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Considering what we know and need to know

about second language writing

Diane Belcher


The relatively young field of second language (L2) writing has come a long
way in the past few decades but still has far to go if it wishes to broaden its
research foci to consider a greater diversity of writing contexts. As a largely
pedagogically-motivated area, L2 writing has so far mainly focused on writing
in English as a second language, especially that of young adults in English-
medium universities. Far less investigated by L2 writing researchers have been
the needs of younger L2 writers, at primary and secondary-school levels, and
adults outside of universities. Still less examined have been the teaching and
learning of writing in foreign language contexts, most notably in languages
other than English. These gaps have important implications for knowledge
construction in L2 writing.

Keywords: second language writing, multilingual writers, literacy, dis-

course, pedagogy


The dominant approaches to studying multilingual writing have been hampered by

monolingualist assumptions that conceive literacy as a unidirectional acquisition of
competence, preventing us from fully understanding the resources multilinguals bring
to their texts. (Canagarajah, 2006b, p. 589)
Few would likely argue that helping second language learners become sec-
ond language writers is a simple or undemanding undertaking. For teachers of
L2 writing, who often have relatively low salaries, little job security, and heavy
teaching loads (and more often than not are women), student paper reading
alone entails countless hours of concentrated attention. For researchers of L2
writing, the past several decades have been fraught with conflicting findings

Applied Linguistics Review 3–1 (2012), 131 – 150 1868–6303/12/0003–0131

DOI 10.1515/applirev-2012-0006 © Walter de Gruyter
132  Diane Belcher

and notable contentiousness over such issues as the value of corrective feed-
back (Ferris, 2003; Truscott 1996) and the reasonableness or even ethics of
assuming culturally-influenced writing styles (Connor, 2011; Kubota & Leh-
ner, 2004). It is easy to imagine that those who have made the considerable
time and energy investment required in finding ways to facilitate the learning
of L2 writing would be less than heartened by Canagarajah’s (2006b) lament
about “monolingualist” conceptualization of L2 writing as a “unidirectional”
(p. 569) acquisition process. To be fair to Canagarajah, we should note that the
audience for this particular article was the readership of College English, a
journal published by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) in
the United States. Thus, he was not directly or specifically addressing special-
ists in L2 writing, but clearly they are implicated in his critique.
The underlying message of Canagarajah’s commentary for those of us who
identify as L2 writing professionals is that despite much talk in the field of
English language teaching (ELT) of the “native speaker” myth (see, for ex-
ample, Canagarajah, 2002b, pp. 257–259) and much problematizing among L2
writing specialists of a “deficit” approach to teaching L2 writers (as in Cana-
garajah, 2002a), many of us remain fixated on helping learners of English de-
velop the ability to produce texts, usually academic, that are reader-friendly to
those we privilege as native speakers of English. With respect to pedagogy, this
goal could be described as rather myopic, given that there are now far more
users of English as an additional language (EAL) in the world than “mother
tongue” speakers of English (Canagarajah, 2006a) For research purposes, such
a focus, i.e., usually on tertiary-level academic writing, is at the very least con-
fining. Leki, Cumming, and Silva (2008), in probably the most comprehensive
overview of L2 writing research to date, quite succinctly describe what they
see as the limits of the 25 years of research (1980 –2005) they survey. As they
put it, L2 writing research has primarily considered adult learners of English in
academic settings. Slighted, though not totally ignored, have been younger
learners, adult learners not in universities, as well as learners and multicompe-
tent users of languages other than English. In what follows, I will discuss what
we appear to have learned and what we still have much to learn about the L2
writer populations whose needs have been much investigated and those whose
needs have not.

Much investigated, but still more to learn

Undergraduate writers

In the earliest decades of the blossoming of L2 writing as a research area, the

1980s–1990s, English as a second-language (ESL, i.e., in English-dominant
Considering what we know and need to know  133

