March 2011
SLW Newsletter



Welcome to the second issue of the SLW-CALL InterSection newsletter.

At annual TESOL conventions, special sessions called InterSections "highlight topics of relevance to and across interest sections, providing a collaborative forum for attendees seeking innovative and cross-disciplinary approaches and solutions." At TESOL 2010, the Second Language Writing (SLW) and Computer-Assisted Language Learning (CALL) Interest Sections collaborated on an InterSection titled "Re-imagining L2 Writing in a Digitized World" that highlighted new directions and possibilities for teaching L2 writing in a digitized world.

Given the popularity of this topic, SLW and CALL decided to continue this discussion through an issue of our InterSection newsletter. Articles in this issue examine how new technologies are reshaping how we teach in a variety of academic settings. The articles by Paul Matsuda (“Voice in Digital Discourse”) and Deborah Crusan (“The Machine Scoring of Essays”) summarize presentations at TESOL 2010. New submissions focus on corpus-based grammar instruction (book review by Robert Poole), a computer-based listen-to-write language teaching approach (Qingsong Gu et al.), and Web 2.0 applications (Mary Hillis).

We hope that our members, and other interested readers within TESOL, will enjoy this edition of our InterSection newsletter and our celebration of second language writing and computer-assisted language-learning connections.

Margi Wald, SLWIS Newsletter Editor,

Catherine Smith, SLWIS CALL Column Editor,

Suzan Stamper, CALLIS Newsletter Co-editor,



Recent years have seen an increasing awareness of the role of identity in education and communication. Although a traditional conception of identity may evoke a static, individualistic, and essentialized notion of self, a growing number of language teachers today share the assumption that identity is dynamic, social, and multiple. Not only is identity relevant to knowing, learning, and writing, but it is inevitable and even inseparable. It is also intricately related to learners’ investment in learning the target language, as Norton and Gao (2008) put it:

If learners “invest” in the target language, they do so with the understanding that they will acquire a wider range of symbolic and material resources, which will in turn increase the value of their cultural capital. . . . An investment in the target language is in fact an investment in the learner’s own identity. (p. 110)

One of the concepts that has been important in discussing the role of identity in writing is voice. Although voice has been defined in various ways, recent sociocultural conceptions of voice have focused on how it is constructed, perceived, and negotiated in the context of social interaction. In my own work, I have defined voice as “the amalgamative effect of the use of discursive and non-discursive features that language users choose, deliberately or otherwise, from socially available yet ever-changing repertoires” (Matsuda, 2001, p. 40). More simply, voice can be understood as “the quality that makes impersonation or ‘mimicking’ possible” (p. 40).

In order to construct one’s own voice or mimic someone else’s voice, it is not necessary to capture everything about the person—or a category of people, such as politicians, scientists, and TESOLers. Instead, voice is constructed through a systematic and consistent use of characteristic features that distinguish or identify the individual or group in relation to other individuals and groups. Comedians use this principle all the time when they perform impressions of celebrities. They choose a combination of several linguistic and paralinguistic as well as visual features effectively to create the “voice” of the person they are mimicking.

The sociocultural definition of voice differs from a more traditional, individualistic view in that it recognizes not only the cognitive decision-making process but also the dynamic social process through which the overall effects are achieved. In other words, voice is constructed through the negotiation of the writer’s self-image, a textual manifestation of that image, and the reader’s interpretations of the image.

It also recognizes that voice is inevitable. The question is not whether students have their own voice or not—they do. What is important for students and teachers is to understand what discursive and nondiscursive resources are available to writers in any given context, and how they can use those resources to construct their identity through the texts they produce. It is also important to understand how readers may respond to various discursive and nondiscursive features in forming their own understanding of who the writer is in relation to the subject of communication. Accomplished writers understand, if only intuitively, what resources are available to them and can construct their discursive identity in ways that are consistent with perceptions of the intended readers.

Understanding the process of negotiating voice is important not just in personal or expressive writing, where the writer’s individual voice plays an obvious role, but also in academic, professional, and civic writing. Even though some people might despise the frequent use of nominalization in academic discourse, deviating from the conventional usage can position the writer as an outsider to academic discourse, thus diminishing the writer’s credibility.

An aspect of my definition of voice that is particularly important for online discourse is the integration of nondiscursive features. Nondiscursive features such as the formatting of journal manuscripts can play an important role in shaping manuscript reviewers’ impression of the authors’ level of experience as researchers (Matsuda & Tardy, 2007; Tardy & Matsuda, 2009). The importance of integrating discursive and nondiscursive features is more readily apparent in the context of digital writing, which allows writers to play with a wider variety of symbolic and material resources. In other words, digital writing allows more flexibility in constructing and negotiating the writer’s identity. At the same time, the greater degree of freedom also requires writers to make many complex decisions.

Take, for example, a Facebook page. Facebook, unlike MySpace, does not allow users to choose their own color schemes, typeface, font size, or the layout of textual and visual elements. Yet, within the design constraints, users construct their voice by combining various discursive and nondiscursive options that are available to them. Though the profile information can provide only some basic facts about the writer, the profile photo can speak volumes about the writer’s personality, interests, and social affiliations. (I wish I could show you the images!) The number of “friends” and the kind of friends whose photos are randomly displayed on the screen also make a statement about the person’s social relations and group membership. The status update is particularly important in identity construction: The writer’s choice of the topic, sentence length and complexity, the attitude toward the subject, the frequency of postings—they all contribute to the overall image of the writer.

Negotiating identity in digital contexts is not easier or simpler than writing in academic contexts, but students seem to develop their discursive resources quickly and effortlessly. Why is it, then, that students who flourish in this complex writing environment struggle with their identity construction when it comes to academic writing? One possible explanation is that students often see online writing and academic writing as completely different situations. They may not even consider digital writing as writing—they are trying to interact with others, rather than produce sentences that conform to certain expectations. Research on learning transfer suggests that, when tasks are perceived as different, learning transfer is impeded (James, 2008). That is, students do not carry over the resources and skills they have acquired through digital writing to academic writing possibly because they see these tasks as completely different from one another.

