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Applied Linguistics lecture notes 3

Subject: Writing

Week: 3

Lecturer: Keith Richards

These notes are extracts only and do not include the arguments developed in the lectures. Neither do they include handouts or workshop activities. They are an additional resource designed primarily for those who attended the relevant lectures.

Some views of writing

A glance at the feelings of successful writers serves only to confirm what a challenging process it is:

In my experience writing is usually an irksome activity and an ordeal to be avoided whenever possible. It seems to require an expense of effort disproportionate to the actual result.

(Widdowson: New starts and different kinds of failure)

You don’t know what it is to stay a whole day with your head in your hands trying to squeeze your unfortunate brain so as to find an idea. (Flaubert: Letter to George Sand)

I can’t understand how anyone can write without rewriting everything over and over again.

(Tolstoy: Talks with Tolstoy)

Some views on writing research and theory

The following views reflect a complex landscape. The first seems to be as true today as it was ten years ago, but there is some evidence that the situation described in the second is beginning to change, even though the claim is still largely true. The last makes an interesting claim for the importance of writing in TESOL and one which some might challenge.

There exists, at present, no coherent, comprehensive theory of L2 writing.

Silva, T. 1993. Toward an understanding of the distinct nature of L2 writing: the ESL research and its implications. TESOL Quarterly, 27(4): 657-75. Page 668.

Research on writing in a second language in contexts other than the USA, Australia, Canada and the UK is minimal.

Grabe, W. and Kaplan, R.B. 1996. Theory and Practice of Writing. London: Longman. Page 29.

Due partly to globalization and the subsequent need to communicate via computer, second language writing has become an important if not dominant focus of work in second language studies. Additionally, second language writing scholarship, in responding to the current situation, has increased its breadth and depthand has begun to break free of the constraints imposed on it by its parent disciplines, applied linguistics and composition studies

Silva, T. and Brice, C. 2004. Reseach in teaching writing. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 24: 70-106. Page 70.

Issues in writing

Grabe and Kaplan offer a useful summary of the key issues in this field:

On a practical level, the goal of writing research is to move beyond simple dichotomies and gain a better understanding of at least the following issues comprising a comprehensive theory of writing and writing development:

  • the nature of coherent written discourse which is appropriate to the task, topic, genre, and audience;
  • the set of processes which are called into play to generate the discourse;
  • the social contexts and attitudes which influence the writing (and the writer);
  • the nature of the various learning processes that coalesce to support the development of student writers.

Grabe, W. and Kaplan, R.B. 1996. Theory and Practice of Writing. London: Longman. Page 34.

Models of writing

Johns’ model is still very helpful, and Hyland’s simpler categorisation is very much in line with it. The discussion that follows will be based on the latter.



Process approaches


Social constructionist








‘Writing as problem-solving’

Thinking & process

Dialogue with audience. Writer responsible vs reader responsible

At mercy of discourse community


Writer ‘creates’ audience


al’. Development of sense of audience in W’s mind.

Dialogue with audience. Writer responsible vs reader responsible

Expert reader is all-powerful

Reality & truth

‘Internal truth’ All good writing is personal

In writer’s mind.

Agreed between

R & W

Determined by community

Sources of language

Writer’s own form & language come from content

Writer’s own form & lang. from content

Drawn from content schemata of R & W

Outgrowth of discourse community

Johns, A.M. 1990. L1 composition theories: implications for developing theories of L2 composition. In B. Kroll (ed.), Second Language Writing, pp.24-36. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Focus on the product Texts (via surface elements or discourse features)

Focus the writer Processes (expressivist, cognitivist, situated)

Focus on the reader Social dimension (engagement with audience)

Hyland, K. 2002. Teaching and Researching Writing. London: Longman. Page 5.

Bilton & Sivasubramaniam’ categorisation

Pattern-Product approach

Problem-solving and invention strategies as part of step-by-step production of relevant models of academic text.

Process approach

Imitate strategies of good writers using workshops, peer evaluation, etc.

Expressive school

Writing as an act of creative expression and language as an ‘instrument for thinking and discovery’

Bilton, L. and Sivasubramaniam, S. 2009. An inquiry into expressive writing: a classroom-based study. Language Teaching Research, 13(3): 301-320.

Text-based approaches

Traditional views of ‘building’ writing from sentence to paragraph to text have been replaced with discourse-based approaches which address the text as a whole. With this in mind, it’s worth considering Hoey’s comments on discourse:

1. There is a ‘consensus’ about discourse organisation which includes the ability to identify organisational breaks in a discourse.

2. Adjacent sentences in discourses are frequently linked by anaphoric devices of various kinds and by repetition but these are not sufficient to account for the organisation of discourses.

3. Discourses are not built out of sentences on a brick-by-brick basis.

4. Discourses cannot be treated as strings of paragraphs.

5. The ‘paragraph’ is not a distinct level between discourse and sentence.

6. Discourses are sometimes organised on a Russian doll model, i.e. one subdiscourse within another.

Hoey, M. 1983. On the Surface of Discourse. London: George Allen and Unwin. Pages 15-16.