settings) university students at the undergraduate level were the main focus of
attention (Leki et al., 2008). The pedagogical motivation of this work in the
United States, where much of the earliest L2 writing research first emerged,
was compelling, with increasingly large numbers of international students
(from outside the US) studying at universities, where English composition was
a requirement for virtually all first-year students – a legacy of relatively open
US college admissions (Matsuda, 1999). Inspired to a great extent by the pro-
cess movement in English composition and rhetoric research, ELT profession-
als recognized that writing was more than spoken language written down, and
more than a means of reinforcing grammar and vocabulary lessons (Grabe &
Kaplan, 1996). L2 writing, like L1 writing, was a way of discovering meaning
(Zamel, 1982), yet L2 writers could be disadvantaged, ELT specialists worried,
in conveying meaning to L1 readers if their writing exhibited the rhetorical
strategies of their home languages and cultures (Connor, 1996).
Interestingly, we now know, as Leki et al. (2008) observe, that much evi-
dence points to education in students’ L1 as a powerful predictor of success in
L2 (English-medium) higher education settings, or, the more L1 education, the
more L2 university-level success. Thus, arguably more seriously disadvan-
taged by the literacy demands of their English-medium tertiary education than
international students, the temporary sojourners that most early L2 writing
­research focused on, were students who were immigrants or “Generation 1.5”
(immigrants who arrived at a young age or the children of immigrants, but
see  Benesch’s, 2008, critique of labeling). Unlike international students,
­immigrant/Generation 1.5 students are generally not voluntarily in an English-
speaking environment but have been uprooted from their home countries, often
for political and economic reasons, and may have received their early educa-
tion in English-medium schools ill-prepared for their needs. Not until the
1990s did this population receive any significant research attention (Harklau,
Losey, Siegal, 1999). Blanton’s (2005) research suggests that ESL undergradu-
ates with the most seriously interrupted L1 literacy education, such as refu-
gees, have little hope of surviving in English-medium universities, where their
chief support may be L2 writing classes not designed to address basic literacy
needs. How a bilingual approach would benefit young adults such as these is
more than simply an empirical question, although the logistical challenges of
bilingual literacy instruction for the linguistically heterogeneous groups often
seen in ESL settings, with, for instance, speakers of Pashto, Somali and Haitian
Creole in a single class, are daunting.
The picture is by no means completely bleak for all at-risk L2 undergradu-
ates, however, if we consider the research of Johns (1997, 2009) and Benesch
(2001), whose published works describe their own classroom efforts with L2
undergraduates, often immigrants, in linked classes, that is, ESL classes linked
with subject-area classes, such as introductory psychology. Johns has explored
134  Diane Belcher

the advantages of a sociocognitive view of L2 writing (and literacy), and what

she refers to as a “socioliterate” (1997, p. 14) pedagogical approach, with stu-
dents as ethnographers of academia, trained as genre analysts of the contents of
the reading/writing portfolios they compile. Benesch has taken a more critical
theoretical perspective, arguing for not just needs but “rights” analysis (2001,
p. 100), an approach that encourages students to become advocates for them-
selves, individually and collectively, aware of their own goals and expectations
(see also Lea & Street, 2006, on an analogous movement in literacy research,
New Literacy Studies, emphasizing the need to consider issues of identity,
power, and community in and beyond school contexts).
While it is difficult to know how influential the work of Johns and Benesch
has been among practitioners, we do know that the linked classes, or learning
communities, approach is just one of an array of instructional approaches uni-
versities in English-dominant settings have taken to meet the needs of under-
graduate EAL students. Or put less positively, there appears to be little agree-
ment among university administrators in ESL settings on the type of writing
support most beneficial to EAL students. Besides linked ESL classes, EAL
students may be placed in non-credit–bearing intensive English programs or
ESL courses, “bridge” pre-sessional programs, “sheltered” first-year writing
courses, or mainstreamed in non-ESL “basic writing” or other composition
classes developed without L2 learners specifically in mind (Leki et al., 2008;
Matsuda, 2003) Unfortunately, surprisingly little is known about what actually
happens in classrooms with L2 writing students, as there are “few research-
based descriptions” (Leki et al., 2008, p. 80). Much more is known about how
L2 writing is responded to, or the teaching that takes place in the margins of
student (not exclusively undergraduate) papers, the “formative assessments of
students’ writing [that] are integral to L2 pedagogy” (Leki et al., p. 82). The
research on responding to L2 writing has examined an impressive number of
topics, focusing particularly on source, mode, and manner of response: teacher,
tutor, peer, and self-assessment; written, oral, and virtual (as in wikis and
blogs) responses; and direct and indirect feedback (Bloch, 2008; Hyland &
Hyland, 2006; Leki et al., 2008). Taken as a whole, the response literature is
likely to leave practitioners with the impression that all types of feedback may
(or may not) be helpful to L2 writers. Especially conspicuous in response re-
search is the amount of attention bestowed on the (in)effectiveness of written
corrective feedback (WCF). Despite several decades of WCF research, debate
on this topic, and on how to investigate it, continues unabated (see, for exam-
ple, Bruton, 2009). Curiously, much less research attention has been given to
the efficacy of rhetorical or content-oriented feedback despite evidence that
readers who are not language or literacy (or specifically writing) instructors are
more attentive to meaning than to grammar, and likely to notice language
mainly when it affects comprehensibility (Leki, 2007; Roberts & Cimasko,
Considering what we know and need to know  135

