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Chimbganda, A B



A Study of Communication Strategies Used in the Writing of Answers in Biology by ESL First Year Science Students of the University of Botswana.

Ambrose B. Chimbganda

(Communication and Study Skills Unit, University of Botswana)

Note: this electronic copy is still being edited constr1.gif (4369 bytes)


This article reports on a study of the communication strategies used in the writing of answers in Biology by ESL first year BSe students of the University of Botswana.The article examines the four macro strategies used: risk taking, risk avoidance, L2 based strategies and semantic simplification strategies. The results showed that while many ESL students preferred to use L2 basic! strategies such as circumlocution, generalisation and paraphrase, these strategies did not considerably help the students in their performance because of the restrictive nature of scientific discourse which requires precision and specificity. The study further showed that those students who were prepared to take risks by exploiting their resource expansion strategies, regardless of the correctness of their grammatical constructions, tended to do better while those students who opted for semantic simplification and risk avoidance strategies under achieved; which supports the empirical observation that the overall communicative competence of the L2 learners could be greatly improved if ESL and EAP teaching paid greater attention to those tasks and activities which enhance their strategic competence.


In the field of second language learning, we have witnessed in the last quarter of the century an intense keenness to study the internal mechanisms employed by second language (L 2) learners in order to exploit the L 2 linguistic resources for the production of messages. During the period language researchers have shifted their focus away from studying learning products to learning processes; from the study of the teacher's behaviour to that of the learner's, and more significantly to direct research frameworks on the strategies used by the learners in the development of their communicative competence than to focus on linguistic competence (Widdowson, 1978; Ellis, 1982; Taylor, 1983).

Selinker (1972) in his time-honoured paper "Interlanguage" postulated that L2 learners adopt some kind of an 'intermediate' language between their mother tongue and the target language while Nemser (1971), on the other hand, preferred to call the interlanguage an 'approximative' system because he recognised the productive nature of the approximative code in trying to meet the communicative needs of the L 2 learner. Corder (1967) in The Significance of Learner's' errors calls it the 'transitional competence', a notion which suggests that the second language learner's linguistic repertoire is not yet fully developed and the learner, therefore, has to rely on some other compensatory communication strategies in order to accomplish the communicative goal.

In terms of our understanding of the L2 learner's psycholinguistic processes which underpin his communication strategies, these earlier studies (Ibid.) were rather speculative because they did not pinpoint what exactly the learner did with the interlanguage. A more systematic way of studying the communication strategies used by the L2 learner was to analyse the discrete strategies used which would provide an insight into the communication procedures adopted by the learner in trying to negotiate meaning. Faerch antrl ICasper (1980) in their studies of L 2 oral communication noted that the failure to implement an initial communication plan was mostly caused by the lack of a sufficient linguistic resource and as a result the L2 learner had to resort to message reduction stratefiies. Tarone (1981) who takes an interactional view of communication strategies (CSS), observed that an attempt to bridge the gap between the linguistic knowiedge of the L2 learner and that of the interlocuter leads to the 'negiotiation' of meaning between the interlocuters. But he rf ties the problem for most L2 learners in general and for those in Botswana in particular. When it comes to writing, the learner is faced with overwhelming problems because, unlike in oral communication, there is no immediate feedback from the interlocuter, and the learner must, therefore, find from his linguistic resources the facilitative strategies in order to convey intelligible meaning.

Further research on the interlanguage communication paradigm has revealed a number of possibilities about the strategies the L2 speaker might use; strategies which this study focused upon.Varadi's study (1980) on message adjustment confirmed the theoretical presupposition that when the L2 learner wishes to convey a message which his linguistic repertoire does not permit him to express successfully, the learner tends to tailor his message to the resources available to him, that is, adjust his ends according to his means or adopt 'risk avoidance'. Richards (1971) has also made the observation that the L2 learner tends to use the communication strategy of 'overgeneralisation' of the rules of the target language, a phenomenon mostly revealed in phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon. Work by Tarone (1981) also shows that in some cases the L2 learner has to use paraphrase or be forced to borrow from one's first language.