The perception of disparity between digital and academic writing is constantly being reinforced in public discourse as well as in the classroom. The tendency in the public discourse to stigmatize digital discourse as ungrammatical and socially unacceptable is exacerbating this tendency. In the classroom, we often try to facilitate learning by simplifying the tasks and by focusing on the elemental structures of discourse. In the process, however, we may be stripping writing of the rich context of interaction, taking away all the social cues and discursive resources that can help students figure out the purpose of writing and develop a rich array of discursive and nondiscursive resources.

Before I conclude, here is a caveat: Digital writing has much to contribute to academic writing, but it would be a mistake to assume that it has to. Digital writing should not be judged in comparison to more traditional forms of writing—just as traditional academic writing cannot be dismissed as outdated. The value of digital writing should also not be determined based on its utility in facilitating academic writing. It is important to understand and practice digital writing in its own right.

With that caveat in mind, digital writing may be able to contribute to the development of academic writing by helping students develop a broader repertoire of discursive and nondiscursive resources as well as strategies for negotiating their use. Digital writing can also help students become more aware of the complexity of decisions involved in written communication. If nothing else, examining digital writing can help writing teachers reflect on the complexity of writing for a real audience, which is often forgotten in academic writing instruction that focuses so much on efficiency at the expense of the complexity and richness of writing.


James, M. (2008). Transfer of second language writing skills: The influence of perceptions of task similarity/difference. Written Communication, 25, 76-103.

Matsuda, P. K. (2001). Voice and Japanese written discourse: Implications for second language writing. Journal of Second Language Writing, 10, 35-53.

Matsuda, P. K., & Tardy, C. M. (2007). Voice in academic writing: The rhetorical construction of author identity in blind manuscript review. English for Specific Purposes, 26, 235-249.

Norton, B., & Gao, Y. (2008). Identity, investment, and Chinese learners of English. Journal of Asian Pacific Communication, 18(1), 109–120.

Tardy, C., & Matsuda, P. K. (2009). The construction of author voice by editorial board members. Written Communication, 26(1), 32-52.

Paul Kei Matsuda,, is associate professor of English at Arizona State University, USA, where he works closely with doctoral and master’s students in applied linguistics, linguistics, rhetoric and composition, and TESOL. Founding chair of the Symposium on Second Language Writing and editor of the Parlor Press Series on Second Language Writing, Paul has published widely on second language writing and digital discourse, among other topics.


For there is nothing either good or bad, thinking makes it so."
~ William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Hamlet, II.ii

It has been suggested that whenever a writing teacher is asked about the most difficult of his or her duties, a common answer is “Grading!” Assessment, particularly writing assessment, is hard work, especially if it is done well. In recent years, new machines and programs have promised efficiency to writing teachers; these machines purport to assess writing. Machine scoring has several aliases: automated essay scoring, automated writing evaluation, automated essay evaluation (Burstein, Chodorow, & Leacock, 2004), and automated essay grading (Grimes, 2005). Researchers (Crusan, 2010; Haswell, 2006) report that arguments supporting the use of these machines to score writing usually mention the difficulty and burden of writing assessment. Some (e.g., Landauer, Laham, and Foltz, 1999) even claim that although writing is educationally crucial, many teachers hesitate to assign a great deal of writing because grading large numbers of assignments is a struggle.

Though Crusan (2010), Ericsson and Haswell (2006), and Shermis and Burstein (2003) offered a more thorough treatment of machine scoring in general, in this article, I concentrate on one program―MY Access! (Vantage Learning, 2007)―briefly describing it and discussing a small study conducted in a graduate writing assessment seminar at a midsize Midwestern university in which graduate students examined second language writers’ attitudes about using the program as a feedback and assessment tool for their writing in a sheltered ESL writing class.


MY Access! is a “web-based instructional writing product that provides students enrolled in grade 4 through higher education with the opportunity to develop their writing skills within an electronic portfolio-based environment” (Vantage Learning, 2007, p. 1). MY Access! grades students’ responses to select writing prompts and offers suggestions for improvement to the text in a matter of seconds. MY Access! (as well as other programs) makes two interesting claims: (a) that the program decreases writing instructors’ grading burden and (b) that the almost instantaneous feedback provided by MY Access! motivates students to revise more. These claims are enticing; composition teachers do have considerable grading (burden?) and certainly look for ways to encourage students to rework their writing multiple times. However, several problems are inherent in machine scoring.

First, though Ferris (2003) claimed that students will improve over time if they are given appropriate error correction and that students use teacher-generated feedback to revise things other than surface errors, students rarely use programs like MY Access! to revise anything other than surface errors (Warschauer & Grimes, 2008); paragraph elements, information structure, and register-specific stylistics are largely ignored. Second, although teachers can create their own prompts for use with the program (more than 900 prompts are built into MY Access! to which students can write and receive instantaneous feedback.), MY Access! will score only those prompts included in the program. Third, regarding essay length, in many cases, MY Access! seems to reward longer essays with higher scores; consequently, it appears that MY Access! assumes that length is a proxy for fluency.

As scholars, we recognize the need to investigate new pedagogical tools, including automated scoring, in order to control their use in our classrooms and allow teachers to define what happens in the classroom. With the above issues in mind, we decided to investigate the ways second language writing students used feedback given to them by MY Access! as well as examine their attitudes toward the program in general and the ways they responded to the instantaneous feedback provided. The students’ responses reinforced and expanded our understanding of the reported problems inherent in machine scoring.

During the study, graduate students worked with English language learners, asking them to respond three times to two different prompts. English language learners then responded to a survey about their experiences with the program. In addition, graduate students interviewed consenting English language learners regarding their attitudes toward MY Access!


What follows are excerpts from six student interviews. Overall, students’ opinions regarding MY Access! were mixed; students found useful aspects as well as aspects they termed less helpful.

Hannah (all student names are pseudonyms) reported that she was excited about the program, but because she had little computer experience, she had difficulty learning the program. She had problems remembering what to do each time she logged on because she did not use the program very often. She found the MY Access! prompts “not very interesting.”