A classic example of this is the problem-solution model, which is reflected in the following story:

Once upon a time there was a handsome princess.

But she was very poor and her people were hungry.

So she registered for an MBA and acquired valuable entrepreneurial skills, which she used to turn her country into a theme park.

Now she is incredibly rich and her people are slightly less hungry.

The problem-solution pattern breaks down as follows:

Situation: Handsome princess

Problem: Poor and people hungry

Response: Do an MBA and open theme park

Evaluation/Result: Rich and people slightly less hungry

See Hoey 1983 (e.g. p.52) for a fuller discussion.

Reader-based approaches

This corresponds to John’s social constructionist category. Work on genre has been particularly influential here and Swales’ definition of a discourse community has become a standard reference point:

1. A discourse community has a broadly agreed set of common public goals.

2. A discourse community has mechanisms of intercommunication among its members.

3. A discourse community uses its participatory mechanisms primarily to provide information and feedback.

4. A discourse community utilizes and hence possesses one or more genres in the communicative furtherance of its aims.

5. In addition to owning genres, a discourse community has acquired some specific lexis.

6. A discourse community has a threshold level of members with a suitable degree of relevant content and discoursal expertise.

Swales J M. 1990. Genre Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pages 24-7.

This approach, which is characteristics of ESP, especially EAP, places considerable demands on the writer. Unsurprisingly, students following courses based on this approach tend to be (aspiring) members of the relevant discourse community.

the writer must know the problems of the field, the ideals and ethos of the field, the accepted justificatory arguments, the institutional structure in which the knowledge is to be communicated, and the criteria of adequacy by which the innovative work will be judged.

Bazerman, C. 1983. Scientific writing as a social act. In P. Anderson, J. Brockman and C. Miller (eds), New Essays in Technical Writing and Communication, pp. 156-84. Farningdale, NY: Baywood. Pages 160-1.

Process approaches

These focus on the process of writing rather than on the final product. The work of Zamel was very influential in the development of this approach and highlights what lies at its core.

Zamel (1982) looked at the composing processes of eight proficient writers, using interviews and a study of different stages of their writing. Interviews revealed different ideas-generation strategies and showed that the process of writing itself generated clarification and further ideas. Drafting took a long time and several drafts were involved. The study revealed writing as a process of discovery, a means of giving form to the writer’s own ideas and thoughts. In a follow-up study Zamel (1983) compared skilled and unskilled writers, using observation and interviews as well as the scripts themselves. Composing was shown to be essentially creative and not always based on a clear sense of direction or an explicit plan. It was also shown to be a recursive process: existing text is rescanned in order generate ideas for the next passage. Skilled writers took a global view of the process, proving less concerned with surface features and showing greater flexibility in their recursive behaviours (e.g. reviewing just a sentence, a paragraph, or a whole idea). Unskilled writers, however, were more concerned with grammatical and syntactic changes, which tended to interfere with the writing process. (Interestingly, Raimes was getting similar results in her investigations at about the same time).

Stages in process approach:


Brainstorming; esearch/information gathering, quickwriting, ranking activities, challenges


What sort of writing (memo, report, etc.)? Purpose from student’s point of view? Teacher’s role? Writer’s position (alone, part of group, mixed)? Support (teacher, peers, models, dictionaries)?


Nature of feedback? Who and how? Activities to develop specific skills (jumbled paras, odd one out, rhetorical transformations (instructions → description), register changes, etc.)


How? To whom?

What the process approach encourages

  • self-discovery and authorial ‘voice’
  • meaningful writing on topics of interest to the writer
  • need to plan writing as goal-oriented, contextualised activity
  • invention and pre-writing tasks, multiple drafting with feedback between drafts
  • variety of feedback options from real audiences (groups, peers, teacher) through conferencing or other formative evaluation
  • free writing and journal writing as alternative means of generating writing
  • content information and personal expression more important than final product grammar and usage
  • idea that writing is multiply recursive rather than linear
  • students’ awareness of writing process and notions such as audience, voice, plans, etc.

Grabe and Kaplan 1996: 87

Of course a process approach doesn’t exclude working with discourse. See, for example:

Guleff, V. 2002. Approaching genre: pre-writing as apprenticeship to communities of practice. In A.M. Johns (ed.), Genre in the Classroom: Multiple Perspectives, pp.211-23. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.


How much correction is necessary? The traditional approach involves heavy correction of all errors, but even as far back as 40 years ago some researchers were questioning this as far as the L1 was concerned. Stiff (1967) reported an experiment where students found their papers with marginal comments only, or with end comments only, or with both marginal and end comments, and at the end of the semester there was little if any difference in their performance:

Perhaps we as teachers of English should now be able to occasionally return, without great remorse, a set of compositions with just a few terminal comments, or with only a few succinct marginal comments, since a full correction (both marginal and terminal) seems to have no more effect upon student composition than do what we have usually considered partial corrections. Perhaps both students and instructors are clinging superstitiously to a stereotype of the ‘completely corrected’ paper.

