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Second Language Writing in English

Abstract and Keywords

Second language writing in English is the focal point of this article. Modern second language writing instruction and research have gradually broadened their perspective by shifting the focus from texts, to processes, to disciplinary and sociopolitical contexts. The fortunes of second language writing have certainly expanded in modern times. At one time second language writing was viewed as no more than a handmaid to all other language skills, a means of reinforcing the acquisition of grammatical and vocabulary knowledge. Now, writing is considered by some as a privileged means for effecting democratic change toward a more just and equitable sociopolitical order through the potential participation in public written debate of traditionally dominated voices.

Keywords: second language, writing, sociopolitical context, grammatical knowledge, democratic change

In his discussion of theoretical issues in L2 writing, Cumming comments, “Writing is text, is composing, and is social construction” (1998: 61). His analysis is appropriate not only synchronically, as he uses it in his discussion of current theoretical issues, but also diachronically. Modern L2 writing instruction and research have gradually broadened their perspective by shifting focus from texts, to processes (i.e., composing), to disciplinary and sociopolitical contexts (i.e., social construction).

The fortunes of L2 writing have certainly expanded in modern times. At one time L2 writing was viewed as no more than a handmaid (Rivers, 1968a) to all other language skills, a means of reinforcing the acquisition of grammatical and vocabulary knowledge. Now construed primarily as composing rather than as language practice, writing is considered by some as a privileged or particularly potent means for effecting democratic change toward a more just and equitable sociopolitical order (Clark and Ivanic, 1997) through the potential participation in public written debate of traditionally dominated voices. Less grandly, L2 writing (in particular in English) is also constructed as a primary means for participation in international disciplinary conversations through publications in international journals. At the level of pedagogy, researchers, especially in foreign language (FL) contexts (see Manchn, in press) are now beginning to shift back toward consideration of writing as a language skill, but in a more judicious way; that is, writing not as the handmaid of other language skills, but rather as the affordance of a potential opportunity to enhance those other skills as writing skill develops.

On the other hand, and more ominously because of writing's usefulness as a gatekeeping mechanism, writing is also at the center of the contested terrain of access to knowledge, power, and resources (see Leki, 2003; see also Crowley, 1998; D. Russell, 1991, (p. 101) for discussion of this issue for English L1 writing). In secondary and especially tertiary academic settings in English dominant countries, for example, L2 writing in English is a primary vehicle for establishing proficiency in disciplinary courses. In professional settings, as English has increasingly become the international language of science and technology publications, and as academics and other professionals are required to publish in international journals (Braine, 2005; Casanave, 1998;Curry and Lillis, 2004; Flowerdew, 2000; Gosden, 1996), the ability to write in L2 English has become, for some, a sometimes irritating and costly necessity (Phillipson and Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000). In short, the heightened status of L2 writing as an English language skill, and the prevalence of English L2 and FL writing instruction worldwide, have brought with them serious implications for writers' material lives.

L2 writing has historically been studied across a variety of languages for centuries (Kaplan and Grabe 2002). But because of the current dominance of English as an international language, the many millions of learners of English and the economic wherewithal of English dominant countries to invest in researching English writing and in exporting their language teaching technologies, research into L2 writing in the last 60 years has often meant research into L2 writing in English. Although for many users—perhaps most, outside academic and professional circles—L2 English writing may be limited to functions such as writing short notes or even simply filling out forms (Cumming and Gill, 1991), the vast majority of published research on L2 writing has dealt with extended writing in academic (particularly tertiary) and professional settings. The goal of research into extended L2 writing has often centered on how best to teach it.

Yet such a research question is, in a sense, premature, because before determining how L2 writing might best be taught, it would seem necessary to understand and to characterize good writing. Although examples of admired texts abound, it has become clear that the characteristics of good writing are slippery, perhaps unspecifiable, because decontextualized good writing cannot exist. In fact, given current understandings of meaning as constructed (rather than as residing in text), the quality of writing comes into being only in the reading of the text. In a postmodern intellectual climate, the insight that judgments about the quality of writing depend on the context in which the writing is done and read seems unobjectionable, even trivial. However, the following questions have profound implications and have long been at the center of intellectual and disciplinary debates about L2 writing research and instruction:

  • What is good writing?

