Principled Washback – Improving Writing with Formulaic Language

(This post is the fourth in a series of posts on “principled washback,” which I introduced here.)

A: How are you?
B: I’m fine, thank you. And you?

Just to get it out of the way, this is not the type of formulaic language I’m talking about.

This term has been particularly interesting because I am working with students who are under extreme pressure to achieve a certain TOEFL/IELTS score or risk losing their scholarships and hence their ability to attend a university in the US. What’s more, they have been here for a year and many have hit a plateau, or more like they are sliding back down the mountain as pressure and stress have actually made their scores decrease.

I am the writing teacher for some of these students and I noticed a major problem in their writing. Despite several terms of writing instruction, they still struggle with clear and concise writing. For example, one of my students has a very large vocabulary and very advanced grammar skills. This seems to actually be a detriment to his writing, as he tries to utilize these skills at the expense of clarity. (My mantra with him this term has been “Be direct, short, and simple.”) Eventually, this lack of clarity moves from just affecting the meaning of a sentence to negatively affecting the entire paragraph or essay.

How can a student like this be expected to succeed academically, let alone score high on the iBT or IELTS? The problem I identified, which is occurring with other students as well, is too much language play. Play is a great thing – especially with language, but sometimes structure is needed. And in writing, the structure needed here was formulaic language.

By formulaic language, I mean the phrases, chunks, and patterns that our language is made up of – those that we naturally use when we are speaking or writing. For example, formulaic language includes phrases like “in terms of,” “the extent to which,” “as a result of,” and so on. There has been much research about formulaic language running the gamut of ELT – from corpus linguistics, to SLA, to pedagogy – with as many perspectives on it. To my surprise, there is actually a lot of research against the use of formulaic language in writing. One reason is because, while a great deal of our native language use is formulaic (meaning phrase- or pattern-based), the there is still a great deal that is based on “language play” (Bell, 2012). For instance, Schenck and Choi (2015) found that “learners’ use of formulaic language reveals academic writing that is only mechanically proficient.” Native speakers, it turns out, are less formulaic than it seems.

This brings to mind several questions:

  • Does mechanical proficiency precede a more pragmatic, discourse-based proficiency?
  • Can you teach pragmatic academic writing without teaching formulaic expressions?
  • If students haven’t even reached mechanical proficiency, does it become a valid goal?
  • As Swan (2006) points out, should we expect learners to meet a “native-like” target, or should we be happy with clear and understandable communication?

There are a lot of things that can be discussed here. My focus will be on the last two points. Based on my experience, I believe that certain types of formulaic language in writing can have benefits for students and therefore should be incorporated into EAP writing instruction. These benefits include:

  • increasing clarity in writing for academic and testing purposes
  • improving organization in writing for academic and testing purposes
  • time management in writing for testing purposes

Which Formulas?

(Those with access to journal databases can find an Academic Formulas List (AFL) here or here. The formulas I am considering, however, are more systematic than the AFL. The Academic Phrasebank has some good formula resources.)

I am talking about two kinds of formulas. One concerns short academic phrases that serve certain discourse functions. These are usually subordinating conjunctions, prepositions phrases, or adverbial connectors such as:

Contrast However,
On the other hand,
In contrast to
Result As a consequence,
Therefore,
Explanation That is,
In other words,
, which means

See more examples here.

The other types of formulas I am talking about pertain both to language and organization. These include ways to write thesis statements, topic sentences, and even conclusions. Here are a few examples.

Argumentative thesis statement  

There are three reasons why ________ should/should not ….
There are several reasons why _______ should/should not …
________ should/should not ________ because ….

Topic Sentence One reason why _______ is because …
One reason _______ is that…
The main reason that ____ is …
Topic Sentences with Transitions In addition to ______, another reason for ______ is ….
Besides _____, a further reason why ______ is …

Clarity

Formulaic expressions can help students clearly express their ideas. Each phrase denotes a special function. By considering the function of the phrase, they can organize their sentence in a way that expresses their meaning clearly, especially in relation to other ideas. Embedded within these formulas are grammatical clues that can help students maintain grammatical accuracy to aid in their clarity.

Organization

It is not rare that I find a paragraph that has absolutely no point to it, either as a paragraph on its own or in terms of unity with a larger piece of writing. One reason this usually happens is that the writer forgets to include a topic sentence. By learning the more organization formulaic sentences above, students are much more likely to employ them. Hence, they are more likely to include essential elements that are required to organize their writing and convey meaning. These formulas give students an easy plug-and-play rule for writing thesis statements, topic sentences, and transitions. With practice using various structures, students will eventually move from sounding “mechanical” (but clear!) to varied and more natural.

Time Management

Writing a timed essay as a native speaker is a challenging task. Imagine how our students feel. They have to comprehend and then analyze the task, organize their ideas, figure out how to express these ideas in another language, and write these these ideas to include the writing conventions expected in this other language. This isn’t even including stress, fatigue, slow typing skills, lack of comprehension of the prompt, or lack of ideas. The writing practice in the classroom should be geared to dealing with many of these, but we rarely put our students under such time constraints. So, this is where formulaic language, especially organizational formulaic language, can come in handy. By having these chunks and plug-and-play sentences ready, students have to spend less time thinking about organization and conveying their main ideas. They have these ready-made sentences that they know how and where to employ. This will not only help them organize and write their essays faster, but it can help ensure they have some of the vital elements necessary for a high score. It’s a clear advantage to teach formulaic language in order to better prepare students for writing exams. This skill can also be extended outside of TOEFL/IELTS into university classes that employ in-class essay tests. Professors are going to be more focused on the content than the ideas. By using formulaic language, it could allow less cognitive resources to be spent on organization and the basic mechanics of an essay and instead allow more time to focus on explaining content.

How Principled is this Washback?

Formulaic language is clearly useful for testing, but, what about for the academic classroom? Some research finds it useful, and some does not, so the answer to this question is currently contentious. If students understand where, how, and why to use these phrases, as well as their accompanying grammar, I don’t see a major issue. If students are entering the sciences, mechanical writing might actually be more preferred. If not, I feel that once students grasp the use of this kind of formulaic language, they can start to compare their work to the works of others (through readings) and begin develop new styles of writing. Could they do this without going the formulaic route? Possibly, but this assumes they have a good grasp of structure, organization, and pragmatics. If they don’t understand that, they won’t understand the more preferred styles of writing.

So the main idea here is to teach direct, clear, and concise writing skills using formulaic expressions. This could be helpful for students for both academic and testing success.

References

Bell, N. (2012). Formulaic language, creativity, and language play in a second language. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 32, 189-205. Retrieved from here.

Schneck, A.D. and Choi, W. (2015). Improving EFL writing through study of semantic concepts in formulaic language. English Language Teaching, (8)1, 142-154. Retrieved from here.

Swan, M. (2006). Chunks in the classroom: Let’s not go overboard. The Teacher Trainer (20)3. Retrieved from http://www.mikeswan.co.uk/elt-applied-linguistics/chunks-in-the-classroom.htm.