December 2001 — Volume 5, Number 3
On Second Language Writing
Tony Silva & Paul Kei Matsuda (2001)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xxi + 241
ISBN 0-8058-3516-4 (paper)
This book includes 15 chapters, originally presented at a symposium at Purdue University, a preface that sums up these relatively short, mostly theoretical papers and an author index and a subject index. It is meant to cover a wide range of topics ranging from composition in the classroom from the perspective of both the trainer and the trainee, politics of writing, theory of L2 writing, L2 writing research methodology, assessment, curriculum development, and the relation between L2 writing and L2 acquisition. It also targets a wide audience including students, researchers and practitioners in the fields of composition, applied linguistics at large, and education as well policy makers. As the editors suggest in the preface, except for the first and the last, every two consecutive chapters converge on one of the topics mentioned.
The book is definitely a valuable contribution to the still growing field of L2 writing, but it does not fully satisfy the high expectations the title announces. Despite the relative sense of order the editors propose the reader should follow, the book lacks coherence in the organization of the chapters and the themes. For instance, the two chapters on theory (4 and 5) break the flow between the preceding and following chapters that deal with practical matters. The book also lacks in variety and scope of topics: The collection as the editors acknowledge refers almost exclusively to adult ESL learners in the North American context; it could have been entitled On ESL Writing. Second, some essential issues in L2 writing theory and pedagogy such as the process of writing, the emerging genres and modes, to mention only a few, are not included. Third, some topics are more represented than others. There is much focus on the teaching policy in the States. In fact, except for a few papers (e.g. chapter 4 deals with theory and 6 and 7 deal with research methodology) the collection directly or indirectly deals with the politics of ESL writing or, to use a very exhausted term, “the democratization” of ESL writing, another possible title for the book. The review below mentions the original numbers of the chapters but does not follow the order in which they are presented in the book.
The collection opens with a five-phase autobiographical account by Barbara Kroll of her experience as a language learner and language and writing instructor. While some of the information given is not very relevant to the moral of her story, the reader especially the practitioner is reminded of valuable tips. Probably the moral to Kroll’s tale is that there is no harm in the personal being used in what is often qualified as “scientific” and “professional” since the personal is inextricably connected with the “objective.”
Chapters 2, 3, 8, and 9 deal with the democratization of teaching where students’ conditions either in the classroom or in the broader institutional context need to be improved. In chapter 2, Ilona Leki reports five qualitative studies, including one done by her, which either observed ESL students in learning contexts or interviewed them. The common denominator in the results of these studies is the disliked discrepancy between the teachers’ and/or institutions’ agenda and that of the learners in relation to what they want to learn, how they want to learn and even in relation to their identity and self-esteem. The coda of all these studies/stories can be summarized in Leki’s words in the following points: “1. how instructive negative cases can be; 2. the importance and value of qualitative research; and 3. the relatively small amount of work on how students experience L2 writing courses” (p.26).[-1-]
In chapter 3, Pat Currie shows how ESL students suffer the restrictions imposed on them by their respective institutions especially in relation to evaluation namely regarding “(i) the number of content and subject courses a student is permitted to enroll in [based on their scores on the entrance language test], (ii) the evaluation of EAP writing, (iii) and the inclusion of EAP grades in a student’s grade point average” (p. 33). Currie thinks that these restrictions are not only paternalistic but also not well grounded. He calls for a more reasoned judgment concerning the decision on the number of courses that students can take based on their academic background, strengths, and GPA; a more collaboration with the content courses teachers in the assessment of what the students write in those courses; and the exclusion of the EAP grade from the GPA.
Chapter 8, by Liz Hamp-Lyons, also deals with assessment and how it should in the coming years be more democratic: humanistic, politically correct, and ethical. Hamp-Lyons, therefore, looks at assessment from a wider perspective. After a brief overview of the testing methods used so far: direct testing, multiple choice testing, and portfolio-based testing, the author describes how the coming phase will/should be. Four qualities, according to her, will characterize this phase: technological (taking the best of the technological advances for more rapid and reliable testing), humanistic (by providing the appropriate means for all those involved in the testing process to acquire “the appropriate skills” (p.122), political (by being aware of the political effects of the testing policy), and ethical (by being fair to the majority of people involved in testing).
Like chapter 3, chapter 9 deals with how to avoid and militate against institutional restrictions on ESL students. One such restriction is the Freshman Skills Assessment Tests used by many universities as condition for admission. This measure led to a dramatic decline in the number of ESL students especially in senior colleges. The author, Trudy Smoke, reports on how in their institution CUNY, they– teachers, students and politicians–could take measures to make ESL learners “integral to the university.”
Chapters 11, 12, 14, and 15 also address the question of “democratization”/politics of L2 writing but from the general perspective of educational policies and the philosophies underlying them. In chapter 11, Sarah Benesch discusses the controversy of whether we should be concerned with politics (issues like power relations) in our curricula or with the pragmatic needs of our students. Benesch presents the main arguments against critical theory then discusses some of the issues that the pragmatic view does not address as well as its theoretical underpinnings in relation to both research and pedagogy. She then presents an example (a course she taught) of what she calls critical pragmatism summarized in the following terms: “the pragmatic goal of preparing students for the demands of academic courses in EAP can be balanced with the critical goals of situating the pedagogy in the students’ social context and encouraging them to question the status quo” (p.167).
