by Wong Jock Onn
Academic writing is an important set of skills for students to possess. For example, it allows the student ‘to have agency in the world’ and ‘to express oneself and participate in dialogue with others’ (Solbrekke & Helstad, 2016, p. 963). Although most students are able to construct well-formed sentences, many still struggle to (e.g.) weave their ideas into a coherent whole. There are writing rules that students can follow but many students seem to enter the module (IEM, Tier 2) without much knowledge of such rules. This narrative focusses on a tension that many students experience: what goes into an introduction.
It began some semesters ago when I asked students what goes into an introduction of a research paper. Surprisingly, they could not go beyond ‘background’ and ‘thesis statement’. When asked what background is, they said ‘context’, and nothing more. They did not seem to know that an introduction comprises a context, a need (or problem), perhaps a research gap and definitely an objective statement (which is not necessarily a thesis statement), usually in that order. For me, these constitute part of the ‘foundation’ or basic knowledge of academic writing. Nevertheless, my stance was clear: I would turn this into an opportunity for the students to learn something. I needed a practical solution to help students learn how to write an introduction in a few weeks’ time; they had to write a research proposal soon.
Problem & solution
Telling them about context, need and objective statement was not difficult, nor was the order. However, it was not enough, as I found out from reading their research proposals. Some students presented contexts and problems that were too general; some students were not particularly creative – an issue pointed out in literature (Cheng & Hong, 2017). It then occurred to me that semantics, the IEM module I am teaching, is not something most people discuss; most or all students do not have background in the area. All this meant I had to think of a series of group activities to help them learn how to contextualize a study in a relatable topic. In this way, they could learn something in a familiar setting, and then transfer what they have learned to semantics. Here I present the activities I have used since then.
Firstly, students are asked to think of a context in which the following (otherwise unacceptable) actions are justified. This activity is not very challenging, but it helps participants appreciate the importance of contextualization. Each group choses one of the following actions and presents possible contexts to the class:
- A strong young man pushing a frail old person down the stairs;
- A boyfriend not wanting to buy his girlfriend roses on Valentine’s Day;
- A doctor refusing to treat a patient;
- Killing a member of an endangered animal species;
- Killing an innocent person.
Most groups had no problem with this, even if some of their answers sounded far-fetched and funny (e.g. pushing an old person down the stairs to dodge a bullet or a falling object which could kill them). Also, many of the answers were creative or clever (e.g. the girlfriend is allergic to flowers).
Now that the students presumably have a better sense of what contextualization means, they move on to the second, higher-level activity, which is a presentation. Each group chooses an objective statement from a given list and contextualizes the hypothetical study; using bullet points, they present a context and problem that can lead to the given objective statement. Examples of (hypothetical) objective statements include:
- To assess the usefulness of the s/u option among NUS students.
- To determine if living in a UTown college leads to better examination grades.
- To identify the main modes of transmission of a disease (e.g. flu) in NUS/Singapore.
- To establish if Singlish is an obstacle to the learning of Standard English in Singapore.
- To establish the usefulness of the UTown writing program (IEM 1 & 2).
After each group has presented, the other students and I give the group feedback. When I give feedback, I am guided by Grice’s (1975) maxims: be informative, be truthful, be relevant, be clear. For example, when the group presents a piece of information that leads to nowhere, I point it out to them and say it is irrelevant. Sometimes, they present ideas but not necessarily in a logical order and we work out an order together.
be informative, be truthful, be relevant, be clear
For example, in discussing the modes of transmission of the flu on campus, a group of students had ideas but not necessarily in the right places. Their ideas were presented in this way:
- A large number of students living on campus has the flu.
- They visit the UHC for treatment, resulting in huge medical expenses for NUS.
- NUS is concerned that they may have to shut down.
- They decide to conduct a study on the modes of transmission of the flu virus (i.e. the objective statement).
- Problems to address (drop in class attendance, further spread of the flu virus, insufficient medical resources).
It is not clear why more problems were presented after the objective statement. These problems belong to the part before the objective statement. The students had ideas, too many in fact, and were not selective. Nevertheless, it was a simple matter of pointing it out to the students.
In another example, a group of students presented the relative benefits of living in UTown colleges in relation to grades. Grice’s first maxim (roughly, ‘do not say more’) seems obvious here. This group more or less got it right. Their ideas:
- There are benefits in living in a UTown college (co-curricular & community activities, support from seniors, writing modules, small classes).
- Do all these benefits translate into good grades for the students? Parents may question if the high cost of living in a college translates into better academic performance.
- Objective statement: To determine if living in a UTown college leads to better grades.
