Overall, the students’ writing anxiety arose from a constrained learning and teaching context. Through reconstructed learning and teaching communities where online materials were adopted in line with SFL, students were offered a new understanding and expectations of writing at the discourse level. More importantly, along with their SFL knowledge, they gained confidence as authentic writers, who could effectively regulate writing with less anxiety.
Students’ initial anxiety with writing and paradoxical confidence as writers
The students were initially anxious about the writing, although they wanted to be good writers. This seemed related to a lack of knowledge of writing expectations. As Eva and Mary said in their interviews:
Eva: I like writing. .. but I did not know what teachers want from us, and I was not taught so clearly. .. I know the purpose. .. but when it comes to the details, I am not so clear. .. so I write down what is from my mind.
Mary: I wrote grammatically decent sentences. .. but my teachers still said it was not good. .. I am confused. .. and feel stressed. .. what should I do?. .. and they did not give me specific instructions and I really want to be a good writer. I felt lost. .. I really had no idea about how to improve it. .. I rely on my own intuition in making revisions.
The two representative narration segments included the typical expressions about their emotional discomfort that exemplified the four students’ high-level writing anxiety at the beginning of the semester, such as “I do not know what teachers expect from us” “I am not so clear”, “I am confused” “feel stressed” and “I really had no idea”. On the other hand, students also expressed their interest in writing (“I like writing”). Obviously, students still felt motivated to improve their writing. However, due to a lack of explicit guidance on the linguistic intricacies beyond grammar, they could only produce grammatically correct sentences and were anxious about how to meet the demands of academic writing.
Additionally, the students also felt that the materials used for the writing classroom did not provide useful knowledge that could help with their writing. This also made them anxious about their writing development. Anne and Eva noted in their reflections and interviews, respectively:
Anne: Textbooks are important learning sources we use in class and out of class. .. but I did not see coherent knowledge covered there. .. I mean the textbook has something there. .. but so random. .. both teachers and the textbook did not offer insightful understanding.
Eva: But what I can read and what I should read. .. I do not think I am well guided. .. how can I improve my writing?. .. This is really stressful for me. We really need additional and well-organized reading resources.
As the main learning resources for students to accumulate writing knowledge, they did not feel helped by their textbooks as they lacked principled knowledge, which was exacerbated by a lack of effective instruction. As such, the students felt additional stress and desired new guidance. Their anxiety in this regard could particularly be illustrated by expressions in the above excerpts, such as “The textbook did not offer insightful understanding”, “I did not see coherent knowledge” and “This is really stressful for me”.
Interestingly, although the students were not exposed to effective instruction or materials in their previous learning, they seemed confident that they could do better with effective guidance. As Susan said in the interview:
I mean I am not anxious just for the writing itself. .. More precisely, I am anxious about how to compose writing. You see, we can have good grammar. .. I mean if we were effectively taught, I believe we could also do well with our writing.
That is, the students’ writing anxiety was not something innate in them that could not be alleviated. Instead, they were confident about becoming good writers, although their practices were constrained by the teaching and learning resources they had received. Their confidence seemed to stem from their good mastery of grammar, another dimension of English language literacy.
The zigzag path of students’ anxiety alleviation in an online resources-based writing classroom
When attempts were being made to offer students writing knowledge and reduce their anxiety in the sense that SFL-based online resources were used, the students’ limited knowledge base (i.e., their established understanding about grammar-based writing) hampered their new knowledge acquisition promoted in the new curriculum. This can be shown in the following out-of-class discussion on Susan’s essay:
Teacher: Look at this part? (The teacher was tutoring his students and asking his student to explain the way she composed supporting details for a claim on the difference between college life and high school life.)
Students: What do you mean?
Susan: (No response).
Teacher: Do you still remember what you studied in class: the connections between sentences?
Susan: Not too clearly. I just made every sentence correct. .. I did not think too much this time. . .
Teacher: You see. .. exactly. .. but think carefully about the meaning in this local context. .. or the semantic load. .. such as modal verbs.
Susan: Sorry. .. I did not notice that. .. I thought I had checked many times and did a great job. .. because I am not quite clear about that and felt comfortable writing my own way. .. I have never learned this [the interpersonal meaning] before, which is difficult to me.
As shown above, the students initially understood their writing as a grammatical activity as they had been exposed to that mode of teaching for years. As such, they did not feel emotionally comfortable adjusting to a new curriculum that used online resources to push them to write at a discourse level. Instead, it caused them emotional discomfort. As Susan reflected later, “I am confused and felt I had too much to learn. .. I tried but could not do as our teacher showed us in class or what was written in the sample texts.” Expressions, like “confused”, “too much to learn” and “could not do”, conveyed students’ high-level anxiety when exposed to SFL in the very beginning.