2008). There is also evidence that idea development and argument construc-
tion may be much more amenable to improvement over relatively short peri-
ods of time, such as a school term, than is language use (though for some, this
is an argument for more instructional attention to language use; see Storch,
A comparatively recent development is the emergence of interest in multi-
lingual writers among those in the field of English composition and rhetoric,
also known as writing studies (Canagarajah, 2006b; Horner, 2006). In the
United States, perhaps still one of the few English-dominant countries where
first-year writing (FYW) is a requirement for most university undergraduates,
college student populations are increasingly linguistically diverse, with as
many as 30% of the student body at some universities considered language
minority, or EAL, students (Ferris, Brown, Liu, & Arnaudo Stine, 2011; Tardy,
2011). Ferris et al. note, however, that despite growing numbers of EAL stu-
dents in FYW classes, there can be much obliviousness to their presence or
specific needs. When they are noticed, they may be subject to what Matsuda
(2006) calls a “policy of containment” (p. 641) and sent to university writing
center tutors or filtered out of mainstream composition altogether. Canagara-
jah’s consciousness-raising (2006b, 2009) in this regard, calling L1 (English)
writing specialists’ attention to plurilingual writers, echoes messages that have
been frequently voiced in the field of L2 writing pedagogy. What Canagarajah
argues for is the need to see EAL writers as multicompetent, rather than barely
competent, and for viewing writing not in autonomous literacy terms (see
Street, 1984) but as performative and negotiated. Instead of perceiving the
other languages these writers are proficient in, Canagarajah observes, as ob-
stacles to L2 lexicogrammatical accuracy or sources of negative rhetorical
transfer, they should be valued as resources enabling “codemeshing,” or “trans-
languaging” (2009, pp. 25, 27), that is, rhetorically strategic use of various
vernaculars, or languages, in English-language texts. Tardy (2011), however,
points out that while FYW practitioners may wish to heed Canagarajah’s
call,  they may, nevertheless, feel challenged by their mixed monolingual/
multilingual­classes. What is needed, Tardy asserts, is “looking local” (p. 640),
devoting more attention to articulation of policies and scaffolding of peda-
gogical practices supportive of language diversity in local institutional con-
Undergraduate writing is not, however confined to writing classes but takes
place across university curricula. We know relatively little about how EAL
writers fare in their many content-area classes in English-medium universities
and how they grow as they move through their programs of study. Few cross-
curriculum longitudinal studies specifically focused on multilingual writers
have been attempted (but see the Spack, 1997, and Leki, 2007, case studies).
Corpus linguists, though, have made great strides in developing resources
136  Diane Belcher

for  those interested in better understanding how to support undergraduate

EAL  writing across the curriculum. Especially noteworthy corpus resources
include the Academic Word List (http://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/resources/
academicwordlist­/default.aspx), based on introductory level college texts from
four major areas of study; the Michigan Corpus of Upper-level Student Papers,
or MICUSP (http://micusp.elicorpora.info/), and the British Academic Writing
in English, or BAWE, corpus (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/al/research/
collect/bawe/), both of which consist of student writing from the arts and hu-
manities as well as social and natural sciences; and the International Corpus of
Learner English, ICLE (http://www.uclouvain.be/en-cecl-icle.html), with ar-
gumentative papers by EAL speakers of more than a dozen mother tongues.
How such resources can be optimally exploited by EAL writers and those who
work with them is a topic that researchers have only just begun to address.

Graduate-level writing and beyond

Since the mid-1990s and into the 2000s, graduate (or postgraduate)-level
­writers have taken center stage in L2 writing research (Leki et al., 2008). In
many respects, the needs of graduate-level writers appear still more urgent than
those of undergraduates. Graduate students, after all, are expected to produce
discipline-specific texts at fairly high levels of sophistication even at the begin-
ning of their degree programs, and satisfactory completion of graduate degrees
depends on production of such high-stakes works as written comprehensive
exams and theses or dissertations. While much undergraduate writing is for
knowledge display, graduate student writers are expected to be able to critique
and construct knowledge in their fields of study (Feak, 2009; Swales & Feak,
2004) – a tall task even for veteran academic community members.
Interest in addressing the very specialized discoursal needs of novice EAL
graduate writers has helped motivate what Leki et al. (2008) describe as one of
the most highly theorized curricular orientations in L2 writing, namely, genre
pedagogy (Swales, 1990, 2004). Genre theory (or, theory about socially
agreed-upon ways of achieving communicative purposes) also informs much
corpus-based research on disciplinary discourses (L. Flowerdew, 2005; Hy-
land, 2004), which is particularly relevant to graduate writing instruction.
­Although pedagogical strategies developed for graduate writers have been
genre-based for several decades (Swales and Feak, 2004), scant research atten-
tion has been paid, as is the case with writing instruction for EAL undergradu-
ates, to what takes place in these instructional contexts. Cheng (2011) is among
the few who have examined what actually may be learned when genre peda-
gogy is employed in classes developed for EAL graduate writers. Cheng’s
(2007) case data persuasively point to learners’ ability to recontextualize their
genre knowledge in novel situations. Looking beyond the writing classroom
Considering what we know and need to know  137

context, Tardy (2009), in her longitudinal case studies of EAL graduate ­writers,

