The purpose of this study is to investigate the writing processes of second language (L2) writers, specifically examining the writing strategies of three Chinese post-graduate students in an Australian higher education institution. The study was prompted by the paucity of second language writing strategies of Chinese students in an authentic context. Data collected from a semi-structured interview, questionnaire, retrospective post-writing discussion, and written drafts of papers were analysed. The findings indicate that the three participants employed rhetorical strategies, metacognitive strategies, cognitive strategies and social/affective strategies in their writing practice. This study supports Silva's finding that L2 writing process is strategically, rhetorically, linguistically different from first language (L1) writing process (1993). Data demonstrated that metacognitive, cognitive, and social/affective strategies except rhetorical strategies (organisation of paragraphs) transferred across languages positively.
There are a series of controversial issues in second language (L2) writing research (Casanave, 2004). For example, some researchers (for example, Bitchener & Basturkmen, 2006; Hinkel, 2004; Lee, 2005; McCarthey, Guo & Cummins, 2005; Martínez, 2005; Silva, 1993; Thorson, 2000) assert that L1 (first language) writing processes are different from L2 writing processes, but others (for example, Jones & Tetroe, 1987; Matsumoto, 1995; Schoonen et al., 2003) emphasise the similarities of the two processes. Some researchers (for example, Kaplan, 1966; Norment, 1982; Scollon, 1999) argue that it is the cultural difference that results in L2 students' rhetorical organisation problems, while others (for example, Mohan & Lo, 1985; Hirose, 2003) negate this claim. It is acknowledged that culture influences L2 writing, but the genre of the writing task completed by L2 writers, cognitive development and interlanguage development should also be taken into account. Another contradictory issue is that, some researchers (for example, Arndt, 1987; Friedlander, 1990; Woodall, 2002) contend that L1 writing strategies can be transferred into L2 writing positively, others (for example, Wu, 1995) maintain negative transfer from L1 to L2 writing. A simple conclusion should not be made in this case because it is important to consider the different stages of the L2 writing processes. For instance, Chinese writers were found to use L1 in generating ideas and controlling the whole process positively, but they utilised L2 to generate sentences in English writing (Wang & Wen, 2002).
This study looks at three Chinese postgraduate students' English writing processes and attempts to provide some insights for the above-mentioned controversial issues. In this study, L2 writing strategies are defined as conscious decisions made by the writers to solve a writing problem. Writing strategies are classified into rhetorical strategies, metacognitive strategies, cognitive strategies, and social/affective strategies (Riazi, 1997; Wenden, 1991).
Whether L1 writing processes are different from L2 writing processes has long been a controversial issue in L2 writing research (Casanave, 2004). This issue is important because the idea of using L1 theory in L2 writing may be inappropriate if the L1 writing processes are different from L2 writing processes. Otherwise, L1 writing theory may be a relevant model for L2 writing (Beare, 2000). Generally, there are two conflicting areas of thought with regard to this issue. Silva (1993) stresses that "L2 writing is strategically, rhetorically, and linguistically different in important ways from L1 writing" (p. 669). In contrast, Friedlander (1990), Lay (1982) and Matsumoto (1995) maintain there are no differences between L1 and L2 writing processes.
There are numerous studies on L2 writing strategies, but few are carried out in an authentic context (Leki, 1995; Wong, 2005). This study focuses on three Chinese post-graduate students in public health at an Australian university. In order to further the understanding of the above-mentioned controversial issues in L2 writing research, the following questions were examined in relation to L2 writing strategies of the three Chinese postgraduate students in this study:
All three volunteers (given the pseudonyms Ally, Susan and Roger) were studying at the Faculty of Health at an Australian university at the time of the study. The University Ethics Committee approved the research and participants received an information and consent package. All participants signed consent forms. Ally was a female Chinese visiting scholar funded by the World Health Organisation, but she was later enrolled as a graduate student majoring in public health. Susan was a female Chinese doctoral student in nursing. Roger was a male Chinese doctoral student in the field of public health starting early in 2004. The information concerning these participants is listed in Table 1.