  • What is good writing good for?

  • What does it mean to be a good writer?

  • How can we teach good writing?

  • Can good writing even be taught, particularly by an L2 writing teacher (rather than by someone familiar with the thematic content of the writing)?

In the effort to develop an understanding of the responses to these questions, modern L2 writing research has set itself the goal of accounting for the following:

  1. (p. 102) 1. L2 texts through examination of contrastive or intercultural rhetorics, genre analysis, and written discourse analysis, including the study of linguistic and rhetorical text features

  2. 2. Writers' processes through the study of individual writers at varying levels of expertise at a particular point in their L2 writing development and across time as expertise develops, including the role of the L1 in L2 writing

  3. 3. Contexts of L2 writing, such as the personal histories of writers, their linguistic and cultural backgrounds, their disciplinary formation, the institutional constraints under which they operate, and the influence of a variety of sociopolitical factors

  4. 4. Pedagogical practices in L2 writing, including assessment at all levels

Although the themes that thread through historical and current L2 writing research and instruction overlap and cross-fertilize, making division into separate strands difficult, I have attempted to group the core research interests noted above into three orientations that represent the primary concerns of L2 writing practitioners and researchers in modern times (i.e., in the last 60 years):

  1. 1. Text- and classroom-based orientations

  2. 2. Process-based orientations

  3. 3. Orientation to contexts for writing

I. Text- and Classroom-Based Orientations

In the early years of L2 writing research, the core of text- and classroom-based issues was concern about error in writing, text structure, and rhetorical differences across languages/cultures (contrastive rhetoric), teacher and peer response to writing, and assessment of L2 writing. Although each of these threads has persisted over time, the degree of research attention each commands has shifted considerably and moved in parallel with pedagogical focuses in L2 writing.

Interest in errors in writing and in their correction, reduction or prevention—arguably the overriding issues of concern in early modern L2 writing instruction—has fluctuated considerably. These fluctuations have followed trends in part from language teaching (i.e., from an emphasis on avoiding error in, for example, audiolingual methodology, to a de-emphasis in communicative approaches) and in part from L1 English writing instruction (also moving from emphasis to de-emphasis). The professional conversation about L2 writing errors moved from how best to eliminate them from L2 student writing to whether to bother dealing with them at all and more recently, with the focus-on-form movement (Doughty and Williams, 1998), back to how to deal with them as a means of building language accuracy and (p. 103) grammatical understanding. The more recent perspective, however, gives errors far less importance and exhibits far less faith that error correction can have much of an effect on reducing the numbers of written errors. Although students express a desire for error correction, among researchers the debate about the effectiveness of attention to errors has continued (Ferris, 1999; Guénette, 2007; Truscott, 1996). Supported by research in second language acquisition (SLA) concerning the importance of attention in language acquisition, rather than concentrating on grammar instruction on predetermined grammatical forms or their correction, the more generalized focus on form emphasizes heightened awareness of linguistic form and strategic corrective interventions.

