First of all, something that is “difficult” that is hard to do or understand. The word “difficulty” is used without restrictions as to the nature or intensity. As a result, there seems to be “a slight difficulty” and “a great difficulty”, for instance. “Hardship” is stronger in connotation. When dealing with writing difficulties, it is preferable to define the degree and intensity of the “difficulty” under question.
To plan support for struggling writers, it is necessary first to identify their specific difficulties. The research work of Graves (1983) emphasized the value of viewing students’ written work diagnostically from beginning writers to proficient writers.
It is also necessary to observe the strategies a student is already using, and what he or she can do. Romeo (2008) strongly supports the view that learners’ daily writing should be used in a formative assessment way to determine their learners’ strengths and weaknesses.
Research studies investigating the characteristics of weak writers have suggested that the main areas of concern are those listed below (Westwood, 2008) that weak writers:
Produce a much smaller amount of work than more proficient writers.
Spend a little time thinking and planning before they start to write.
Are usually reluctant to review, edit and polish a first draft.
Tend to be preoccupied with the mechanics of writing.
Have problems with spelling
For various reasons writing appears to be a difficult task. Learners try to write the composition all at once: ideas do not get a chance to form. Therefore, Tribble (1996) claims that writing can be an extremely daunting task when the main focus of a writing task is the final product from the very beginning.
The need to produce a coherent and well-written text can be a great source of stress to the writer if the intervening stages in the process of creating this text are overlooked. Furthermore, Cerbin and Beck (2001) argue that in many classes learners are expected to write well, but are not taught to do so. Courses do not try to develop learners’ writing: they simply require it and learners are left to use whatever strategies and competencies they have.
Actually, unless learners are given feedback and helped with their composing processes, they will not get better by simply writing a lot. Mooney (2004) expressed a similar view that learners should understand that writing has an explicit structure and process in order to empower them to become good writers. Many learners see writing as a magical act, when in fact there is a specific structure and process. Learners should understand that writing consists of idea generation, outlining, getting the words on the page and rewriting.
The frequent lack of a clear purpose or audience for writing resulting from the artificial nature of many EFL writing assignments, makes writing difficult for the learners. This will make learners lose interest in writing (Berkenkotter, 2000).
Moreover, incomplete understanding of the subject matter makes writing hard. Cerbin and Beck (2001) point out that learners often have to write about topics that are unfamiliar to them. Thus, it is very common that their writing lacks coherence and structure, reflecting their fragmented understanding of the topic, not necessarily their incompetence as writers.
Writing has little to do with spelling and grammar, but is more about ideas, emotions and finding a way to express oneself. Most learners are seldom taught to see writing this way (Mooney, 2004).
Unfortunately, what is emphasized at an early age with writing is not ideas or creativity, but one’s ability to master the technical elements like handwriting and spelling. In some classes, writing may be treated entirely as a list of rules governing the use of language (such as grammar, spelling and punctuation) rather than as a focused communication of ideas.
As a result, the frequently limited and often purely grammatically focused nature of teacher feedback on the completed piece of writing can contribute to a strong lack of learner motivation and a distinct reluctance to complete writing assignments both inside and outside the classroom. Agreeing to this, Cerbin and Beck (2001) note that learners perceive writing as an unpleasant task rather than as a meaningful learning experience. Consequently, learners are more likely to be interested in their work when they have some control over the selection of the topic and the work has an authentic purpose beyond getting a grade.
It is not hard to perceive learners’ writing problems; but what about the problems caused by teachers? Some of the problems are teacher-centered rather than learner-centered. According to Fulwiler (2000), vaguely explained directions on a writing assignment; examination questions which make false assumptions about what learners know or should know, assignments which do not challenge learners and are perceived as dull, incomplete responses by teachers to learn writing, and poor planning, timing, or sequencing of assignments, all of these are but some of the ways that teachers, with good intentions, may affect the quality of learner writing.
Additionally, the learners’ task of completing a writing assignment has been made yet more complex by the lack of provision for practice of the writing skill in class. Writing often becomes a low priority for the teacher when time and syllabus constraints come to the fore (Holmes, 2003).
Hence, writing is always tested and rarely taught. Cerbin and Beck (2001) drew attention to the fact that lack of explicit criteria and standards is considered a writing difficulty for learners. In some courses, learners have little or no information about what constitutes appropriate or good writing.
Learners are taught to dumb down the writing. They lose their authentic voice in school because they silence their writing in fear of making mistakes. Mooney (2004) mentions that:
Most learners have a huge discrepancy between their verbal skills and their writing ability. They have words in their minds that they could never spell. But in school, correct spelling is valued more than getting one’s true vocabulary on the page. As a result, many Learners do not write what is actually in their minds, but dumb-downed versions so they do not make mistakes. Over time, learners learn that this dumb-downed version is all they can do, and so they stop trying to write what is in their heads and lose their voice as writers.
Therefore, it is important to accept mistakes made by learners in order to encourage them to write more.
Writing has psychological and cognitive problems. Byrne (1991, cited in Ahmed, 2003) mentions these problems:
Psychological problems: writing is a solitary activity and learners are required to write on their own without the possibility of interaction such as found in speech.
Cognitive problems: people seem to speak without much conscious effort or thought. Writing, however, is learned through a process of instruction that has to be mastered.
The problem of deficiencies in learner writing or learner underachievement in writing can be attributed to many factors: one, learners have a poor attitude towards writing in addition to attitudes from previous writing failure experiences (Cumberworth & Hunt, 1998; Buhrke and others, 2002); two, learners are unmotivated to use the writing process and lack a cognitive awareness of the purpose for the writing process (Cumberworth & Hunt, 1998); three, reluctant writers experience difficulties due to the following factors: spelling and handwriting problems; poor mechanical skills; or a fear of exposing their feelings (Pierce and others, 1997); four, inadequate teacher training and reliance on ineffective past practices, daily time constraints, as well as a lack of immediate and positive feedback (Adams and others, 1996); and five, an insistence by many teachers that writing be accomplished in a silent, non-interactive environment (Accomando and others, 1996).
Thus, it is evident that writing appears to be difficult for a lot of reasons: on the part of the learner, the teacher or the instruction. So, efforts should be exerted to tackle these difficulties separately. Besides, difficulties can be minimized or if they are recognized and addressed early. Effective instruction, particularly when it builds confidence and independence in learning, will always increase students’ achievement levels.
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V. Cerbin, B. & Beck, T. (2001). Why Learning to Write Well in College is Difficult. University of Wisconsin – La Cross.
VI. Cumberworth, T. & Hunt, J. (1998). Improving Middle School Student Writing Skills and Attitudes toward Writing. Unpublished M.A. Action Research Project, Saint Xavier University and IRI / Skylight, Illinois, U.S.A. ERIC Research Report (ED420865).
VII. Graves, D. H. (1983). Writing: Teachers and children at work. Exeter, NH: Heinemann.
VIII. Mooney, J. (2004). Demystifying the Writing Process. Pearson Education, Inc. Online available at: familyeducation.com
IX. Pierce, J. et al. (1997). Motivating Reluctant Writers. Unpublished M.A. Project, Saint Xavier University, Illinois; USA. ERIC Research Report (ED 408617).
X. Romeo, L. (2008). Informal writing assessment linked to instruction: A continuous process for teachers, students and parents. Reading and Writing Quarterly, 24, 1, 25–51.
XI. Tribble, C. (1996). Writing. OUP.
XII. Westwood, P. (2008). What teachers need to know about reading and writing difficulties. Australia: Australian Council for Educational Research Press.
Mogahed M. Mogahed