December 2011
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Tony Silva, Crissy McMartin-Miller, Veronica Jayne, and Carolina Pelaez-Morales, Purdue Univ

Do you have difficulty keeping up with the research in your research area? We do. Even in a relatively small field like second language writing, staying abreast of the current literature can be difficult. Since 2000, the number of publications on second language writing each year has averaged roughly 170. In 2010 alone, at least 220 publications have appeared. To address this situation, we will provide an overview and synthesis of scholarship on second language writing published during 2010.

Data for this presentation come from a database of scholarship on second language assembled over the past 30 years. This database is the result of a regular review of relevant databases like ERIC (Educational Resources Information Center), LLBA (Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts), DAI (Dissertation Abstracts International), and Worldcat (an online database that provides access to the collections of 71,000 libraries in 112 countries) as well as a regular perusal of more than 50 journals that, to a greater or lesser extent, typically publish articles on second language writing. The types of publications include primarily journal articles, books (authored and edited), book chapters, dissertations, and ERIC documents. We reviewed the materials and categorized them by topic or focus, including language, feedback, assessment, technology, identity, genre, professionalization, and theory. We then identified subthemes within each of these categories and selected studies representative of these subthemes to report on.


In describing the linguistic features of second language writing, common themes included collocations, thematization, clauses, and errors.

Chen and Baker, for instance, drew from one corpus of published academic texts and two corpora of student academic writing to identify frequently used word combinations in academic writing. This was also the focus of the book entitled Collocation in Non-Native English: A Study of Nigerian ESL Writing, although the context was obviously different.

Using more traditional methods, Jalilifar focused on thematization in the writing of EFL students at an Iranian university. Likewise, Zhang and Zhang analyzed student essays to determine regular patterns of thematic progression in argumentative writing. A third study, by Maohamed-Sayidana, found that Arab participants transferred L1 cohesive devices and transition words into their English compositions.

The scope of the research extended beyond just ESL or EFL students, too. In her dissertation, Brooks found notable differences between the clause usage of English as a second dialect and Generation 1.5 students compared to what typically appears in the written academic register.

In discussions of language, errors remain an issue of great interest. For example, Chan looked at the writing of 387 student participants in her attempt to develop a taxonomy of written errors among Hong Kong Cantonese ESL learners. Wee, Sim, and Jusoff also categorized error types in their study of EAP students in Malaysia, but their focus was on verb-form errors alone.


With at least 21 publications on the topic, error feedback represented one of the most significant trends in second language writing research conducted in 2010. Here, researchers considered such topics as beliefs and attitudes toward feedback, how feedback contributes to second language acquisition, direct versus indirect feedback, feedback from software and peers, pedagogical suggestions, and feedback in the form of grades.

Belief regarding error feedback was the focus of at least six articles in 2010. Guenette, for instance, investigated the beliefs and error treatment practices of preservice ESL teachers. Similarly, Ko compared perceptions regarding feedback of teachers of ESL and teachers of Korean, finding major differences between the two. The attitudes and understanding of peer feedback of Chinese students were the foci of articles by Wang and Zhao. In a series of exchanges in the journal System, Truscott and Bruton exemplified how controversial this issue remains.

The intersection between second language acquisition and feedback was also a recurring theme in articles pertaining to feedback. For example, Altena analyzed the effectiveness of providing feedback that is informed by theories of second language acquisition to the students of a graduate-level ESL writing course. This was also the topic of an article written by Ferris, who compared how corrective error treatment has been approached in SLA and second language writing. Suh looked at how different types of feedback contribute to learners’ attentional processes.

How direct feedback should be was also a hot topic. A study by Baker and Bricker explored whether the directness―or lack thereof―of teacher written feedback influenced the speed and accuracy level at which students could address errors. This theme appeared again in Nurmukhamedov and Kim’s study, which compared statements, imperatives, questions, and hedging, and Vyatkina’s study of direct, coded, and uncoded feedback types. Storch and Wigglesworth compared the effectiveness of direct feedback and editing symbols. Bitchener and Knoch also examined direct and indirect feedback, but focused only on aspects of the English article system among advanced English language learners. Articles, as well as prepositions, were also the focus of research conducted by Chodorow, Gamon, and Tetreault. In this study, student accuracy was said to have improved in these areas after students received feedback from two types of educational software.