observed an evolution of personal genre knowledge over time as students were
more and more deeply immersed in their disciplinary contexts with genre-
knowledgeable others and as genre expertise became more crucial and highly
rewarded. The question that remains largely unanswered is the extent to
which support from L2 writing specialists, not just at the start of graduate study
but at various stages of students’ degree programs, could make the genre-
knowledge-building process more efficient and less taxing for EAL graduate
Tardy is not alone in suggesting that the social is as important as the cogni-
tive in attaining advanced academic writing proficiency, that community mem-
bership is not just the result but the means of becoming a successful graduate-
level writer (once again see Leki et al., 2008). Inspired by Vygotskyan
sociocultural theory and Bakhtinian sociohistorical theory (Prior, 1998), as
well as by Lave and Wenger’s (1991; Wenger, 1998) theories of legitimate
peripheral participation (a type of situated cognition) and communities of prac-
tice, richly contextualized ethnographic studies of EAL graduate writers from
a literacy practices perspective (Casanave, 2002; X. Li & Casanave, 2008)
suggest that there is no simple top-down relationship, from mentor to mentee
(Prior, 1998; Swales, 2008), or unidirectional acquisition process. Individuals
do not simply learn the established knowledge and conventions of a discourse
community and then enter its fold. Casanave (1995) and Li (Li & Casanave,
2008) are particularly explicit in their discussion of bidirectionality. In other
words, community membership both requires and enables change in individu-
als, but since communities are their membership, the communities themselves
are inevitably, if incrementally, transformed by their new members, who can
play active roles as change agents (see also Lea and Street, 2006, on the aca-
demic literacies vs. academic socialization perspective). While this conceptu-
alization is intuitively appealing, graduate-level L2 writing research so far has
focused mainly on individuals rather than on wider community contexts (see
Lillis & Walkó, 2008, on the need for a more “networks of activity,” p. 489,
We now know a fair amount about how individual EAL graduate writers
become functioning members of their English-language academic communi-
ties, and even what roles L2 writing specialists and faculty in various disci-
plines might play in supporting that development (on the latter, see Belcher,
1994; Prior, 1998). Not until recently, however, has much attention been given
to what happens to EAL graduate students’ abilities as bi(multi)literates as
their English-language literacies become increasingly more advanced. In my
own work with a colleague, we have discovered that even in the first year of
English-medium graduate study, an EAL student may become concerned about
L1 literacy attrition or lack of growth (Belcher & Lukkarila, 2011). What
138  Diane Belcher

­ appens to such students after years of English-medium study abroad when

they return to their home countries, having been socialized in a very different
academic context? Casanave (2002) and Shi (2003) have considered this issue,
looking specifically at the challenges Japanese and Chinese (respectively) re-
turning Anglophone-trained scholars face attempting to function as academic
writers in both their L1 and L2. At the more micro level, these individuals must
learn the interactional and discourse expectations, even the vocabulary, of their
newly-entered communities. At a more macro-societal level (see Leki et al.,
2008), such scholars may resist demands to acculturate in their new environ-
ments, and thus academic discourse in the home language might eventually
become Anglicized by returnees whose sense of what academic discourse is
has been shaped elsewhere (Shi, 2002). For those who choose not to return,
who stay in English-dominant academia, there may be little or no incentive to
tackle the steep learning curve of becoming academically literate and produc-
tive in their L1, as Cho (2010) found for Korean academics in the US.
What would seem ideal for those interested in concurrently developing ad-
vanced academic literacy in more than one language would be disciplinary
programs that truly function bilingually, but such contexts are hard to find,
Gentil (2011) notes, even in an officially bilingual country such as Canada,
with bilingually-designated universities. Despite the dearth of such academic
training grounds, one can indeed find scholars who function as published
­writers quite successfully in two or more languages. Of one such scholar, in Sri
Lanka, Canagarajah (2006b) has observed that his pragmatic competence and
audience sensitivity are such that for his texts in Tamil for Tamil readers, Eng-
lish for a Tamil audience, and English for a global readership, he has developed
different writing styles, including a unique “multivocal discourse” combining
“strengths of local scholarly discourse with the dominant conventions of
­mainstream academic discourse” (p. 598) for his English-language interna-
tional publications. Perhaps for some who wish to achieve advanced academic
bi(multi)literacy, in English and other languages, study in an English-dominant
setting may not offer any particular advantage, but such may not be the case for
those in regions where plurilingualism is not as much the norm as it is in South
Asia. We know from Lillis and Curry’s (2010) extensive chronicling of Eastern
and Southern European scholars’ struggles to publish in English the high cost,
intellectually, psychologically, and otherwise, of such endeavors. J. Flowerdew
and Y. Li (2009) have found that for EAL academics still farther removed from
Anglophone academia, in China, even financial incentives are not enough to
persuade some scholars to invest the time and considerable effort needed to
publish in English rather than in Chinese, in which they can far more readily
reach a large audience. In such settings, in what Kachru (1992) would call the
expanding circle (from an Anglocentric perspective), collaboration between
scholars more advanced in L1 academic literacy and those more advanced in
Considering what we know and need to know  139

L2 would seem to offer a way forward for academics who wish to succeed in
reaching both domestic and international audiences (see also Cho).

