Explicit Instruction in Western Cultures in the English-Language Writing Classrooms of the Arab Gulf: Pedagogical Perspectives

Explicit Instruction in Western Cultures in the English-Language Writing Classrooms of the Arab Gulf: Pedagogical Perspectives

C.J. Denman (Sultan Qaboos University, Oman)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-6619-1.ch001


Writing is one of the most complex skills ESL/EFL learners are asked to master. Academic writing in English is often characterised by deductive reasoning, the linear development of ideas, the use of explicit discourse markers, and avoidance of repetition. However, for many Arabic speakers the presentation of an argument often involves paraphrasing, double arguments, and proverbs. When these are employed in written English texts, they may appear as errors or threats to coherence that result from the writer's limited awareness of Inner Circle socio-cultural conventions. Explicit instruction in Inner Circle cultures and rhetorical patterns has been posited as one way to address this issue. This chapter explores arguments for and against such instruction in the English-language writing classrooms of the Arab Gulf. It then offers some of the theories underlying culturally relevant literacy practices before exploring the feasibility of applying such approaches in the Arab Gulf.
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Writing is often considered one of the most complex skills students of English as a second or foreign language are asked to master. The act of producing a coherent piece of writing in another language is one that Ahmed (2010a) describes as an “enormous challenge” involving, at least on the structural level, an acute understanding of culturally-accepted standards of essay writing and rhetorical patterns. “Good” academic writing in the English language, according to Xing, Wang and Spencer (2008), is often characterised by an adherence to discourse structures based on the application of deductive reasoning and includes the linear development of ideas, the use of explicit discourse markers, and the avoidance of analogy and proverbs. For many native English-speaking instructors, these conventions are so entwined with the social and linguistic cultures of the Anglophone West as to be accepted as universally-recognised writing standards with any deviation thus considered a serious error.

However, for a number of Arabic speakers, the discourse structures commonly employed in a written text may be defined by the application of inductive reasoning which supports the use of repetition, paraphrasing and double-arguments (Ahmed, 2010a, 2010b; Koch, 1981, 1983). Such rhetorical patterns, no matter how logical and well-presented when delivered in the structure of an Arabic-language written text, run the risk of appearing as errors and even major threats to a text’s coherence when used in English (Hatim, 1997). Al-Khatib (2001) describes these “errors” of negative transfer as a by-product of an L2 writer’s limited understanding of the socio-cultural background of the target language. In this claim, Al-Khatib alludes to Leki’s (1992) contention that “cultures evolve writing styles appropriate to their histories and the needs of their societies” (p. 90), with instruction in writing thus being inseparable from instruction in culture.

If it can be assumed, as Leki (1992) maintains, that different linguistic and cultural groups adopt different discourse structures for the production and interpretation of written texts based on differing historical and social influences, then it could be argued that one of the most important tasks for a teacher of academic writing in the Arab Gulf is building students’ awareness of pertinent cultural differences between Arabic and English speakers (Grabe, 2003; Matsuda, 1997). Such instruction may involve moving beyond a strict focus on the discourse structures that dominate a particular genre in the English language to include an exploration of Western cultural values and how these have come to be associated with the use of these structures in academic writing, while also acting to inform the expectations of a native English-speaking audience (Matsuda, 1997). Such an approach would not only help Arab writers to understand how particular discourse structures are applied to a given genre of academic writing, but also why these structures have come to be accepted as the writing standards of Inner Circle nations.

From an opposing point of view, however, a number of theorists have contested that explicit instruction in Western cultures in Arab Gulf classrooms, especially when viewed alongside the predominance of Western-produced textbooks and native English-speaking instructors, can be interpreted as an expression of the kind of neo-imperialism that seeks to maintain Arab nations in a state of dependence on Western technology, knowledge and standards (Charise, 2007; Kumaravadivelu, 2006). Moreover, with direct reference to instruction in academic writing, Kubota and Lehner (2004) state that emphasising cultural differences between L1 and L2 writers may perpetuate “static binaries between English and other languages” that “view students as culturally lacking” (p. 7). In this scenario, explicit instruction in Western cultures not only privileges the cultural values of Inner Circle nations, but also transforms the writing classroom into a potential site of cultural conflict (Fernsten, 2008).

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