Table 1. Background Information of the Participants
Name Age Sex Major
Degree prospect Duration of stay at university when the investigation started Ally 41 Female Public health
MS 6 months Susan 28 Female Nursing
PhD 6 months Roger 42 Male Public health
PhD 8 months
The three students were invited to participate in the study for several reasons. Most importantly, they were experienced writers both in Chinese and English. Roger had acquired two Masters degrees in China and the United States, respectively. Ally, as an administrative assistant in the Ministry of Health in China, wrote many reports in Chinese. She had also studied and travelled to a variety of countries. Susan completed a Masters degree in a well-known university in China and received a score of 6.5 on the IELTS (International English Language Testing System) test. Therefore, these three participants could be regarded as proficient writers both in Chinese and English. More importantly, they all seemed to have a deep understanding of English and Chinese culture and their experiences in English and Chinese writing might, therefore, be meaningful for other Chinese overseas students. These could be "exemplary" cases for L2 writers (Yin, 2003, p. 10).
Sources of data included preliminary questionnaires, semi-structured interviews, retrospective post-writing discussions, and document analysis. The 100 items in the questionnaire on a 5-point-Likert-scale (see Appendix A) were developed based on Victori's (1995) study which investigated Spanish students' writing strategies. These questions have been tested by two Chinese students and reviewed by two of my supervisors for its validity and reliability. This questionnaire was not used as a survey but as a warm-up exercise for the formal semi-structured interview. The survey stimulated the participants to think about English and Chinese writing so that they could report more about their writing strategies and deepen their understanding of English writing strategies. The participants were proficient English users, but if they had some difficulty with any words, there was some explanation to ensure good understanding.
The semi-structured interview was conducted with the three participants in Chinese to make communication more effective. Each interview lasted over one hour. All the interviews were recorded, fully transcribed in Chinese and saved by computer. When each participant completed his or her writing task, a retrospective post-writing discussion followed that focused specifically on the proposal or paper the participant had just completed. During the period of data collection, the participants were asked to keep all drafts of their assignments and then review their composing processes and construct a description of how it worked during the retrospective post-writing discussion. Table 2 is a summary of data collected from the three participants.
Table 2. Summary of Data Collected from the Three Participants
|Preliminary questionnaire and followed interview||1 answer sheet to the questionnaire and 1 transcript for interview with 5,626 Chinese characters||1 answer sheet to the questionnaire and 1 transcript for interview with 22,677 Chinese characters||1 answer sheet to the questionnaire and 1 transcript for interview with 4,561 Chinese characters|
|Semi-structured interview||1 transcript with 9,718 Chinese characters||1 transcript with 14,295 Chinese characters||1 transcript with 15,977 Chinese characters|
|Retrospective post-writing discussion||1 transcript with 10,190 Chinese characters||1 transcript with 10,289 Chinese characters||1 transcript with 10,190 Chinese characters|
|Documents||1 outline, 4 drafts, 1 final assignment paper (2,430 words)||6 drafts, 1 final proposal (11,121 words)||2 drafts, 1 final paper (3,625 words)|
|Length of observation||5 weeks||16 weeks||40 weeks|
In keeping with qualitative research methods, analytic induction (Goetz & LeCompte, 1984; Leki, 1995) was used to analyse the transcribed interview data, preliminary questionnaire, participants' papers and their drafts. In this approach, the researcher returned repeatedly to transcripts or questionnaires to read and examine the data, searching for salient or recurring themes. Merriam (1988) acknowledged that categorisation of qualitative data was an intuitive performance. In this study, previous experience and the conceptual framework informed the generation of patterns of meaning or themes. In the following section, the study results and discussion of the key issues will be organised together for each research question.
Research Question 1: What Writing Strategies Do the Three Chinese Post-graduate Students Report Using in Writing Academic Papers in English? Using a framework of four categories of writing strategies (macro-strategies), a total of twelve micro-strategies were identified (see Table 3).