Apart from studying the risk taking/avoidance dichotomy, the L2 based strategies and the semantic simplification strategies, the present study also looked at the spatial distribution of the frequencies of these strategies and their relationship to performance in the answers given. A study of the spread of srategies is important because it enables one to predict the learner's communicative needs, and to tailor them to the teaching goals and to relate these to the desist of a syllabus which caters for the needs of the science students.?-he researcher was also interested in testing Bialystak's (1983 b) conclusion that advanced learners use more L2 based strategies than less advanced learners.

Metalanguage Used in the Study

Before examining the methodological issues of the study, it is necessarEr to clear the air concerning the key conceptual terms used in describing the study. The meaning of "Communication Strategies" (CSs) as used in the study is borrowed from Tarone (1981) who refers to them as 'compensatory means' used by a second language learner when s/he is not able to communicate the original goal in the way previously planned, and so is forced to use alternative means to express it. In the process of using the alternative means, the L2 learner is often unaware of their appropriateness, especially with regards to the contextual, rhetorical or register relevance. In the study the cognate term "strategy" is used to mean a plan for controlling the order in which a secluence of communicative operations is to be performed.

Background to the Study

The study was prompted by the author's concern for a large number of students at BSc first year level whose annual performance in Bioloby, a subject generally conceived as 'softer' than Physics or Mathematics, borders on mediocrity. The majority of the students enter the BSe first year programme having obtained an average 'B' grade in the four core sciences: Biolog)r, Chemistry, Mathematics and Physics in the General Certificate of Education (Ordinary Level) of the University of Cambridge.

Many of the students will have been counselled on their possible future careers in the medical, engineering and other science - related careers before they enrol for the foundation programme; and so are already sufficiently motivated, although perhaps instrumentally.

The important factor which influenced the carrying out of the study is the generally low level competence of many students in their written communication. Of the nearly 600 students admitted into the foundation year programme, almost half of the students would not have obtained the normal requirement of a minimum of a 'C' grade at 'O' level in English Language to be able to enrol. In talking to the lecturers for the science subjects during the long vacation when the lecturers of the Communication and Study Skills Unit hold consultative meetings with the lecturers of the various science departments in order to review and improve on the relevance of the Communication and Study Skills course for the first year BSe programme, it became quite clear how frustrated (especially Biology) lecturers were with the inability of many first year science students to perform the basic tasks required of them at first year level. In their written submissions, the science lecturers mentioned the following deficiencies as the main areas in which the students showed weaknesses in their writing skills:

Students Inck essny luriting skills; thP3/ lack bvevity in nnswprins rjlrestions; they do not slrmmrzrist· yoints anri Inck logicalit3/.ThEy have prob2ems with selection and orsnnisation of yoints; and meueIy lift points without recastins them.

The feedback from the science lecturers indicates that by the end of the first year, many science students will not have been 'linguistically initiated into the formal culture of scientific discourse' (Hawkins and Pea, 1987). What complicates the learning situation is that in the Botswana context, English is considered exoglossic and the official language policy is that Setswana is not only the national language (Tsonope;lnd Janson, 1991)but is also the lingua franca of the country, as well as the language of national prinP and Iinity, and of cultural inentity (National Commission on Education, 1977). This means that, by all intents and Furfoses, English is normally ih~nored fo: communication, unless if it is for cross-cultural communication. This diagiossic language situation - with English being the language of instruction for higher education and Setswana catering for the day - to - day communication needs - imposes limitations on the learning environment of the target language than would have been the case if the two languages had been in a position to compete with each other in articulating both public and private affairs.

