Proceedings of the Academic Conference on Bridging the Centuries.
March 12-13, 1999. Ming Chuan University, Taipei, Taiwan. (p. 45 - 51)

Process and Product Approaches in EFL Composition:
Connecting "How" with "What"

by Tim Newfields

English Abstract Japanese Abstract German Abstract

As Smith (2000) suggests, approaches to writing instruction have gone through several pendulum swings in recent decades. Most ESOL writing classes in the 1960s tended to focus on producing well-polished compositions. Typically, students analyzed "correct" model compositions, then attempted to produce something akin to them. In the 1970s and 80s, however, educators such as Elbow (1973), Zamel (1982), and Raimes (1987) criticized the heavy emphasis on text production. Focussing more on the process of how writing occurs, they underscored the value of pre-writing activities and in-class discussions to generate ideas. Significantly, the process of editing was separated from writing was underscored. With a strong focus on real-time tasks, these educators tried to help writers reduce their anxieties.

By 1997, however, Myers suggested excessive focus on the conceptual processes ignores issues regarding specific writing forms. Casanave (1998) also highlighted some of the values of product-driven writing. By offering clear writing tasks in advance, she pointed students can organize their thoughts and better generate better compositions. And so the pedagogical pendulum swings continue.

Education as a Connecting Process

Successful teaching can be considered a process of bridging many contrastive dichotomies. Some dichotomies which foreign language composition teachers face are listed below in Table 1.

Table 1. Major dichotomies in writing approaches.
    emphasis on learning processes      -    emphasis on finished products

    focus on student experience         -    focus on objective outcomes 

    regard for form and structure       -    regard for global meaning

    priority on student interactions    -    priority on formal course design

    concern for immediate tasks         -    concern for long-term objectives

"Can teachers successfully bridge the gap between what they are often compelled to teach and a process oriented understanding of how students learn? The sample writing course outlined in the following section is one attempt to do that."
Basically, many of the issues listed above boil down to contrasts between questions regarding "how" students can optimally learn and curricular and administrative questions involving "what" schools believe should be taught. Although both sides of the spectrum may have merit, most teachers emphasize one side more than the other. Is this dichotomy inevitable? Can teachers successfully bridge the gap between what they are often compelled to teach and a process oriented understanding of how students learn? The sample writing course outlined in the following section is one attempt to do that. Parts of the course are devoted to process writing activities. Other parts have a more product oriented approach. In a sense, the class is a hybrid.

A Sample Writing Course

This paper describes two sophomore composition classes at a junior college in Japan with about thirty students in each class. Four features of those classes are highlighted in this article.

(1) Goal oriented writing

Johnson and Morrow (1981) and Raimes (1983) emphasize that students write best when they have a clear audience and specific purposes. Some writing classes focus on producing student newspapers. Others focus on exchanging email with ESOL learners around the world. The program I am conducting focuses on creating sample student compositions to be published on the Web. Sample compositions can be viewed at

(2) Co-participation in writing projects

Writing teachers should also be avid writers. I believe it's valuable for teachers participate in the writing projects they ask their students to engage in. Though concurrent writing may not be feasible, teachers should take the time to participate in assignments in advance to share what they have written. Generally, I write one or two sample compositions a week before a topic is introduced. When introducing a topic, it gives me a much clearer idea about what to say – and not to say.

There are two reasons for having teachers produce compositions. One is a chance to gain a firsthand experience of what the students will do. Another is that it encourages sharing. "By blurring the distinction between teacher as knower and student as learner, we can conceptualize all writers as learners." (Casanave, 1998, p. 100)

One question to consider, however, is when sample compositions should be handed out. If model compositions are introduced too early, students will tend to mimic the samples without thinking on their own. If they are introduced too late, interest may be low. I have found the best time to distribute sample compositions is after pre-writing, brainstorming, and genre analysis are complete, and just before in class writing begins. To make this point clearer, refer to the timeline of a typical classroom writing project in Table 2.

Table 2. The timeline of a typical classroom writing project.

   Topic Introduced         Genre Analysis        Error Analysis    Assignments Returned
   Pre-Writing Activities   Sample Compositions   Stylistic Focus   Follow Up Tasks
   Brainstorming            Classroom Writing     Peer Review

". . . not only are [process and produce] approaches compatible in some respects, they may actually be complementary."
Brainstorming and genre analysis activities are features of many process-writing approaches. On the other hand classroom writing, error analysis, and stylistic focus are features of many product-writing approaches. Considering the structure of the class as a whole, the dichotomy between process and product breaks down: not only are both approaches compatible in some respects, they may actually be complementary.