Table 3 Writing Strategies Identified from the Data
|Rhetorical strategies||Organising strategies
|Metacognitive strategies||Planning strategies
Evaluating and monitoring strategies
|Cognitive strategies||Generating strategies
|Social/Affective strategies||Reducing anxiety
Drawing on previous experience
Keeping high motivation and confidence
The responses to the questionnaire showed that all three participants are aware of the importance of text organization (Appendix B). For example, they all agreed that a text should always have a clear, well-defined organization and a good introduction should anticipate the issues that would be dealt with in the essay (items 21 and 30). However, they disagreed with the components and the methods of textual organization. Ally agreed that any English text should include an introduction, development, and conclusion (item 20). In contrast, Susan chose to disagree with this point and Roger neither agreed nor disagreed. Furthermore, Susan strongly disagreed and Ally disagreed that writing a conclusion is not always necessary whereas Roger agreed with it (item 24). In other words, Susan and Ally believed it conventional to write a conclusion in an English essay while Roger found some English papers did not include a conclusion. Ally organized her paper according to the requirement of the assignment and Susan followed the rules of writing a research proposal that was suggested by the Australian university. Roger used published journal papers as a model for organization for his writing.
Different from argumentative writing, paper writing in my field is more descriptive. In IELTS test we are trained how to write argumentative essay. The writer needs to propose the topic first and then support it with some evidence. I seldom use the argumentation rather than the description in my paper writing. What I need to do is to describe the result, for instance, Figure 2 indicates . . . (Post-writing discussion with Roger, translated by the first author)
Ally, however, emphasised that in English writing she could not use the methods of "埋伏 mai fu" (placing the soldiers in ambush) or "形散而神不散 xing san shen bu san" (loose form but solid focus) to make the writing more vivid. She did not seem to realise the rhetorical means she mentioned are usually used in Chinese literary writing. Since there are different genres of writing in different languages, writers use different rhetorical means in their writing. Susan noticed that Chinese researchers usually mixed the introduction and the literature review and gave little attention to previous studies in their papers. Roger found English researchers habitually gave a detailed account of each step of an experiment, even the dosage of each medicine, in their academic writing. As a result, these participants could follow strictly the requirements of the genre of their writing just because they had become aware of these differences in Chinese writing and English writing. Susan committed to the checklist of the requirements for the research proposal. Roger used the format of a scientific journal paper and Ally completed her assignment according to the lecturer's criteria.
Roger: They are some topic sentences. I think everyone may do the planning before writing. Some write down the plan on the paper while others prefer to save their ideas in their mind. All people have to think before writing when they are given a topic by the teacher. It is impossible for them to write without thinking about the main ideas. As a matter of fact, thinking itself is planning.
The researcher: So these people do not write the plan on the paper?
Roger: Right. Because there are only a few topics, it is unnecessary to write them on the paper. The process of thinking is the process of planning. It is impossible for someone to write immediately without any thinking. Some people plan in more detail while others do simple planning. However, every writer has to plan for his/her writing. I do not like to write down the plan, but I write with a plan in my mind. Different people have different preferences. (Semi-structured interview with Roger, translated by the first author)
I sometimes spend several days in writing a section of a paper. Suppose I write the section of Materials and Methods, I usually write a draft as much as possible at the beginning. Then I may evaluate this section to find something wrong with the arrangement of sentences or paragraphs. Sometimes I adjust the order of sentences or paragraphs or the level of importance in the sentences of paragraphs. I think I generally consider the structure of writing first and then the sentences or expressions. (Semi-structured interview with Roger, translated by the first author)
Susan often evaluated her own writing to see whether she was on the right track; she paid more attention to the ideas and vocabulary than the grammar. Roger evaluated "what I write and adjust the sequence of paragraphs or sentences within one paragraph."
I started to skim the study guide, reading materials bought from bookshop and reference books recommended by the lecturer. In this way I formed the general conception of the unit. Then I read the unit guide several times and pondered the requirement of the assignment. From these readings some ideas occurred to my mind and I put the related notes into the outline in the mean time. (Semi-structured interview with Ally, translated by the first author)
Roger summarised the rhetorical conventions of English research papers from dozens of readings. Furthermore, he also learnt English idioms by extensive reading:
It is important to read extensively and learn how the native writers use the expressions. You should use what native writers usually use and it is unreasonable to translate Chinese expressions into English directly because many translations are not proper for English writing. Even though your readers can understand your meaning, they know they are not idiomatic and improper for English collocation. (Semi-structured interview with Roger, translated by the first author)
Susan also believed that reading extensively was very important. She noticed that a key difference between English and Chinese research writing was that English researchers tried to discuss previous studies as adequately as possible while Chinese researchers usually introduced other studies briefly in their literature review. Since she had noticed this difference, she placed considerable emphasis on extensive reading.
