By Akiko Fujii
The purpose of this paper is to report on both the process of participation in a Writing fluency project and the results of a study of writing fluency.
The Writing Fluency Project, conducted by Dr. Gregory Shudlt of Kobe University in 2011, was a project in which novice teacher-researchers learned how to conduct a small-scale study and collaborate on working with colleagues through a Moodle site. This author joined the project and conducted a small study in my writing classes in which I researched writing fluency.
Case Study: Bonzo (2009)
The project started with the reading of an open-source book in a small-scale study and an article about writing fluency. The article ‘To Assign a Topic or Not: Observing Fluency and Complexity in Intermediate Foreign Language Writing’ (Bonzo 2009) was selected by Dr. Shudlt.
Bonzo (2009) examined participants’ written texts in a German language class in the U.S. It focused on writing fluency, and compared teacher-assigned topic writing and self-selected topic writing during a timed, in-class writing activity. The result of the study showed that participants wrote more fluently when they selected their own topic. And the participants made more grammatically complex sentences, which were measured with a general complexity score.
In the Writing Fluency Project, we researchers followed Bonzo’s (2009) study and compared the fluency index between teacher-assigned topic writing and self-selected topic writing. The purpose of this study was to allow novice researchers an opportunity to conduct a small-scale study, and allow them to manage the small amount of data that was generated effectively—in addition, it was also a benefit for the researchers to conduct a timed in-class writing activity to determine how many words the participants could write during the activity, since writing fluency was important as well as writing accuracy.
This study was designed as a quasi-experiment and its participants were solely from my writing class. Although one of the project’s main purposes was to make teachers work together, I could not find anyone to collaborate with, since I taught Japanese as a second language while all teachers except me, taught English as a second language in Japan. The project was designed for a small study and my situation made the study smaller. Thirteen students participated in it. They signed an agreement to join in the study.
The participants studied Japanese at a language school in Japan at the time of the
research. Twelve participants were from China and their mother tongue was Chinese. One student was from Peru and her mother tongue was Spanish. Two of them had experience working after having graduated from college in their respective countries. Nine of them had completed bachelor’s degrees before coming to Japan. In addition, two participants had just finished high school before coming to Japan. All of them had studied Japanese for about six months to a year in their respective countries and studied Japanese in Japan for a year. Although they studied in an advanced class at the language school, some of them could not speak Japanese well when they participated in the research.
A timed in-class writing activity, in this case study a ten-minute-writing activity, was utilized from that introduced in Nation (2008). Koprowski (2013) also introduced the activity including how to conduct the activity step-by-step. He suggested that a teacher would select a topic in preparation and give participants time to discuss the topic before writing. However, since my study was to compare fluency index between teacher-assigned topic writing and self-selected topic writing, I conducted a ten-minute-writing activity differently, as shown in Table 1 below.
First, I did not give participants time to discuss any topics before writing. I assigned this activity at the beginning of each lesson, as I did not want to influence their writings. Second, I gave a selected topic in only two of the four writing sessions. Third, I gave participants time to discuss what they wrote after writing in a small group. I also asked participants to answer questionnaires after writing. And finally, after four sessions, I interviewed each participant separately. I recorded all the interviews and transcribed each text.
Some teacher-researchers of the project (e.g. Leblanc and Fujieda, 2013, and Sowter and Parrish, 2013) succeeded in their studies and published their results accordingly. They concluded that writing with self-selected topics gave participants more fluency than teacher-selected topics as Bonzo (2009) reported.
However, the result of my study was not the same. The total number of letters of each text and idea units (IU), in which I divided a sentence with each verb and adjective, were calculated. (e.g. kanojoga dekita’ato/jibunwa on’nanokokorowo hontouni shitteinai/tojikkanshita. In this example, there were three verbs and it was counted three units). There was no statistical difference between writing with self-selected topics and teacher-selected topics. Some participants wrote more when they were given a topic. And some participants even mentioned that they liked to write with teacher-selected topics.
Due to the difference in findings between this research and fellow teacher’s research, I reviewed the collected data again.