A recognition of the students' linguistic limitations by the University of Dotswana has led to English for Academic Purposes (EAT) being made compulsory for all shidents entering the university. In the faculty of science for which every first year student has to take Communication and Study Skills (CSS), the course is only allocated two teaching hours per week, which translates to about Ca teaching hours per academic year. This limited time is obviously not enough for attending to the diverse language problems which students have. Also, what is often not considered is t)7e fact that many of the first year science students in Botswana will Rot have done much original text writing in their senior secondary school education because of their concentration in science subjects in which there is very limited sophisticated text writing of significant intensity. All these non-integrative factors conspire to perpetuate the cycle of deficiency in their writing skills; and the shortcomings become acutely felt at the university level where students are expected to cope with d7e higher academic demands of the university discourse community.

Research questions

The study was designed to establish which communication strategies were used by the L2 science learners in their writing of Biology answers. Biology was chosen because it is the science subject in which students are required to write sustained short and extended texts which would demand some writing skill. The basic questions which the rest;of the study attempted to answer were:

1. How far do the ESL first year science students take risks in their writing by using resource expansion strategies?

2. To what extent do the first year science students use risk avoidance strategies in which they either do away or partly give up their communication intent?

3. How far do the first year science students make use of the L2 based strategies in which they substitute one linguistic form with the other to get the same meaning?

4. To what extent do the learners use semantic simylification when they have experienced a problem in their communication plan?

5. Do the differences in writing strategies result in different performances in the subject?



Forty subjects (Ss) from various social and learning backgrounds out of about 400 students who do Biology were randomly sampled. The Ss had spent twelve years of schooling up to the General Certificate of Education (G.C.E.'O' level); and had mostly gone through the Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) approach which emphasises the development of interactive skills, favouring 'fluency' over 'accuracy' and'content' over'form'. The Ss had completed the first of a two semester academic year during which time they had been taught Communication and Study Skills designed for science students, covering aspects such as note - making of the structured type, scanning and skimming, summarising, listening strategies, basic study skills such as the organisation and management of time, studying strategies, filing system, and library skills. The Ss were not categorised according to gender or age as these variables could not appreciably skew the results.

The majority of the Ss had enrolled for the first year foundation science programme after a year of national service in the rural areas where English is hardly spoken. The Ss were on average about 20 years of age, a stage when the 'critical period' (Klein, 1986) of language learning is over and the learners are mostly governed by Krashen's (1981) and Dulay et al (1982) 'socio-affective filter' process which depends on the needs, attitudes and emotional states of the learners.


All the first year students doing Biology were given a test on "Core Concepts in Biology" by their subject lecturer which consisted of both doze and open-ended items. The Ss had not been told that their answers would be subject to scrutiny so as to ensure that they wrote in their normal way. Since the reseacher was interested in studying the CSs used by the students in writing their answers, three open-ended questions of the test were selected in which the students were expected to give answers in a sustained textual form, requiring them to draw upon their resource expansion stratesies.The three questions for which the answers were studied were:

1. In what ways do the roles of a tlnicelluiar orsanism and a cell of a InIl[ticelllrlav ovgnllisrn differ?

2. Whnt anvantnse and disndvantrrge do YO" associnte witir thr divisiol~r 4f labollr betlclenz cells in multicellular orsnnisms?

3. Wht! Rr~ virnses difficrl!i to incluiie in thf living or non-lioi!lji ~a~rsoriPs of Ino!~crl


To ensure that consistency was reasonably maintained, the researcher had to establish a taxonomy of CSs used by the L2 learners in writing which would facilitate both the quantitative and qualitative analysis of the results. The design of the taxonomy was partly drawn from previous taxonomies (8ialystok and Frohlick, 1980; Faerch and Kasper, 1983; Paribakht, 1985); Chen Si-Qing (1990); Sionis (1995) and partly from the·corpus of data of the present study. The researcher devised a taxonomy which was based on the main types of CSs used by the Ss, and these were:

(1) Risk taking strategies,

(2) Risk avoidance strategies;

(3) L2 based strategies and (4) Semantic simplification strategies.

Within each of these macro strategies, sub-categories were identified as shown in Table 1.