It is flexible for revising process. I may revise the section of results while writing the introduction of my paper. I seldom revise until I complete the writing. Conversely, I usually revise while writing. In the revising process I think content is the most important, then the structure and the last the wording. Since the structure of my paper is definite, I focus on revising paragraphs. I put paragraphs under the same topic. This takes me a lot of time. But the word processing can help me with the revision of spelling and grammatical mistakes. (Post-writing discussion with Roger, translated by the firs author)
The assignment by Ally was finished based on six drafts that were different from one another. In particular, the body of each of her drafts had been substantially revised. In her first two drafts, she built up the needed information as much as possible. Then she condensed the content in the following drafts--that is, she reorganised the sentences she noted from the readings and connected the content in her own words. Susan's second stage proposal was derived from her book reports to her supervisors. She said in the semi-structured interview that it was very hard for her to organise the writing because she had all the needed materials in hand, but she was often puzzled about how to organise the ideas clearly. Thus, she tried different arrangements and revised again and again.
All the participants in this study were highly motivated students. To acquire a degree from an overseas English university motivated them to improve their English. Further to this, their supervisors' encouragement facilitated their progress and motivation. Susan said she sometimes suffered so much anxiety from English writing and even had thought of giving up but her supervisors' positive feedback improved her confidence gradually. Since Roger and Susan expected to join the international academic community after graduation, they worked hard to send their papers to prestigious international journals for review or did presentations to their peers. In this way, they got feedback from the specialists in their field for the purpose of improving their writing. Ally aimed to succeed in completing her Masters studies because she wanted to return to China after graduation. She claimed that she did not need a high level of English writing in her work.
The results of the data analysis demonstrate that these three participants employed a wide range of writing strategies, which could be categorized into rhetorical strategies, cognitive strategies, meta-cognitive strategies, and social/affective strategies. However, each student has a preference of writing strategies and uses them differently. Regarding grammar and content, for example, neither Roger nor Susan agreed that working on grammatical errors improved writing fluency. They suggested that studying grammar and vocabulary was the most effective way of improving one's writing, and that one should pay attention to grammar and vocabulary when developing the initial ideas. In contrast, Ally disagreed that the content should be more important than grammar in writing. It is evident that Ally paid more attention to grammar because she found she still had difficulties in grammar while writing in English, as she reported in the semi-structured interview. Her attitude was consistent with the studies suggesting that less proficient English writers pay more attention to mechanics rather than content in writing (Raimes, 1985; Bereiter & Scardamalia, 1987).
Studies in L2 writing have found that good writers in general concern themselves with ideas first (Cumming, 1989; Hirose & Sasaki, 1994; Zamel, 1983). This study reveals that the three participants' primary occupation was with planning not only the content but also the organisation of their papers before starting to write. They could make good use of the strategy of drafting an outline to guide their English writing. They could take advantage of metacognitive strategies, which are usually regarded as strategies mastered by adults (Victori, 1995). In other words, they have the capability to control the whole writing process as adult L2 writers.
An interesting point is that these participants preferred the strategy of extensive reading. The possible explanation is that they were not familiar with the target field in English even though they have had some study in the same field in Chinese. They had to search for more information to help familiarise themselves with the target field and generate more ideas to satisfy the requirements of the target academic community. At the same time, they learnt idiomatic expressions from extensive reading in their research field. This finding concurs with the finding of Hinkle (2004), that second language writers were highly dependent on resources for more information on the one hand, and on the other hand, for language borrowings. They accumulated considerable content and then removed unnecessary material. This strategy can help novice writers write a long essay without too much retrieval from long-term memory. During the process of reading, L2 writers could paraphrase the appropriate sentences and use them in their assignments or papers.
