November 2012
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Scholarship on L2 Writing in 2011: The Year in Review
Tony Silva, Carolina Pelaez-Morales, Crissy McMartin-Miller, and Mei-Hung Lin

Tony Silva

Crissy McMartin-Miller

At TESOL 2011 in New Orleans, Silva, McMartin-Miller, Jayne, and Pelaez-Morales held a session (Scholarship on L2 Writing in 2010: The Year in Review) that they hoped would help attendees interested in second language (L2) writing keep up with the research in this area of study. The response from the audience was quite positive and the resulting paper was published in the December 2011 issue of the Second Language Writing Interest Section newsletter. So at TESOL 2012 in Philadelphia, a slightly different lineup of presenters followed up with a session focused on work that had been done in the field in the year leading up to the convention. The result of that session, also well received, is the following overview and synthesis of scholarship on L2 writing published during 2011.

Data for this presentation come from a database of scholarship on L2 writing assembled over the past 30 years. This database is the result of a regular review of relevant databases such as Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC), Linguistics and Language Behavior Abstracts (LLBA), Dissertation Abstracts International (DAI), 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 L2 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, writing centers, motivation, genre, academic writing challenges, populations, corpus-based studies, technology, identity, and first and second language writing comparisons.


Characterizing the linguistic features of L2 writing is the topic of at least seven articles, two dissertations, and one book. Subthemes include errors, cohesion, vocabulary, spelling, and complexity. Of these subthemes, error is most common. In her book, Llach investigates lexical errors and accuracy in foreign language writing. More specifically, Zarei and Mansoori describe the most prevalent errors among Iranian English as a foreign language (EFL) students, and Wang analyzes errors among Chinese EFL writers. With two articles, cohesion in L2 writing was also a common subtheme. This topic is explored by both Shea and Ong. Scholars also looked at vocabulary. Wei and Lei analyze lexical bundles among Chinese EFL learners. Van Gelderen, Oostdam, and van Schooten look at the effects of lexical fluency on L2 writing. Studies by Hong and Chen as well as Dich look at spelling development by L2 learners. Finally, Biber, Gray, and Poonpon investigate complexity in academic writing, arguing that complex noun phrase constituents and complex phrases can best measure it.


With at least 14 articles and three books on the topic, feedback represents a significant trend in L2 writing research in 2011. Subtopics include feedback addressing (again) errors, teacher feedback practices, comparison of feedback types, student perspectives on feedback, and alternative sources of feedback. Two books address feedback that targets errors. Written Corrective Feedback in Second Language Acquisition and Writing, by Bitchener and Ferris, and the second edition of Treatment of Error in Second Language Student Writing, by Ferris.

Many studies have investigated teacher feedback practices. This is the topic addressed by Ferris, Brown, Liu, and Stein. Best’s study describes the written feedback she gave throughout 1 year teaching English as a second language (ESL) writing, whereas Lee investigates challenges faced by teachers giving feedback. McGarrell, however, focuses on writing teacher response and the move away from grammatical correction to a focus on content.

The effectiveness of different types of feedback practices is compared as well. In her book, Van Beuningen argues that direct and indirect comprehensive feedback types are valuable pedagogical tools. Another publication discusses the effectiveness of the method of dynamic written corrective feedback (Evans, Harthorn, & Strong-Krause).

Several studies consider feedback from students’ perspectives as well. A study by Ning found a mismatch between teachers and students in terms of written feedback. Wang and Li explore the type of feedback given to international graduate students during the process of writing their dissertations. In their case study of L2 writers, Sharmini and Kumar found that attending to feedback is a recursive process. In another series of case studies, Seror found that ESL students often relied on alternative sources of feedback, such as friends, roommates, and writing center tutors.

Other research considers feedback from sources other than the teacher, including peer feedback. In her paper, Zhang focuses on the potential benefits and challenges of peer feedback in the context of a Chinese college. Diab’s study compares the effects of peer editing with self-editing; Baleghizadeh and Arab compare the effects of peer feedback with studying texts written by native speakers. Finally, Ware discusses computer-generated feedback. An example of such a tool is found in the work of Cotos (2011), who analyzes the Intelligent Academic Discourse Evaluator.