Data Analysis

All the forty Ss were coded from 1 - 40 for easy reference, and each answer per question was carefully studied to determine which writing strategies were being used. Against each coded answer and according to the question, the strategies which had been used were identified, that is, whether the subject was using a risk taking strategy (RTS), risk avoidance strategy (RAS), L2 based strategy (L2BS) or semantic simplification strategy (SSS).

In order to determine the frequency of each of the micro strategy (Ms), the Ms was identified and recorded against the name of the Ms (SeeTable 1 shown as A $r B).The number of frequencies of the different types of micro strategies was counted with the totals recorded.To establish the relationship behveen the types of strategies used and the performance in all the three questions (See table 2) as determined by the Biology lecturer who had marked each answer out of 2, the strategies were juxtaposed to their frequencies, and the performance categori·ed according to the actual marks obtained out of 6 using the following researcher's classification regime: roor In - 2); Average (3 - 4); Good (5 - 6).



Table 1 gives a breakdown of the CSs used in answering the three questions. It can be seen from the table that for the three questions, the subjects mostly preferred to use L2I3S (38), RTS (37) and SSS (33).

What is interesting to note is that the highest frequency was the use of restructuring (33) and followed by circumlocution/ peneralisation (27). Another more commonly used striitefiy M·as ungrammaticnl uses which had a freauencv of (22 ).The data also shows the Ss considprably relied on risk avoidance (20), but less on paraphrase (11) and expressing something else (71). Within RAS, message reduction (17) was far more frequent than topic avoidance (3).

Table 2 gives the relationship between the different writing strategies used and the performance in the three questions. It shows that those Ss who used RTS with a count frequenc)l of (27j or (73"/0) were able to score an average mark of between 3 - 4 ,while the best and top marks were scored by a frequency of (8) (21.6%). There was a close relationship between RTS and L2BS, the latter recording a frequency of (27) (71.1%) for an average performance and (8) (21.1%) for the second highest top marks. SSS recorded the highest average performance of a frequency of (26) (78.8%) and a frequency of (3) (9.1%) for the third highest top marks. The least performance was recorded by Ss who adopted RAS, accounting for a frequency of (5) (25%) for poor performance while a frequency of (15) (75%) recorded an average performance. None (O%) of those adopting RAS were able to score top marks of between 5 - 6.


The results of the study partly confirmed Bialystok's (1980 b) finding, at least in its weaker version, that advanced learners use more L2t3S while those with a limited proficiency preferred RAS.The results also showed that many first year science students used RTS or achievement strategies and generally were able to restructure their communication to achieve the communicative intent. Here is a good example (uncorrected) of restructuring by one of the proficient learners in answering the question on why viruses are difficult to include in the living or non - living categories of matter:

Viruses on their own (olltsine living cells) shozcr no sign of life exhibiten by Iiving cells but are mere DNA pnrticlps covered in a proteilz cont.ThPy have no proto~llnsln n~hich is responsible

for IiJe. But they show activity only whPlz they are inside the host cells by Inllnipulnling the

host cell's ~lrotoylasln to aid their r~yronllctiolz. Hence becarrse of their nonnirnt natrare outside

living cells, they are di/ficult to classify as nolz - living or living.

The author for this answer has clearly taken some risks: he has structured his text by using cohesive

devices such as the anaphora 'they' which is used to avoid the repetition of the subject 'viruses'; and

has also used "but", a connective of contrast, and "hence" to show the logicality of his discourse.

While many Ss were able to use L213S such as 'circumlocution' or'generalisation', these strategies,

however, did not pay dividents in terms of scoring good marks as can be seen by the large percentages of

frequencies ( table 2) who were classified as poor and average. The lack of'brevity' and 'selection' by

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the students, which are some of the concerns of the Diology lecturers, must have neutralised the

potential to score good marks. Take for instance the following answer (uncorrected) on the same question

on why viruses cannot be classified as living or non - living:

They show charecteristics which are in the bonndary o~ living ann non - living thirrgs. They

neither show c~urrecteristics of living things or non - living things.