At a superficial level, there seems no difference between L1 and L2 writing processes, however Susan noted that in Chinese journals the introduction and the literature review, the results and the conclusion were usually mixed with each other. She explained the difference between English and Chinese writing in the following way:
I have perceived the difference between Chinese and English academic writing, but I do not know whether it occurs in writing structure or somewhere else. I find researchers in Australia pay more attention to literatures supporting the study. While researching in China, I may cite some data to argue the importance of the problem and make a simple list of previous studies. It is a very very simple list. However, it is completely different in Australia that I have to give out the extensive previous studies on my topic and elaborate each of their achievements and limitations. It seems to me that their studies proceed systematically from the very beginning. In addition, I am required to have a very strong theoretical framework for my study in Australia while this is usually ignored in China although this has improved a bit now. (Post-writing disucssion with Susan, translated by the first author)
Similarly, Ally understood that Chinese writing was rhetorically different from English writing because "in English it is expected to tell your idea bluntly in the very beginning of the passage" while in Chinese "obliqueness is more accepted" (Interview with Ally, translated by the first author). Roger said that in Chinese writing he would not plan in detail while in English writing he had to be very careful in planning:
If I write in English, I need a frame, paragraph or topic sentence. If I write in Chinese, I needn't . . .just in my mind. I needn't to prepare so much. (Post-writing discussion with Roger, translated by the first author)
All three participants reported that in Chinese writing they did not think so much about words and expressions while in English writing vocabulary usually constrained their flow of thinking. They had to repeat some words in their writing because of a limited vocabulary.
There is evidence to suggest that L1 and L2 writing are similar in their broad outlines, and that both L1 and L2 writers employ a recursive composing process, involving planning, writing, and revising, to develop their ideas and find the appropriate rhetorical and linguistic means to express them. Silva (1993) suggests that with closer examination of L1 and L2 writing there are salient and important differences.
L2 writing specialists need to look beyond L1 writing theories, to better describe the unique nature of L2 writing, to look into the potential sources (for example, cognitive, developmental, social, cultural, educational, linguistic) of this uniqueness, to develop theories that adequately explain the phenomenon of L2 writing (Silva & Leki, 2004).
I read the requirements of the assignment many times. According the requirements, I considered the outline of the writing in Chinese and then put them on the paper in English. With this outline I read the relevant materials. (Interview with Ally, translated by the first author)
Ally acknowledged that she had to think about the organisation of her paper and monitor the writing process in Chinese because she said she was weak in language foundation.
Susan reported her experience of using connectors in English writing and she found herself transferring her Chinese usage of connectors into English writing:
I feel confused with the function and usage of English connectors. I seem to follow Chinese conventions of the usage of connectors. Sometimes I sensed there should be a connector like "and" or "however", so I put it there. But I am wrong. I often make this kind of mistakes. (Interview with Susan, translated by the first author)
Susan could not use English cohesive devices well perhaps because she transferred her understanding of coherence in Chinese writing into English writing:
As a matter of fact, you could express yourself clearly without connectors. I think so. Especially from paragraph to paragraph it is an issue with connecting sentences as well as connectors. I think it unnecessary to provide connecting sentences or connectors if only you make it clear enough. I do not mean you never use those means. You may use one or two connections from one section to another section, but you do not need it in the most of places. (Interview with Susan, translated by the first author)
However, her understanding of connections encountered her supervisors' objection:
It seems to me most of the content in my writing are connected through meanings. Sometimes my supervisors remind me of strengthening the linkage between paragraphs. In particular, they said they could understand me but they felt short of some linkage from this section to that section. (Post-writing discussion with Susan, translated by the first author)
Susan was bewildered by her supervisors' comments. In fact, she had transferred her understanding of Chinese rhetorical strategies into English writing negatively.
Table 4 shows that most of the metacognitive, cognitive, communicative and social/affective strategies could be transferred positively across languages and the organising and cohesive strategies might be transferred negatively from the three participants' report and analysis of their writing.
Table 4. The Tended Positive and Negative Transfer of L2 Writing Strategies
Writing strategies Positive transfer Negative transfer Examples Organising strategies
- Roger did not give the conclusion in his paper. Ally did not present how she would develop her viewpoints in the introduction.
- The three participants usually put the subordinate clause before the main clause.
- The three participants actively looked for writing models and familiarise themselves with the task genre.
Evaluating and monitoring strategies
- All three participants have the outline for their writing.
- They evaluated what they wrote both locally and globally and corrected the mistakes in the writing process.
- They use Chinese to generate the main ideas for their writing but generate sentences in English.
- They reported revising penetrated through the whole writing process and both local revising and global revising were utilised.
- Susan imitated the excellent model of second stage proposal in her faculty. Ally borrowed the previous students' assignment as the model.
