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Culture Root and Academic Writing:

Factors That Influence Chinese International Students’ Academic Writing at

Universities in North America

By Lan Zhong

University of Windsor
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In this paper I examine the three major factors that influence Chinese international

students in academic writing: culture, education, and language. The aim of the paper is an

attempt to understanding the challenge of Chinese international students in academic writing.

I conclude with educational implications that students should be aware of challenge based on

difference of cultures, educational experiences, and language backgrounds; they should

positively modify their approach of attending classes, learning strategies, and to learn ways of

developing arguments and presenting ideas in order to adjust their study in a new country

without losing their own cultural values. The conclusion also implies the significance for

professors both in China and North America to develop the strategies and practice to finding

ways of helping Chinese international students writing academically and learning

successfully in North America.

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Culture Root and Academic Writing:

Factors That Influence Chinese International Students’ Academic Writing at

Universities in North America


There are increasing numbers of Chinese international students studying at

universities abroad, who are required to do academic writing in English (Dudley-Evans, 1999;

Dong, 1998). Academic writing is not easy for most native speakers. It is more difficult for

Chinese international students, who have different cultural backgrounds, educational

backgrounds, and linguistic backgrounds than other students, such as Europeans (Casanova &

Hubbard, 1992; Crow & Peterson, 1995). In other words, Chinese international students have

to struggle with resolving difficulties both on an academic level and on conflicts due to

cultural, educational and linguistic differences, as they attempt to meet academic writing

requirements (Thesen, 1997) in North America.

Failure of the successful academic writing may lead students to emotional stress,

physical problems, low self-esteem, and slow academic development. As an international

Chinese student, I deeply understand the challenges in academic writing encountered by

many Chinese international students as I do, and how this challenge impacts Chinese

international students’ study in North America.

There has been considerable research on ESL composition processes by college ESL

students (e.g., Brools, 1985; Hayward, 1994; Zamel, 1995), but until recently, little has been

written about ESL graduate level students’ academic writing (Casanova, 1995; Connor &

Kramer, 1995). Researchers (e.g., Ballard & Clanchy, 1991; Blunt & Li, 1998, Gadman, 1997)

state that the native culture and the target culture (Kaplan, 1996; Silva 1993; Zhu, 1992),

educational experience in the home country, the differences between the first language and

the target language, and students’ previous knowledge of grammar and writing skills,
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influence the graduate second language students’ academic writing. However, few in-depth

studies have examined the factors which influence Chinese international students’ academic

writing. In this paper, I explore some of the factors that challenge Chinese international

students in academic writing. This aim of this paper (together with follow-up papers) is to

contribute to Chinese international students learning successfully.

Academic writing in this paper refers to the course assignment writing and the

research proposal for a thesis or dissertation (Hu, 2001). The most common written genres for

course assignments, according to Hale et al. (1996), in physical and mathematical science and

engineering, include documented essays, summaries, plan/proposals and book reviews; in

social sciences and humanities, expositive and argument essays are frequently required.

Moore and Morton (1999) studied the written genre and text at undergraduate and

postgraduate levels in Australian universities. They found that the common written genres

include literature reviews, research proposals, summaries, and short answers which require



Kaplan (1966) is the first author to state that people from different linguistic and

cultural backgrounds organize discourse differently, in ways that reflect their own language

and culture. Kaplan (1996) illustrates graphically typical various modes of discourse

structure by speakers of several languages as below.

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The above graphics demonstrate that the “Oriental” pattern including Chinese is an

inward turning spiral (Kaplan, 1966). That is viewed as inductive, indirect, and circular

approaches to the topic; while the Anglo pattern is linearity, which shows direct. Although

this work has been viewed as generally too simplistic, they do open up what has become a

fruitful discussion about the nature of different writing patterns in different cultures.

Since then researchers (McLoughlin, 1995; Mohan & Lo, 1985; Wang, 1994; Yu,

1996, Wierzbicka, 1990) have explained the influence of cultural thinking patterns on the

worldviews, values, behaviors, and language use of ESL/EFL learners. McLoughlin (1995)

holds that traditional writing in Chinese discussed the subject from different angles but in

indirect way; while writing in English prefer to present the main point at the beginning.

Wierzbicka (1990) states the relationship of language and culture: “Differences in the ways

of speaking prevailing in different societies and different communities are profound and

systematic, and reflect the different cultural values” (p. 43).