Assessment in L2 writing is the focus of at least 13 articles and three dissertations. Subthemes include portfolios as a means of assessment, rater performance, test validity, the ability of tests to measure certain linguistic features, rubrics, and online forms of assessment. The use of portfolios as an assessment tool is the topic of studies by Aliweh; Duong, Nguyen, and Griffin; and Romova and Andrew. Two studies look at rater performance. In Barkaoui’s study, which also compares analytic and holistic rating of ESL essays, differences were found among novice and experienced raters. Likewise, Lim studied new and experienced raters’ performance longitudinally.

Several researchers analyze the validity of specific tests. For instance, Huang examines the reliability and validity of two Canadian examinations of EFL student writing; Harrison, Ogle, and Keilty examine the reliability of the written expression scale from the Oral and Written Language Scales; and a dissertation by Dunn examines the validity and reliability of a ninth-grade direct writing assessment. Two studies evaluate rubrics: Becker at four intensive English programs in the United States and Diab and Balaa at the Lebanese American University.

Scholars are also interested in tests’ ability to measure certain linguistic features. Ruegg, Fritz, and Holland look at rater sensitivity to qualities of lexis in writing. Neumann addresses how grammatical ability is assessed in L2 academic writing classrooms. Two studies consider online forms of assessment. Tang and Yi’an review the use of online automated writing evaluation for classroom assessment, and a study by Shih investigates using Facebook to provide peer assessment. Finally, Lee looks at how assessment could bring about innovation in teaching, and Llosa, Beck, and Zhao examine diagnostic testing in the secondary school context.

Writing Centers

An emerging theme in 2011 was L2 writing in the context of writing centers or with tutors. At least two articles and two dissertations address this topic. Tan address writing centers and online writing labs in Europe and Asia. Peck’s dissertation investigates the use of a writing center by English language learners, ESL students, and first-generation college students at a U.S. college. Chiu argues that writing centers must train staff to keep multilingual writers in mind. Severino and Deifell’s case study shows how an L2 writer at a writing center learned and used vocabulary.


Another new theme in 2011 was motivation and other affective factors. Five articles and two dissertations addressed this topic. Yanguas found evidence that think-aloud procedures are a valid means of measuring motivation, and Schmerbeck used diaries and interviews to examine motivation. In Gupta’s study, highly motivated students were found to use more writing strategies. Woodrow measured the anxiety and self-efficacy of 738 Chinese students following the completion of a writing test, and Wu presents evidence that reading and using blogs can reduce anxiety. Yuan-bing offers suggestions for fostering intrinsic motivation among Chinese EFL students. Gardener found competition to be a motivator among ESL students at a correctional institution.


Researchers demonstrate interest in genre theory and different aspects of genre practice, with 23 publications representing this category. Theory continues to be a trend, but attention has shifted to genre, as opposed to a general theory of L2 writing. Tardy, Swales, and Nodoushan each provide overviews of genre theory, research, and practice. Johns discusses contested issues in genre-based writing instruction, and Costino and Hyon propose using genre as a bridge between L1 and L2 specialists.

In spite of interest in theory, the majority of publications in the genre category focus on pedagogical aspects of genre. Seven studies argue for the positive value of genre awareness. Yasuda, Millar, and Yen each claim that genre awareness can result in better writing skills, and Natiladdanon, Negretti and Kutteva, and Gebhard and Harman additionally advocate its positive effect on reading. Genre-based pedagogies are also believed to enhance transfer of knowledge from one genre into the other, as seen in Demet’s study, and transfer of genre knowledge from the L1 into the L2, as seen in Gentil’s investigation.

