June 2004 -- Volume 8, Number 1
Exploring the Dynamics of Second Language Writing
Barbara Kroll (Ed.) (2003)
Cambridge Applied Linguistics Series
Pp. xvi + 342
ISBN 0-521-52983-2 (paper)
Exploring the Dynamics of Second Language Writing is a valuable update to the Cambridge Applied Linguistics series. A previous volume, also edited by Kroll, appeared more than a decade ago in this series. It was certainly time for an updated volume, and Kroll again proves to be up to the task of organizing a compilation that will surely be a trusted reference for teachers for years to come. The following review takes a look at each chapter.
Chapter 1 (Paul Kei Matsuda): It seems that every time Matsuda writes about the history of second language writing as a discipline, he approaches it from a distinct perspective. In the past, he has written about the discursive construction of second language writing in the Journal of Second Language Writing, as well as the division of labor in English departments which led to the professionalization of the field in College Composition and Communication. The contribution to the current volume is a respectable stab at contextualizing the field by highlighting how the focus of instruction has evolved. This is an accessible introduction to historical perspectives on the field.
Chapter 2 (Charlene Polio): The inclusion of a chapter on research methods is a truly laudable decision, and the contribution made by Polio could not be easier to follow. This article is just what's missing from some competing volumes, and is a perfect way to cover the material in a timely fashion if you are introducing would-be teachers to the field. A handful of helpful tables is used as Polio presents information on "what has been studied and how it has been researched" (p. 39). This chapter uses key studies to illustrate to the novice researcher the variety of research methods, designs, and questions which have been implemented, and which then may serve as part of the developing expert's own toolbox.
Chapter 3 (Alister Cumming): One nagging complaint I have about this book is its title. It seems to me that some scholars are taking care to use umbrella terms such as "second language writing" instead of more specific terms, like ESL and EFL, in order to highlight the similarities between different contexts. But, as much of this book leans toward genre- and EAP- based research and instruction, I wish the title had read "ESL writing." Some of the greatest divergences between ESL and EFL, naturally, are the contexts in which students learn and, therefore, the goals of instruction. Since genre- based teaching relies on these contexts, is seems a great misnomer to package ESL and EFL together as "second language writing." When reading Grabe's chapter, for instance, I could not help but think, repeatedly, "But this is not necessarily relevant to my EFL courses, because the underlying assumptions are that students will be learning in North American academic contexts." [-1-]
And then I read the chapter by Cumming, in which the pedagogical practices and inclinations of dozens of ESL and EFL teachers--including some of the world's most famous--are gathered together to find similarities, or differences. Cumming expresses some surprise at the findings, writing about the participants, "the differences among their approaches to teaching writing did not relate in any consistent way to differences between English taught as a foreign or a second language..." (p. 84). This article served at least two purposes for me: to see what approaches are actually being used around the world in L2 writing and to question certain points of the distinction between ESL and EFL. I won't say that I suddenly think the two are indistinct--and that is certainly not the point of Cumming's article--but I have begun questioning whether certain distinctions are based on perceived differences or something more substantive. In short, this article made me think.
Chapter 4 (Tony Silva, Melinda Reichelt, Yoshiki Chikuma, Nathalie Duval-Couetil, Ruo-Ping J. Mo, Gloria Vélez-Rendón, Sandra Wood): The fourth chapter presents the narratives of five L2 writers as they discuss their experiences with gaining L2 writing ability. The texts are presented in the writers' own words, bare of commentary until the Discussion and Conclusion sections. Based on the narratives, the conclusion presents an insightful list of questions to consider. This chapter is certainly a worthwhile inclusion, but each reader will need to decide just what to take away from it. Silva points out that these narratives do not provide a basis for making claims about L2 writing or writers. Still, the narratives are bound to remind each reader of a student they have had, or their own experiences in learning a second language. My own reflection on this chapter is that in other volumes writing teachers have been advised to write so that they know what their students are dealing with. I think that reading L2 writers' narratives is another way to remember that empirical research cannot anticipate every student's experiences.
Chapter 5 (Dana Ferris): If you haven't had the chance to read either of Ferris' two recent volumes on responding to student writing, this article covers the key concerns for most teachers in an organized fashion. [Editor's note: See http://www-writing.berkeley.edu/TESL-EJ/ej25/r6.html] Sub-headings, which are phrased as general statements extracted from research and literature, are used expertly to let the reader use this article as a quick reference even after reading it straight through. The research presented is relevant and understandable, and the conclusions and suggestions that Ferris makes are invaluable to writing teachers.
Chapter 6 (Jan Frodesen and Christine Holten): The first subsection of the article is organized under three questions, which is very helpful. A good deal of the article is then spent on converting the theory of grammar instruction into principles for classroom application. The reader might sense some areas of overlap with Ferris' article, but this is minimal. This chapter and that by Ferris, in my view, complement each other superbly. [-2-]
Chapter 7 (Liz Hamp-Lyons): When you see the same author contributing articles on the same topic to practically every major publication in the field, you may wonder just how many of those articles one would have to read before getting a sense of déjà vu. Admittedly, such was my pre-reading sentiment to Hamp-Lyons' contribution. So I am glad to say that I put those preconceptions aside and tried to read this article with less skeptical eyes. What I found was that this is not a rehashing of a topic which has made no advancement in the past decade. In fact, it was refreshing to see just how much progress has been made in the understanding of the rater's role in writing assessment--and therefore in the understanding of writing assessment itself. So, I apologize to the author for my initial hesitation, and I strongly recommend that other readers approach this article not as "one more article about assessment," but as an article which serves as an introduction to a new conception of the assessment process.
