Writing in a second language

Author: Alasdair Archibald


Writing is not only the process the writer uses to put words to paper but also the resulting product of that process. This process and product are also conditioned by the purpose and place of writing (its audience and genre). Writing in a second language is further complicated by issues of proficiency in the target language, first language literacy, and differences in culture and rhetorical approach to the text. Instruction in writing can effectively improve student proficiency in a number of key areas. Approaches to instruction have variously targeted process, product and purpose of writing. More recent approaches both to its teaching and assessment recognise the need to integrate all aspects of writing.

Table of contents

1. Introduction

Writing, together with its teaching in both first and second language contexts, is currently the subject of a considerable amount of research and other educational endeavour. Papers on aspects of writing can be found in almost any issue of applied linguistics or educational journals, and there are currently a number of journals devoted to the subject (see bibliography).

This is, however, a fairly recent development, with writing and its teaching only emerging as a scholarly discipline in the 1970s (Nystrand, Green, & Wiemelt 1993; Raimes 1991). Before that time writing was seldom seen as something to be taught for its own sake and in the second language classroom it was most often used as a way of demonstrating mastery of the structures studied in class or for dictation.

Despite this huge increase in interest in writing and a considerable amount of work on models of how people write (see e.g. Flower & Hayes 1981 and Hayes 1996 for L1 writing and Zimmerman 2000 for L2 writing), there have been relatively few models developed of the role of instruction in writing in a second language (Cumming & Riazi 2000; Grabe 2001). This is, at least in part, due to the multifaceted nature of writing. The term ‘writing’ refers both to an act and the result of that act. This immediately sets up two possible perspectives on acquiring writing: learning the process of composing and learning the form and organization of the product. But writing also has a social dimension and purpose, which can lead to other perspectives focussing on genre, voice, and audience (Swales 1990; Cope & Kalantzis 1993; Fairclough 2001; Ivanic 1998). There is overlap with reading skills in these areas: the reader is required to decode the formal and social aspects of the text where the writer is required to encode them.

2. Writing

2.1 The writer

When writers write, they bring to the task knowledge of the process of writing and of the strategies they will use in composing. They bring knowledge of the subject matter to be written about and plans for how it can be ordered and structured for presentation (Bereiter & Scardamalia 1987; Faigley & Witte 1981; Flower & Hayes 1981; Hayes 1996). They bring knowledge of the product of writing, of the formal structures of language and of discourse structure and the construction of texts (Connor & Johns 1990; De Beaugrande 1980, 1984). They bring knowledge of the situation within which the writing takes place, its social and professional context, together with their experience of the expectations of the reader within the discourse community and of the forms, social contexts, genres, and expectations of their background culture (Bruffee 1986; Cope & Kalantzis 1993; Fairclough 2001; Ivanic & Camps 2001; Johns 1997).

2.2 Writing in a first and second language

A number of recent studies have suggested that the processes of L2 writing are in many ways distinct from those of L1 writing. Silva evaluated 72 studies comparing L1 writing with L2 writing and found a number of

salient differences between L1 and L2 writing with regard to both composing processes (and subprocesses: planning, transcribing, and reviewing) and features of written texts (fluency, accuracy, quality, and structure, i.e., discoursal, morphosyntactic, and lexicosemantic). (Silva 1993)

The writer’s relative proficiency in the target language is also claimed to be a source of differences between L1 and L2 writing (Bardovi-Harlig 1995; Cumming 1989), as is the writer’s knowledge of the target language genres and associated sociocultural expectations (Cope & Kalantzis 1993; Leki & Carson 1997; Silva 1997; Swales 1990), and the interaction between the writer’s L1 experiences and the meaning of literacy in the target language culture (Bell 1995; Connor 1996; Cope & Kalantzis 1993, 2000; Mohan & Lo 1985; Pennycook 1996).

These differences clearly do exist between writers writing in their L1 and in their L2, and particularly for writers with low levels of proficiency in their L2 who often rely heavily on their first language resources (Manchón, Roca de Larios, & Murphy 2000; Zimmerman 2000). However, there is considerable variation among L2 writers. Weissberg (2000) suggests that for L1 literate adults, writing plays an important role in second language development, not only in the development of accuracy but also in the emergence of new structures. The ways in which such individuals write, and use writing, in their L2 is likely to be quite different from their colleagues for whom writing in their L1 plays a lesser role. For writers who are more proficient in their L2, differences may be fewer. Matsumoto (1995) found that proficient bilingual writers tend to use the same strategies when writing in both L1 and L2. A similar study by Beare (2002) supported this finding.