Interest in how to teach academic writing also continued in 2011. Izadpanah investigated narrative and expository writing, taught through a combination of task-based and traditional approaches. Cheng used an English for specific purposes genre-based framework to teach academic writing, and Eckstein, Chariton, and McCollum helped ESL writers develop academic writing skills through a modified version of a multidraft composition model. Like Causarano, Manchón is also interested in academic writing, but with a focus on how it relates to language acquisition.

Attention to academic writing also has triggered concerns about the structure of academic texts. For instance, Sheldon conducted a cross-linguistic comparison of moves found in research article introductions in English and Spanish, and Salmani-Nodoushan studied the moves in the discussion sections of theses written by Iranian and non-Iranian EFL writers; both of these studies advocate the teaching of move analysis in academic writing. Finally, genres not significantly represented in 2011 include poetry (Iida), journals (Casanave), and book reviews (Rishina-Pankova)

Academic Writing Challenges

With 18 publications on the subject, academic writing challenges represented a significant trend in 2011. Researchers have investigated writing challenges as they relate to types of support. In two studies, Heatly, Allibone, Ooms, Burke, and Akroyd and Mungra describe institutional support provided for medical professionals learning to write in their disciplines. In two other investigations, Simpson as well as Nam and Beckett argue that holistic writing support is necessary to enhance international graduate students’ literacy skills.

Pedagogical support to tackle academic writing challenges was also a topic in 2011. Cotterall examines how doctoral students’ writing challenges can inform pedagogy; Li and Vandermensbrugghe describe the development of a thesis writing support group for international graduate students. Based on work with undergraduates, Kang proposes a course combining first-year composition and English for academic purposes, and Li argues for the implementation of better instructional practices for non-English majors in China.

Another academic writing challenge studied in 2011 was that of textual borrowing, especially among undergraduate students. Liao and Tseng as well as Thomas investigate textual borrowing as it relates to instruction. Both studies found mismatches—the first between the students’ views on borrowing and their writing, the second between the complexity of plagiarism and the simplified instruction often provided. With a more positive view on borrowing, Lee examines the effect of copying and summarizing on language proficiency, and Conzett, Martin, and Mitchell describe institutional measures to address plagiarism proactively. Finally, working with expert and novice writers working in the same discipline, Mansourizadeh and Ahmad found that these two groups used citations differently: the experts using them strategically and the novices using them in isolation.

Students’ perceptions of academic writing challenges were the focus of at least five publications and a book collection. Two studies (Ferguson, Perez Llantada, & Plo; Hanauer & Englander) focuse on students’ perceptions about textual and linguistic demands of scientific writing, finding that language proficiency played a role in students’ attitudes toward publication. Phakiti explores reading and writing difficulties that postgraduate ESL students face, whereas Huang and Tang outline different challenges that ESL and EFL learners encounter in writing academically, for example, understanding the bases for their instructor’s assessment of their work or transitioning from one instructional context to another.


In 2011, 23 publications focused on learners found at levels of education other than 4-year colleges. These publications are classified under the category of populations, which is divided into three subcategories: child, adolescent, and Generation 1.5 writing. Seven studies concentrate on children as they explored different types of texts. Zisselsberger conducted a case study of fifth graders’ procedural and persuasive writing, Sunseri investigated fourth graders’ expository text writing, and Fife created a classroom activity encouraging first graders to write. In another study, Leighton looked at the cognitive processes of sixth graders as they wrote persuasive letters in English and Spanish. Other investigations on children’s L2 writing address the marriage between knowledge of content and knowledge of form. Wold, for instance, proposes a model for blended writing courses for English language learners; Lee, Randall, and Buxton examine the relationship between science content knowledge and knowledge of form among third graders. Interested in literacy development, Mass compares the writing of children of Moroccan immigrants residing in Germany with that of children born and raised in Morocco.