In this answer the student is clearly using the strategy of'circumlocution' or 'generalisation' by

repeating oneself or attempting to paraphrase in order to negotiate meaning. However, by not giving

the precise information as is required in scientific discourse, the student does not score a mark. What

this means is that there is a limit to which an ESL student can use paraphrase, circumlocution or waffle

in scientific writing because of the restricted nature of scientific registers which are specific to a

particular field of dicourse. Therefore, Bialyskok's claim (Ibid) that advanced learners use more L2BS

than the less proficient has its limitations in scienti,fic writing because some of the alternative

resources may not articulate the precise meaning originally intended.

Regarding the use of semantic simplification strategies (Fig 4), it is interesting to note that of those Ss

who used this strategy, there was a greater frequency of those students recording poor (12.1 %) and a

frequency of 78.8~b for an average performance. Consider the following two samples (uncorrected) in

which the subjects attempted to answer the question on the advantage and disadvantage associated

with the division of labour between cells and multicellular organisms:

(a) Many activities can be yPrformed at orzce or at the same time. ,4 lot of energy is needed to

bring coorlinntion of this cells together.

(bi Each cell hns a syccific firl?ction to llerfonr;. A cell crzlznot perform a filrrctiorz for another


For both of these Ss it is clear that although they have definitely identified the semantic field to

which the question relates, their information has been over-simplified, and they have been so cagy

in their meaning that a lot of information has been collapsed which, if expanded, could have achieved

the desired communicative goal. Contrast these two with the following risk - taking (uncorrected)

student answering the same question:

(c) [The ndvnntlrge] is to increase the efficiency or 4fectiveness op the sys~ans in the tlotly, as

cells are s~lecinlisen for the frtnction they yerfonn. IThe disnnvnntagei is that there are a lot of~

activities associated with the multicelluliir or~panisms and this r~iilircs more ~rzcrc~y. Cells o!

dif/frer~t fitnction assist others when others are not filnctioning 7ucll.

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The difference between (a) and (b) answers on one hand and the one by the risk - taking student (c) on

the other is that the former have not fully exploited the discourse functions in their articulatory

programme hecause they are less confident in their linguistic means to achieve their communicative

goals whereas the latter makes an effort to retrieve the required information thro~gh compensatory

strategies such as paraphrase: "or effectiveness of the systems" and "cells of different function cannot

assist others when others are not functioning well".

However, Fig 4 shows an interesting aspect concerning scientific writing which allows students to score

top marks even without using grammatically correct structures. It can be seen that 9.1 % of the frquency

using SSS were able to score top marks even though their texts lacked correct grammaticalness. 'Ihis is

illustrated by the following sampled answer (uncorrected) to the question in which they were asked to

explain the ways in which a unicellular organism and a cell of-a multicellular organism differ:

A unicellnlar does all tlze labour in itself i.e. respirntion, nigestion, rqrrortrtction etc a

mllltirellulnr orgnnisln hrzve sflecinliscn cells u:hich yerf~nn specinlisrd f!tnction these fonn

specin2isen ors~n alzri sysrems but they are internfyennent.

Clearly this student shows considerable ignorance of the basic rules of the language which should have

been learned at primary or secondary school. 17~e subject has not observed the important rule of

grammatical concord in "... organism have specialised cells..." and does not know ivhere a sentence

begins or ends as shown by the -whole construction which needs restructuring in order to read correctly.

I3esides, the subject is confused with the use of the preposition "in" which should be "on" and the

reflexive "itself" which should be "its own". Despite all these language fla~ys the subject was,

however, allowed to score the full marks on this question because of the scientific 'informativeness' of

the answer. This raises the critical question faced by many science teachers in an ESL situatioi7: to what

extent should linguistic correctness be insisted upon in trying to communicate scientific knowledge or

should one simply 'look' for Lhe scientific facts without considering h~~w t~ey are communicated'!