3. Teaching and learning

Teaching writing has, since the 1970s, reflected this same multiplicity of perspectives as the research. Raimes (1991) outlined four approaches that dominated the teaching of writing at different times. These have involved a focus on form, on the writer, on content, and on the reader. A slightly later survey (Raimes 1998) added approaches that have focused on more social issues such as genre and on ‘critical’ approaches to writing pedagogy. One of the key areas in growth of teaching writing over the past 20 years has been in English for Academic Purposes. The recent sharp increase in the number of applicants to higher education from countries without a strong background in the English language has highlighted the need for specialised support (Jordan 1997; Björk, Bräuer, Rienecker & Jörgensen 2003).

3.1 Teaching writing

Although proficiency in writing is somewhat related to overall language proficiency, particularly at the lower end of the scale (Cumming 1989), improvements in general language proficiency do not necessarily affect a student’s proficiency in writing in their L2. However, as illustrated in the next section, writing instruction can be effective in raising proficiency in a number of areas. Recent approaches to instruction have recognised that, while weak areas can and should be specifically addressed, writing must always be seen as culturally and socially situated. Cumming (2002) cautions writing teachers to be wary of exercises that attempt to break writing down into component skills as such exercises often eliminate portions of the task that are important to the personal and cultural significance of the writing.

This more eclectic and holistic approach recognises that learners’ needs are different at various stages in their learning and that teachers must develop tasks to accommodate this. Grabe and Kaplan (1996) give a detailed discussion of teaching approaches at beginning, intermediate and advanced levels of proficiency. At lower levels frequent, short writing activities can help to build familiarity and develop a useful, productive vocabulary. The variety and length of tasks can be extended for intermediate level students - developing more complex themes and building a repertoire of strategies for effective writing. Advanced level students need to develop a greater understanding of genres and the place of writing in particular discourse communities. They also need to develop their strategies and establish their own voice in the second language.

3.2 Evidence of instructional effect

Despite the lack of models of learning to write, there is an assumption that instruction in writing does have an effect and that the knowledge required of a writer is learnable and the skills trainable. It is central to writing instruction that writers make progress as a direct result of the instruction they receive. In a general second language learning context, a student’s progress in writing is often assumed to be simply a part of the overall increase in their language proficiency. Whilst it is clear that students’ ability to write clearly and accurately depends to an extent on their general level of proficiency in the target language (Bardovi-Harlig 1995; Cumming 1989) there are aspects of proficiency that are either specific to students’ writing or that may be specifically seen to develop through writing (Weissberg 2000).

Instruction affects student accuracy in the use of the target language in their writing and also the range of choice of structure and vocabulary available to them for use in writing. Tsang and Wong (2000) studied the effects of explicit grammar teaching on student writing. They claim that there were indications that the students were able to write with greater readiness and use more mature syntax.

Instruction affects the student’s understanding of the cultural and contextual appropriacy of particular structures or vocabulary, their understanding of the norms and expectations of the target genres regarding form, and their understanding of the norms of the target genres regarding the choice of information and its sequencing and structuring. Archibald (1994) investigated how the discourse proficiency of secondary school students writing in English as a second language developed in different age groups. He found that students improved in their use of discourse markers and links and that they developed a better feel for the contextual appropriacy of their language. Shaw and Liu (1998) analysed the ways in which the features associated with academic register changed over the period of a pre-sessional course in English for academic purposes. They found an increase in areas such as impersonality, formality, and hedging in the students’ writing at the end of the course. They attribute this to an increased understanding of the norms of academic writing and a move away from a single ‘neutral’ variety of English that learners tend to use for all purposes. Archibald (2001), also using pre-sessional course students, found that teaching had a significant effect on the structure and organisation of the students’ writing.

Instruction in the processes of composition has an effect on the students’ ability to reflect on their writing and to produce more effective and appropriate texts in the target language. Sengupta (2000), working with secondary school students, describes the effects of giving instruction in revision strategies to writers of English as a second language. He found that explicit teaching of these strategies had a measurable effect on the quality of the students’ final draft. Cresswell (2000) reported on the effects of students learning to self-monitor their writing and to pay attention to the process and the organization of their writing. He reported improvement in the students’ ability to pay attention to the content and organization of their writing. Connor and Farmer (1990) found that teaching second language writers topical structure analysis to use as a revision strategy had a positive effect on the clarity of focus of the final texts. At a more general level, Akyel and Kamisli (1997) reported on the effects of EFL writing instruction on composing in both first and second languages. They found that the students used similar composing strategies in both their L1 (Turkish) and L2 (English) and that writing instruction in the L2 had a positive effect both on their writing processes and on their attitudes to writing in the two languages.