Nine publications focus on adolescent L2 writing. In a commentary introducing a special issue of the Journal of Second Language Writing, Harklau provides an overview of the articles in the collection. Ortmeier-Hooper and Enright explore the differences between adolescent L2 writing and college L2 writing, whereas Kormos compares linguistic and discourse characteristics of narratives written by secondary foreign language learners and native English speakers. As with the category of children’s L2 writing, there is interest in implementing content- and language-integrated courses with adolescents. For instance, Whittaker, Llinares, and McCabe studied secondary EFL learners’ writing development in a course linking history and English, and Kibler analyzes students’ and teachers’ views on instruction in courses linking humanities and biology. With a focus on assessment, Enright and Gilliland studied the potential mismatch between content classes and assessment standards. Also, Tarawneh, Porsch, and Shih-Chien investigated secondary EFL writing in Jordan, Germany, and Taiwan, respectively.

With seven publications, Generation 1.5 writing was also identified as a category in 2011. Although Generation 1.5 learners are found at all levels of education, in this review, all the authors use the term in reference to students beyond high school. Di Gennaro compares Generation 1.5 students’ writing to international students’ L2 writing, and Doolan compares the writing of three groups: Generation 1.5 students, international L2 student, and native English speakers. The findings from these two studies suggest that Generation 1.5 writers exhibit less grammatical command and that their writing resembles that of L1 English writers rather than their international counterparts. Using the same compare-and-contrast approach, Mikulski and Elola studied Spanish heritage learners’ writing in Spanish and in English. Finally, interest in Generation 1.5 students prompted investigations of learners at other levels of education. For instance, Finn conducted a case study of four Chinese women in a community literacy program, and Hansen investigated the challenges in adapting to community college education. Interest in community college writers is also reflected in two publications devoted to the subject by the National Council of Teachers of English.

Corpus-Based Studies

In 2011, several studies explored the pedagogical value of incorporating corpus-based approach in L2 writing studies. Through examining expert, specialized, and learner corpora, these studies show that results obtained from employing a corpus-based approach in L2 writing research can serve as a good source for supplementing classroom instruction and understanding L2 writers’ development. To have an overall understanding of effects of incorporating a corpus-based approach, particularly the potential of using concordancing in teaching L2 writing, Yoon reviewed a number of related studies and found that, with proper training, concordancing can be of great help in enhancing the linguistic aspects of L2 writing and increasing learner autonomy.

In addition to compiling expert or specialized corpora, three studies explore and evaluate L2 writers’ language development by compiling learner corpora. Asenciόn-Delaney and Collentine examine L2 writers’ development through a multidimensional analysis of a written L2 Spanish corpus. Laufer and Waldman, by comparing corpora of L2 learners with those of native speakers of English, identify differences in the use of the most frequently occurring nouns and collocation use. Lu uses corpus analysis to look for a connection between syntactic complexity and L2 writers’ language development.


In 2011, 13 articles addressed how technology can facilitate teaching and research in L2 writing. A number of studies among them focused on investigating L2 writers’ perceptions about the use of various online tools in writing classrooms by conducting surveys or analyzing students’ posts. Results of these studies all indicate that L2 writers, in general, held positive attitudes toward using online tools. Such tools include online forums, blogs, VirtualPen, and wikis. It appears that the highly collaborative and interactive environments fostered by these tools helps to scaffold L2 learners’ efforts and develop their writing ability (Chao & Lo; Hwang, Shadiev, & Huang; Lin & Yang; Wu & Wu). Hwang et al., for instance, point out that there was a significant relationship between VirtualPen usage and speaking and writing and between speaking and writing performance and learning. Also, Gebhard, Shin, and Seger indicate that blog use among students expanded their range of purposes for writing. However, Lin and Yang note that teachers need to be cautious while incorporating technological tools in writing classrooms because students may encounter obstacles while adapting to new, technology-enhanced learning systems.

Some studies examine how specific features of online tools are of pedagogical value and help to not only improve L2 learners’ writing abilities, but also expand the research spectrum of L2 writing. Woo, Chu, Ho, and Li found that the tracking function of a wiki offered information about types of edits students made, which enabled teachers to provide feedback accordingly. Baralt, Pennestri, and Selvandin introduced Wordle to L2 writing classrooms, finding that doing so facilitated the teaching of L2 writing, particularly by promoting vocabulary development. Blin and Appel report different modes of interaction observed in a computer-supported collaborative writing environment.