The results of the study also silo~r that at I3Sc first year level RAS were the least ilsed, especially topic

avoidance. However, message reduction was considerably frequent; but this strategy did Ilot improve

the chances of doing better, even though scientific communication requires breviCy and precision. Fig 2

shows that percentage wise those who adopted this stralehy had the greatest irequency of poor

performance (25%); and if one considers the scale ~,I the averageness of this grc,uy !sfe tahle 2), one wili

notice that ihere were more Ss who stored half th~ marks (3) than under any other str~tegies. In terms

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of their qualitative aspect manS~ Ss who used RAS ~yere strikingly deficien~ in their ~o~itive

development as illush~ated by or,e of the following samples in al~swer (uncorrected) to the question on

the 'advantage and disadvantage associated with the division of labour behreen cells and

multicellular organisms':

They grow bisger and they are able to reylace dead cell. They use or loose a lot of energy.

Here the author has so much reduced the intended scientific message that a lot of useful meaning has

been lost, and hence the author could not be credited for such vagueness. Such answers were too numerous

to have given comfort to the biology lecturer. Consider these two sampled answers (uncorrected) in

answer to the same question:

(First ans.) lDisadvantngel A lot of energy is needed.

(Second ans.) lAdvantL7gel The genetic materials are retained. CDisadvantase] The cell might

diaide into many divisions.

In the first answer the author has completely avoided answering the first part of the question on the

advantage while the information on the disadvantage is communicated in a ridiculously telegraphic

manner which does not capture the essential disadvantage associated with the division of labour

between cells in multicellular organisms. On the otherhand, the second answer at-tempts to give the

advantage and disadvantage, but the message is so compressed that it becomes woolly and fuzzy.

What can be concluded from these answers is that those subjects who mostly used message reduction or

avoidance strategies can be charecterised as those students ~Yho are 'as yet to accIuire academic

language proficiency', and this group, unfortunately, is the one that experiences the greatest linguistic

and cognitive difficulties.

Implications of the study

Tne findings of this study have considerable implications for ESL teaching in C~e context of Botswana,

especially in the area of English Language syllabus design at secondar)l school level. For the last

quarter of the century the emphasis ol-~ English Language teaching (ELT) at secondary school has been on

the communicative approach which gives more prominence on 'fluency' thannacccrac)l' and the

'creation of a text' over 'form'. There is no doubt that the communicati\~e approacfi naturally

recommends itself for 1,2 learning, especially at primary and junior secondary school levels where

pupils need Co be encouraged to risk errors in communicatinb· their ideas so that they can build 'inner

criteria' about tile apyropriateness of their language forms.

page 15

However, what is discomforting is that classroom practice over the years, even at senior secondary

school, has tended to ignore the deliberate teaching of grammar whch should be taught not as an end in

itself, but as a means to achieve the overall communicative competence of students; which according to

Canale and Swain (1980), involves sociolinguistic competence (the speaker's or wrjter's ability to

express the appropriate message in terms of the person being addressed, the purpose and overall

circumstances of the communication), discourse cornyetence (the ability to select, order and arrange

structures and words in a clear and effective way which achieves the intended message), linguistic

competence (the grammatical accuracy of forms, inflections and sequences! and strrztpgic comyt·tence

(the speaker's or writer's ability to use effective and unobtrusive compensatory strategies for any

weaknesses). For some teachers the communicative approach has provided an 'escape route' to avoid

the teaching of grammar, and the end result is that ~Yhile many students in Botswana who have gone

througt~ the communicative language teaching prc,gramme are quite fluent in their oral communication,

their writing communication does not appear to match their oral fluency; and it is not uncommon at

university level, as is shown in the study, to find many students who still do not know the basic rules of

grammar because it had been ignored under the guise of teaching 'fluency'. it is perhaps prudent to take

counsel from Dubin and Olshtain (1986) who insisted that

the comlnunicarivc, n~lpro~rh is nor n systelM 7LihiCh r~yinces older ones 27~rt rilthPr a2tet·s nnrl

exF'~nds the co~n7ionents of existing ones in !erms of lansrlnge content, col~rsf yronucts nnrl

lenmins yroni~cts.

