Towards a More Explicit Writing Pedagogy: The Complexity of Teaching Argumentative Writing

By Dornbrack, Jacqui; Dixon, Kerryn | Reading & Writing, January 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

Towards a More Explicit Writing Pedagogy: The Complexity of Teaching Argumentative Writing


Dornbrack, Jacqui, Dixon, Kerryn, Reading & Writing


Introduction

Advances in technology, changes in communication practices and the imperatives of the workplace point to a repositioning of the role of writing in the global context. Brandt (2009:54) notes that 'more and more people around the world are spending more and more time in the posture of a writer'. Writing has become both the key mode and product of production, 'engaging millions of workers at various levels in composing, processing, distributing, and organizing written symbols for large parts of the work day often in high-stakes contexts' (Brandt 2009:57). This reality has major implications for mass literacy education (Brandt 2009).

This raises a number of questions for the teaching of writing in the South African context, particularly its effectiveness in preparing students for the world of work. As is the case in many countries, the teaching of writing has not had the same attention paid to it as reading instruction; many teachers are less skilled in the teaching of writing and time requirements and fair assessment remain contentious issues. Writing is a complicated activity. Successful writers need to master a range of skills. These skills include knowing the complex requirements of genres. Writers need to know the social practices in which genres are embedded and the meaning and function they have in communities. An implicit or explicit knowledge of the numerous cognitive skills and processes required to produce a piece of writing is also required. Writing relies on careful thought that draws on but is different from the processes required for reading. Thus, with the importance of writing increasing globally, and schools a key institution in which writing is taught, it is necessary to understand the effects of writing pedagogy.

The range of writing tasks and genres required across schooling as envisaged in the Curriculum and Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) documents (Department of Basic Education [DBE] 2011) is beyond the scope of this article; therefore, the focus here is on the argumentative essay. Argument manifests itself in numerous ways in our daily lives. The rules of engagement, discourse structures and topics that result in differences of opinion vary across communities, within and between age groups and professions. The importance of being able to present and evaluate argument is captured globally in many curriculum documents; CAPS claims that students who can construct and evaluate arguments demonstrate an ability to be thoughtful and reasonable (DBE 2011:8-9, 11).

But, as Newell et al. (2011:297) argue, the view that argumentative reading and writing lead to 'reasonableness and thoughtful consideration of a topic' is a false assumption. In fact, little is known about how these skills develop over time. They argue that whilst argumentative reasoning is emphasised, there is little work that addresses the methods teachers use to develop students' argumentative writing. This gap is the starting point for this article.

There is also little research on writing in schools in the South African context. Research that has been conducted draws attention to the paucity and poor quality of writing and writing pedagogy in English as a first additional language (FAL) (Hendricks 2008) and as a home language in primary school classrooms (Gains & Graham 2011). Using a Vygotskian perspective Mendelowitz (in press) argues that CAPS's overemphasis of a 'back to basics' discourse undermines creative writing. Her examination of Grade 7 teachers reveals how their conceptualisations and enactment of creativity and imagination enable and constrain children's ability to harness the higher order skill of creativity in their writing. In her consideration of current writing research in South Africa, Dornbrack (n.d.) has called for a more explicit focus on writing pedagogy.

Although much writing research focuses on the processes of writing or classroom practices, our focus is not on what the teacher has done in the class but rather on student take- up. …

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