These activities were not difficult for the students. Many of them could contextualize the given hypothetical study, even if their ideas were not always well organized. However, the main challenge was to transfer the knowledge or skills from a relatable context to a new one.
Discussion and Conclusion
These two activities are meant to help students achieve a better understanding of what contextualization is about. An example of what the activities achieve comes from a student. Here is the student’s introduction (4 paragraphs) on happy-like emotion terms in Mandarin (AY2019/2020 II):
In recent years, with the spectacular growth of Chinese economy, increasing number of Western expatriates have been coming to China to look for opportunities (Tabea & Yuan, 2014). Hence, it is unavoidable for them to pick up basic Chinese skills in order to communicate effectively with their Chinese counterparts. One of the biggest obstacles for them in learning Chinese words is to differentiate between the Chinese synonyms, due to the large number of similar words (Xiao, 2011), the dictionaries’ inability to provide accurate explanations (Chu, 2006), and the lack of systematic methods in differentiating them (Xiao, 2011).
Among the synonyms, emotion words, especially “happy-like” emotion words, are of particular importance. Emotions contribute to an essential part in human life and communication (Goddard, 2018), and “happy” is considered as one of the basic emotions representing some of the most commonly experienced positive feelings. Cultural variations of human ways of feeling have given rise to the variations in expressing positive feelings in Chinese (Wierzbicka, 2004), with over fifty Chinese synonyms conveying “happy-like” emotions (Xiao, 2011). However, all of them have the same English translation of “happy” and they could be used interchangeably in some situations, leading to ambiguity in their meanings. Confusion was thus created among the language learners. Hence, although non-native speakers are generally passionate towards learning “happy-like” words, mistakes are often made when they use those words in different situations (Xiao, 2011).
Limited attempts have been made in discussing the differences among “happy-like” Chinese synonyms (Kornacki, 1995). Some examples of related studies include Liao (2016)’s research on kaixin and kuaile and Xiao (2011)’s research on “kaixin-like” words. However, these studies were conducted in Chinese, creating difficulty for language learners in understanding. Some of the explanations even exhibit the problem of circular explanation. Furthermore, the studies focus on differences in grammatical functions, historical evolution, style and usages, instead of highlighting the differences in meanings using semantic analysis. Hence, language learners may be still unsure of the meanings and thus not able to use them confidently in changing situations.
In view of the above, this paper will examine the differences in meanings across two “happy-like” Chinese emotion terms kaixin and kuaile, and clearly state each of their meanings using semantic explications. These two words are chosen as they are representative of the “happy-like” emotions due to their high frequency of usage compared to other emotion terms (Liao, 2016). The paper will be written in simple English in the hope that readers can easily understand, compare and internalise the ideas presented.
As can be seen, the first paragraph sets the context, which is the growing importance of China and the increasing number of cultural outsiders living in the country (“with the spectacular growth of Chinese economy, increasing number of Western expatriates have been coming to China to look for opportunities”). The first paragraph also leads the reader to a general problem. In the second paragraph, the student author skilfully guides the reader to the specific problem (“although non-native speakers are generally passionate towards learning “happy-like” words, mistakes are often made when they use those words in different situations”) at the end of the paragraph. The next move is the research gap, which highlights problems with academic literature on the topic (e.g. “the studies focus on differences in grammatical functions, historical evolution, style and usages, instead of highlighting the differences in meanings using semantic analysis”). The introduction concludes with an objective statement. Such a well-organised introduction is exactly what the activities described above train students for.
There are obviously other challenges, such as those pertaining to originality of ideas, how to connect sentences, clarity, and conciseness. However, having knowledge of what contextualization is remains a good start.
Many of the things we teach are transferable to other contexts (e.g. Jwa, 2019). Asking students to perform a task and learn a rule in a more relatable context might be a helpful strategy. All that is left for the student is to transfer the skills they have learned from the more relatable context to the task at hand (in my case, semantics).
Cheng, C. -Y., & Hong, Y. -Y. (2017). Kiasu and creativity in Singapore: An empirical test of the situated dynamics framework. Management and Organization Review, 13(4), 871-894. Retrieved from https://ink.library.smu.edu.sg/soss_research/2420
Jwa, S. (2019). Transfer of knowledge as a mediating tool for learning: Benefits and challenges for ESL writing instruction. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 39, 109-118.
Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole, & J. L. Morgan (Eds.), Syntax and Semantics, Vol. 3: Speech Acts (pp. 41-58). New York: Academic Press.
Solbrekke, T. D., & Helstad, K. (2016). Student formation in higher education: teachers’ approaches matter. Teaching in Higher Education, 21(8), 962-977.