less complex
feature of the discourse but is not effective enough to promote mastery of more complex
language features, such as grammar and accurate expressions. What seems reasonable for
teachers is to combine consciousness-raising method with a form-focused instruction that
discretely teaches learners the important grammatical elements and the appropriateness of
expressions.

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References

McCarthy and Carter. (1995). Spoken grammar: what is it and how can we teach it? ELT
Journal 49 (3), 207-218.

Robinson, P. (Ed.). (2001). Cognition and Second Language Instruction, pp. 33-68.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rutherford, W. E. (1987). Second Language Grammar: Learning and Teaching. London:


Longman.

Sa-ngiamwibool, A. (2007). Enhancing structure and written expression among EFL Thai
students through consciousness-raising instructions. NELTA Journal, 12, 1 & 2.

Skehan, P. (1998). Task-based language instruction. In Grabe, W (ed.). Annual Review of


Applied Linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Biodata

Patrisius Istiarto Djiwandono was born in Malang, 16 March 1967. He earned his Bachelor’s,
Master’s and Doctorate degree in Language Education from Institute of Teacher Training and
Education in Malang, and obtained Diploma TESL qualification from Victoria University of
Wellington, New Zealand in 1992. He has published 5 books in language testing and
language learning strategies, and his dissertation on language learning strategies and degree
of extroversion was recently published internationally by Lambert Academic Publishers. He
specializes in language testing, language acquisition, discourse analysis, writing, teaching
methodology, and has recently been interested in the application of Critical Thinking to
language students. He is currently a Professor at the English Letters Study Program of Ma
Chung University, Malang, Indonesia, where he is also Director of Quality Assurance
Department and Head of Language Teacher Training.

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