In chapter 12, Terry Santos addresses the question of politics in the wider area of applied linguistics. She presents the main tenets of critical theory and its correlates in education (i.e. critical pedagogy) and ESL (i.e. critical applied linguistics) and examines the implications of the latter in critical writing. Unlike Benesch, Santos does not agree with the theoretical tenets of critical theory and its implications for pedagogy. She suggests that relative neutrality can be achieved and that it is more practical and helpful for students to be on the pragmatic side.
In chapter 14, Carol Seveniro discusses from her own experience as a Rhetoric-ESL liaison and an advisor of rhetoric teachers the dangers of such a task. The dangers of being a liaison are numerous: inability to render the exact message, generalization and reinforcing prejudice, and depriving ESL students from the first hand experience with their host culture. To avoid such dangers, Seveniro suggests that more ESL, immigrant, permanent residents students should be engaged in the tutoring and that ESL learners be prepared linguistically, rhetorically and psychologically to fully participate in the decision making and in the interaction with their host culture. [-2-]
In chapter 15, Alister Cumming examines the dangers of the ambiguity of the notion of standards especially in relation to L2 writing pedagogy. He starts by examining three senses of the notion of standards: the first refers to standards of research design and publication, the second is related to curricula, the third concerns the implicit expectations concerning genres and teaching-learning practices. The author discusses the difficulty of establishing standards in the different senses while referring to two cases of research in which he participated, the first is global (curricula in 25 countries) and the second is local (curriculum in Ontario, Canada). The questions discussed concern: defining the construct of writing, ascertaining students’ learning, Relating L2 writing to other abilities and modes of communication, and variability (in relation to different variables, e.g. language backgrounds of learners).
Chapters 6, 7, 10 and 13 deal with ESL research and its implications for future research and pedagogy. Chapter 6 examines assessment research. The author, Lynn Goldstein, focuses on why research does not provide any clear, coherent answers as to the best ways of providing written feedback. After her review of the research on the written feedback for ESL writers, Goldstein proposes some suggestions on how to avoid this incoherence, which is mainly due to methodological problems, in future studies. Recommendations include the need to replicate studies using similar methodologies and comparable samples. Future studies should also avoid the linear view of assessment of writing “in which students write, teachers respond with commentary, and then students revise” (p.87).
In Chapter 7, Charlene Polio presents a comprehensive overview of the studies carried mainly on ESL products. The review examines each of the features studied in a separate section. These features are: overall quality, linguistic accuracy, syntactic complexity, lexical features, content, mechanics, coherence and discourse features, fluency, and revision. In each of the sections, a feature is discussed in terms of the representative studies, what was undertaken in these studies, the measures, taxonomy and the research questions addressed. At the end of each section, the author points to some methodological limitations and provides some implications for future studies.
In chapter 10, Joy Reid urges that curriculum development for writing courses should follow the usual processes of needs analysis research common in ESP (e.g. Hutchinson and Waters, 1987) including “a dynamic overall plan for a writing program that is based on the needs of the students, the principles that underlie both the theories and practices of learning and teaching, and essential external expectations and constraints” (p.143-144).
In Chapter 13, Joan G. Carson examines the relationship between second language writing and second language learning. She points out that they differ with respect to the topic of study and the perspective from which the investigation is undertaken. While SLA is concerned with competence from a diachronic perspective, L2 writing is concerned with performance from a synchronic perspective. Despite these differences, Carson thinks that such a link can be made by examining the notion of error in writing from the four major questions posed by SLA research (Ellis, 1994). These are: (i) what does learner language look like? (ii) how do learners acquire a second language? (iii) what accounts for the differences in learners’ achievements? and (iv) what are the effects of formal instruction?
Chapters 4 and 5 deal with theory in L2 writing. While chapter 5 addresses the question from a “political” perspective, chapter 4 is more general. In chapter 4, William Grabe highlights the need for a writing theory that brings about uniform and beneficial practices. After reviewing the major theories in L1 and L2 writing, he concludes that at the moment the best we can aspire for is a descriptive theory (as opposed to explanatory) whose “goal is to describe what writing is; how it is carried out as a set of mental processes; how it varies (both cognitively and functionally) across tasks, settings, groups, cultures, and so forth; how it is learned (and why it is not learned); and how it leads to individual differences in performance”(p.41). Grabe proposes that such a theory can be very much like the theory of conditions proposed by Spolsky (1989) for L2 learning.
In Chapter 5, Diane Belcher examines whether L2 writing theory practices what is often referred to as classical science which includes the erasure of any social and political dimension in the name of objectivity and therefore whether it gives attention to gender as an essential cultural element. She argues that despite the masculine tone of adversarial and excluding criticism and the lack of attention to gender as a cultural factor in L2 research, the future of L2 research and theory is promising given the amount of studies originating in different theories that have adopted the social and ethnographic research methodology, thus exploring the specifics of different writers and contexts. [-3-]
Despite the concern in this book with almost only the North American context, the ideas discussed by some of the most knowledgeable scholars in the field can be valid for other ESL/EFL and even L1 contexts. Many of the ideas (especially “democratization” of learning) are not common in L2 writing literature and are therefore a very welcome contribution.
Ellis, R. (1994). The study of second language acquisition. New York: Oxford university Press.
Hutchinson, T. and Waters, A. (1987). English for Specific Purposes: A learning centred approach. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Spolsky, B. (1989).Conditions for Second Language Learning. New York: Oxford University Press.
University of Ottawa, Department of linguistics
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