Traditionally, Confucianism and Taoism mainly shaped Chinese culture.

Confucianism sought to teach the proper way for all people to behave in society. Confucius is

the representative of Confucianism (Chan, 1988). Confucius claims social harmony and the

building of ethical virtues. That is, everyone restrains his or her ego and absorbed the

supreme order of ritual. He claimed the proper patterns to be obedience and loyalty of

inferior to the superior: each relationship--husband-wife, parents-children, and ruler-subjects-

-involved a set of obligations, which would lead to a just and harmonious society.

The central idea of Taoism is to promote the inner peace of individuals and harmony

with nature (Berling, 1982). Taoism believes that everything we know is encompassed in

nature. The universe and all things in it, run according to the “Tao.” “Tao” in the Chinese

language means “way,” indicating a way of thought or life.

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In sum, Confucianism advocates social harmony. Thus, people should be self-

discipline, obedience and loyal to the superiors. People should be modest and be oriented

towards the collective. Taoism believes that everything in the world is wholeness and

connected; human and nature should be in harmony.

Chinese traditional culture not only influences people’s behaviors, ways of thinking

patterns, the views of the world, but also the writing system. Chinese writing system, which

can date back five thousand years ago, is mainly featured as following:

(1). Using long sentence; (2) put the important word and idea to the end. Wang (1991) states

that Chinese rhetoric patterns tend to produce longer orientation to the theme of a sentence or

discussion than English native writers. Conzalez et al.(2001) state that “the syntactic

organization of discourse follows a modifier-modified unit” (P. 420). Kirkpatrick (1993)

explained that the sequence of modifier-modified in Chinese language is not only present in

word pairs, sentences with complex clauses, but also as a principle of discourse organization

at the text level.

As McLoughlin (1995) states that paragraph organization and overall coherence also

reflect cultural variation in thinking and logic. Chinese logical structure, both in spoken and

written language, often places the key words or important ideas towards the end of the

sentence or paragraph (Wang, 1991).Chinese writers often start the main idea by first stating

the purpose, condition, location or reason before they go to the main ideas.

This way of presenting an idea and organizing discourse reflects Chinese traditional

culture value in self-discipline, modesty, and harmony characteristics (Chan, 1998) when

people express their ideas. To avoid expressing what they want to say overtly and openly, and

avoid being too aggressive and offensive, Chinese writers tend to put the less important first,

and gradually express the main ideas to invite easy and harmonious agreement (Leki, 1991).

This Chinese cultural based rhetoric pattern and idea presentation makes sense as Chinese
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writing is inductive, indirect, and circularly approaches (McLoughlin, 1995) to the topic, as it

showed in Kaplan’s graphic as “Oriental pattern” -- an inward turning spiral (Kaplan, 1996).

Goode (2000) states that western thinking has existed at least since ancient times, a

tradition of adversarial debated, formal logical argument and analytic deduction flowering in

Greece The North American cultural pattern expected thought sequence in linear in its

development, and speak more frankly. Unless the intention is to connect with the previous

sentence, this writing pattern often places the primary emphasis or key idea at the front of the

sentence; then, develops statement by defining, and demonstration. Northern America

academic writing expects short, simple sentences, and convincing reasons (McLoughlin,

1995). Helen Fox (1994) confirms this assessment with her own observations of what most

college teachers expect academic writing to look like:

In its simplest form an academic argument is just a clear, direct

thesis ... followed by convincing reasons that support it, with either
explicit or implicit attention paid to possible objections.

In addition to its "natural" structure, the argument should sound

assertive and confident, that it should be short, logical and to the point,
without irrelevant digressions, and that its tone should be polite and
reasonable rather than strident or badgering (p.12).

The Chinese writing system was established almost five thousand years ago. When

Chinese students are required to writing academically in Northern America universities, they

use to transfer the writing patterns that they have been familiar with in China. And many of

them find it is difficult to present academic writing in an acceptable form (e.g., Casanova &

Hubbard, 1992; Crow & Peterson, 1995).


It is most difficult for Chinese international students to conduct academic writing

which require critical thinking and analyzing because the students’ previous education almost

never not require such thinking (Grierson, Westwood, and Westwood, 2000).
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Roles of Teachers and Students

Teachers are viewed as authority figures in China who embody knowledge (Jiang,

2001). Teachers are expected to impart knowledge to students almost completely and clearly.