To improve the students' language inadequacies, it would seem logical that at senior secondary school

level language syllabus desi~n and the teaching approach should so beyond the confines of the

communicative approach by adopting the eclectic approach in which teaching can tap from the various

apI""achPs so that ESL students from the senior secondary school system can be better prepared for the

rigours of ]ligher eciucation, especially ~he teaching of accuracy and other rhetorical forms. As we draw

close to the end of this century when we have had time to evaluate the products of the communicatve

apyroach for the last cluarter of the century or so, a re-examiniltion of the approach to ESL teaching is

necessary. This stutly has shown that for science students at university 'accuracy' in comm~inici\titrn is an

in;yorrant skill which is necessary for success; and if ESL teaching becomes too rifiid on ai~ atlherence to

the communicative aypm~th whose inherent weakness is its emphasis orr 'RuPncv' o\;er 'accurat)', then

the cycle of ill - ~reparedness will not be hrokgn. rerhays the Feint to remember is that at the upper

page 76

meet the communicative needs of learners, but should be integrative enough so that the conceptual

functions of the language which we use for thinking, for forming concepts and for fashioning

propositions can be diversified in order to meet the various artistic uses for which language is meant.

Pedagogic innovation is also necessary at university level in order to enhance strategic training in the

use of CSs which map be required to solve particular scientific problems for individual students.

Traditional practice in EAP teaching is that the course is designed to meet the global language needs of

students as if the students' linguistic needs were homogeneous; and what is often forgotten is that the

individual needs are as diverse as the students themselves. Our EAP courses, and indeed the type of

instructional methods, should not only satisfy the needs of the class in general but also the peculiar

needs of individual learners so that more meaningful learning can take place. An innovation in the

teaching of EAP courses which some institutions have already implemented is to integrate the

conventional method of teaching ~~e entire class with an individuaIised teaching programme which

allows for a greater lecturer/student contact so that the learners can be given an opportunity to practise

their strategic competence by giving them individual tasks which deal, for instance, with a whole!

range of problems they encounter in their areas of study. This appoach would mean closer cooperation

with the main departments so that there is constant feedback about the students' learning problems arrd

the individual needs.

Already there is a fairly general consensus that the strategic competence of 1,2 learners is likely to be

developed through genuine communication situations (Stern, 1978; Swain, 1980; f3iaiystok, 1985). In a

diaglossic situation such as the one that prevails in Botswana in which contact with English is

mostly through clasjroom work, it is important to widen the writinfi exI?eriences in both the EAP

teachinb· profi'~mme and in the main subjects. Without running the risk of being prescrirtive to the

lecturers of the main subject areas, it is necessary for both the EAP lecturers and those for the cognate

subjects to frequently meet tojiether to discuss the strategic methads whj~h can be used in material

Fresentation so as to improve the writinfi skills of the learners. One of the ways is for both the EAP

lecturers and the main subject lec;urers to use the 7,rocess and int~mctiolzrrl approaches to writing. In the

process Rpyroach hoth could pap 8ttention to the revisiol-i of work by students before presentation and to

train them to be aware of the 'purpose' and 'audience' of any piece of writing. To activate the students'

lu~owleclge, ~vriting actvities shoulc! be Freceded h~ oral Fresentalions, and s:ude!l~s shoLliii first t·e

page 17

peers. nhese chain activities can inspire self-confidence in the ~biiih· of the neophvte writer to

produce a meaningful text which conveys the intended cclmmunicative goal.