Stiff, R. 1967. The effect upon student composition of particular correction techniques. Research in the Teaching of English, 1(1): 54-75.

20 years later, a similar study with a TESOL focus reached similar results:

The fact that students in all groups in this study wrote more complex structures as the course progressed indicates that improvement was independent of the type of feedback … highly detailed feedback may not be worth the instructor’s time and effort.

Robb, T., Ross, S. and Shortreed, I. 1986. Salience of Feedback on Error Quality and its Effect on EFL Writing, TESOL Quarterly, 20 (1): 83-93.

At about the same time researchers like Zamel were investigating not only the process of student writing but also the way that feedback was handled and this was to have a significant impact on approaches to correction:

Intervening throughout the process sets up a dynamic relationship which gives writers the opportunity to tell their reader what they mean to say before these writers are told what they ought to have done.

Zamel, V. 1983. The Composing Processes of Advanced ESL Students: Six Case Studies. TESOL Quarterly, 17 (2): 165-87.

What is particularly striking about these EFL teachers’ responses, however, is that the teachers overwhelmingly view themselves as language teachers rather than as writing teachers; they attend to surface-level features of writing and seem to read and react to a text as a series of separate sentences or even clauses, rather than a whole unit of discourse. They are in fact so distracted by language related local problems that they often correct these without realizing that a much larger meaning-related problem has totally escaped their notice.

Zamel, V. 1985. Responding to student writing. TESOL Quarterly, 19(1): 79-101. Page 86.

In fact, we need to take a broader view of feedback which recognises the relational aspects of it. Hyland and Hyland capture this well:

Several studies have shown that feedback is not simply disembodied reference to student texts but an interactive part of the whole context of learning, helping to create a productive interpersonal relationship between the teacher and individual students.

Hyland and Hyland 2006: 86

Feedback options

The following are points to consider when thinking about feedback. The elements can be combined in any way (e.g. Peer gives retrospective feedback in a conference in order to provide encouragement (psychological) for the writer; peer gives concurrent feedback on textual features, dripfeeding this as part of pair work.)














Diagnose & Prescribe


Furneaux et al. (2007: 76-79) also suggest a useful range of roles that the reader might adopt in responding to a piece of work:




Alerts the writer to an issue (e.g. via question or explanation), but does not correct.



Responds positively to the text



Identifies areas requiring further work. May refer to this specific text or be more general.



Indicates advice by suggesting better alternative in brackets above uncorrected original.



Provides correct form (e.g. by correction, deletion, reordering) but doesn’t change meaning.



Alters text by deletion, addition or rewriting. ‘Such alterations change the meaning.’

Ten mismatches between beliefs and practice in written feedback

  1. Teachers pay most attention to language form but they believe there’s more to good writing than accuracy.
  2. Teachers mark errors comprehensively although selective marking is preferred.
  3. Teachers tend to correct and locate errors for students but believe that through teacher feedback students should learn to correct and locate their own errors.
  4. Teachers use error codes although they think students have a limited ability to decipher the codes.
  5. Teachers award scores/grades to student writing although they are almost certain that marks/grades draw student attention away from teacher feedback.
  6. Teachers respond mainly to weaknesses in student writing although they know that feedback should cover both strengths and weaknesses.
  7. Teachers’ written feedback practice allows students little room to take control although teachers think students should learn to take greater responsibility for learning.
  8. Teachers ask students to do one-shot writing although they think process writing is beneficial.
  9. Teachers continue to focus on student written errors although they know that mistakes will recur.
  10. Teachers continue to mark student writing in the ways they do although they think their effort does not pay off.

Lee, I. 2008. Ten mismatches between teachers’ beliefs and written feedback practice. ELT Journal, 63(1): 13-22.

A summary

Silva (1993) sums up research findings that are still relevant today, as are the recommendations based on these. Here is a summary of some of the key points:


  • L2 learners make more errors overall.
  • Some evidence of different textual patternings (e.g. English general-specific, Japanese specific to general) and support for some of Kaplan’s claims.
  • Evidence of different argument structures (e.g. support for claims)
  • L2 writing involves less reviewing.
  • L2 writing is a less fluent process.
  • L2 writers do less planning at both global and local level.
  • L2 transcribing (producing written text) is more laborious, less fluent and less productive.
  • L2 writers use more conjunctive ties.*


  • Teachers need to be ‘cognizant of, sensitive to, and able to deal positively and effectively with sociocultural, rhetorical, and linguistic differences of their students’
  • May need to include more work on planning.
  • Draft in stages (e.g. focus on content and organization in one draft, linguistic concerns in another).
  • Provide realistic strategies for planning, transcribing and reviewing.
  • More extensive treatment of textual concerns.

Silva, T. 1993. Toward an understanding of the distinct nature of L2 writing: the ESL research and its implications. TESOL Quarterly, 27(4): 657-75.

Extracts supplied

Here are the relevant details:

A Kwan-Terry, A. 1988. Interactive Writing. New York: Prentice Hall.

B Littlejohn, A. 1991. Writing 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

C Hamp-Lyons, L. and Heasley, B. 1987. Study Writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.