Why can't Hong Kong students write well in English? I've been asked this question so many times that I've long given up trying to come up with an answer and have learnt instead to look at the issue from a different perspective.
Rather than obsessing over the reason our students can't write well, I've been giving a lot of thought instead to how English writing is being taught in our schools.
One observation I've made: many teachers think they're teaching writing when in fact they are teaching only grammar. Teachers who can't see the difference between the two are in the wrong trade, and the students they teach are in the wrong hands.
Writing as a form of expression and communication comprises two aspects: the social and the personal.
Undoubtedly a solitary act, writing nevertheless serves a social purpose - to allow one to be understood by others. The social aspect of writing also lies in its compliance with a social consensus - a set of rules concerning the syntax and morphology of language commonly known as grammar.
Understood as such, grammar constitutes a virtual community, and only members of this community can communicate with one another.
This aspect of writing has been given so much weight that students are often misled into believing that is all writing is about.
The mainstream teaching apparatus presents grammar as the art and science of writing. Instruction consists largely in having students memorise and practise definitions and rules.
But the mechanical instruction in grammar is not the same as the teaching of writing, just as education cannot be equated with examination success. Grammar gives you the instrument, but not the will, to express yourself.
A good writer will always have something personal to say on any subject he chooses to dwell on. All good writing, be it convincingly argued, vividly imagined or deeply felt, has the stamp and authenticity of individual personality.
What distinguishes the brilliant from the merely competent writer is invariably the former's willingness and ability to give himself away in writing.
Perhaps this personal, all-important aspect of writing has been so long neglected by teachers because unlike the social aspect, it is not something that can be easily taught.
Not all teachers of writing are aware of the magnitude of their task, which, in this sense, is no less than that of cultivating students' characters or nurturing their independent thinking.
Ideally, all classes on writing should be personal, not just in the relationship between the teachers and their students, but also in the relationship between the students and what they write.
Before teachers teach their students to write, they must lead them to read, encourage them to think, and urge them to feel.
In the words of the great American poet and critic T.S. Eliot, the first duty of the teacher is to help students "feel their thoughts" and "think their feelings".
Now, teachers and students, let's get personal, shall we?