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Update: Second Language Writing, part 1

When I left my previous position as curriculum coordinator, the curriculum revision process was incomplete. One of my roles as coordinator was to make sure the IEP's teaching practices were aligned with research. Most of this research was a literature review of ELT textbooks within the past decade and scholarly articles within the last five years. We successfully completed the whole revision process for reading and half of the process for speaking and listening, which means I was able to conduct a literature review of those three skill areas. Unfortunately, the committee dissolved before we could get to the writing literature. Thus I left the position feeling out-of-date with my understanding of L2 writing pedagogy.

Fortunately, I am a contributor to ELT Research Bites, which is a collaborative blog that provides bite-sized portions of scholarly articles on English language teaching, and writing is the language skill that is covered most. I thought reviewing ELT Research Bites' fourteen blog posts on writing, as of this posting, would help bring me up to date at least partially.

Second Language Writing Research Areas

I categorized the fourteen blog posts into three tiers of nine subcategories. They are as follows:

Top Tier (3 posts each)
  1. Integrating reading & writing
  2. Written feedback
 Second Tier (2 posts)
  1.  Automated writing evaluators
 Third Tier (1 post each)
  1. Collaborative writing & revising
  2. Corpus
  3. Critical thinking
  4. English as a Lingua Franca
  5. Listening & note-taking  (I did not review this one as it was more relevant to our listening curriculum literature review)
  6. Vocabulary

Takeaways for Teachers and Curriculum Developers

Some of these studies focused on a very specific type of pedagogy, such as TBSIR or R2L. Under the right conditions, these teaching approaches are effective. However, I will add that these approaches can only be successful if the teacher has a solid understanding and confidence in using them. The problem with curriculum development is that the IEP needs total buy-in from all the teachers to use these approaches. It's too restricting, too lockstep, and teachers will resist either because of lack of understanding, lack of confidence, or a disagreement with the theoretical principles.

Other studies focused on the application of a certain tool, such as Grammarly, Turnitin, or a corpus. The conclusions here were similar in that teachers and students need proper training of how to use them in order for the tools to meet or surpass results normally achieved without the tools. Technophobic teachers may argue that this technology is wasting time (learning how to use the technology) rather than saving time. Curriculum developers and other administrators need to invest their own time and effort to develop their teachers' competency and confidence with these tools. Once that is achieved, implementation can take place in the classroom. However, teachers must allow students time to develop their understanding and critical approaches to technology in the classroom as well. This is why I argue for a certain level of digital literacy for English language learners, especially English for Academic Purposes.

Four studies had practical implications that should be quite obvious to most experienced teachers:
  1. Collaborative reading and writing have positive affective benefits
  2. English as a Lingua Franca does not have a role in writing for academic purposes
  3. Repeated exposure to vocabulary in reading and writing improves students' use of vocabulary
  4. Some written feedback is better than no written feedback 
 I believe the most helpful studies were about integrating reading and writing and written feedback. The research bites speak for themselves, so there is no reason for me to summarize the summarized study here.

Gaps

ELT Research Bites is a work in progress and will never be complete. I believe it covers EAP writing quite well, but there is less about second language writing for beginning and intermediate writers. I am interested in learning more about to what extent teaching lower-level writing is about explicit grammar instruction and the appropriateness of teaching various forms of non-academic writing, such as emailing and texting.

Beyond ELT Research Bites, there are gaps in my knowledge of current research and practice in second language writing. I'd like to learn more about the arguments for and against the five-paragraph essay, collaborative digital writing projects, and writing to a public online audience (from social media to blogs to online product reviews). These arguments have evolved since I last learned about second language learning as a graduate student.

As a teacher trainer, I would like to revisit strategies for teaching writing to large classes of 30 or more students. Fortunately, I have never had a writing class larger than 25 students, so it is difficult for me to imagine providing written feedback and grading papers for a class of 50+ students. Although technology can help, what about teachers in classrooms with limited or no technology? I know smartphones are becoming more prevalent, so to what extent can teachers rely on smartphones as a tool for submitting and scoring student writing when paper and other technology is scarce?

I've always wanted to answer these questions, so I will be dedicating more time to answering these questions and more on second language writing in the weeks and months to come. I will also be sharing other useful blogs and websites similar to ELT Research Bites as part of this process. If you know of any offhand or you blog about this stuff, please send it my way.

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