As L2 writing instruction was pondering its initial move away from a focus on sentence-level error, a new interest had begun to captivate L2 writing teachers and researchers, contrastive rhetoric, or the idea that different cultures produce culturally influenced and rhetorically distinguishable types of text (Kaplan, 1966). Because providing students with model texts to imitate was a familiar feature of L2 writing classrooms of the 1960s and 1970s, contrastive rhetoric's focus on organizational patterns smoothed its ready incorporation into L2 writing classrooms at that time. As with error correction, however, after a period of fairly intense interest, arguments began to emerge in the professional literature challenging the validity of early contrastive rhetoric research and ultimately granting it a much-diminished pertinence in L2 writing instruction. However, the kernel insight of contrastive rhetoric, that cultures affect texts, has recently dovetailed with and been partially subsumed by interest in the idea that knowledge (and judgments about the quality and appropriateness of texts) is socially constructed (Connor, 1996), a notion introduced into L2 writing though genre studies (Johns, 1997). Genre studies have strongly influenced textual analyses generally (Swales, 1990), examining generic requirements across disciplines and within different sections of texts, management of author-reader relations and author positioning and self-presentation, and textual and linguistic manipulations of claim strengths (see Hyland, 2004). These more recent and complex approaches to textual variation depart from cross-national and essentializing cultural explanations that characterized early contrastive rhetoric and analyze cross-cultural variation in text as arising, not cross-nationally, but rather in the “small cultures” (Matsuda and Atkinson, 2008) of, for example, organizational settings and histories (see, e.g., Thatcher, 2000). Other descendents of the original contrastive rhetoric studies include “intercultural” rhetoric research with a greater emphasis on context (Connor, 2004) and critical contrastive rhetoric with attention to issues of race, class, and gender (Kubota and Lehner, 2004). In addition, study of the traces of L1 rhetorical preferences in L2 writing expanded to recognize a reciprocal effect—that is, bidirectional transfer, with evidence that instruction and experience in L2 writing leave traces on a writer's L1 writing as well as the other way around (Kobayashi and Rinnert, 2004). Writers are viewed less as struggling with L2 text than as “multicompetent” L1 and L2 language users (Ortega and Carson, in press).

How readers respond to a writer's text probably has more influence on a writer's motivation and progress than any other single feature of writing instruction. (p. 104) With the arrival in the mid 1980s of process approaches1 to teaching writing and their emphasis on multiple drafting, it became clear that merely giving L2 writers model texts to imitate and marking their errors did not produce better writers. Thus, the attention of researchers and teachers turned to investigations of other kinds of responses to L2 writing, by teachers (Conrad and Goldstein, 1999) and by peers (Nelson and Carson, 1998), in writing (Ferris, 1997) and in oral conferences (L. Goldstein and Conrad, 1990) that could lead to appropriate revision beyond sentence-level corrections.

Results of these investigations reveal the complexity of the impact of response to L2 writing. L2 writers who are more advanced in their disciplines may resist teacher suggestions beyond the level of grammar/mechanical errors (Radecki and Swales, 1988); writers may also resist suggestions for revision that target macro text features and that would require revisions deemed too extensive (Leki, 1990). Writing teachers are warned not to substitute their own “ideal” text for the emerging texts their L2 students are creating, but also are urged to realize that intervention in learner writing is not the same as appropriating text (Reid, 1994). Peer response is sometimes too gentle (Nelson and Carson, 1998), sometimes too forceful (Nelson and Murphy, 1992), sometimes ignored in preference to teacher response (Zhang, 1995). Conferencing appears to work best when the students actively invest themselves in the conference rather than simply accepting teacher commentary (L. Goldstein and Conrad, 1990). Some evidence suggests that self-directed revision, without response from any reader at all, also results in improvement in subsequent drafts (Polio, Fleck, and Leder, 1998). Finally, even response that corresponds to a student's expressed desire for a particular response type may lead to unanticipated and adverse affective reactions in the writer (Hyland, 1998b).

Although L2 writing professionals now have some idea about effective response strategies, given the central importance of responding to writing and the complexity of its effects, it is clear that just as there is no prototypical good text, there is no simple relationship between response and writing improvement (Ferris, 2002; L. Goldstein, 2005). Furthermore, L2 writing professionals have recognized that writing response is crucially embedded in complex and inescapable disciplinary, social, and political contexts that may be beyond the control of both the writer and the teacher.

In most academic contexts (and less directly in professional settings), writing is evaluated. Like many other forms of assessment, L2 writing assessment often serves a sorting and gatekeeping function. However repugnant such a function may be, if this type of assessment is unavoidable (an arguable supposition), assessment specialists insist that it is the responsibility of L2 practitioners to do it well (Hamp-Lyons, 2001). One of several tortured issues in writing assessment is, what is a fair sample of writing to assess?