More frequently, however, researchers focused on feedback from peers. Results from a study conducted by Diab indicate that peer editing may contribute to the amelioration of rule-based errors, while Rosalia observed 10 EFL peer advisors in an online writing center in Japan. A third study of peer feedback of Dutch Business English students focused on how instruction can benefit peer feedback. Research included additional pedagogical suggestions, too. For instance, Huang described basic error correction strategies, including what errors to correct and how to correct them. Hartshorn, Evans, Merrill, Sudweeks, Strong-Krause, and Anderson argued that “dynamic WCF,” an instructional method they developed, contributed to improved writing accuracy.

Finally, Armstrong considered feedback in the form of grades, finding that whether an assignment was graded had little difference in the fluency, accuracy, and complexity of writing produced in a fourth-level Spanish class.


Assessment was the focus of 17 articles in 2010, as well as the books Assessment in the Second Language Writing Classroom by Deborah Crusan and Writing Instruction Assessment for English Language Learners by Susan Davis Lenski and Frances Verbruggen. Some trends in the research include rater motivation, scoring methods, timed writing exams, portfolios, and automated essay scoring systems.

In three studies, Barkaoui used different methods to explore potential connections between rater experience and ESL essay scoring. Huang and Foote also considered rater motivation in their comparison of ESL and native English authored papers in a graduate course.

Different types of scoring methods were also described. A study by Othman compared holistic, analytic, and primary trait scoring methods. Spence’s article described an analytic rubric used to assess an ELL student’s writing. Similarly, a dissertation by Zhao describes the development of an analytic rubric intended to measure voice in ESL writing; she also investigated the relationship between voice and overall writing quality in the context of high-stakes writing assessment.

This context was also the focus of a study by Knoch and Elder that examined the test results and interrater reliability of a diagnostic writing exam that was reduced from 55 minutes to 30. A dissertation by Lu investigated which cognitive factors contributed to Chinese EFL students’ performance in timed essay writing.

The role of portfolios in second language writing assessment was also considered in the research. For instance, two researchers in Turkey, Baturay and Daloglu, compared a group of EFL students who kept an e-portfolio with another group who were assessed more traditionally. Though no difference was found in the groups’ posttest writing skills, students in the e-portfolio group reported enjoying the experience.

A less positive depiction of portfolio keeping appears in two articles by Aydin. The first, which focused on student attitudes toward portfolios, found that although students’ writing did improve after using them, they still experienced problems during the process. The second article focused on problems faced by second language writing instructors who used portfolios in the ESL classroom.

Several papers on automated essay-scoring systems point, perhaps, to the latest trend in assessment in second language writing research. For example, an article written by researchers from the Educational Testing Service, Enright and Quinlan, argues that the automated essay scoring (AES) system, E-rater, when combined with human scoring, contributes to test validity. A study of the same system by Weigle found modest but consistent correlations in its scores of nontest indicators―that is, student self-assessment, instructor assessment―with that of human raters.

The case for AES is also made in a dissertation by Choi, who found that ESL and EFL students who used it significantly improved the holistic quality and accuracy of their English language essays. However, in a study by Dikli, feedback from AES differed from that given by teachers. For instance, whereas teacher comments were short and focused, feedback from AES tended to be longer and redundant. As a result, the authors recommended that AES be used with caution until this feedback can be improved.


Twenty-four articles, dissertations, and book chapters focus on how technology can play a key role in second language writing. The majority of those articles link technology with interaction or collaboration, such as peer review, collaborative writing projects, and online written group discussions. In an article Warschauer noted that computer-mediated communication has been “emphasized as a tool of social construction of meaning” and that four online tools are taking center stage in the teaching of writing: “blogs, wikis, automated writing evaluation, and open-source netbook computers.”