The direct effects of different types of feedback on student writing have also been analysed. Ferris (1997) found that changes made by students in response to teacher comments did have a positive effect on the overall quality of their papers. Villamil and de Guerrero (1998) investigated the impact of peer revision on L2 writing and found that it had a positive effect on the quality of the final draft. Berg (1999) trained students in how to give effective peer response to writing. She found that this training had a positive effect on the students’ revision types and on the quality of their texts.

3.3 Assessing writing

Assessment in writing should ask students to “demonstrate their membership in the community of fluent writers of [English]” (Hamp-Lyons & Kroll 1997:17). It should reflect not only the stage of general linguistic proficiency of the student, but also their ability to use the forms appropriately within the social and professional conventions of writing in the target language. The assessment of students’ levels of proficiency in writing and of its change over time has been the subject of a considerable amount of recent research (see Kroll 1998). Assessment has tended to mirror instruction with new approaches to assessment accompanying changes in teaching.

Assessment of the classroom work involved in writing has been carried out through portfolios (Belanoff 1997). Feedback has been given on the written product through the reader responding to the writer’s message (Ferris, Pezone, Tade & Tinti 1997) or through directly evaluating the form of the product. Assessment of the product of writing has involved assessments of the overall quality of the text, usually using a holistic or a primary or multiple trait scoring system (Hamp-Lyons 1991b; Kroll 1998). Other assessments of the product of writing have involved assessments of linguistic accuracy (Polio 1997).

Assessments of the quality of the text as a product using a variety of holistic and/or multiple trait scales are perhaps the most common ways in which students’ writing is assessed. Such scales are most easily applied to situations in which large numbers of students need to be assessed simultaneously and are often associated with mass testing.

Holistic assessment became popular in the mid 1970s and is still one of the most common forms of assessment for shorter pieces of writing. The rater or raters read the text quickly and, based on guidelines, give an impressionistic mark. If the text being marked shows a uniformity in the writer’s proficiency in language use, knowledge of the genre, skills of text production, then this holistic mark may indeed be a fair representation of the writer’s performance. The writing of second language learners, however, often displays marked differences of proficiency in the various facets of writing, and holistic marking in these cases becomes difficult and suspect. The problems relate both to the adequacy of the scheme to represent the writers efforts (Hamp-Lyons 1995; Connor-Linton 1995) and, relatedly, to rater reliability (Vaughan 1991).

Hamp-Lyons (1995) suggests that a multiple trait scheme - one that scores a number of different facets or traits in a student’s writing - has advantages over holistic marking in that it can highlight rather than cover differences in proficiencies within a student’s writing. She claims that multiple trait schemes are more reliable than holistic approaches, that they provide more diagnostic information to the student and the teacher, that they highlight salient features of the text, and that they have greater validity (Hamp-Lyons 1991).

Certainly, multiple trait scoring has the attraction of at least recognising that student writing in a second language often displays quite variable levels of proficiency in different areas. There is a danger, however, of it being seen as reducing writing to a series of discreet skill areas that can be quantified and assessed separately from one another. Traits are not separate or separable features of a piece of writing, they are interwoven and interdependent and their analysis provides different perspectives on the text. An important question is whether the perspectives chosen in a particular scheme are really different enough from one another to warrant being scored separately.

4. Concluding remarks

This article has highlighted areas in which research into writing in a second language can and does inform classroom practice. It has focused on the complexity of writing and the interplay of the various issues that must be addressed by teachers and learners who approach writing in a second language. There has been considerable interplay in recent years between research into writing and learning and instruction in writing. Much of the research has direct relevance to the classroom, and classroom practice and observation are the source of many research studies. The rising profile of second language writing and particularly of writing for academic purposes has also led to a proliferation of resources aimed at both teachers and students. Some useful Internet sites, journals, and published overviews on writing are listed below.


Further reading

Grabe, W. & W. Kaplan (1996). Theory and Practice of Writing: An Applied Linguistic Perspective . Harlow: Longman.

Hyland, K. (2002). Teaching and R esearching W riting . Harlow: Longman.