  • Single-shot exams written within a restricted period of time on an arbitrarily chosen topic that the writer sees for the first time at the exam session, such as in the former Test of Written English and many placement tests?

  • (p. 105) Tests based on a reading passage from the test taker's disciplinary area (Hamp-Lyons, 1991a)?

  • Essays that writers have the opportunity to revise before evaluation?

  • Portfolios of a variety of writing produced over time?

Each of these types of evaluative measures has been used at one time or another to decide the educational fate of L2 writers. Despite continued pressure to move away from single-shot writing exams, their relative ease of administration keeps them alive.

In addition to the problem of which texts to evaluate comes the question of who should evaluate them. Research studies have shown the negative results of allowing inappropriate raters to evaluate texts, for example, language teachers evaluating texts in disciplinary areas in which they have no expertise, as has happened with the IELTS examination (Hamp-Lyons, 1991b), or L1 writing teachers (and teachers from other disciplinary areas) evaluating L2 writing with no understanding of L2 writing issues, as may happen in exit or proficiency exams (Sweedler-Brown, 1993). When the same writing proficiency examination is used with L1 and L2 writers, problems arise with selecting culturally appropriate writing topics that do not disadvantage the L2 writers (Johns, 1991). Furthermore, in situations in which L1 and L2 writers are tested together, a question of standards seems unavoidable: Should different standards be used to evaluate the writing of these two groups? That question in turn evokes the issue of how to determine where to draw the line between L1 and L2 writers, and even beyond that, of how to treat second dialect writers. Balancing between a perceived need, or institutionally enforced requirement, to test writing and a desire to be fair to L2 writers, L2 writing professionals have worked to develop consistent, satisfactory answers to these vexed questions:

  1. 1. What is an appropriate text to rate?

  2. 2. Who should read it?

  3. 3. What writing topic is fair?

  4. 4. What accommodations should be made in rating L2 writers' texts? (Weigle, 2002)

Finally, an important element in some classroom-oriented research has been a focus on possible classroom uses of corpus linguistics, Internet resources, and computer-mediated communication systems, especially for interacting with writing teachers and peers. (See, e.g., Warschauer, 1996, 1999, 2000.)

II. Process-Based Orientations

Questions about texts, tests, and teaching methodologies continue. However, these issues were displaced from center stage by explorations oriented toward individual writers, first synchronically toward their cognitive processes while composing, and (p. 106) then diachronically toward their development as writers and as initiates into academic and professional disciplines. Emulating Emig's seminal (1971) study of English L1 high school students' cognitive processes while writing, early L2 writing researchers developed a significant body of research reviewed in, for example, Krapels (1990), focusing on such topics as writing processes of strong L2 writers (Zamel, 1983), those of less proficient L2 writers (Raimes, 1985), use of L1 in L2 writing (Roca de Larios, Murphy, and Manchn, 1999), and threshold levels of L2 proficiency (Cumming, 1989). The most significant results of these studies include the following findings:

  • Proficient L2 writers focus on content, and not only on form, as they write.

  • L2 writers may need to reach a threshold level of proficiency in L2 before they can engage the efficient writing processes they use in L1.

  • Writers' processes vary fairly widely across individuals, though they may remain more or less consistent from L1 to L2 (Arndt, 1987).

  • Shifting to L1 can be a very useful strategy for generating ideas and stimulating more complex thinking in L2.

Pursuit of the question of how mental processes are engaged in L2 writing has tapered off somewhat in English-dominant countries, but it remains an active part of the research agenda in EFL settings, particularly in Europe. (See, e.g., the Journal of Second Language Writing, special issue, “Writing in Foreign Language Contexts: Research Insights,” 2008; see also Manchón, in press; Wang and Wen, 2002; Zimmerman, 2000). These studies have focused on time allocated to various tasks while writing (e.g., planning versus transforming ideas into language versus editing), focus of attention during writing, and impact of task type and previous experience and instruction.