Two studies demonstrate how the use of technology in L2 writing classrooms can broaden the research spectrum of L2 writing. Olga investigated the writing process of a native Russian learner of Estonian through analyzing the keystroke log of the writer. Olga found that writing was a cognitively demanding task in which the writer spent a lot of time pausing and looking for appropriate lexis. Lee, Choi, and Kim developed an automated English sentence evaluation system and demonstrate that the performance of the system was highly compatible with human raters. Depew examines the composing processes of L2 writers on Facebook; Trajemberg and Yialoumetti address the value of blogging for EFL learners; and Ware and Benschoter look into the use of online mentoring with middle school English language learners.


Representing oneself is an indispensable part of writing. A number of studies focus on examining identity-related issues in L2 writing, starting from investigating how L2 writers construct identities to discussing pedagogical applications that facilitate identity construction for L2 writers in writing in general and in academic contexts.

Emami examines the correlation between identity reconstruction and writing in an L2, showing that the act of writing in an L2 was a way to rediscover and reconstruct a renewed identity. Wu found that L2 writers represented themselves differently in different writing contexts. In addition to investigating L2 writers’ self-representation in different genres, Liu identifies L2 writers’ textual identities and writing styles while communicating with native English-speaking students via email. Unlike the previous two studies focusing on examining L2 learners’ identity, Reis explores the development of an ESL writing teacher’s professional identity.

A few studies focus on proposing curriculum to help raise L2 writers’ awareness of identity construction. Park proposes that L2 writers were more likely to infuse voice into their writing when writing assignments were relevant to students’ personal experiences. Three articles, in particular, explore ways to teach L2 writers to construct identities in academic writing. Chang and Schleppegrell describe two patterns of expanding and contracting options identified in the research and suggest making these patterns explicit for L2 writers for pedagogical purposes. Abdollahzadeh analyzes and compares hedges, emphatics, and attitude markers employed by Anglo-American and Iranian academic writers, hoping the results may inform EFL writing instruction. Pinnow looks at agency in the L2 writing classroom, Spence examines the issue of voice, and Vergaro explores impersonality in rhetorical positioning.

L1 and L2 Writing Comparison

Comparing writing samples of ESL writers with those of native speakers of English has been a recurrent practice in L2 writing research. In 2011, researchers conducted a number of contrastive studies, focusing on comparing how certain language aspects were employed by first language (L1) and L2 writers of English. Ho compares writing samples of Vietnamese learners of English with model texts written by expert writers of English and Vietnamese, identifying a number of rhetorical differences between the two languages. Btoosh and Taweel conducted a corpus-based contrastive analysis, in which they examined how hedges and downtoners were employed by L1 and L2 writers in academic writing. Sersen demonstrates that raising L2 writers’ awareness about negative language transfer mitigated certain aspects of such transfer and resulted in improved writing skills. Ying focuses on examining critical thinking abilities of Chinese ESL students and native speakers of English. Crossley and McNamara compare the writing samples of L2 writers with different L1s with the writing samples of L1 speakers of English; similar patterns were identified among these L2 writers and significant differences were found in four-word indices between L1 and L2 writers. The authors, however, attribute the differences to language experience and learner proficiency level, rather than culture or L1 transfer. Henderson Lee examines linguistic and cultural diversity in the secondary school context, and Qaid and Ramamoorthy report on Arabic interference in the writing of Yemeni students.

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 an assistant academic specialist for NU Global at Northeastern University. Her research interests include second language writing, writing centers, and language teacher training.

Carolina Pelaez-Morales is a PhD candidate in second language studies/ESL at Purdue University. Her research interests include second language writing, second language acquisition, translation, and foreign language writing.

Mei-Hung Lin is a PhD candidate in second language studies/ESL at Purdue University. Her research interests include second language writing, English for specific/academic purposes, and corpus studies.

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