With the advent of wide-spread access to travel, and international work and educational opportunities, the ability to write effectively is becoming increasingly important. Writing has become more important as basic tenets of communicative approaches in language learning (see e.g. Weigle 2002). In my institution, the Elvis language school, I have recently witnessed relatively steady progress in the English proficiency of Czech students of English, manifested especially in terms of fairly fluent oral competence. This personal observation is verified by the first-hand involvement in oral Cambridge examinations as an oral examiner and intensive engagement in Cambridge exam teaching, testing and exam preparation at the aforementioned language school and at other institutions.
As a result, I admit my thinking has been honed by the Cambridge exam preparation courses I have taught in recent years. More importantly, I was goaded into thinking about the changing roles and aspects of writing, namely emails, whilst agonizing over students’ writing skills.
In fact, for teachers of English as a foreign language there is a recurrent need to evaluate the English communicative competence1 of their students which may take several dimensions, ranging from testing oral competence to testing students’ writing abilities with or without the aid of internationally-recognized examinations, for example, Cambridge examinations. In one of the Cambridge exams, for instance, students need to be able to produce various text varieties2, e.g. reports, essays, short stories, reviews, letters including many different sub-varieties, e.g. a letter of application, a persuasive essay, etc.
In light of this, I have come to realize that the written production of a regular email message (be it formal or informal) as part of one of the Cambridge examinations seems to cause enormous problems for Czech students however proficient they may be.
More specifically, apart from frequent writing slips and occasional typos in terms of wrong punctuation and basic spelling mistakes rather than errors3, which do not generally impede communication, it occurred to me that Czech students tend to be considerably vulnerable to the appropriate choice of tone, style and register, including appropriacy of features of genre compared to the knowledge of grammar (known as grammatical competence), e.g. grammar (language patterns), lexical range and accuracy whilst writing in particular.
At the same time, this lingering suspicion was reinforced by my formal and informal discussions with some of my colleagues, and inquisitive participants of the seminars I ran for teachers, particularly native speakers, who were suggesting the area of written style is considerably sensitive and ought to be challenged and examined due to the blurring effects of modern technology on the dichotomy of writing and speech, leaving the teacher somewhat startled with the question raised by Baron (2000:20) “What do we teach students about the relations between speech and writing? ”
Baron goes on to note that most (she means native speakers of English) have been taught to maintain distinct styles for speaking and writing. Yet, “increasingly, people are blurring these distinctions in the direction of informal patterns of spoken language” (ibid, 2000:2). The blurring distinctions are, of course, even more difficult and challenging to grasp for a non-native speaker of English (see e.g. Biber and Conrad 2009).
In summation, in full agreement with McKay (2006:1) I believe that a primary reason for conducting empirical investigation is to become a more effective teacher. Hence the practical daily concerns as well as issues of style, register and genre in the students’ pieces of writing gradually arose my curiosity and gave an initial impetus to the theoretical investigation of the contemporary literature on applied linguistics4 dealing with this matter of which Úvod do anglické stylistiky (Ludmila Urbanová and Andrew Oakland, 2002) was probably amongst the most influential. This is probably due to the fact that the book centres specifically on Czech learners of English.
Additionally, shortly afterwards the interest in the issues of style and register was even strengthened by a direct encounter with Prof. doc. Ludmila Urbanová, CSc. These facts along with a review of the FCE exam in December 2008 led ultimately to the idea of examining the latest teaching and learning materials5 specifically intended for FCE exam preparation and subsequently investigating written scripts (emails) produced by my students with a focus on written style and register. All in all, this raised, in my view, fundamental questions for discussion outlined in the following parts.