The students’ duty is to acquire knowledge from teachers and obtain wisdom. Teachers talk

more in the class than in Canadian classrooms. Students sit in the class, listening and taking

notes. The desks and chairs are usually fixed and can seldom be moved because teachers

dominate the class. Most of the times teachers stand in front of the classroom when they

deliver classes. Cortazzi and Jin (1997) argue that Chinese students are more likely to view a

teacher as a model, an authority, and a “parent;” students are also more likely to see their own

roles as result-focused, learning by listening and reflection (Cortazzi and Jin, 1996).

The long-established Chinese culture emphasizes authority (Chan, 1988), power

distribution, rule-governed family and society and collective. To question and debate the

authoritative teachers is generally regarded as an inappropriate challenge to teachers and a

disrespect to teachers (Ballard and Clanchy, 1991, 1997; Young, 1994). If a student does not

understand what the teaching is talking about, he or she usually does not stop the teacher

immediately. Instead, he or she usually will wait until the class is over. The collectivist

culture makes this student not want to bother the teacher’s talking and interrupt other

students’ listening to the teacher in this way. Studies (e.g., Jiang, 2001) show that Asian

students tend to show respect to the teacher, but tend to maintain formal and distant

relationships with teachers. In addition, they may see the western students’ frequently

interrupting teachers by asking questions in class as rude and not good manners; they are

critical of too much informality in the classroom and lack of respect for professors.

In contrast, the North American students view the teacher as a facilitator, organizer

and friendly critic (Jiang, 2001; Hu, 2001). The individualist cultures are more likely to want

to show up in class, to ask questions, give answers, and engage in debate. They are often
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seen as competitive. Northern America teachers expect their students to develop

independence, engage in dialogue and develop critical thinking (Young, 1994; Toomey,


Classroom Activities

As described above, since teachers dominate the class in China, generally, students

have few opportunities to participate in activities. Take English courses as an example.

Reading comprehension and grammar exercises, such as multiple choice and fill in the blank,

are the activities most used by English teachers (Cheng and Wang, 2004). Mainly, students

are required to complete their work on their own. Students usually reread the text books and

notes they took in the class from the teacher’s talking if they have problems in doing their


In contrast, in North America there are a variety of class activities that require

students either work on their own, in groups, or with the whole class: group work, problem-

solving, discussion (small group discussion, whole class discussion) work with others

gathering and using information from journal articles, books, and Internet, reflection writing,

report writing, essay writing, an critique evaluation of articles, oral presentations, and

projects (Foster, 2003).

Vygotsky (1962) asserts that each individual’s learning is facilitated by his /her social

interactions with others. Classroom activities not only increase students’ cooperative ability,

but also enable students to share ideas, shed new light on topics, view a topic in different

aspects, open students’ minds, and stimulate critical thinking. Students’ deeper understanding

can be achieved through dialogue and collaboration with their peers and their teachers (Biggs,

1999). Additionally, via using computer-based technology in and out of class, such as the

Internet, WebCT, and Videoconference, students obtain rich resources for academic writing.
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Learning strategies

Use of memorizing and rote learning is the Chinese students’ major learning approach

(e.g., Ballard and Clanchy, 1991; Harris, 1997). This learning strategy is commonly based on

Confucian heritage cultures. Initially, memorization and rote learning strategies stress

recitation of Confucian classics, which functioned to help students memorize the classics, and

confined people to old books without anti government ideas (Jinag, 2001). No critical

thinking is trained. Instead, students have to obey the teacher, and recite the famous poems

and articles in the textbooks. The benefit of the recitation learning strategies is reflected by an

old Chinese saying: recite three hundred poems from the Tang Dynasty [very famous classic

poems in Chinese literary history], one can compose one poem (Hu, 2001).

According to recent studies (Biggs, 1996; Kember & Gow, 1990), through repeated

memorizing, there is a sudden enlightening of the meaning. Moreover, the process of

memorizing leads students to understand materials gradually (Biggs, 1996; Kember & Gow,

1990). However, based on the memorizing and rote learning strategy, the students’ academic

writing is usually more reproductive (Watson, 2001). For instance, in academic writing, they

are used to repeating other authors’ opinions rather than giving their own opinions in

developing conclusions in their assignments (Watson, 2001).