In addition to investigating L2 writing processes, researchers have also examined the intersection of L2 writing and SLA, particularly in the EFL studies. On the whole, however, this cross-fertilization has been fairly limited, with little examination, for example, of language acquisition through L2 writing. (See, however, Weissberg, 2000, who argues that new L2 forms first emerge in writing, not in speech).2 No doubt part of the astonishing lack of interdisciplinary interface with SLA heretofore is the result of L2 writing's historical, and sometimes misguided, dependence on L1 writing research; another part is perhaps SLA's historical focus primarily on speech rather than on writing. The implications for writing of theoretical models of SLA, such as connectionism, also remain unexplored. Yet the focused attention required by writing and the repetition of forms occasioned by writing cannot but have an effect on SLA. Insights from SLA research might help to clarify, for example, the apparent disconnect students experience between the writing done for L2 writing classes and that done in other disciplinary areas, for which the L2 writing classes purportedly prepare them (Leki and Carson, 1997). Similarly, socioculturally influenced theories of SLA that consider the relationship between L1 and L2 communities and learner purposes should find natural coincidence with issues of differential L2 writing success and learning transfer (from one writing context to (p. 107) another), but again these links have been little explicitly explored. (See, however, M. James, 2006.)

Perhaps the most significant link between SLA and writing processes comes in the extensive work on output, primarily by Swain and her colleagues (see, e.g., Swain and Lapkin, 1995, 1998). The underlying assumption in this work is that the attention required to produce output, such as writing, causes semantic understandings of the target language to become syntacticized. Furthermore, when that written output potential is combined with oral output in the form of collaborative writing with a peer, learners' linguistic resources are extended and scaffolded, and on-the-spot advances in language proficiency are better remembered.

III. Orientation to Contexts for Writing

As a clearer picture of L2 writers' mental processes during single moments of writing began to develop, disciplinary interest shifted toward the question of how individuals' writing processes and skills developed over time. Consistent with a growing trend in L2 writing research away from decontextualized examinations of texts or of the writing processes of disembodied writers, the focus on L2 writers' development has demonstrated how personal, social, cultural, linguistic, institutional, educational, and political contexts are necessarily entwined. At the more micro level, context has been construed as the writing task, the reading associated with writing, the teacher's goals in assigning a task, and the writer's goals in carrying out the task (Cumming, 2006). Important theoretical influences in these studies have been activity theory (Engeström, 1987), sociocultural theories of language learning (Lantolf, 2000), and theories of situated learning (Lave and Wenger, 1991), each of which places the individual within a network of other individuals, tasks, tools, goals, and settings in an effort to explain both experiences and progress, or lack of it. In broadening its scope to include more than just learners' L2 writing, much of this research has been qualitative or naturalistic, going into classrooms, offices, and workplaces. These studies of L2 writers' development have provided the field with a better sense of how specific individuals, with names, histories, personalities, and voices, negotiate their way in the L2, over time, through educational institutions, toward academic literacy. (See McCarthey, Garcia, Lopez-Velasquez, Lin, and Guo, 2004, for child writers; Harklau, 1999, 2000, for high school students, including generation 1.5 students; and Leki, 2007, and Spack, 1997, for college students in the United States.)

Other studies have looked at how individuals come to be initiated into disciplinary domains. Here, personal intellectual, academic and literacy growth is shown to be actively and firmly shaped by academic disciplines. These studies focus on graduate students and professionals working in L2 English, tracing such formative experiences as writing for graduate seminars (Prior, 1998; Riazi, 1997), (p. 108) experiencing conflicting assumptions about the chosen discipline (Casanave, 1992), writing dissertations in L2 (Belcher, 1997), writing in L2 on the job (Parks, 2000), and publishing in L2 (Flowerdew, 1999). Less traditionally noted groups have also been studied for their interactions with L2 writing, revealing the amazing complexity of the uses of literacy as distributed in whole communities rather than located only autonomously within a single individual (Street, 1984; Weinstein-Shr, 1993).

