The Case against Writing Centres

by Albert Weideman

University of the Free State (Bloemfontein, South Africa)


The case for applied linguistics

Faced with the problem of bad student writing, administrators who may have little knowledge of or respect for applied linguists as professionals adopt the intuitive and quickest solution: to teach writing. And those who derive a livelihood from the teaching of writing willingly oblige. But is this the best place to start?

Serious applied linguistic solutions to language problems look beyond the obvious. Intuitively designed solutions are seldom the best. Writing experts know about the reluctance in their field (now sometimes called: academic literacies) of paying attention to good design. So, for example, Lillis (2003, p.185) notes: “‘Academic literacies’ … as a design frame … has yet to be developed.”[1]


Some critical questions

Writing experts like Lillis (2003) and Ivanic (2004) are themselves critical of skills-based approaches, but never seem to ask the obvious question: Why is it that one of the four skills (listening, speaking, reading, writing), namely writing, need not itself be critically examined? There are persuasive arguments against a skills-based approach. Bachman and Palmer (1996, p. 75f.) conclude:

We would thus not consider language skills to be part of language ability at all… We would … argue that it is not useful to think in terms of ‘skills’…

Similarly, Kumaravadivelu (2003, pp. 225-231) points out that the historical roots of a skillsbased approach lie in the behaviourism of the 1950s; that teachers have always known that one cannot teach skills separately. He remarks: “Skill separation is … a remnant of a bygone era and has very little empirical or experiential justification” (Kumaravadivelu 2003, p.  226).

One cannot simultaneously hold both that a skills approach is undesirable, only to turn around and say: but not only do I still wish to teach a single, isolated skill, but I also want to institutionalise that arrangement in an organisational form dedicated to it.

If ways of conceptualising are important, as Ivanic (2004, p. 220) declares, then conceiving of what we are supposed to do as ‘writing’ constitutes an uncritical acceptance of an historically institutionalised arrangement. As Lillis (2003: 197) points out, the teaching of ‘composition’ in the US is not necessarily the most desirable way of going about developing academic literacy.

If indeed we could isolate one skill that is of crucial importance to students at higher education institutions, why not consider reading as the focus of our intervention? Some forty years ago, it was fashionable to lament students’ lack of reading ‘skill’. Do we have empirical evidence that this situation has changed?


Alternative frameworks

For those struggling to design better solutions, the problem of bad writing is almost always embedded in the context of higher education. It is from this context that a number of alternatives present themselves:

Don’t isolate writing as a skill

It is more productive to acknowledge that the problem is greater than that of mastering a single skill, and that writing is not a separately treatable problem. As one writing expert (who shall remain anonymous), who has read my observations on this, has pointed out to me:

Your comments about isolating writing are very appropriate in our context here. Currently, we are designing a “Certificate in Teaching Writing” (through the Rhetoric and Writing Studies Dept), but we dare not use “reading” because that belongs to another college (Education).

View the problem from a different perspective

Looking at the issue as one of academic literacy (Weideman, 2003a, 2003b) resolves a variety of instructional design problems. Instead of requiring students to become skilful in academic listening, speaking, reading or writing skills (or in just one of these), one takes as the basis a construct of academic literacy that asks that they learn to demonstrate a competence in academic vocabulary; make sense of metaphor and idiom in academic usage; see relations between different parts of academic texts; become literate in interpreting graphs and diagrams; learn to recognise and manipulate different genres and text types; distinguish main points from peripheral ones; see the difference between essential and non-essential; compare by classifying and categorising; or learn how to use different language functions (defining, concluding, etc.) to build an argument (cf. Weideman 2003b: xi for a more comprehensive list) For those struggling to design better solutions, the problem of bad writing is almost always embedded in the context of higher education. It is from this context that a number of alternatives present themselves:


What then?

Apart from the above, one needs to consider the institutional viability of writing centres. They are often unsustainable financially, and are likely to remain unintegrated into mainstream instruction, merely providing a glorified editorial service.

In any event, teaching writing should demonstrably not start with the teaching of writing. A good design will start elsewhere.

[1]. In this contribution, I make use of the same arguments and material as in an earlier publication (Weideman, 2007) that discusses these issues in much more detail.



Bachman, L.F., & Palmer, A.S. (1996). Language testing in practice: Designing and  developing useful language tests. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ivanic, R.(2004). Discourses of writing and learning to write. Language and Education, 18(3), 220-245.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2003). Beyond methods: Macrostrategies for language  teaching. London: Yale University Press.

Lillis, T. (2003). Student writing as ‘academic literacies’: Drawing on Bakhtin to move  from critique to design. Language and Education, 17(3), 192-207.

Weideman, A.J. (2003a). Justifying course and task design in language teaching. Acta  Academica, 35(3), 26-48.

Weideman, A.J. (2003b). Academic literacy: Prepare to learn. Pretoria: Van Schaik. Weideman, A.J. (2007). Overlapping and divergent agendas: Writing and applied linguistics  research. In C. van der Walt (Ed.), Living through languages: An African tribute to Rene Dirven (pp.147-163). Stellenbosch: African Sun Media.


About the Author

Albert Weideman is Professor and Head of the Department of English at the University of the Free State in South Africa. He is a former director of the Unit for Academic Literacy at the University of Pretoria. His main interests are in assessing academic literacy and in the foundations of applied linguistics.

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