* Writing

mentioned in my video presentation on “SLA- Who Cares?” (see the Video section of this website, although most people seem to have seen it on Hugh Dellar’s blog) that SLA research suggests that writing plays an important part in interlanguage development. A few people wrote to me asking “How?”, so here’s a brief review, including a few comments of my own, which I hope will be of use to MA students.

Research into the writing process (see Silva and Matsuda, 2002 for a review) has highlighted some significant differences between weak and able writers.

Good writers are said to:

• review frequently
• re-plan and rewrite their work
• have more elaborate plans
• consider more alternative solutions to rhetorical problems
• revise inline with global goals rather just than editing local segments
• have a wide range of writing and revising strategies to call on
• incorporate multiple perspectives into the drafting
• consider the reader’s point of view
• vary writing more in line with specific audience and genre constraints.

Weak writers are characterised by their linear approach to the task: preparing a plan and then writing it straight through from beginning to end, with revision limited to word based errors.

These findings seems to suggest that attention to the way writers go about the process of writing is of prime importance and that control over form at the sentence level should be considered as only preliminary to the real business of learning to write well. Doing ‘writing’ is not simply an exercise in form but one that involves an understanding of the function of a piece of writing, its purpose as a ‘text’, and the intended readership.

Key questions about writing are “Who writes what to whom, for what purpose, why, when, where, and how?”. Thus the teacher of writing has to lead the novice writer to consider:

• what to write, in terms of content, genre, register
• to whom they are writing, in terms of the audience size, status, shared knowledge, social distance etc.
• for what purpose – in terms of what they want to achieve
• why (with regard to any motives or underlying intentions)
• when and where (time and place have an effect on writing)
• how (the writing process).

As Reid (2001) points out, in the 1970s, writing classes in ELT were, “in reality, grammar courses”. Students copied sentences or short pieces of discourse, making discrete changes in person or tense. The teaching philosophy grew directly out of the audiolingual method: students were taught incrementally, error was prevented and accuracy was expected to arise out of practice with structures.

The Process Approach

During the 1980s, the process approach became increasingly popular thanks in no small part to the efforts of Vivian Zamel. The process approach emphasises personal writing (narratives, journals), student creativity, and fluency (Zamel 1982). Students are asked to assume greater control over what they write, how they write it and the evaluation of their writing. The role of the teacher is to guide and intervene when necessary rather than control. The emphasis is on a freer, creative and personal form of expression where the message is the primary factor and grammatical correctness is dealt with in a later, secondary, editing stage. Writing is seen as a recursive process rather than linear. The actual composing process is exploratory, leading learners to generate new ideas and ways to express these as they write. The teaching of writing is seen in terms of the processes involved; composing is seen as non-linear, exploratory, generative, recursive. The goal is to develop self- expression. Intervention to guide the process is seen as preferable to linguistic control.

The process can be seen as

1. Establishing Purpose and audience (teacher-led phase). Developing awareness of genre conventions that shape the writing.

2. Generating ideas (teacher-guided phase). E.g. brainstorming, thinking, reading
discussion (class, small group, pair)

3. Formulating Meaning (teacher-supported phase). Select ideas and plan draft ideas; arrange information; structure text; link ideas; write first draft

4. Evaluating First Draft (teacher-monitored phase). Review of message in relation to intended audience; preliminary self-evaluation; peer evaluation and response.

5. Revising The Draft (teacher as adviser/authority) In the light of the evaluation above, editi re-order; delete; add; check surface features: spelling, punctuation.

6. Writing Final Product (teacher as audience) Share with penfriend / teacher / classmates or for an exam.

A lot of criticism has been made of this approach, but I can’t be bothered to go into it, because I think Zanon is right. How’s that for taking advantage of the blog genre?! And talking of genres….


In recent years, one of the most important influences on the teaching of writing in EAP and ESP contexts has been the work on genre analysis. By describing the schematic structure of texts, particularly academic, professional and institutional ones, we can identify certain form – function correspondences which are clearly very useful for teaching.

Swales (1990) attempts to show how genre analysis can be used for studying written discourse. His work is of greatest relevance to EAP since the greater part of his writing concentrates on the structure of academic research papers and other research related genres. The key to Swales’ approach is the notion of the discourse community which he defines as a group which shares a common language and purpose, which is characterised by its use of particular genres, including written text types. Different genres can therefore be identified and their structure analysed, and learners can link the purpose of the text to the forms needed for the message. Swales himself admits that genre is a fuzzy concept, but the key is the notion that schematic structure of texts within particular genres will influence content and style.