Xiao confessed to finding it very easy to locate and insert information from other sources into his writing―even if they were not his ideas. He found MY Access! feedback useful for making surface corrections―the program pointed them out, so he could correct them―but he was not motivated to revise his work beyond fixing the surface errors.

Heecheon believed that he could get the same kind of information from Microsoft Word. Initially, he liked the instant feedback MY Access! provided, but he began to feel overwhelmed as he read through the massive amount of information offered to him by the program every time he submitted an essay draft.

Mohamed believed that MY Access! would be beneficial in the classroom. He found it to be a great tool to use during the writing process because it gave him a variety of tools and activities to aid in the revision of his writing.

Farin reported that, after a first draft, which he believed was scored too low, he went on the Internet and found some material loosely related to his topic. When he inserted the material in his essay, his score went up even though the essay was not as coherent as it had been when he first wrote it.

Wafa felt that MY Access! helped her get into the habit of doing multiple drafts. She liked the editing tools and found some of the feedback very helpful in the revision of her essays.

Clearly, the results are mixed. Some students found working with the program very helpful in discipline, encouraging multiple revision. Others liked working with the many tools provided, finding them very helpful in the revision process.

On the other hand, some students, lacking basic computer skills, found the program stressful and unusable. Others were discouraged by the seeming overabundance of feedback; in some cases, writers found it overwhelming, so they tended to disregard it. Our most disheartening finding: When some of the students were unhappy with their scores, they found ways to raise them by simply inserting unrelated text to their essays. Though it may be a stretch to say that automated writing programs encourage plagiarism, the fact that several students in the study did borrow chunks of text from the Internet to boost their scores is testament to the fact that it is possible―there are no safeguards against this action, and the program did not pick up on the juxtaposition of two unrelated topics. (In this study, other students besides the few who were interviewed admitted to blatantly plagiarizing from the Internet to increase the length of their essays, which in almost every case increased their scores.)

In other findings, the six students who were interviewed (above) along with the 35 students who completed the Survey Monkey survey reported that, generally, they enjoyed writing with a computer, as most were already accustomed to doing so in their composition classes. They appreciated the help MY Access! offered in finding grammar errors, but they were not always sure how to fix them. Further, the program offered no positive comments about what students were doing well, which could negatively impact student motivation. In addition, after working on a prompt once or twice, many became bored and wanted to switch to another prompt. Many of the student writers used MY Access! for surface editing only and rarely used it for revision. In general, students in this study did not use features in MY Access! (e.g. My Portfolio, My Editor), possibly because their teachers did not explicitly assign them.


This small study was undertaken to help me make an informed decision about the usefulness of machines that score writing, but the big question remains: Should teachers use MY Access! or something like it in the writing classroom? Before addressing this question, I want to note one caution about the study: MY Access! is only one program. There are many more. Further, it is important to remember that these are only a few students and though it is dangerous to generalize to a larger population, I do believe that what they reported is somewhat representative. That said, from what I have found, I have to say that the answer is a resounding “It depends!” (Johnson, 1999). However, we need to think about what it depends on.

Because this technology is here to stay, teachers need to decide when it makes sense to use programs such as MY Access! and for what purposes. Teachers must consider ways the use of programs like MY Access!® might impact their pedagogy. Are there instances in which the autonomy offered by these programs could benefit students? Will their use wrest control from the teacher and result in hegemonic outside influence? With so much control over assessment coming from outside the classroom, especially through No Child Left Behind, but also more recently in suggestions from states regarding exit testing for university students, administrative pushes for the use of assessment tools developed from the outside should be viewed with skepticism. Locally controlled assessment is important; when assessments are created from within, they are specific to one context―they are developed with a very specific group of students in mind, considering what those students have learned in their classes and what they are expected to be able to do as a result of what they have learned in that context. Standardized tools such as the many machine-grading programs available today cannot address this specificity. However, as this small study illustrates, there are students who can benefit from using automated writing programs and times in class when they can be beneficial.

It is up to teachers to decide. I hope it is always so.


Burstein, J., Chodorow, M., & Leacock, C. (2004). Automated essay evaluation: The criterion online writing service. AI Magazine, 25(3),27-36.

Crusan, D. (2010). Assessment in the second language classroom. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Ericsson, P. F., & Haswell, R. H. (2006). Introduction. In P. F. Ericsson & R. H. Haswell (Eds.), Machine scoring of essays: Truth and consequences (pp. 1-7). Logan: Utah State University Press.

Ferris, D. R. (2003). Response to student writing: Implications for second language students. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Grimes, D. (2005). Assessing automated assessment: Essay evaluation software in the classroom [Electronic version]. Published with proceedings of Computers and Writing Conference, Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA. Retrieved July 16, 2007, from

Haswell, R. H. (2006). Automatons and automated scoring: Drudges, black boxes, and dei ex machina. In P. F. Ericsson & R. Haswell (Eds.), Machine scoring of essays: Truth and consequences (pp. 57-78). Logan: Utah University Press.

Johnson, K. E. (1999). Understanding language teaching: Reasoning in action. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Landauer, T. K., Laham, D., & Foltz, P. W. (1999). The intelligent essay assessor: Applications to educational technology. Interactive Multimedia Electronic Journal of Computer-Enhanced Learning. Wake Forest University. Retrieved October 12, 2007, from

Shermis, M. D., & Burstein, J. C. (Eds.). (2003). Automated essay scoring: A cross-disciplinary perspective. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Vantage Learning. (2007). MY Access!® school edition: Because writing matters efficacy report. Retrieved November 21, 2007, from

Warschauer, M., & Grimes, D. (2008). Automated writing assessment in the classroom. Pedagogies: An international Journal, 3, 22-36.

Deborah Crusan,, is associate professor of TESOL/applied linguistics at Wright State University, where she works with students in TESOL and composition and rhetoric. She has served as chair of the Second Language Writing Interest Section at TESOL and as a member of the 2010-2011 TESOL Nominating Committee, and is a past member of the Conference on College Composition and Communication Committee on Second Language Writing. Her primary research interest is the politics of assessment, particularly writing assessment. She has published about writing assessment in recognized journals in the field such as Assessing Writing, English for Specific Purposes, andLanguage Testing and has published chapters in The Norton Field Guide and edited collections about second language writing. Her book, Assessment in the Second Language Writing Classroom, was recently published by the University of Michigan Press.