Kroll, B. (ed.) (2003). Exploring the Dynamics of Second Language Writing . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Silva, T. & P. Matsuda (eds) (2001). On Second Language Writing . Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Erlbaum Associates.

Tribble, C. (1996). Writing . Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Bibliographic references

Akyel, A. & S. Kamisli (1997). Composing in first and second languages: Possible effects of EFL writing instruction. In K. Pogner (ed.), Writing: Text and Interaction . Odense Working Papers in Language and Communication 14, 69-105.

Archibald, A. (1994). The Acquisition of Discourse Proficiency: A Study of the Ability of German School Students to Produce Written Texts in English as a Foreign Language . Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

Archibald, A. (2001). Targeting L2 writing proficiencies: Instruction and areas of change in students' writing over time. International Journal of English Studies 1, 2:153-74.

Bardovi-Harlig, K. (1995). A narrative perspective on the development of the tense/aspect system in second language acquisition. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 17, 2:263-91.

Beare, S. (2002). Writing Strategies: Differences in L1 and L2 Writing. Proceedings of the Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in Higher Education Conference 24-26 June 2002, Manchester Conference Centre, UMIST.

Bell, J. S. (1995). The relationship between L1 & L2 Literacy: Some complicating factors. TESOL Quarterly 29, 4:687-704.

Belanoff, P. (1997). Portfolios. 2nd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bereiter, C. & M. Scardamalia (1987). The Psychology of Written Composition . Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Berg, C. (1999). The effects of trained peer response on ESL students' revision types and writing quality. Journal of Second Language Writing 8, 3:215-41.

Björk, L., B. Bräuer, L. Rienecker & P. Jörgensen (eds) (2003). Teaching Academic Writing in European Education . A Collection of Papers from the First EATAW Conference held in Gronigen, The Netherlands, 2001. Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Bruffee, K. A. (1986). Social construction, language, and the authority of knowledge: A bibliographical essay. College English 48:773-90.

Connor, U. & M. Farmer (1990). The teaching of topical structure analysis as a revision strategy for ESL writers. In B. Kroll (ed.), Second Language Writing: Research and Insights for the Classroom , 126-39. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Connor, U. & A. M. Johns (eds) (1990). Coherence in Writing . Alexandria Virginia: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc..

Connor, U. (1996). Contrastive Rhetoric: Cross-cultural Aspects of Second-language Writing . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Connor-Linton, J. (1995). Looking behind the curtain: What do L2 composition ratings really mean? TESOL Quarterly 29, 4:762-65.

Cope, B. & M. Kalantzis (eds) (1993). The Powers of Literacy: A Genre Approach to Teaching Writing . London: Falmer Press.

Cope, B. & M. Kalantzis (eds) (2000). Multiliteracies . London: Routledge.

Cresswell, A. (2000). Self-monitoring in student writing: developing learner responsibility. ELT Journal 54, 3:235-44.

Cumming, A. & A, Riazi (2000). Building models of adult second-language writing instruction. Learning and Instruction 10, 1:55-71.

Cumming, A. (1989). Writing expertise and second language proficiency. Language Learning 39, 1:81-141.

Cumming, A. (1998). Theoretical perspectives on writing. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 18:61-78.

Cumming, A. (2002). If I had known twelve things. In L. L. Blanton & B. Kroll (eds) , ESL composition tales: Reflections on teaching , 123-34. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press .

De Beaugrande, R. (1980). Text, Discourse and Process . London: Longman.

De Beaugrande, R. (1984). Text Production: Towards a Science of Composition . Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Faigley, L. & S. P. Witte (1981). Analyzing revision. College Composition and Communication 32, 4:400-15.

Fairclough, N. (2001). Language and Power. 2 nd ed., London: Longman.

Ferris, D. (1997). The influence of teacher commentary on student revision. TESOL Quarterly 31, 2:315-39.

Ferris, D. R., S. Pezone, C. R. Tade & S. Tinti (1997). Teacher commentary on student writing: descriptions and implications. Journal of Second Language Writing 6:155-82.

Flower, L. S. & J. R. Hayes (1981). A cognitive process theory of writing. College Composition and Communication 32:365-87.

Grabe, W. (2001). Notes toward a theory of second language writing. In T. Silva & P. Matsuda (eds), On Second Language Writing, 39-57. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Earlbaum Erlbaum Associates.