At the same time, they were also emotionally burdened because of the online materials as learning resources, which was exacerbated by the intensive learning of additional materials. As Anne said in the interview:
In my previous learning course, we never had to learn these [online] materials. .. and write reflections. .. we just wrote and read some sample texts. .. the learning mode is stressful.
Echoing Anne, Mary also noted:
We have lots of course assignments and I had to read this. .. I feel a bit stressed as I have to absorb it within a short time. .. although I did feel learning different knowledge. . .
Expressions, such as “stressful” and “a bit stressed”, evidently projected students’ anxiety in the writing classroom. That is, their understanding of learning resources was limited to traditional hardcopy textbooks or in-class teaching. The students had never had the learning habit of using online resources and conducting reflective learning on their own within such an intensive time, which caused their additional cognitive load.
The most important emotional distress for these students seemed particularly related to the efforts needed to understand the SFL-related constructs offered by online resources and deconstruct the sample texts on their own following in-class learning. They became more anxious because of the complexity of the knowledge they needed to draw upon. As Eva noted in their interviews,
I feel learning new knowledge is necessary. .. but I also feel it difficult to thoroughly understand them, such as appraisal. .. and apply them to my writing. .. I understand my teacher’s intention is to be good [writers]. .. but I really feel a bit overwhelmed.
Obviously, with their immature awareness of the relationship between writing and SFL-based online resources, the students felt challenged in using the knowledge to improve their writing, causing their anxiety (e.g., “difficult”, “a bit overwhelmed”). Their emotional discomfort or anxiety was also enhanced because of constant feedback from the teacher beyond language form. As Susan, later on, reflected:
I wrote based on my intuition. .. when I am corrected. .. I do not feel happy. .. every time the instructor says things not related to grammar. Like my previous teachers, they would just correct grammar and structure or just confusing content. .. I honestly did not understand why I had to care about so much.
Obviously, the students felt emotionally dis-aligned with the curriculum because of their immature understanding of it. Anxiety in this regard can be illustrated by expressions “I do not feel happy” and “I honestly did not understand why I had to care about so much”. This happened in a particularly obvious way during the process when the students submitted their first two essays following written and oral feedback. For example, they often failed to correct colloquial expressions, show the connections between sentences, or provide appropriate engagement or graduate resources to anchor semantic load (field notes). Their stress in resisting correcting feedback was understandable since they had two conflicting perspectives and were not very clear about why their writing should be constructed in this way. Also, adding to their stress was the fact that they had to move out of their comfort zone.
Increased confidence and mitigated anxiety as a result of a further understanding of online resources
This watershed seemed to occur when they wrote their third essays; at this point, their feeling about writing was becoming positive, and they also started to renew their understanding of writing as a more cultural and contextual activity than its grammar-based counterpart. Furthermore, their frustration with the demands from these online resources seemed to also interact with their determination to be good writers as well as to have confidence in themselves, making them work intensively in and out of class. As Anne reflected:
Although it is challenging. .. we cannot give up. .. Learning anything new is not easy. Learning more means gaining more and more opportunities in and out of campus and to be better writers. .. I believe I can.
In other words, while experiencing challenges, the students did not prolong their anxiety in this regard. Instead, their confidence in themselves (e.g., “we cannot give up”, “I believe I can”) pushed them to meet these challenges. This was particularly exemplified by their efforts to continue their study after class. As Mary revealed in the interview:
Out of class, I keep reading these online resources and use the knowledge to do my own analysis in order to understand the secret of sample writings.
Apparently, while bothered by temporary anxiety in this new learning environment, the students empowered themselves agentively to overcome their negative feelings and positively use the online resources to furnish their writing knowledge repertoires because of their understanding of the importance of the new knowledge and the potential gains associated with this.
Meanwhile, teacher mediation in and out of class also played a role in helping the students understand the information contained in the online materials and reduce their anxiety. For example, Susan reflected:
With the constant guidance in and out of class, I feel I now have a relatively clear idea of what these materials are trying to say. .. and feel comfortable with using this knowledge in my writing. .. I mean I have gotten sufficient meta-linguistic knowledge from these online materials. .. Now I can better understand what the textbooks are trying to say and how to recheck my own essay before submission.
Students seemed to experience reduced writing anxiety (e.g., “feel comfortable”, “better understand”). In other words, in the online resources-based classroom coupled with teacher mediation, the students were gradually supplementing their original writing knowledge, which was constrained by structural rules and caused their emotional difficulties with composing good quality essays. In the process, teacher mediation seemed crucial in helping them overcome difficulties with regard to understanding meta-linguistic knowledge beyond grammar. As a result, they felt much more relaxed and less anxious in the writing classroom.