Two articles and a dissertation focused on the use of synchronous written computer-mediated communication (chat) in language and writing classrooms. Liang found that students used chat for “social talk, task management and content discussion” most, while seldom entering into “meaning negotiation [or] error correction.” Worajittipol found that chat between nonnative and native English speakers improved self-confidence and encouraged the language learners to continue improving their skills. The same study also found that, by following chat with a written reflection, students would correct morphosyntactic errors. Two of thesestudies compared chat with face-to-face conversation. In Liao’s study she found that both had benefits: chat yielded more equal conversation exchange while face-to-face “stimulated a deeper thinking process and activated higher-level cognitive skills.”

Other studies focused on the use of wikis for collaborative learning. In one study, Lee found that the collaborative nature of the wiki engaged students and provided an outlet for scaffolding as students corrected one another’s entries. Miyazoe and Anderson compared students’ preferences for blogs, wikis, and forums and found that students enjoyed wikis the most.

Five articles were written on blogging. The purposes and practices of blogging were quite different in these articles. Wei found that blogging helped students support one another socially, affectively, and metacognitively. Lee found that peer comments on blogs “prompted further discussion,” whereas instructor feedback prompted students to focus more on form and accuracy. Warschauer discussed blogging and stated that, contrary to early concerns that “socially constructed multimedia” would diminish the importance of writing and the writer, this form of writing has not devalued the writer and, in fact (quoting Chesher), “the author is alive and well, and has a blog” (Chesher, 2005). Finally, a number of studies have looked at other aspects of technology in the classroom, including online fan fiction, e-mail keypaling (an updated version of penpals), GALL (Google-assisted language learning), and the use of unconventional Web sites as research sources by undergraduates. Technology has also been used to study cognitive resources and processes including the differences between cognitive resources utilized in an electronic environment compared to a pen-and-paper environment, and the study of cognitive processes via digital video technology and networked linguistic corpus.


Identity, as it relates to the individual, and the implication of identity on sociopolitical issues within specific contexts were the main focus of several publications.

A key text on this topic is the book Reinventing Identities in Second Language Writing, edited by Cox, Jordan, Ortmeier-Hooper, and Schwartz. This book defines identity as dynamic and hybrid, just like the communities within which multilingual speakers often reside. The book views identity from multiple angles. Some chapters explore how multilingual writers negotiate their identities through writing. Other chapters focus on how instructors attempt to design curriculum that facilitates this negotiation. Finally, some chapters take a sociopolitical stance and look at conditions related to access and marginalization.

Issues relating to how identity influences writing and literacy are being explored in diverse contexts, predominantly through qualitative measures. Studies were published on the identities of children as young as 3, all the way up to mature language learners and professional scholars in diverse educational settings and 11 different countries. For the purposes of this article, we will share the details of just a few of these studies, attempting to represent some of the dominant trends in this area.

Three studies looked at the earliest age group of L2 writers. Kabuto studied children from 3 to 7 years old who showed signs of negotiating identity and voice through the writing of multiple scripts (Japanese and English). In a study of Chinese children at a French Canadian school, Moore found that learning to write in three languages simultaneously helped students “gain voice and expertise” and helped them “negotiate new and multiple identities” relating to their experiences of moving and living in “various socio-cultural settings.” Finally, Butvilofsky, in her dissertation, explored the experience of simultaneous bilingual writers in the United States. According to her research, “more than 60% of children labeled English language learners in U.S. schools today are simultaneous bilinguals” (as opposed to sequential bilinguals).