Students often struggle with argumentative writing assignments because concepts such as argument, counterargument, and rebuttal may be new to them. Dialogue writing can serve as an entry point for students beginning argumentative writing. This teaching technique takes advantage of various online tools for dialogue writing, such as a class discussion board and online digital storytelling tools. Through the incorporation of sound classroom instruction and the use of technology, students will not only gain a clearer understanding of how to structure an argument but also be able to share their dialogues and receive feedback from others. In this article, I first explore the pedagogical basis for dialogue writing and then explain the process for creating online dialogues.

Dialogue writing is a useful technique for introducing students to the basic concepts of argumentative writing, such as argument and counterargument. According to Neman (1995) in Teaching Students to Write, “Students need to put themselves in their readers’ shoes and anticipate their response. In trying to think as their readers might think, they should be able to anticipate their questions and supply answers, to foresee their objections and quiet them” (p. 204). Because it is important for the writer to consider multiple perspectives and to anticipate possible counterarguments and alternative ways of thinking, this step is essential. The benefits of dialogue writing are outlined in Bean’s Engaging Ideas (2001):

These assignments (dialogues or argumentative scripts) allow students to role-play opposing views without having to commit themselves to a final thesis. The freedom from traditional thesis-governed form, as well as the necessity to role-play each of the opposing views in the conversation, often stimulates more complex thinking than traditional argumentative papers, in which students often try to reach closure too quickly. By preventing closure, this format promotes in-depth exploration. (p. 129)

Writing online dialogues would fit neatly into an introductory unit on argumentative writing at the paragraph or essay level. I used this teaching technique in a first-year paragraph writing course at a Japanese university that meets twice a week for 90 minutes, including one session in the computer lab. The class carried out this project over the course of four class periods, but the amount of time required would vary depending on the students’ level and the amount of work done outside of class. After the teacher introduces the basics of argumentative writing and the dialogue writing assignment, students decide on a controversial issue to write about. For example, students may wish to write a dialogue between two people exploring various opinions about smoking in public places. In addition, students could take on an issue of concern at their school, such as the access to technology, quality of the food in the cafeteria, or course offerings. After students have chosen a topic, they are ready to begin brainstorming multiple perspectives. Students could brainstorm individually; also, they could post their topic on the class discussion board, and students help each other come up with reasons for and against their position. Throughout the brainstorming process, students can be encouraged to think of as many points of view as possible, including majority as well as minority viewpoints, or views from various stakeholders in the issue. By involving the class in the brainstorming process, students can access a wider variety of points of view and appreciate the value of discussion and collaborative brainstorming. In addition, students tend to participate actively when brainstorming activities are conducted via discussion board. Because of the asynchronous discussion, students have more time to consider and formulate ideas and, consequently, students may naturally offer arguments, counterarguments, and refutations—points that can be highlighted by the teacher.

After brainstorming ideas, students can compile the list of reasons they collected and add any other ideas they may have. From this list, students choose the viewpoints they would like to include in their dialogue; these will be the basis for the project they will create using an online digital storytelling tool (such as Dvolver, which allows users to choose from a variety of characters, scenes, and backgrounds. The interface is user friendly, so students familiarize themselves with it quite easily; however, it is important to note that the character’s utterances are limited to 100 characters per line, although each character can speak several times in a maximum of three scenes. The process for creating a movie in Dvolver is relatively straightforward and most students don’t have much difficulty using the Web site. First, the user should select a background, characters, and type of scene, then type in the dialogue and choose background music. The process can be repeated to add scenes to the movie.

Depending on the level of the students, the teacher may introduce the online tool and have them start creating their dialogues right away; however, storyboarding, or planning out the dialogue, will give them more of a chance to think more carefully. In addition, because Dvolver does not have an edit function, once a story is created, it cannot be changed; therefore, it behooves the students to already have an idea and draft. As recommended in “Cartoon Festival: An International Digital Storytelling Project,” when the educators used Dvolver with their students, they had students prepare scripts on a wiki that could be proofread, edited, and revised collaboratively (Hillis, et al., 2008). If the class is not using a wiki, these scripts could easily be posted on the class discussion board or typed in Microsoft Word or Google documents. After the storyboards or scripts are complete, the students are ready to prepare their dialogues with Dvolver.

Although the Dvolver characters can seem humorous, students have created thoughtful dialogues on important issues. For example, see this instructor-made sample dialogue on the issue of school uniforms. In addition, the following dialogues were made by students in a first-year paragraph-level writing class in Japan: "Living by Themselves" and “Debate about Smoking.”

After creating the movie, students can e-mail the movie to themselves and to the instructor. The movie will have its own URL and an html code that can be embedded elsewhere, such as on a class blog; alternatively, the links to movies can be posted on a discussion board. Comments can be left directly at the Dvolver site or in follow-up posts on the class discussion board. Encouraging students to comment on each other’s movies/dialogues is a productive way of exposing the class to a variety of issues and opinions in a fun and engaging manner; also, students like to receive feedback from others. In order to assess students’ work, the instructor can construct a rubric, such as the following.

After brainstorming all sides of the issue and creating the dialogues with a digital storytelling tool, students should feel more comfortable with the concepts of argument, counterargument, and refutation. Unlike performing dialogues in class, the artifacts and comments that students generate online can be reviewed as many times as students would like, and the dialogues can be saved for use in future courses. Of course, the assignment can be taken one step further, and students can draft formal argumentative essays on their topics. Throughout the writing process, students are actively engaged in the learning. In fact, as Hillocks (2010) stated in “Teaching Argument for Critical Thinking: An Introduction,” for students to be able to construct solid arguments, “they will have to become engaged in a highly interesting activity that is both simple and challenging, for which feedback is immediate and clear, that allows for success and inspires further effort” (p. 27). Combining rich classroom-learning experiences with online tools will help students gain an introduction to argumentative writing skills.