Indeed, their calm peace of mind as writers emerged particularly along with their growing knowledge at the ideational, interpersonal, and textual levels, all of which apparently transcended their previous knowledge of writing as a grammar-based activity. At the ideational meaning, students came to understand the way of constructing ideational meaning. As Anne reflected: “The new knowledge helped me realize that we have to use explicit logical relationships, and we also we avoid the mental process (e.g., I think), or first-person pronouns as participants when proving supporting details.” Anne further said: “with the ideational meaning learned, I can write with less panic”. That is, Anne’s new knowledge seemed to occur with her alleviated anxiety (i.e., “less panic”) and improved confidence with writing construction.
At the interpersonal level, students also experienced similar gains in knowledge and boost in writing confidence. Eva said, “I now see the importance of hiding authorial stance when writing expository writing or adjusting the tone, such as through the use of modal verbs. .. it is different from narrative”. Eva’s expression, such as “happily able to interact with a large scope of audience” in the interview excerpt below, also demonstrated her reduced anxiety:
While my previous teachers often said my writing was too personal or not objective, they did not tell me why and how to improve it. This had bothered and stressed me. .. with the useful knowledge at the interpersonal dimension, I am happily able to interact with a large scope of audience and deliver effective and reliable information.
In a similar vein, the textual dimension also afforded students strategies in coping with writing and dealing with stress. Mary remarked:
I had been told that my writing was too isolated and too loose, like spoken sentences, but I did not know how to do this, except by adding some conjunction words as previously emphasized. Through textual meaning, I see how sentences are connected to make cohesion beyond conjunctions, such as lexical cohesion and thematic progression. This clarifies for me how and why good texts are very unified.
Resonating with her new understanding, Mary also reflected that: “I now feel so happy to know that textual meaning helps me solve the question by offering me the whole landscape of how discourse cohesion works. This makes me feel confident and clear in using them for my own writing”. The expressions (e.g., “so happy”, “feel confident and clear”) well signaled Mary’s decreased anxiety as a student writer.
Indeed, by the end of the semester, the students were able to apply the knowledge that was crucial for them to construct effective writing. The knowledge seemed to effectively guide the writing practices that were bothering them and causing their anxiety. It has to be noted that almost minimal feedback was needed for the third and fourth essays as they were ideationally, interpersonally, and textually appropriate. The features of the last two essays emerged along with the first two essays that they were instructed to revise at the end of the semester. Overall, in addition to self-regulation of structural errors, students also exemplified their new knowledge by attending to the relationship between the content and contextually appropriate lexical/grammatical resources.
At the ideational dimension, students showed clear logical relationships and field-specific choices in their last two essays or corrected the inappropriate expressions in their first two essays. For example, Susan used an explicit cause-effect relationship to show her supporting details. Mary also replaced her use of colloquial lexical choices with academic ones and deleted mental processes (i.e., I think) to present fact-like information. At the interpersonal level, the students also demonstrated appropriate interpersonal features in their writing. For example, in the last two essays, Susan utilized modal verbs or quantifiers when providing details, unlike her previous writing whose tone was not appropriate. She also revised her previous two writings in this regard. Eva also learned to employ research evidence with appropriate engagement resources to support details (e.g., according to. ..), especially in her last essay. At the textual level, the students also demonstrated the cohesive mechanism in their writing. For example, Mary used transitional words to create a natural flow between background information and thesis statements she wanted to share with readers in her final two essays. Eva displayed lexical cohesion when presenting information, and she particularly shuffled between synonyms and linear themes to connect meaning in her support. Also, all of the students revised their previous two essays and also projected their knowledge well with regard to textual meaning in the writing. In all, the online resources used and delivered in line with SFL gradually offered students enhanced knowledge on how academic English text was composed beyond grammar. As Susan further reflected at the end of the semester:
I feel I can now know how to better appreciate texts, or how to analyze texts. .. if a text is full of grammar mistakes, I can say that it is a bad text. But what if a text is all correct sentences? How I am going to evaluate it? The knowledge provided by these online resources did a great job in clarifying writing in a holistic way. This also clarified and supplemented the knowledge in the textbook or what I have learned. .. this further boosts my confidence with writing construction.
The students apparently gained more confidence in composing writing. This confidence emerged out of their ability to apply newly gained SFL-based knowledge to regulate their own writing. In this sense, the students seemed capable of navigating academic writing in practice, which made them write with ease. This confidence in the actual writing practice was particularly exemplified by their happiness with orchestrating linguistic resources to produce quality writing at the ideational, interpersonal, and textual levels. In other words, the linguistic knowledge offered from online resources was mapped from their understanding to their actual practices, serving as a cementing tool to afford students confidence and alleviate their writing anxiety to a greater extent.