The timing and sequence of the activities described in Table 2 has a significant effect on student compositions. Also, since most students revise their compositions several times, often it takes a month to cover one topic. The value of revision should be continuously emphasized. Most students are used to handing in assignments, getting a grade, then forgetting about what they wrote after their compositions are returned. It takes a shift in thinking to conceive of writing as a process of continual re-visioning and polishing. The academic system in many Asian countries places a premium on producing a quantity of publications which are more or less grammatically correct. Perhaps more emphasis should be placed on quality and originality. For this reason, during each writing class described here, students work on several writing topics at various stages of completion, revising most compositions several times.

(3) Student choice regarding error correction

Many students are sensitive about error correction. Others want to have their compositions strictly corrected and find value in analyzing mistakes. Contrasting ideas regarding error correction have been debated in the language teaching profession for decades. My belief is that rather than presume to know what is best for all students, let teachers should ask student how much correction they want to receive.

Each week students hand in assignments, they add one of the correction codes listed in Table 3 to the top of their assignments. The thematic assignments appear in Appendix 1

Table 3. Student composition correction options.

    L.C. (light correction)       Corrections made only when the meaning is unclear.

    M.C. (moderate correction)    Surface level corrections as well as
                                  ambiguities of meaning.

    S.C. (strict correction)      Attention paid to all aspects of the composition:
                                  grammar, spelling, punctuation, rhetoric, logic, etc.

The contrast between these correction styles will be clear by clicking on the student compositions at

(4) Joint assessment of writings

Students hand in two copies of all assignments: one for a classmate, and another for the teacher. Both respond to each assignment using the Feedback Form in Appendix 2.

Peer feedback has two values. First, students benefit from comparing what they have written with what is written by their peers. More accurately, it seems they read what their classmates have written more closely than works by strangers, and hence benefit more. Second, students are empowered by assuming some of the tasks which have been reserved for teachers. Specifically, this means that the responsibility for making comments on each paper does not solely rest with the teacher: every student also gains a chance to comment on a peer.

Problems Encountered

Three problems have been encountered in this course.

The first concerns peer correction. In the first weeks of the class, students graded their peers. However, correct sentences were often marked "wrong". Moreover, students tended to grade friends more positively than mere acquaintances. By the second month of the course, I decided to ask students *not* to grade their peers - just to comment on the content.

A second problem encountered in this course concerns authenticity. 10% of the students plagiarized some assignments. The first time plagiarism occurred, I asked students to redo the assignment. If this problem arose again, a student would receive a "0" for a plagiarized assignment.

A third problem with this course is the teaching workload. It takes 10-20 hours a week to go through students' weekly writing assignments and subsequent revisions, write up original materials, and place two model student assignments on the Web. To ameliorate this, I've decided to have some assignments written by groups of 2-3 students. Still, giving meaningful feedback on some 800 assignments a year (plus subsequent revisions) a year is a daunting task.


"What is surprising is that few teachers seem to actually ask their students what they want to focus on — they just teach what the text book demands or what they believe students need."
Let's return to the one of the central questions raised in this paper: Which aspects of the writing process should teachers focus on? Many teachers are concerned about how much focus on grammatical form, stylistic factors, overall meaning, or a host of other composition factors. What is surprising is that few teachers seem to actually ask their students what they want to focus on - they just teach what the text book demands or what they believe students need. One point emphasized consistently in this paper is the value of speaking with students rather than merely talking at them. If students have no idea what they want to focus on, then it may be necessary to be directive. However, why not recognize that students have a voice?

The composition program outlined here represents an ongoing experiment, not a final conclusion. I have had to change some of teaching strategies and negotiate the syllabus to keep students interested. Weaker students are daunted by the idea of writing multi-paragraph essays. Can they actually learn that skill in one semester? The most candid answer is that some of the more proficient students grasp the rudiments, but students who are challanged by single sentences compositions will find multi-paragraph ones too challenging.

Teaching, it seems, is a process adapting the long-term curricular goals to the minute-by-minute changing conditions in each class. Foreign teachers in particular need to be keenly aware of the struggles students go through in the process of writing in a foreign language.

Further information about this writing class is available at


Casanave, C. P. (1998, November). Procedural and conceptual parallels between student and teacher product-driven writing projects. JALT Journal, 20 (2) 90 - 103.

Elbow, P. (1973)/ Writing without teachers. New York & London: Oxford University Press.

Johnson K., and Morrow, K. (1981). Communication in writing. London: Longman.

Myers, S. (1997, June). Teaching writing as a process and teaching sentence-level syntax: Reformulation as ESL composition feedback. TESL-EJ, 2. (4) A-2.

Raimes, A. (1983). Techniques in teaching writing. New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ibid. (1987). Exploring through writing: a process approach to ESL compositions. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Smith, C. B. (2000). Writing instruction: Changing views over the years. ERIC Digest D155. Online:

Zamel, V. (1982, Summer). Writing: the process of discovering meaning. TESOL Quarterly, 16 (2) 195-209.

Chronological Index Subject Index Title Index
Appendix 1 Appendix 2 Resume
Copyright (c) 1999 by Tim Newfields