Bean, J. C. (2001). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Hillis, M., da Silva, J. A., & Raguseo, C. (2008). Cartoon festival: An international digital storytelling project. TESL-EJ, 12(2). Retrieved from

Hillocks, G., Jr. (2010). Teaching argument for critical thinking and writing: An introduction. English Journal, 99(6), 24-42. Retrieved from

Neman, B. S. (1995). Teaching students to write (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Mary Hillis,, is an assistant professor of TEFL at Kansai Gaidai University in Japan. She completed her MA TESL at Bowling Green State University and her professional interests include writing pedagogy and online professional development.


The CET (College English Test) is carried out twice a year in mainland Chinese universities. Unfortunately, this testing system has been exerting increasingly adverse influences on English learning. Take writing, for instance. Since the end of 1980s when the CET was first conducted nationally, writing has long been a weak point. It is often the case that students in mainland China make very little progress in English writing no matter how many writing tasks they have completed, no matter how many mistakes in their writing have been corrected, and even no matter how many sample writings they have recited. One reason is that the controlled writing format in the CET, which deals with writing a three-paragraph essay based on three topic sentences written in Chinese, greatly hinders teachers from trying new approaches to writing instruction, and at the same time, it makes students feel more bored than interested. Another contributing factor, we believe, is that most university students are lacking linguistic information in their long-term memory, which substantially decides their output in writing.

This article proposes a computer-assisted strategy called “Listen to Write” which draws on the principles of auditory memory to improve mainland Chinese EFL college writing. Traditionally, more emphasis is laid on visual memory than on auditory memory in language learning. But, when it comes to improving writing ability, we would like to suggest that priority should be given to listening to reinforce long-term memory for writing. In addition, because we are living in an information age when CALL (computer-assisted language learning) is being adopted in various ways, our strategy also depends on computer technology. Thus, in this article, we recommend some techniques and activities on how to teach writing effectively and efficiently using auditory memory and computer technology.


Memory can be understood as an organism's ability to store, retain, and recall information. In the eyes of psychologists, memory comprises sensory memory, short-term memory, and long-term memory in terms of its span (Shichun, 2000). Sensory memory is the ability to retain impressions of sensory information, both visual and auditory, after the original stimulus has ceased. It is considered to operate within the approximate time frame of under 1 second (and no more than 1), and so it is very short-lived. What is caught by sensory memory is a fleeting copy of the original visual information (e.g., color, shape, size, image, text) or auditory information (e.g., voice, tone, speed, rhythm). Short-term memory (also called “primary” or “active memory”) is the capacity for holding a small amount of information actively in the mind in a readily available state for a short period of time that usually lasts 10-15 seconds without rehearsal of the material. Long-term memory is memory that can last as little as a few days or as long as decades. It differs structurally and functionally from working memory or short-term memory, which ostensibly stores items for only around 18 seconds (Peterson & Peterson, 1959). Long-term memory also encodes information semantically for storage (Baddeley, 1966). It can store information for as long as a lifetime.


Language skills are often categorized as receptive or productive (Nunan, 2003). Speaking and writing are productive skills. Listening and reading are receptive skills. However, in terms of comprehension, listening is an active, purposeful process of making sense of what is heard. While listening, people not only process what they hear but also connect it to other information they already know. As Buck (1995) pointed out, the assumption that listeners simply decode messages is mistaken: “Meaning is not in the text (text = whatever is being listened to)―but is something that is constructed by listeners based on a number of different knowledge sources.” Listening contributes not only to comprehension but also to memory, or rather auditory sensory memory. With regard to writing, it is both a physical and a mental act. Its purpose is both to express and impress. It is both a process and a product. While a person is writing, information is being actively taken out and purposefully processed in the form of memory. To be exact, writing depends much more on long-term memory than on short-term memory.

Metaphorically speaking, memory serves as a bridge between receptive and productive language skills. Traditionally, reading is accepted as the main supporting skill for writing, and listening as the main supporting skill for speaking. But actually, listening reinforces memory and, therefore, it does indeed support writing. The important role of auditory memory takes shape in infancy, and so it plays a long-term role in language development over the course of a lifetime. Moreover, auditory information may be retained more efficiently in long-term memory than visual information (Shichun, 2000). We do not mean to suggest that visual activities are less important in language input than auditory ones, but rather that it is practical to give preference to auditory input in language learning while attaching necessary importance to visual input. Thus, in writing education, listening may be a more suitable supporting skill (at least for some learners) than reading.


Since its emergence, CALL has had a symbiotic relationship with technology and pedagogy. CALL emphasizes student-centered lessons that allow learners to learn independently using structured and/or unstructured interactive exercises. CALL is not a method but rather a tool that teachers can use to facilitate language-learning processes. CALL can be used to introduce new information, reinforce classroom learning, or provide additional practice for remediation.

The Listen-to-Write approach uses computer technology to maximize the benefits of listening for application in writing education. More specifically, it uses editing software, the Internet, and language labs. Each of these tools is described below, and these descriptions are followed by a sample text that is used in instruction along with a sample teaching procedure.

CALL Tools: Sound Editing Software

We use sound editing software such as Audacity and CoolEdit to enhance the effect of memorizing what is needed for writing. A tape recorder is a traditional means to practice listening. It is not easy to use a tape recorder to replay the exact language units, but with the help of computer software for sound editing, words, expressions, sentences, and paragraphs can be played accurately. This is helpful in reducing “listening redundancy” (an invented term), lessening confusion and thus guaranteeing the quality of memorization.

CALL Tools: The Internet

We use the Internet as a source of contemporary listening materials. Students may be assigned to collect from the Internet good and appropriate language units about a topic to be discussed or practiced for writing next time, such as “Money and Happiness.” It is better when the materials from the Internet are in the form of sound (mp3 is the best). Also, the Internet can be used as a platform for checking homework or testing students’ writing ability.

CALL Tools: Language Lab

We use language labs to guarantee the quality of listening and the effect of teaching. In mainland China, large amounts of money are invested in building language labs for listening, speaking, self-study, and testing, most of which are advanced enough to guarantee the quality of listening and the effects of teaching.