The use of genre-based approaches is not confined to ESP/EAP contexts. The systemic-functional linguists working with Halliday and Martin at Sydney have succeeded in making an impact on mainstream Australian schools – see for example the work of Cope and Kalantzis (1993). It has been considered on the one hand empowering for learners to know exactly what is expected of them in different types of written texts, but on the other hand critiques have pointed to the constraining effects on learners’ creative abilities of copying strictly defined genre patterns. The debate continues.

What people write, and how, is changing rapidly and the opportunities for writing in new genres are widening. Beginning in the 1990s, new opportunities for communicative writing include email, web-pages, contributions to discussion lists. Access to such opportunities is variable, however. Appropriately managed, these new opportunities may contribute to the development of collaborative approaches to writing and possibly to a lessening of the anxiety associated with writing: the anonymity provided by such fora may well be a major motivational factor that can be exploited by writing teachers.


There is a major on-going debate in the applied linguistics research community on the value of teachers giving written feedback on student writing.

Grabe and Kaplan (1996:238) conclude that “focusing on written form during feedback (may be) no less effective than focusing on content, though focusing solely on form or solely on content appears not to contribute to great improvement in revisions”. Truscott (1996) claimed that corrective feedback is both ineffective and harmful and should be abandoned, because it is de-motivating, student writing becomes less complex as a result, the whole process of writing and taking note of corrections is unjustifiably time consuming for both student and teacher. After a response by Ferric (1999) suggesting that Truscott’s interpretation of empirical research was invalid and calling for a research programme to investigate the question, a significant amount of empirical research has indeed now been done, summarised recently in Ferris (2004), Truscott (2004) and in whole books on the topic, Ferris (2002) and Hyland and Hyland (2006). You won’t be surprised to hear that “results are inconclusive”, but my sympathies lie mostly with Truscott.

The empirical problem is complex because of the wide range of variables: what is being corrected (usually grammatical forms, but also discourse level features, pragmatics, or lexical choices), how it is corrected (indications that an error has occurred, the nature of the error, or a suggested correction), how correction is responded to (is re-submission required, does the teacher do remedial work, or require the learner to do so), the stage of learning a feature that the learner is at, and so on.

Teachers spend a lot of time in responding to written work, so they should develop a policy on how to respond to the writing that learners do. Of course, this will depend on their own beliefs about the value of correction and the form it should take, and on institutional and learners’ expectations. But in my opinion lots of detailed correction is a waste of time and I’m not convinced of the value of coded correction techniques either. In my opinion, self-editing, peer correction, and a bit of remedial attention to common errors in subsequent classroom work offer a good subsitute for detailed individual error correction.

So, come on now: tell us. What kind of writing do you ask your students to do, and how do correct it?


Ferris, D. (2002) Treatment of Error in Second Language Student Writing. Michigan, University of Michigan Press.
Ferris, R. (2003) Response to Student Writing: Implications for second language students. Mahwah, New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum.
Ferris, D. (2004) The “Grammar Correction” Debate in L2 Writing: where are we, and where do we go from here? Journal of Second Language Writing, 13, 49-62.
Grabe, W. and Kaplan, R.B. (1996) Theory and Practice of Writing. London: Longman
Hyland, K. and Hyland, F. (eds.) (2006) Feedback in Second Language Writing: Contests and Issues. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Reid, J. (2001) Writing. In Carter and Nunan (2001) The Cambridge Guide to Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
Silva, T. and Matsuda, P.K. (2002) Writing. In Schmitt,N. (ed.) An Introduction to Applied Linguistics. London, Arnold.
Swales, J. (1990) Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. CUP.
Truscott, J. (2004) Evidence and Conjecture on the Effects of Correction: A Response to Chandler. Journal of Second Language Writing, 13, 337-343.
Zamel, V. (1982) Writing: the process of discovering meaning. TESOL Quarterly, 16, 195-2009.

3 thoughts on “* Writing

  1. Interesting indeed! This is the area that I would like to pursue for my dissertation- Strategies for improving written expression. Having read the above, I am beginning to reflect on my own teaching practices.


  2. I was thinking of doing something similar (I would have a ‘friend’ it seems) until I realized that my passion should drive my dissertation and I have now chosen something CDA-ish…


  3. @ Janice, Please tell us more.
    @ Lucabella (beautiful name, BTW) , CDA is obviously concerned with the analysis of texts, not writing them. Again: please tell us more.


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