Similarly, the interactionn! approach can also be used to provide a meaningful writing context in

which there can i~e greater rapport between the lecturer and the students by giving;ln appropriate

written feedback, and the use of students' work as the basis for class discussion, error correction and

revision.These suggestions are obviously arduous and time - consuming especially where there are large

student numbers involved and teaching time is limited; but they may be pragmatic alternatives to a

situation whereby science lecturers would not require much writing from their students because they

think their students are unable to write, and the EAT lecturers did not teach much writing because they

think scientists in any case do not require competent writing from their students.

Limitations of the study

In longitudinal studies such as this one, the analysis of data is always problematic partly because

there is an overwhelming large volume of data, and also because the nature of the written M·ork often

defies being strictly categorised and, therefore, always remains open to alternative interpretations. In

the study the researcher had to limit the number of subjects to about ten percent of those students doing

Biology because of the huge amount of textual nlaterial available for analysis; and to extend the

number of sub~ects would have rendered the process of data analysis almost irr,yossib)e to undertake,

especially given the fact that the subjects needed their scripts for revision purposes during the

beginning of the second semester.

The other problematic area is that the study had only been limited to iour macro ccmmunifation

strategies i.e. risk taking strategies, risk avoidance, L2 based strategies and semantic simplification

strategies. ~his was done to limit the scope of the study; but it did not mean that tile actual

communication strategies used by the subjects were confined only to the four strategies. In fact there

were many other nbservab:e strategies which could hare called for a compleiely i·ie\y study, strategies

which occur in any normal communication such as svntaclicnl arrangemen:, inoryhoic,gical forms,

rhetorical and cohesive devices. ~erhaps anc,ther introspective study into these other discoursal

strategies could give a clearer picture of the complex nature of the CSs used bp the ESL science IPnrners

in negotiating their communicative needs.

page 18

A critical research issue which faced the researcher in this study was whether the type and nature of

the biology questions influenced the choice of strategies used by the subjects. Would the Ss have used

radically different strategies if, for instance, they had answered Chemistr~ questions which similarly

required them to draw from their repertoire of strategic competence? It would seerh this was most

unlikely given the context of the task. Previous studies by Hamayan and Tucker (1980) have shown a

limited influence of the nature of the problem: they found that L2 speakers only displayed avoidance

depending on the nature of the grammatical structures involved, which may suggest that the type of

task somehow has a correlation with the strategy preferred. Also of critical concern in the study was

whether the L2 science learner's choice of strategies was affected by the situation of use. For instance,

did the learners use fewer strategies in the restrictive atmosphere of the classroom, and would they

have used more or different strategies in a natural environment? These and other niggling questions beg

for closer observation in studies of this nature.


The evidence from this study indicates that, notwithstanding the limitations, the majority of ESL first

year science students preferred to use L2 based strategies in order to achieve their communicative goals.

It was observed that circumlocution, generalisation and paraphrase were the strategies most commonly

preferred, but these strategies did not considerably help the students in their perfomance because one of

the skills required for success in the subject is the ability to write scientific ideas with reasonable

accuracy and precision. Also impacting negatively on students' performance was the use of risk

avoidance, especially message reduction. Although a very insignificant number of the students was

observed to have opted for topic avoidance and expressing something else completely different, those

who did so performed very badly which is a clear indication that at university level such strategies

would not be useful at;lll for science learning.

However, those students who were prepared to take risks in their communication by restructuring their

discourse to negotiate meaning, to explain and redefine their ideas and Co risk making grammaatical

and other generative errors, were able to do better.rrhis, then, implies that in order to improve the

students' ability to communicate their ideas effectively, the focus for ESL and EAP should be on those

activities and tasks which promote the use of strategic competence so that the L2 learner can autnmatise his existing strategies by attending to input and by simplifying his il7ner criteria through the use of his nascent knowledge. In summary the study shows that while advanced L2 first year science learners are prepared to use alternative resources, some of the strategies do not necessarily enable them to do better because of the restrictive nature of the scientific genre; and therefore must take risks in using those strategies which sufficiently compensate for their inadequatqmeans, and which, as a result, are likely to promote the internalisation process of their strategic competence.


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