Some participants mentioned that they could not write as fast as they expected because they struggled to find suitable words or correct structures. Other participants mentioned that they needed time to think about what to write. They mentioned that there was no difference between writing with self-selected topics and teacher-selected topics, and that they always had a hard time to plan to write even in a ten-minute timed writing task.
I realized that the former were fast writers and the latter were slow writers. As I compared the writings and the discussion data, I found that in a discussion some participants told the whole story which they had planned but they did not finish writing. Even in a ten-minute timed writing task, some participants made a plan what to write, but they could not finish writing.
While fast writers were able to write all they planned to write, slow writers were unable to finish writing. Although some slow writers were unable to think about what to write, which probably meant that they were real slow writers, other slow writers knew what to write. They were unable to imagine what they were able to write in ten minutes and they always had too many things to write at once.
The extract which follows is a part of a transcript from a discussion between participant C and F. Participant C had a plan to write about girls around him, though he did not finish writing. And the most important thing was that he could not write anything about Ms.X, whom he thought was the most interesting subject to write about.
Nation (2008) suggests that a teacher should respond to the content of a student’s writing after a ten-minute-writing activity. It is very clear that teachers should not ignore what students write even in a time-limited writing activity. Even if the purpose of the activity is to improve writing fluency, the content should be focused on, because meaningful writing is very important to achieve writing complexity. (E.g. Homstad and Thorson 2000)
Leblanc and Fujieda (2013) quoted a student’s comment from post-questionnaires of time-limited writing activities as saying that they could not write smoothly if they did not have enough vocabulary. Although some participants in my study had a similar problem, they did not complain about their lack of vocabulary, but that they did not have enough time to write.
As some participants could not finish writing what they planned to write and they felt they wrote slowly, it is suggested that they should be taught how to organize their ideas for such an activity. Because they never finished writing a whole idea in a limited time, they could not feel that they wrote meaningfully. Moreover, those participants planned to take an entrance exam at a university in Japan, and it was a disadvantage for them not to be able to plan to write their ideas in a limited time.
Of course, it was also important to write letters, especially Chinese characters, as fast as possible, but the key to improving their writing fluency was to know how to organize ideas which would be fitted in a short writing task. Furthermore, when they are able to write meaningfully, they will achieve writing complexity.
In this small-scale study, I found that students sometimes struggled to find ideas to fit into a time limited writing task. Although it sounded excellent that a second language learner could write longer, it was not good that they never finished their writing activities in class. Indeed, a learner should consider the purpose of a writing activity, the content, and the structure of writing which would be suitable for the activity in class.
In conclusion, it is important to teach how to plan and write a whole idea in a limited time. Even in a ten minute-writing activity, some learners can find a suitable idea for the activity and write as they planned. While such a learner may feel confidence to write smoothly, I believe that other learners will be able to improve their writing skill and become fluent writers if they are given proper instruction.
Akiko Fuji teaches Japanese as a second language at Tokyo University of Social Welfare as a part-time lecturer. Her interests include discourse analysis and lifelong learning. You can contact her at January10100@gmail.com.
Bonzo, J. D. (2009).To assign a topic or not: Observing fluency and complexity in intermediate foreign language writing. Foreign Language Annals, 41(4), 722-735.
Homstad, T. & Thorson, H. (2000). Quantity versus quality? Using extensive and intensive writing in the FL classroom. In Bräuer, G., (Ed.) Writing across languages (pp. 141-152). Stamford, CT: Ablex Publishing.
Koprowski, M. (2013).Boosting writing speed through timed continuous writing. The Language Teacher, 37(3), 34-35.
Leblanc, C. & Fujieda, M. (2013). Investigating effects of topic control on lexical variation in Japanese university students’ in-class timed-writing. Kwansei Gakuin University humanities review, 17, 241-253.
Nation, I. P. S. (2008).Teaching vocabulary: Strategies and techniques. Boston, Heinle: Cengage Learning.
Sowter, A. & Parrish, M. (2013). Does choice of topic affect writing fluency?:A quantitative study of Japanese university EFL students [Prezi slides]. Retrieved from http://prezi.com/ wuv8s3nd5e6o/arf-collaboration-2013/