Far less investigated, far more to learn

Younger learners in primary and secondary schools

L2 writing researchers have become increasingly interested over the past few
decades in younger EAL learners, at the primary and secondary-school levels.
In their overview of research on these populations, Leki et al. (2008) remark
that very young L2 writers have generally been characterized in quite hopeful
terms as exhibiting “increasing power, self-confidence, and flexibility in writ-
ing,” but that “darker pictures” can also be found (p. 11). Gebhard and Harman
(2011), present one of these darker pictures. Focused on the United States,
where many bilingual education programs have been phased out, Gebhard and
Harman point to the unfortunate impact of the federally-mandated No Child
Left Behind policy (NCLB), which has instituted a school accountability
­program of mandatory standardized testing, testing that assumes English as a
mother tongue, the results of which are used to rank schools. To receive often
needed additional resources, “underperforming” schools, Gebhard and Har-
man (p. 46) note, may be forced to implement such curricular changes as
­phonics-based programs, which literacy specialists have long been critical of
as inadequate for any students, L1 or L2 (Hedgcock & Ferris, 2009). In many
US schools, those that perform well or poorly, much instructional time is now
devoted to test preparation, leaving far less time, and no doubt less teacher
energy and motivation, for creative, enriched instruction designed to help
­students develop strong writer identities through activities utilizing personal
background knowledge and home language and community as resources, an
approach that has been found to work especially well with linguistically di-
verse students (Ball & Ellis, 2008). With the current test-driven US public
school environment in mind, Gebhard and Harman have plotted a course for
building data-based arguments for change, a research agenda that combines
Australian-style genre analysis of student writing using a Hallidayan systemic-
functional-linguistics framework with an ethnographic, action-research ap-
proach informed by the New Literacy Studies movement, involving “local
participants in data collection and analysis as a form of sustained professional
development” (p. 52).
Very young learners in EFL (English as a foreign language, i.e., non-English-
dominant) settings where study of English is required at earlier and earlier
grade levels, e.g., China, Japan, and Korea, have begun to pique the interest of
researchers in ELT. Research on young learners has so far yielded conflicting
140  Diane Belcher

data on the impact of early introduction of English-language instruction. In one

study by Liu (2007), writing was one of the linguistic modalities investigated
in his stratified sampling of Chinese middle school students who had begun
English study at different points of time in their first six years of school. Liu’s
findings, indicating that urban as opposed to rural school children appeared to
benefit more from earlier English study, suggest that availability of resources
may play a role in the success of such policies. Kobabyashi and Rinnert (2008)
have found that for older EFL school-goers, Japanese high school students
preparing for their college entrance exams with intensive instruction in both
Japanese and English essay writing, study of writing in two languages ap-
peared to have a strong synergistic effect, with writing competence transfer-
ring across both languages. Whether similar advantages would be found for
much younger students in FL settings taught to read and write in their first and
second languages concurrently and what resources are crucial in such efforts
are certainly topics worthy of further exploration.
In the relatively small amount of research that has focused on secondary
school writers in second language settings, there is, as Leki et al. (2008) re-
mark, little in the way of optimism. The vantage point of Leki et al. is, again,
North American, primarily the United States, where, in many school districts,
at least 25% of the secondary students have a home language other than Eng-
lish (Harklau, 2011). These students are often “ghettoized” (Leki et al., p. 21)
in ESL classes that may be focused on grammar or what may strike students as
childish communicative activities. Writing, when it takes place, may encour-
age repeated rehearsals of coming-to-America or life-in-my-country narratives
(Harklau, 2003). When able to take content-area classes, students may have
instructors who admire their newcomer immigrant determination and “good
kid” behavior (Harklau, 2000, p. 35) yet maintain low expectations of them
intellectually, conflating cognitive skills with language proficiency. Particu-
larly unfortunate, Leki et al. point out, is the toll taken on the formative identity
work that generally occurs at this age. EAL adolescents in English-dominant
settings may find themselves ostracized by their compatriots if they adapt too
well to Anglophone high school culture (see also Talmy, 2008). Leki et al. note
that much of the research on this population, mostly qualitative, paints a por-
trait of “personal sadness, loneliness, stress, embarrassment . . . homesickness,
and social isolation” (p. 17). The outcome of their secondary school years for
too many, as Leki et al. and others have pointed out, is not simply limited prog-
ress as L2 literacy learners, but the decision to drop out of school altogether. In
her proposal for an adolescent L2 writing research agenda, Harklau (2011)
suggests that among the questions that should be addressed is what secondary-
level L2 writing instruction would look like if, in contexts such as in the
US, “multilingualism [were] taken as the norm rather than as the exception”
(p. 22).
Considering what we know and need to know  141