Hamp-Lyons, L. & B. Kroll (1997). TOEFL 2000 - Writing: Composition, Community, and Assessment (TOEFL Monograph Series 5). Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Hamp-Lyons, L. (1991). Scoring procedures for ESL contexts. In Hamp-Lyons, L. (ed.), Assessing Second Language Writing in Academic Contexts , 241-76. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Hamp-Lyons, L. (1995). Rating non-native writing: the trouble with holistic scoring. TESOL Quarterly 29, 4:759-62.

Hayes, J. R. (1996). A new framework for understanding cognition and affect in writing. In C. M. Levy & S. R. Ransdell (eds), The Science of Writing, 1-27. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Ivanic, R. (1998). Writing and I dentity: The D iscoursal C onstruction of I dentity in A cademic W riting. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

Ivanic, R. & D. Camps ( 2001 1998 ) . Writing and Identity: The Discoursal Construction of Identity in Academic Writing. Amsterdam: John Benjamins . I am how I sound: v oice as self-representation in L2 writing. Journal of Second Language Writing 10 , 1-2:3-33 .

Johns, A. (1997). Text, Role and Context . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Jordan, R. R. (1997). English for Academic Purposes: A Guide and Resource Book for Teachers . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kroll, B. (1998). Assessing writing abilities. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 18:219-40.

Leki, I. (1996). L2 composing: Strategies and perceptions. In B. Leeds (ed.), Writing in a Second Language. Insights from First and Second Language Teaching and Research, 27-37. London: Longman.

Manchón, R., J. Roca de Larios & E. Murphy (2000). An approximation to the study of backtracking in L2 writing. Learning and Instruction 10, 1:13-35.

Matsumoto, K. (1995). Research paper writing strategies of professional Japanese EFL w riters. TESL Canada Journal 13 : 17-27.

Mohan, B. & W. Lo (1985). Academic writing and Chinese students: Transfer and developmental factors. TESOL Quarterly 19, 4:515-34.

Nystrand, M., S. Green, & J. Wiemelt (1993). Where did composition studies come from? An intellectual history. Written Communication 10, 3:267-333.

Pennycook, A. (1996). Borrowing others' words: Text, ownership, memory, and plagiarism. TESOL Quarterly 30, 2:201-30.

Polio, C. G. (1997). Measures of linguistic accuracy in second language writing research. Language Learning 47, 1:101-43.

Raimes, A. (1991). Out of the woods: Emerging traditions in the teaching of writing. TESOL Quarterly 25, 3:407-30.

Raimes, A. (1998) Teaching writing. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics 18:142-67.

Sengupta, S. (2000). An investigation into the effects of revision strategy instruction on L2 secondary school learners. System 28, 1:97-113.

Shaw, P. & E. T. K. Liu (1998). What develops in the development of second-language writing? Applied Linguistics 19, 2:225-54.

Silva, T. (1993). Toward an understanding of the distinct nature of L2 writing: The ESL research and its implications. TESOL Quarterly 27, 4:657-77.

Silva, T. (1997). Differences in ESL and native-English speaker writing: The research and its implications. In C. Severino, J. C. Guerra & J. E. Butler (eds), Writing in Multicultural Settings, 209-19. New York: The Modern Language Association of America.

Silva, T., I Leki & J. Carson (1997). Broadening the perspective of mainstream composition studies. Written Communication 14:398-428.

Swales, J. M. (1990). Genre Analysis . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tsang, W. K. & M. Wong (2000). Giving grammar the place it deserves in process writing. Prospect 15, 1:34-45.

Vaughan, C. (1991). Holistic assessment: what goes on in the rater's mind? In Hamp-Lyons, L. (ed.), Assessing Second Language Writing in Academic Contexts, 111-25. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Villamil, O. S. & M. C. M. de Guerrero (1998). Assessing the impact of peer revision on L2 writing. Applied Linguistics 19, 4:491-514.

Weissberg, B. (2000). Developmental relationships in the acquisition of English syntax: Writing vs. speech, Learning and Instruction 10, 1:37-53.

Zimmerman, R. (2000). L2 writing: Subprocesses, a model of formulating and empirical findings, Learning and Instruction 10, 1:73-99.

Related links

Online writing resources

Purdue University Online Writing Lab

Sentence Sense

Advice on Academic Writing

Literacy Education Online

UW-Madison Writing Center

Using English for Academic Purposes

Focus on Writing: Northwest Education, Winter 2002


Assessing Writing

Journal of Second Language Writing

College Composition and Communication

Written Communication

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