A significant aspect of all the contexts for writers is related to sociopolitical environments, with many L2 writing professionals emphasizing that none of the issues discussed above can be viewed apolitically (Matsuda, Ortmeier-Hooper and You, 2006). Rather, political dimensions subsume and permeate all the focuses, concerns, and themes discussed above, whether or not we choose to recognize this, as aptly argued by Benesch 1993.

Reflecting a growing awareness of the interested or nonneutral nature of education, increasing numbers of L2 writing researchers have begun to address sociopolitical questions, in some cases primarily in relation to general cross-cultural issues and stereotyping (for example, Kubota, 1999). Others, however, have dealt more directly with L2 writing—for example, how identity issues influenced one South African L2 writer's decisions about where and how to ally himself politically through his writing choices (Angelil-Carter, 1997) or how local knowledge can function as a means of resisting the spread of the hegemonic and normative influences of Western academic writing (Canagarajah, 1993).

Another significant L2 writing domain explored through a sociopolitical lens has been the issue of plagiarism. Resisting the hysteria sometimes surrounding plagiarism, researchers have examined historical, cultural, and economic roots of Western notions of plagiarism (Pennycook, 1997) and the legitimate and transgressive uses of L2 intertextuality (Abasi, Akbari, and Graves, 2006; Currie, 1998; Pecorari, 2008).

L2 writing researchers have also been active in arguing for a critical pedagogy that would encourage and instruct L2 students on how to use writing to counter economic and political forces that have a negative impact on their lives (see e.g., Benesch, 2001). Australian genre researchers (for example, Christie, 1987; Cope and Kalantzis, 1993) have all argued for the empowerment of the disempowered, particularly children from nonprivileged classes and ethnic backgrounds, through teaching them the “power genres” favored in school settings. References in L2 writing research to theorists and researchers of critical language awareness and the new literacies movements—such as Street, Rampton, Gee, and Fairclough—are commonplace. Many of these writers reflect postmodern perspectives, which help to deepen our understanding of certain writing issues. Postmodernism challenges the belief in individual agency, in the unitary self, and in freely chosen, self-motivated actions, feelings, and opinions. The speaker/writer is viewed instead as a juncture of shifting experiences, beliefs, and ideological discourses. Such a perspective works against the ever-present temptation to exoticize L2 learners and essentialize their home cultures.

(p. 109) Conclusion

Although L2 writing studies have a long history, they did not coalesce in modern times until the late 1980s. The early 1990s saw an explosion of published research into L2 writing in addition to the development of a journal devoted specifically to the field (the Journal of Second Language Writing), a TESOL interest section, and an annual conference (Symposium on Second Language Writing). If disciplinarity is marked by, among other things, a theoretical foundation and a disciplinary history, L2 writing is hitting its stride as fragments of theoretical models surface along with disciplinary histories (Matsuda, 1998, 1999; Silva, 1993). Thus, the historical trajectory of L2 writing has moved from narrow focuses and tight control over L2 writing toward a growing interest in the context in which that writing takes place, both the individual context and the broad sociopolitical and historical context. We have partial answers to such central questions as what constitutes good writing and what good writing is good for, how L2 writing is done, and how we should teach L2 writing. But explorations continue from perspectives that shift over time, as they should. Perhaps disciplines evolve in ways similar to the ways natural language acquisition appears to take place, with each important new perspective unsettling and causing a salutary restructuring of previous, presumed-settled understandings.


(1.) In brief, process approaches emphasize the recursive nature of writing by encouraging prewriting activities to generate ideas for writing, attention to audience and purpose for writing, consultation with peers and other potential responders on drafts of texts, and decreased focus on sentence-level correctness, among other features. Process approaches are often juxtaposed against previous “product” approaches that tended to feature single-draft, error-free texts that were read only by instructors with a view to evaluation, not consultation.

(2.) One notable exception to this generalization is the impact of Krashen's SLA work (1984, 1993), which certainly did its part to move L2 writing teachers away from a narrow focus on language errors toward a more comprehensive understanding of L2 writing. Krashen's interest in literacy and the power of reading has also influenced L2 writing.