There are, however, some bright spots in the research on adolescent L2 writ-
ing in ESL settings. In Yi’s (2009, 2010) case studies of immigrant Korean
high school students in the US, her research participants were adept at finding
ways to develop their L2 literacy while maintaining L1 literacy. Social media
became the means of staying connected with the Korean immigrant commu-
nity, mostly in Korean, and self-sponsored writing, online and in personal jour-
nals, in Korean and English, became a means of connecting both literacies, as
seen, for example, in one students’ English/Korean codemeshing (see Canaga-
rajah, 2009) for a creative writing class (Yi, 2010). Although Yi’s research has
focused on a relatively small number of Korean students in the US, it offers
much food for thought for educators interested in bilingual literacy develop-
ment. Yi’s findings reinforce what others, such as those in New Literacy
­Studies, have spoken much of – the importance of considering what happens
outside the classroom and of looking at learners as whole persons, with com-
plex and dynamic identities, affected by much more than just school communi-
ties. Future research could consider if findings such as Yi’s tell us more about
the literacy practices of adolescents from more privileged families, with trans-
national identities (Yi, 2009), than of what is possible for immigrant adoles-
cents more generally. Further research might also explore, by examining social
media use, how it might motivate the L2 literacy learning of students with less
advantaged backgrounds, giving them real audiences and a means of bridging
their oral fluency and emerging literacies (Bloch, 2008).

Adults beyond and without schooling

To find research on adult L2 writers outside of university contexts, one is well

advised to look beyond mainstream L2 writing research, preoccupied as much
of it is with academia. Those in English (or language) for specific purposes
(ESP/LSP), a pedagogical and research perspective focused on language use in
specific contexts, have long been interested in the needs of adults who must
function in the workaday world in a language other than their first. The branch
of ESP concerned with non-academic language use, known as English for oc-
cupational purposes (EOP), has considered language and literacy needs in
seemingly countless occupational areas (Belcher, 2006). The field of work that
has received by far the most attention, however, is business. Research on Eng-
lish for business purposes should be of interest to those who care about L2
writing for several reasons. Because so many engaged in business around the
world now use English to communicate with each other and their customers,
that is, as a lingua franca (hence, ELF, or English as a lingua franca), busi-
ness English researchers have been in the vanguard in research on this usage
(Planken & Nickerson, 2009). They have also been keenly interested in
142  Diane Belcher

c­ omputer-mediated communication (CMC), which businesses have been quick

to take advantage of for intra- and inter-company, company/client, domestic
and international communication (Nickerson & Planken, 2009). For the most
part, ELF research, in both occupational and academic contexts, has concen-
trated on spoken discourse, but that is now changing (Baker, forthcoming). In
some very recent research, we find interest in ELF and CMC converging, as in
Jensen’s (2009) study of email correspondence between a Danish company
and a ­Taiwanese supplier. Jensen notes that the interactional nature of CMC
and the tolerance email users appear to have of variation may make this
­medium especially conducive to productive ELF communication. What this
written use of ELF suggests is that, as is true with spoken ELF, much of what
has been assumed as needed for effective discourse, such as grammatical “ac-
curacy,” may not be at all (Kankaanranta & Louhiala-Salminen, 2010). When
the goal is communication, users of ELF for business purposes appear to be
remarkably willing to adapt to immediate communication needs and negotiate
meaning. Whether mother tongue English users are equally adaptable, or can
learn to be so, remains to be seen.
Outside business or other professional contexts, there may be more cause for
concern than for excitement. For low or no-literacy adult immigrants learning
to function in English, far too little is known about how to support their devel-
opment as language and literacy learners. As Bigelow and Tarone (2004) have
noted, second language acquisition research can tell us little about how non-
literate adults even acquire a second language, as SLA researchers have sel-
dom considered such populations. Motivating adult immigrants to attend in-
structional programs can itself be a challenge, especially when family and
other community members are readily available as language/literacy brokers.
Cumming and Gill (1991), however, found in their development of bilingual
language/literacy classes for Punjabi women in Canada that tailoring instruc-
tion to their “cultural interests and circumstances” was effective in promoting
participation and learning. For newcomer adults who are highly literate and
professionally successful in their L1, Leki et al. (2008) point out, adult educa-
tion classes have too often been found to be demotivating in their “employ-
ment and survivalist orientation” (p. 44), their assumption that the goal is
swift  entry into jobs requiring minimal language or literacy. In immigrant-
welcoming Australia, systemic functional linguists have sought to address
both  immediate and harder-to-define future needs of adult language/literacy
learners so that they are not “trapped” (De Silva Joyce and Hood, 2009, p. 261).
This SFL approach consists of sequenced instruction in the common macro-
structures and lexicogrammatical realizations of elemental genres, progress-
ing, for example, from simple recounts to more complex reports (De Silva
Joyce & Hood). What L2 writing researchers may now be particularly inter-
ested in discovering more about is what happens after formal instruction ends
Considering what we know and need to know  143

and how ongoing access to instructional resources for novice adult writers (and
readers) might be enabled.