CALL Tools: A Sample Text and Teaching Procedure

Listen-to-write CALL activities can be carried out either inside the classroom or outside the classroom in either top-down or bottom-up ways. For a partial illustration (please note that more detailed descriptions of activities are provided in sections below), see the following sample text that we use:

Example 1

Stress directly affects digestion. However, the extent of the consequence depends a lot on the individual’s reaction to the cause. For example: two female employees are censured by the manageress. The stomach of one may feel as if it is being used as a backdrop for the filming of the final part of “The Towering Inferno”, while the other may experience a first-time flight down an Alpine slope. The first girl is angry. In her fury her stomach chums wildly with an increase in acid build-up. In contrast, the frightened girl’s stomach grinds to a halt, with nausea growing in intensity. (Choy & Chew, 1987)

The paragraph in Example 1 was selected from a book on writing. To guarantee the authenticity of listening, we recorded it as a mp3 file (e.g., “Stress directly affects digestion.mp3”) using a native English speaker.

Before listening to “Stress directly affects digestion.mp3” intensively, students are required to answer questions that build background information, such as: What does stress mean? How can an author present an example in writing? How can an author create contrast in writing? Then, the teacher may play some mp3 files in which some information is connected with these questions. Alternatively, the teacher may ask students to surf the Internet and listen to materials that are related to “stress” or “digestion.” These background-building activities may help students predict what is in the text and better understand the organization and development of the paragraph when it is played.

After students listen to “Stress directly affects digestion.mp3,” the goal is to help students become familiar with the given writing sample, and so we use “intensive explanation.” By this we mean that we explain the paragraph from vocabulary to sentence patterns and then from discourse organization to idea development. The intensive explanation is intended to support listening and the conversion of information from sensory memory to long-term memory.

In addition, students listen to the file intensively as homework until they can write down more than 90 percent of the paragraph. What is written down individually is to be handed in, graded, and, most important, corrected with its transcript. After all mistakes have been corrected, students will know what their weak points are. Also, the repetition of listening to the same file stimulates retention of the information in the paragraph in long-term memory.


The listen-to-write approach aims at improving college writing skills by means of staged (i.e., graded, graduated, or scaffolded) and repeated listening to selected language information for writing. This approach advocates listening as an effective way to present input for writing, while never denying or doubting the importance of visual input for writing. By staged, we mean that listening exercises start at a “low” level (e.g., words, phrases) and progress to a “higher” level (e.g., sentences, paragraphs) to ensure the effect of teaching through step-by-step practice. By repeated, we mean that what has been practiced shall be practiced again at weekly or monthly intervals to ensure the quality of long-term memory. By selected, we mean that the auditory information included in the listen-to-write approach focuses on language input that is conventionally used in college writing in China at a comparatively general level, excluding language that is not typically used. For example, the synonyms of cause such as arouse, generate, and produce are often used in college writing in China and quite familiar to students, but trigger, ignite, and fuel are not necessarily so, and so such words would be selected for advanced writing practice, not for a general level of writing proficiency.

Listen-to-Write Approach: Equipment and Materials

Listen-to-write is recommended to be conducted in a language lab. Teachers should make full use of listening equipment. It is not recommended to use too many PowerPoints (PPTs) to present or illustrate information, for this visual activity may lead to distraction. Also, the goal of listen-to-write is to concentrate on listening and repeated listening. To do this, the teacher uses both paper materials and sound materials. All materials may be designed for in-class activities and for out-of-class homework.

Listen-to-Write Approach: Timeline

The whole listen-to-write program should be divided into three levels: elementary, intermediate, and advanced. In mainland China, the three stages may be finished in one or two semesters, each semester having 16 weeks. Activities in each lesson are based on a task, and they start and end in a sequenced pattern according to the specific theory-driven techniques (i.e., bottom-up, top-down, or interactive).

Listen-to-Write Approach: Types of Activities

“Intensive listening” is often used as a bottom-up activity for homework. Students are given an mp3 writing file (usually a good writing example on a heated topic), and they are asked to write down all the words precisely from the file by listening to the file again and again. “Gap-filling” is another bottom-up activity, and “listen-and-guess” and dictation are two of the top-down activities. These activities are described more thoroughly and illustrated in the next section.


In the listen-to-write approach, both bottom-up activities and top-down activities are used as the primary learning activities, and these are supplemented with interactive activities (incidentally, these overlap bottom-up and top-down techniques). The sections below provide descriptions and some examples of activities.

Listen-to-Write: Bottom-Up Activities

Intensive Listening (Bottom-Up)

This bottom-up activity, which is often used in the listen-to-write approach, focuses on linguistic details needed in writing. Students are asked to read aloud after the speaker and write down exactly what is heard. This activity may appear to be dictation, but it differs in an important way. What is important here is that the listeners read aloud after the speaker to provide writing input information in the form of sounds. In some sense, the louder, the better, to strongly impress the listeners with what is needed in writing.

The materials shall be selected to meet the needs of writing, usually at three linguistic levels: word, phrase, and sentence. The materials may be recorded as auditory files by human native speakers or by nonhuman software programs (even better than human voice). Here are some examples.

Example 2

(a) Word: nowadays, recently, moreover, furthermore, unfortunately, conversely, controversial, disputable, essential, perspective, aspect, viewpoint, illusion, fallacy, involve, argue, assert, generate
(b) Phrase: in my opinion, after all, in some way, worst of all, on the contrary, increasing numbers of, a great many, varieties of, contribute to, lead to, give rise to, arise from, stem from, depend on, rely on, focus on, from the perspective of, because of, on account of
(c) Sentence: focusing on coordination and subordination (SV stands for a complete sentence.)


SV and SV.
SV, but SV.
SV, or SV.
SV, so SV.


SV if SV.
SV because SV.
SV although SV.

It is worth mentioning that this activity can be designed as a task-based one. The words, phrases, and sentences are all from the same writing sample. The speaker may break the order of the sentences in the original sample writing and the listeners, having written down all the sentences, are asked to reorder those sentences to form a writing and check it with the original.