A study of older students explored the construction of identity by Taiwanese students at a U.S. university. Liu found that students “strategically adopt stances of accommodation and resistance” in ESL composition classes. He identified seven stances, including “unreflective compliance, active, suppressive, or transformational accommodation, meta-aware adaptation, and passive or oppositional resistance.” Kibler, in another study, observed how L2 students use their first language while working together to complete a writing task. She found that bilingual students “utilize the L1 to assert expertise in rhetorical, academic, linguistic, or procedural elements of the task” and that “students move fluidly between expert and novice roles,” thus dissolving the traditional dichotomy of expert and novice roles in the classroom. Finally, Cho took a unique perspective on the study of identity of second language writers by analyzing how Korean scholars working in the United States negotiate their literacy identities. Cho found that due to social, academic, and cultural conditions, Korean scholars tended to do the majority of their academic writing in English, while using Korean for personal purposes.

Finally, some articles explored the instructor’s position and the institution’s response to multilingual writers, and how they prohibited or facilitated the construction of identity. For example, in a study of multilingual students in Canada, Marshall found that students were confronted with the contradiction of aiding the university in becoming more culturally and linguistically rich, while at the same time being labeled deficient when pushed into remedial ESL writing courses. Marshall studied the effects of this deficit model of identity on students who often had a much more positive outlook on their multilingualism prior to attending college. Honeyford also studied the conditions of L2 writers in U.S. schools. She found that Latino/a immigrant students in the United States can benefit from a curriculum that emphasizes cultural citizenship. This notion highlights the ways in which marginalized groups can participate in civic action while recognizing their culture. Through activities like exchanging e-mails with first-generation Latino/a college students, the participants of this study “demonstrated how their transcultural identities and experiences were sources of knowledge” and could be mobilized for social and political change.

In conclusion, the articles, books, and dissertations discussed in this section represent a strong interest in situated practice and theory, a concern for the student as an individual, and a desire to help students negotiate meaning and construct knowledge through modern modes of communication.


This year showed increasing interest in genre, with some studies focused on the generic analysis of written texts and others on genre as a tool to facilitate writing instruction. In other words, researchers looked at genre as both input and output, with the majority of them concentrating on the latter.

Two studies used genre as input. Myskow and Gordon used a genre-based approach to teach their EFL high school students how to write a university application letter, while becoming aware of the “relationship between texts and the social contexts in which they are situated.” Working with learners at a more advanced level, Hyunju used genre theory to teach her graduate students how to write in their disciplines in ESP/EAP writing courses.

Several studies examined genre as output. Two studies looked at the academic writing of EFL learners at the college level. On the basis of her study of argumentative essay writing, Bacha proposed a scaffolded instructional approach to teach writing to a group of advanced Arabic writers in an EAP class. Like Bacha, Ong and Zhang, initially intrigued by the difficulties Chinese EFL students face in writing argumentative essays, conducted a study on the effect of task on fluency and lexical complexity.

Other researchers tried to assess the quality of argumentative essays; examples of this include two studies: one by Qin and Karabacak in China, the other by Ismali in the United States. These researchers use the Toulmin model of argument structure to examine overall essay quality and the effect of language background on quality, in this case English and Arabic. With a slight variation in population and number of publications, other genres were examined as well. Two studies, one by Tanno and the other by Verheyden, explored the narrative writing of two groups: native English speakers learning Japanese as a foreign language and elementary school children learning to write in English in Turkey. Dai, for his part, used creative writing to enhance Chinese students’ written competence in an EFL setting. In spite of variation in population, these three publications either compared performance in the L1 and L2 or looked at enhancing learner confidence through the use of genres.


Professionalization was a recurrent topic in research, with a total of 19 publications, concentrating on either practical or academic development. Regarding practical professionalization, studies looked into the initiation of new members into the teaching community and the improvement of teaching practices in general. Four studies addressed inservice teachers’ perceptions of English writing teaching in different contexts: Byrd’s in the United States, Aydin & Basoz’s in Turkey, Nguyen & Hudson’s in Vietnam, and Lee’s in Hong Kong. Regardless of location, all of these researchers voiced the need for more training of novices entering the teaching community, while a few of them proposed specific ways to improve such training such as through the use of reflective journals, as Byrd proposed, and through mentor modeling (Nguyen & Hudson).