Foreign language learners: outside target language settings

Manchón and de Haan (2008) have remarked that foreign language writing has
been so infrequently discussed in L2 writing studies that there is an “SL-bias”
(p. 1). The special issue of the Journal of Second Language Writing on FL
writing contexts edited by Manchón and de Haan in 2008 as well as Manchón’s
(2009) edited collection of papers on FL writing, in addition to the work of
many others on the teaching and learning of English-language writing in Eu-
rope (Reichelt, 2005) and in Asia (You, 2010), have done much to address this
gap. Compared to EFL research, still more neglected has been FL writing in
languages other than English, but this too is rapidly changing, with the number
of linguistic contexts in which FL writing research is being carried out now
including not only such commonly taught (in Anglophone settings) European
languages as Spanish, French, and German, but also Arabic, Japanese, and
Turkish (Yigitoglu & Reichelt, forthcoming), and even multicompetent third
language contexts (Kobayashi & Rinnert, 2011). What may be encouraging
this expansion of research on FL writing may have much to do with interest in
what Ortega and Carson (2010) refer to as “L2 writing-SLA interfaces” (p. 48),
as writing is increasingly seen as both a window on learners’ acquisition pro-
cess and as a means of enhancing that process, through, for instance, conscious
noticing of form.
Two major challenges have been traditionally seen as frustrating efforts to
teach and learn FL writing, namely, limited contact with proficient users and
authentic (non-pedagogical) target-language texts, and lack of compelling
­reasons to write as a result of inadequate real-world context. The Internet,
however, while no magic bullet, does offer language learners relatively easy
access to authentic texts on a wealth of topics as well as opportunities to par-
ticipate in potentially high-interest literacy events, as a lurker (reader) or more
active participant (writer) in online target-language communities. Yigitoglu
and Reichelt (forthcoming) report on some real-life ways of addressing the
real-world contextual limitations writers face in the FL classroom, such as
bringing members of the local target-language community to the learners for a
social event, e.g., a Turkish coffee hour, and sending learners out to the com-
munity to interview speakers of the language. Yet Sasaki’s (2011) recent re-
search suggests that the greatest incentive for FL writing may still be found
in actual physical immersion, extended stay for more than eight months in a
target-language setting. How to more closely simulate the writing opportuni-
ties and accompanying motivation that come from study abroad for learners
who lack the means to travel remains a significant challenge.
144  Diane Belcher

Concluding thoughts

If theory-building is the goal, then one cannot help but be concerned by the
restricted range of the existing body of L2 writing research, both in terms of
methodology and foci. As Leki et al. (2008) and others have noted, the vast
majority of L2 writing studies have been small-scale case studies. What are
needed now, Leki et al. advise, are more large-scale, longitudinal, and multi-
method studies. Some large-scale projects have indeed been attempted, yet
have their own obvious limitations. One of the most ambitious cross-linguistic
studies of writing to date, overseen by Purves (1992) for the International As-
sociation for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), while not a
longitudinal study (and not specifically focused on L2 writing), was stratified
and mammoth, including student writers at three grade levels in 14 countries,
yet, Ortega and Carson (2010) observe, it failed to find the “language transcen-
dent” qualities of writing (p. 58) that were sought. What can be said about
writing, L2 or L1, around the globe if it is valued and assessed in decidedly
distinct ways in various ethnolinguistic and geopolitical contexts? One thing
that can be said with some certainty is that writing is context-bound, not a
“general cognitive capacity” (Ortega & Carson, p. 58).
A few large-scale studies of writing have been longitudinal as well as
­massive, such as those conducted at two US universities, Harvard (Sommers
&  Salz, 2004) and Stanford (http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/october12/
lunsford­-writing-research-101209.html), which tracked with multiple methods
hundreds of English-language (L1 and L2) writers as they progressed across
the curriculum in their four-year undergraduate programs and, in the case of
Stanford students, one year beyond graduation. These, of course, are elite,
highly selective tertiary schools with the resources to undertake such enor-
mous naturalistic studies. While the findings are intriguing – Harvard students’
motivation when viewing writing as “more than an assignment” (Sommers &
Salz, p. 127) and Stanford students’ prolific production of spontaneous non-
academic texts – one cannot help but wonder to what extent these studies can
be seen as relevant and useful by those who work with very different L2 or L1
populations and learning contexts. The large-scale studies on L2 (or any) writ-
ing that are becoming increasingly more feasible are computer-facilitated cor-
pus studies, with the potential of compiling huge databases of authentic (learner
or published) texts and conducting multi-dimensional corpus-tool enabled
analyses. Such textlinguistic studies are limited, however, in what they can tell
us about writing processes and social contexts (but see Hyland, 2004, on com-
bining corpus and more ethnographic research methods). Atkinson’s (2011)
recommendation for the field of second language acquisition may be equally of
value for future knowledge construction in L2 writing, namely, that it should
be based on individual aggregation, “built on . . . [the] back” of case studies
Considering what we know and need to know  145