In contrast, western cultures value competition; academic writing is required to

analyze, criticize, be rigorous in organization, and express the author’s own opinions (e.g.,

Ballard, 1989, 1996; Clanchy & Ballard, 1997). In addition, teachers encourage students’

questions, understanding concepts rather than knowing facts, analyzing rather than rote

learning; and they encourage students to develop as independent learners by training

students’ questioning, analyzing, evaluation, and criticizing, rather than remembering facts in

isolation, out of context.

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With such learning strategies used by Chinese students from elementary schools to

universities, it is very difficult for Chinese international students to completely understand

the expectations from professors in North America regarding academic writing, such as the

reflection paper, critique of articles, and thesis, which require strongly convincing argument

with writer’s own ideas (Hu, 2001).


Language proficiency is one of the conditions for writing well in any language

(Simpson, 1998; Zainuddin & Moore, 2003). Since Chinese and English languages belong to

different school of linguistics, Chinese international students have problems in selecting

vocabulary accurately, using vocabulary variously, and employing grammar correctly (Hu,

2001); exam-based education, the emphasizing one teaching approach only, and homogenous

culture increase this difficulty.


The ability to write effectively depends on largely having an adequate vocabulary

(Mayher and Brause, 1986). In other word, the breadth and depth of a student's vocabulary

will have a direct influence upon the descriptiveness, accuracy, and quality of this student’s

writing. Corona et al. (1998) share the similar idea: “at any level, written communication is

more effective when a depth of vocabulary and command of language is evident” (p.26).

Ediger (1999) asserts that “variety in selecting words to convey an accurate meaning is

necessary in speaking and writing, the outgrowth of the language arts” (p. 1).

Since Chinese and English languages belong to different school of linguistics, the

vocabulary and grammar are almost completely different. Chinese students frequently

struggle with choosing an accurate vocabulary to express exactly what they want to say, and

with using variation of words and sentence structures to express ideas (Hu, 2001).
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In terms of learning vocabulary, students need not only know the knowledge of the

word: pronunciation, spelling, meaning, the feature of word (e.g., noun, adjective, and verb),

and storing large numbers of words in mind, but also, as Ediger (1999) states, students should

be able to contextualize the vocabulary terms they have learned and use them in society.

Teachers should provide students a variety of activities to incorporate new vocabulary into

their oral and written opportunities to express ideas, such as small group and whole class

discussions, oral presentations, journal writings, book reports, and so on (Corona et al. 1998;

Zhong, 2005).

However, according to my experience as a teacher in China, English teachers spent

time in teaching knowledge of vocabulary; students spend lot of time reciting vocabularies.

Many students can memorize all the vocabularies in the vocabulary handbook preparing for

TOEFL and GRE tests, a few can even memorize the vocabularies in the Chinese-English

dictionary. However, little attention is paid to making students practice vocabularies by

listening, speaking, and doing writing activities. Therefore, although students have the

knowledge of the spelling and pronunciation, the meaning, the feature of the word, and large

stores of words in mind, they write very few essays and research papers in English before

they come to North America (Hu, 2001). The vocabularies stored in students’ minds are like

sleeping volcanoes which is not been made activate by using them. In this case, students “will

memorize terms and concepts for testing purposes only or largely” (Ediger, 1999, p. 2).


Another problem comes in grammar errors. Through a multi-case study of fifteen

mainland Chinese graduate students’ in science and engineering at a major Canadian

university, Hu (2001) explores the writing processes and challenges of these students. The

findings showed that students’ grammatical problems mainly include subject-verb agreement,

misuse of prepositions and conjunctions, overuse of the passive, run-on sentences, dangling
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modifiers, and non-parallel structures, although among the fifteen participants, some of

students had a good mark on the TOEFL test. Hu comes to conclusion that having knowledge

of grammar and a high mark on the TOEFL test does not mean one can use the language well.

Grammar-Based Teaching Method Switch to Communicative Approach

For several decades prior to the early 1980s, traditional grammar-based teaching

approaches (the Grammar-Translation Approach, the Audiolingual Teaching Approach, and

the Situational Teaching Approach) dominated the English classroom (Richards & Rodger,

2001) in China. In the English teaching and learning classroom, Chinese English teachers

spent most of their time on explanation and analysis of grammar points and rules, and

required students to do exercises such as multiple-choice questions and fill in the blanks;

students memorized these grammar rules and did many grammar exercises which were

isolated from meaningful conversations in context (Liu, 1995). Few meaningful

communicative opportunities were provided for students (Chastain, 1988). Consequently,

most students understood grammar forms well, and many might have received high marks in

examinations on grammar, but they had difficulty expressing what they wanted to fluently

and appropriately in both conversation and writing (Swain, 1998).