Gap Filling (Bottom-Up, or Interactive With Top-Down)

This is another bottom-up activity. The materials selected shall be a good writing sample (which is recorded), and gaps to be filled include connectives (e.g., conversely, as a result, after all, what’s more, in a word), often-used writing expressions (e.g., contribute to, arise from, take effective measures), and any recommendable writing expressions (e.g., just as a coin has two sides, it goes without saying that, it is interpreted to mean that).

This activity can be conducted in an interactive way. Before filling the gaps, the listeners are asked to guess, from the perspective of writing, what is appropriate for the gap. The more brainstorming, the better. Play the recording of the writing, and then ask the listeners to check their work.

Listen-to-Write: Top-Down Activities

Listen-and-Guess (Top-Down)

This top-down activity is used in the listen-to-write approach. This activity focuses on how to write and targets those who have already had a good understanding of sentence patterns, of the ways to develop a paragraph (exemplification, cause-effect, etc.), and of the often-used structures or organizations applied in writing (e.g., what-why-how).

Example 3

(a) Play the first half of a sentence: Not until recently
(b) Ask the listeners to guess what sentence pattern it is.
(c) Play the whole sentence: Not until recently have experts reached a consensus that free music downloads should be banned.
(d) Ask the listeners to write down exactly the whole sentence.
(e) Play the whole sentences at least three times and ask the listeners to read aloud after the speaker.

Example 4

(a) Play the first sentence of a paragraph (beginning, body, or ending): In the early days of nuclear power, the United States made money on it.
(b) Ask the listeners to guess what the paragraph is like―including the beginning, body, or ending―and give reasons orally.
(c) Play the whole paragraph: In the early days of nuclear power, the United States made money on it. But today opponents have so complicated its development that no nuclear plants have been ordered or built here in 12 years.
(d) Ask the listeners to guess again. Announce the answer: This paragraph is most likely to be a beginning paragraph to present a problem or phenomenon.
(e) Play the whole paragraph and ask the listeners to read aloud after the speaker.

Dictation (Top-Down)

Dictation is adopted to help students memorize all the important and frequently used vocabulary and sentence patterns. One of the preparatory jobs to be done is extracting sounds of necessary words, phrases, or sentences with the help of video-audio editing software programs, such as Audacity, CoolEdit, and so on. Word examples are affect, extent, consequence, and individual. Phrase examples are for example, depend on, and in contrast. Sentence examples may be short or long. Before studying the given material, the teacher dictates all the extracted linguistic information and then shows the paragraph for students to check their answers. Finally, all students are required to read aloud after the recordings repeatedly, to maximize the effectiveness of memory.

Assessment of Listening and Writing

This section describes the assessment procedures used in the listen-to-write approach. Basically, assessment includes these four steps or phases:

Step #1: At the beginning of the listen-to-write course, students are asked to write a 200-word composition on the topic to be practiced through the listen-to-write approach.

Step #2: Instructors then build a database for each student, in which the students’ mistakes made in the composition are recorded and classified at word, phrase, clause, sentence, and paragraph levels.

Step #3: During the implementation of the listen-to-write approach, students are asked to write a composition every 2 weeks. Instructors should add student mistakes to the individual databases and, more important, should select and design the listening materials to help students correct those mistakes consciously and unconsciously. At the beginning, most mistakes are probably similar to what have been made previously. Most probably, improvements will emerge week after week. Meanwhile, students’ databases should include features of their meritorious performance in using the language, which mirror their progress in writing.

Step #4: Design a syllabus for each stage, with some quizzes and a final test attached, and all mistakes in the quizzes and the test can be added into students’ databases, as new references for seeking and designing new listening materials.

At the end of the whole course, students are asked to write a 300-word composition. The work is evaluated in detail according to both discourse organization and linguistic and editorial details. Both merits and mistakes are recorded in the database. The students’ progress is evaluated according to what is recorded in their database. Most results are intended to be encouraging.


“Listen to write” is a proposal for a language-learning approach aimed at improving mainland Chinese EFL college writing. Though it is true that persistent, repeated, and targeted listening does improve writing by converting linguistic information to long-term memory, it cannot be said that listening is versatile in improving writing. However, listening is an effective way to expand and sustain memory, and it is through persistence and repetition that information is converted from auditory sensory memory to short-term memory and in the end to long-term memory. No matter how advanced computer technology is used, listening needs patience; persistent and repeated listening needs far more patience; and therefore, for every mainland Chinese university student who wants to improve writing in English, “listen to write” is not only a recommended strategy but a substantial challenge as well.


Baddeley, A. D. (1966). The influence of acoustic and semantic similarity on long-term memory for word sequences. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 18(4), 302–309. PMID 5956072.

Buck, G. (1995). How to become a good listening teacher. In D. Mendelsohn & J. Rubin (Eds.), A guide for the teaching of second language listening (pp. 113-28). San Diego, CA: Dominie Press.

Choy, T. W., & Chew, P. (1987). English, the basics. Singapore: Pan Pacific Book Distributors.

Nunan, D. (2003). Practical English language teaching. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Shichun, G. (2000). A new psycholinguistics. Shanghai, China: Shanghai Foreign Language Education Press.

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Qingsong (Pine) Gu,, is a lecturer at the School of Fundamental Studies, Shanghai University of Engineering Science, Shanghai, P. R. China. In 2006, he completed his master’s studies in foreign linguistics and applied linguistics at the Institute of Foreign Languages, Shanghai Maritime University, Shanghai, P. R. China. His research interests include linguistics, language-learning strategy, and translation.

Wenhua (Angela) Chen,, is a lecturer at the School of Fundamental Studies, Shanghai University of Engineering Science, Shanghai, P. R. China. She has a master’s degree from Shanghai International Studies University in the field of applied linguistics. Her research interests include applied linguistics and teaching methodology.

Guohua (Tim) Ding,, is a lecturer at the School of Physical Education, Shanghai University of Engineering Science, Shanghai, P. R. China. In 2005, he completed his master’s studies in physical education and sports training at the Postgraduate Department of Shanghai Institute of Physical Education, Shanghai, P. R. China. His research interests include bilingual teaching, sports pedagogy, fitness training methodology, and kinetic biomechanics.