(Schegloff, 1993, cited in Atkinson, p. 156). Future L2 writing case studies,

however, Atkinson and Connor (2008) contend, should treat writing develop-
ment not as an isolated activity but as integrated in “multiple social and social
semiotic systems” (p. 527).
The constraints most responsible for the narrow range of writers and con-
texts in L2 writing research may have less to do with the research methods
themselves than with resources, including the crucial requirement of discre-
tionary time available to educator/researchers around the world. Manchón
(2009) has commented on how “badly distort[ed] our understanding of L2
writing” (p. xiii) inevitably is when FL settings are to a great extent ignored.
Others have expressed analogous sentiments about the continued heavy pres-
ence of English, as opposed to other language learning contexts, in the L2
writing research literature (Yigitoglu & Reichelt, forthcoming). Still others are
concerned about the lack of writing research that takes a “biliteracy perspec-
tive” (Gentil, 2011, p. 7), investigating how writers develop expertise in more
than one language, a lack, Gentil maintains, that seriously “constrains” (p. 7)
writing theory. With such colossal gaps in the research, the more inclusive
theory of L2 writing that has been hoped for appears far from likely any time
in the foreseeable future. As Ortega and Carson (2010) have observed of the
constricted scope of L2 writing research, “it silences the existence of large and
diverse populations of L2 writers . . . leaves their educational needs ill-served
. . . [and] has devastating consequences for theory building” (p. 62).
The question some may ask, however, is to what extent theory is really pos-
sible or desirable given what we know, even with the considerable limitations
of the research so far, of the complexity and variety of L2 writing. If theory
involves testable generalizations (see Hedgcock & Ferris, 2009), if it is theory
with a “big T,” as Atkinson (2010) calls “totalizing metanarratives” that seek a
“controlling truth” (p. 11), then this may not be the goal of those who now see
the world in less positivistic, more relativistic terms, and view all knowledge
as inevitably partial. The “petits récits,” or “little narratives,” that Atkinson
notes postmodernists value as “small tools that will help people build their own
understandings . . . of social situations and power structures . . . relevant and
useful in their own situations” (p. 11–12) may not be, however, very satisfying
to those who worry about too compartmentalized and fragmented a knowledge
base in the field of L2 writing (see Cumming, 2010). Yet even for those eager
for more than a proliferation of narratives, their goal may be more “heuristic”
(Cumming, p. 31), that is, inquiry-guiding and problem-solving, than grandly
descriptive or predictive as a big T theory would be, or what Cumming refers
to, and dismisses, as “a single unified theory” (p. 31) of L2 writing.
In an analogous field, L2 reading, Hedgcock and Ferris (2009) have argued
for metaphors rather than theories, or conceptualizations rather than gener­
alizations. Interestingly, both reading and writing have moved in somewhat
146  Diane Belcher

s­ imilar directions conceptually: for reading, from bottom-up text decoding to

top-down reader-focused schemata to, more recently, interactive and integrated
views of reading, and increasing awareness of the role of socioliterate context
(Hedgcock & Ferris, 2009); for writing, from product, or a text orientation, to
process, an expressivist/cognitivist writer orientation, to post-process, a micro-
and macro-socially contextualized orientation (Atkinson, 2003). Both fields
have evolved toward sociocognitive (with cognition always situated) and lit-
eracy practices perspectives. But post-process as a metaphor, or conceptualiza-
tion, may be no more likely than the petit récits that Atkinson speaks of to
meet  the needs of those looking for the type of inquiry- and interpretation-
motivating conceptual framework Cumming appreciates. In the end, however,
those who are not keen on theory construction, who feel that multiple small
narratives of L2 writing are healthy and productive, enabling critically prag-
matic eclecticism and generative of new, still more helpful “thinking tools”
(Atkinson, 2010, p. 11), even they are likely to find themselves in full agree-
ment with the not-too-big-T theory builders on one issue: that much more
­research is needed.


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Diane Belcher, Professor of Applied Linguistics at Georgia State University, is former co-editor
of the journal English for Specific Purposes and current co-editor of TESOL Quarterly. She also
co-edits a book series titled Michigan Series on Teaching Multilingual Writers. She has authored a
number of articles on advanced academic literacy. hdbelcher1@gsu.edui
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