In the mid 1980s, the Communicative Teaching Approach (Richards & (Rodgers,

2001) was introduced in China. This teaching approach moved attention from explicit

grammar instruction to fostering learners’ communicative competence. Students who were

taught via the Communicative Teaching Approach were more likely to express themselves in

the classroom and could express themselves more fluently than the students who were taught

via the grammar- based approaches (Swain, 1998). However, in the Communicative

Teaching Approach without teaching grammar, students made more grammar mistakes both

in speaking and writing (Zhong, 2005).

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Examination-Based Education

Traditionally, China is examination-based education. Since ancient time, China has

developed a well-organized examination system in the world. Being associated with the

educational ideal “universal education without class distinction” (Confucius), Civil-service

examination, which stressed on literary skills, was given every year. The best students passed

the examination were to be offered appointment to lesser offices in the central and local


Examination is still important to many Chinese today. Based on my over ten years

experience as a university teacher and student-teacher supervisor, the case is that the he

results of examinations are related to students, parents, teachers, and school administrators.

Good marks for student means obtaining the ticket to enter university, which implies a good

future; high rates of students who pass the university entrance examination is judged by the

public as meaning a quality school. Accordingly, parents would like to choose such a school

for their children. Thus, the school can gain more financial support both from government

and parents. Also, school teachers can get more bonuses and other benefits. Consequently,

teachers teach to fit the contents of the examination, and schools foster test-trainers. Take

English as an example. According to the Chinese Education Commission, anyone who wants

to be enrolled in a university has to take English exams. But present exam paper is mainly

knowledge focused (Liu, 1995).While writing ability is included in the English examination

for university entrance recently, it represents only a very small percent of the total score. (As

a student-teachers’ supervisor, I keep close relationship with secondary schools in my home

town. Some of my university classmates are working at schools. So I have this first-hand

information). Writing ability training and learning is paid little attention in daily classroom

teaching; when examination is coming, to satisfy the need of examination in writing, Chinese

English teachers provide writing models to simulate the format of the university entrance
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examination in English writing, and set phrases which are frequently used in the examination.

Students memorize the formats and set phrases, but seldom to express their own opinions, let

alone use critical thinking.

Language Learning Environment

English language is a foreign language but not a second language. A student’s only

chances to practice English is in class. As a homogenous culture as China is, students have

little opportunity to practice English socially outside of English classroom. Neither Chinese

English teachers nor students’ have sufficient opportunity to experience North American

culture and to employ vocabulary and grammar in context. Furthermore, except English

textbooks, other subjects textbooks are written in Chinese; English journals are limited.

Consequently, most students have knowledge of vocabulary and understood grammar forms

well, and many might have received high marks in examinations on grammar, but they still

have difficulty in expressing what they want to fluently and appropriately in both

conversation and writing (Swain, 1998). Now, while communication is stressed in some

schools and universities recently, the grammar teaching usually is included little.


It is a challenge for Chinese international students in North American universities to

write academically. Cultural background, previous educational background, and language

background are major aspects that influence Chinese international students’ academic writing,

among which culture is the root of the other two aspects, which impact on Chinese

international students writing academically.

It is so confusing when Chinese international students first come to North America

and find out that many things are dramatically different from what they have been familiar

with since they grew up: the culture, educational system, the language; as well as food,

weather, and life styles. It is also a painful experience for each Chinese international student
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who has to rediscover their self-identity, learn completely new concepts (or ways of doing

things), and satisfy the academic expectations in North America, even though some of them

have successful academic experience in China.

However, it is very important and necessary for Chinese international students to be

aware of challenge based on difference of cultures, educational experiences, and language

backgrounds modify their approaches to attending in class, learning strategies; and to learn

ways of developing arguments and presenting ideas in order to adjust study in North America

universities while do not lose their own culture values. Understanding the major factors that

impact on their academic writing can enable educators’ both in China and North America to

develop strategies and practice to help Chinese international students to learning successfully.

Therefore, further study in finding ways to help them have success with academic writing in

English is of vital importance.

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