Drawing on previous experience
Keeping high motivation and confidence
- They refreshed themselves from the hard work by giving themselves a day or two off or switching to some other attention.
- Susan and Roger made use of their previous research experience. Ally drew her Chinese writing experience, but it sometimes distracted her thought.
- Susan felt more motivated when her supervisors praised her and Ally kept herself motivated to learn more in her field.
Chinese writers depend more on the meaning of sentences for coherence of passages than on explicit conjunctions to connect sentences or paragraphs. Hence, Chinese writers are not used to using conjunctions in writing; additionally, the usage of conjunctions in Chinese is different from that in English. As Chinese is a paratactic language, Chinese writers use lexical devices more than conjunctions to make their writing coherent. A passage is connected through the internal semantic structures (Kirkpatrick & Xu, 2002).
It is useful to identify which writing strategies could be transferred positively or negatively in L2 writing, because L2 teachers can encourage L2 writers to use those strategies for positive transfer and to avoid negative transfer of L1 writing strategies. Therefore, L2 writers should be encouraged to use planning, revising, imitating, generating, and the other positive transferable strategies and be warned not to transfer L1 organising and cohesive strategies into L2 writing negatively. It is also important for L2 writers to know about the difficulties that L1 novice researchers have experienced.
The findings from this study are summarised as follows:
Next, as it is very difficult for L2 writers to master rhetorical strategies, these strategies should be regarded as the important points in the L2 writing classroom. In particular, a comparison of rhetorical conventions between two different languages may be helpful for teaching. Chinese students are weak in cohesive devices according to this investigation, so they need more practice in this respect. Also, the understanding of English rhetorical conventions should not be superficial. Thus, professional L2 writing teachers need to have a deeper understanding of L1 and L2 cultures and writing conventions (Canagarajah, 1999; Matsuda, 1998). As Powers (2001) notes in her own teaching experience:
If we assumed such writers were dependent writers who merely needed encouragement to take charge of their texts, and if we adopted our usual collaborative approach to bring about that recognition of ownership we were unlikely to achieve our accustomed results because we were applying an attitude solution to an information problem. If we assumed the worst—that the writers were lazy and were trying to get us to take over the writing—we might be travelling even further toward the wrong solution, based on the wrong evidence. We were, in fact, unlikely to provide useful help to ESL writers until we saw the questions they raised about basic form and usage not as evasions of responsibility but as the real questions of writers struggling with an unfamiliar culture, audience, and rhetoric. (p. 373)
Furthermore, this study identified the voice of L2 writers who had been hidden from view. The disadvantage they experience in writing leads to frustration and pressure, despite the fact that they are highly motivated and talented. If they are studying at a university in another country, they have to cope with cultural differences as well as a language barrier. Additionally, they need to adapt themselves to the new environment, which is different from the one with which they are familiar, and try as well to resonate with the culture that dominates the target academy. Therefore, L2 writing or content course teachers need to be more sensitive to the students' difficulties in their writing (Braine, 1999; Canagarajah, 1999).
The dominant English academic community needs to be open-minded to a plurality of communicative styles and ideas about knowledge and ways of writing about knowledge (Spack, 1996). Clyne (2005) even radically suggests that English L1 speakers will need to give up their rights of imposing conventions on L2 speakers. However, it is not easy to make immediate policy changes in the English academic community. Nevertheless, while designing the curriculum or the writing task, L2 teachers need to think over L2 students' needs and their background while designing the curriculum or the writing task, so that the task may be more motivating and substantial for L2 writers.
Congjun Mu has a PhD from Queensland University of Technology, Australia, holding an appointment as an Associate Professor at Shanghai Institute of Technology in Shanghai, China. He has published a book in Australia titled: Second Language Writing Strategies. He is interested in studies of second language writing, meta-discourse and rhetoric.
Suzanne Carrington is an Associate Professor in Inclusive Education at Queensland University of Technology and has published in the areas of inclusive culture, policy and practice, and teaching/professional development for inclusive education. She is interested in school reform and development with a focus on student voice. She is recently using the research methodology of visual narrative in her work with secondary school students. In addition, she has an interest in Asperger's syndrome, taking the perspective of student voice in this area of work.
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