Conrad, S., & Biber, D. (2009). Real grammar: A corpus-based approach to English. New York: Pearson ESL. 160 pp., paperback.

Susan Conrad and Douglas Biber’s Real Grammar: A Corpus-Based Approach to English instructs students on the appropriate uses of grammar for varying registers with an emphasis on academic and informational writing. The corpus-based approach highlights differences in grammar usage between conversation and academic writing as it focuses students’ attention on the grammar of academic writing. Certainly, texts have been informed by corpus information before, but few instructional grammar texts have integrated corpus data into their design, layout, and activities to the extent of Conrad and Biber’s text. An extension of the foundational work of Sinclair’s COBUILD texts (Goodale, 1995), Biber and Conrad’s book requires no knowledge of corpus linguistics or prior training with corpus consultation, thereby enabling further integration of corpora into mainstream language-teaching practice. Biber and Conrad’s corpus-based approach can potentially increase the efficiency of second-language writing instruction by exposing learners to frequent patterns and authentic language use from different registers of language use. The textbook presents key language patterns from four registers (i.e., conversation, news reporting, fiction writing, and academic writing) and two dialects of English (i.e., British and American English).

Real Grammar, as noted by the authors in the introduction, is designed for language learners seeking more specific information who have received prior grammar instruction in likely a more traditional format and are at an upper-intermediate or advanced level of proficiency. The authors intend for this book to serve as a supplemental resource for students and aim not to replace existing materials but to enhance current pedagogy through their informative corpus-based approach. The book displays the grammar that native speakers actually use in an effort to better enable learners to efficiently make appropriate linguistic decisions in the various contexts they are likely to encounter. The corpus extracts are modified―that is, vocabulary simplified and sentences shortened―to ensure comprehension and retain authenticity while focusing students’ attention on the structure being practiced in each lesson. However beneficial this approach to grammar may be, metalanguage used in the text may prove problematic for some learners. For example, the characteristics of the progressive verb are given as (a) the subject of the verb actively controls the action or state and (b) the verb describes an action or state that happens over an extended period of time. Though this explanation may be difficult for some to understand, the authors clearly state that the text is intended for more proficient users and should not be used for lower-proficiency levels.

Corpus-based approaches to instruction certainly offer some exciting possibilities for the language classroom. In the introduction, the authors quite effectively introduce both learners and teachers to their corpus-based method, the benefits of their approach, and the text’s use of corpus data to further language learning. Effective use of the text does not require knowledge of corpus linguistics or training on how to use corpus data. Biber and Conrad provide a concise, informative, and anxiety-reducing introduction for both teachers and learners that helps guide users. The definitions provided for the terms corpus, register, discourse, and text among others are quite helpful for learners as they encounter a corpus-based approach for likely their first time. These easy-to-understand definitions benefit the learner and make the corpus information presented in the text more comprehensible and accessible.

The text is divided into 50 units and 11 sections in a coherent and logical manner that showcases register differences (i.e., how the language patterns studied in each unit are used in conversation, news reporting, fiction writing, and academic writing). The lessons address how the grammar topic is typically treated in a traditional grammar book and then present how the structures are actually used in spoken and written discourse. For example, Unit 1 is titled “Did you want more coffee?” and presents corpus information showing the use of the simple past tense for polite offers, whereas Unit 3 instructs learners on the special uses of discovery and existence verbs in academic writing. The activities within each lesson are excellent in their design and sequence. The first activity of each lesson asks students to analyze authentic language extracted from the corpus of the target form in use. Learners then do exercises intended to reinforce the lesson followed by an application activity in which students complete a writing activity employing the new form. The subsequent lessons progress similarly as corpus information is employed to teach learners grammar that is often not presented in traditional texts.

The text also contains sections on adjectives and adverbs, noun modification, and gerunds and infinitives, with nearly all sections including writing activities. Both the presentation of grammatical information and the exercises identify the registers from which the utterances come, thus allowing learners to see (and hopefully learn) how language patterns typically appear and often differ in speech versus writing. This feature of the book can be particularly useful in helping learners recognize and integrate the conventions and standards of academic writing. At the same time, it is important to note that the units are not instructed in the traditional prescriptive manner, as the corpus data is used by the authors to inform and guide each lesson with special attention to the grammar of writing.

A corpus-based approach to language teaching and learning is a long-awaited and needed alternative to traditional grammar instruction originally written by a Catholic bishop, based on Latin grammar, and intended to distinguish social classes in 18th-century England (Aitchison, 2001, pp. 8-13). More texts will hopefully soon employ a similar approach to Conrad and Biber’s Real Grammar, allowing learners to finally be taught the grammar native speakers use [1]. With its nontraditional approach to the grammar lessons, the inclusion of nontraditional topics (e.g., nonsexist language choices, imprecise noun phrases, amplifiers and downtoners), and excellent design and sequence of activities, Real Grammar engages students as it presents information possibly never encountered by many language learners.

[1] See, for example, Smith’s (in press) Steps to Professional Reading and Writing, a corpus-based introduction to academic writing; Burdine and Barlow’s (2008) Business Phrasal Verbs (2008), part of a series of corpus-based books on different communication contexts; and McCarthy and O’Dell’s (2008) Academic Vocabulary in Use, part of a series of corpus-based books on vocabulary and different grammatical topics.


Aitchison, J. (2001). Language change: Progress or decay? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Burdine, S., & M. Barlow. (2008). Business phrasal verbs. Houston, TX: Athelstan.

Goodale, M. (1995). COBUILD Concordance Samplers 4: Tenses. London: Harper Collins.

McCarthy, M., & F. O’Dell. (2008). Academic vocabulary in use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, C. (In press). Steps to professional reading and writing. Houston, TX: Athelstan.

Robert Poole,, is a MA-TESOL student at the University of Alabama where he teaches composition for nonnative speakers of English. He has taught EFL in Nicaragua and South Korea and was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guyana.