Much like novices, active members of teaching communities continued to search for ways to improve their teaching practices; examples of these attempts include Arju’s discussion on the use of critical thinking and the pedagogical suggestions offered in Kasten’s book, Effective Second Language Writing, a publication in the TESOL classroom practice series.

Students in academia also undergo a process of initiation into their communities. With respect to academic professionalization, researchers studied graduate students’ agency while adapting to the demands of their disciplines. For example, a case study conducted by Yugianingrum in Indonesia investigated a graduate student as he composed English academic papers. Acquisition of knowledge was also relevant in discussing adaptation to academia. For Rhee, knowledge of textual borrowing played a role in this process; for H. Lee, there was mediation of genre knowledge and its application in the student´s discipline; and for Bain-Butler, knowledge was mediated through an understanding of cognitive and sociocultural processes involved in learning to write academic articles.

Another branch of professionalization, dissertation writing, was a concern. Chang and Strauss examined the effect the advisor-advisee relationship can have on the dissertation writing process of Chinese students in the United States; Casanave conducted a qualitative study of students using unconventional theoretical frameworks in their dissertations; and Gurel studied linguistic and sociocultural variables in dissertation writing. Given the role English plays around the world, the issue of dissertation writing in English was investigated both in and outside the United States, with Casanave’s study taking place in Japan and Gurel’s in Turkey.

As professionalization advances, other initiation rites occur. With a focus on international scholars, publication was also researched. In Europe, Lillis and Curry conducted an ethnographic study of 50 scholars with the purpose of exploring their publishing practices and the political aspects of publication. In Italy, Mungra and Webber looked into the most common comments peer reviewers write on medical research articles submitted by Italian speakers looking to be published in English journals. In Hong Kong, Cheung studied the first attempts made by PhD students to publish their research in English journals. Although the focus remains on scholars living abroad, this global interest in publication does not exclude the United States: for example, Huang investigated PhD students’ perceptions of learning how to write for publication in the sciences in the United States.


Finally, this year has also seen some degree of concern with the articulation of theory. In their edited book, Practicing Theory in Second Language Writing, Silva and Matsuda acknowledged the lack of understanding of how to practice theory in the field of L2 writing, which motivated the collection. A series of 15 chapters are included: four are on the nature and role of theory and nine are on researchers’ reflections on theoretical practices.

Researchers in this collection hold diverse views on the role of theory, views that appear to be influenced by their disciplinary interests. Atkinson believes that a combination of theory and practice, as opposed to a dichotomy, is a more productive way to understand the relationship between the two. He proposes a model distinguishing different forms theory and practice can take. Cumming considered the relationship between theory and practice by reflecting upon his experiences as a researcher. He sees theory as a means to assign purpose to research. Ortega and Carson explored the relationship between theory and research practices in publications that “explore the interfaces between second language writing and second language acquisition.” Canagarajah discussed the issue of ideology in regard to theory by using a multivocal essay in which a writing teacher, a student, and a strawman critic interact. He maintained that he uses a “tool box approach” to writing theories and that he chooses “tools” according to the demands of the task at hand. These and a few other influential researchers such as John Hedgcock and Linda Harklau grapple with the idea of theory, and they do so by coloring their understandings with their disciplinary influences. Although their work is not part of this collection of essays, Hubert and Bonzo discussed the influence of L2 theory on foreign language teaching practices in the United States. Their article not only further exemplifies the role disciplinarity and interdisciplinarity play in the understanding of research and practice, but it also shows a different portion of second language writing: that of foreign language instruction.


Tony Silva is a professor of English and director of the graduate program in second language studies/ESL at Purdue University.

Crissy McMartin-Miller is a PhD candidate in second language studies/ESL at Purdue University. Her interests include error treatment in second language writing.

Veronica Jayne is a third-year PhD student in second language studies/ESL at Purdue, who spent a year teaching English in Korea prior to beginning at Purdue. Currently her focus is on second language writing and technology.

Carolina Pelaez-Morales is a third-year PhD student in second language studies/ESL program at Purdue. Her research interests include second language writing, second language acquisition, translation, and foreign languages.

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