Chapter 8 (Ann Johns): Very well organized; a good primer to approaches to genre. I appreciate this article not only for its accessibility and judicious use of tables and lists to highlight key concepts, but for the way in which it has grounded modern directions in the archaeology of composition theory. I have felt for some time that L2 composition texts ignore composition theory in favor of focusing on practical advice and pertinent, contemporary issues. While everyone needs both of these, writing teachers are better equipped when they also understand at least a general outline of developments in composition theory. One specific example of how this can be helpful is the interaction of the New Rhetoric with ESP. Without an understanding of the Process movement, any understanding of the New Rhetoric is extremely limited. As is an understanding of the Process movement without an understanding of the so-called Current-traditional paradigm, and the changes in society which precipitated a move toward process. Johns' article, then, taken along with that by Matsuda, provide the reader at least with the knowledge that contemporary issues and pedagogies are part of an interactive history.
Chapter 9 (Ulla Connor): Brings us up to date in the field of contrastive rhetoric. It does seem in some ways that CR has been neglected by teachers, but this article (and mentions of CR in Grabe's contribution) highlights its importance in EAP- and genre- based approaches to teaching writing. This chapter revisits the main themes of CR, of course, but also presents an update of the field in the context of contemporary research and practice in L2 writing.
Chapter 10 (William Grabe): Coincidentally, I have read a few other contributions by Grabe to collections in recent months, and have come to recognize his approach to topics as very analytical. He invariably presents lists of concerns, research directions, or whatever else can be itemized. This article alone boasts 11 numbered lists (some in paragraphs, some stand-alone). It might sound like I am poking fun at Grabe, but his lists are extremely insightful and useful, and it is helpful to have some concepts itemized for easy reference. The nature of his contribution here almost necessitates the use of lists, as it pulls together numerous fields of inquiry, from both L1 and L2 perspectives.
Chapter 11 (Stephanie Vandrick): In her chapter about the use of literature in the L2 classroom, Vandrick puts forth a streamlined train of thought which explores the questions every teacher stumbles upon. Namely, whether to use literature or not, which type of literature to use, and how to use it. If I seem to have little to say about this chapter, that is probably because little is left to be said after reading it. It is thoughtfully written, and well-received by this reader. [-3-]
Chapter 12 (Martha C. Pennington): It seems that in the past decade, articles which aim to introduce technology to teachers have stayed at the same level of non-technical expertise. This could be because publishers sense teachers will have difficulty following more in-depth articles, or simply because these articles are supposed to be general to reach the largest audience possible. At any rate, in my opinion, technology continues to be short-changed in collections such as this--always coming at the end, and seeming like an after-thought or obligatory inclusion more than a relevant contribution to the volume. But let that be a criticism of this series of books, and not of this particular article. Pennington does cover the obligatory topics--the ones that it seems any computer-literature teacher should not have to be told about--such as basic definitions of hypertext, discussion lists, and even the World Wide Web. And, unfortunately, most of the article remains at this shallow level of "technology." But there are a few shining moments, too. On pages 302-303, Pennington lists some valuable resources available online for teachers. Again, these are nothing that teachers wouldn't find if they spent any time online searching for such resources themselves, but I do not doubt that hundreds of readers will try out a few of these sites for the first time and feel deep gratitude to the author for bringing these resources to their attention.
Chapter 13 (Ilona Leki): The epilogue to this volume is authored by Ilona Leki, and poses questions that many teachers probably already carry around in their minds. After reading it, you may feel that teaching writing is hopeless, as this article problematizes many of the assumptions that serve as a foundation of sorts for L2 writing teachers. Moreover, it offers no solutions. But the fact that these questions are gathered here validates the self-doubt with which some teachers question their schools' curriculums, or the practices they have arbitrarily adopted over time. This is one of the most unsettling articles you are likely to read, and certainly one of the most valuable for any teacher who is truly interested in professional development.
The back cover of the book implies that this volume can be used to help "train new teachers." Indeed, it is as comprehensive a collection of issues as one can expect, and in a course labeled How to Teach L2 Writing (such as I teach) would heartily supplement a more practice-based text. In fact, based on current offerings from publishers, two such texts working in tandem might be the best way to teach such a course. While I will not recommend the practice based text (those such as Ken Hyland's Second Language Writing or Ferris and Hedgcock's Teaching ESL Composition), I will say that Exploring the Dynamics of Second Language Writing is my choice among the handful of current similar collections for a text which offers an introduction to and discussion of a variety of scholarly areas relevant to teaching second language writing.
International Graduate School of English
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