A short review of three articles concerning the teaching of L2 writing across cultural contexts
by Damian Rivers
The subject of L2 writing is central to the field of teacher education because writing forms an integral part of basic human communication. Being a competent L2 speaker alone is insufficient to function within a number of social and academic roles. Matsuda (2001) identifies the area of L2 writing as being neglected in early language acquisition studies due to the dominance of the audio-lingual approach during the mid-twentieth century. Second language writing research only gained prominence during the 1960’s when writing became a component of ESL programs within U.S university courses for foreign students. At this time many teachers had little or no experience in teaching L2 writing yet realized that it was an essential element needed to undertake a university course in which English was the medium of instruction. Ferris & Hedgcock (1998) state that for this reason L2 writing originally emerged as a ‘sub-discipline’ of second language teaching. Furthermore, many early L2 writing courses focused entirely on sentence level structure and emphasized errorless compositions. This controlled composition came from a behavioural, habit-formed theory of learning. The aim was to provide students with “no freedom to make mistakes” (Pincas, 1982, p.91) as it was thought that any free, random, hit or miss activity such as student led compositions or free-writing should be “eliminated wherever possible, so that errors arising from the native-to-target language transfer can be avoided” (Pincas, 1962, p.185). Any support for the notion of fluency over accuracy was significantly lacking during this period of research and a general consensus was reached that “composing writing beyond the sentence must be guided or controlled” (Slager, 1996, p.77). Since this period, several pedagogical approaches have been proposed by a number of researchers representing different conceptualizations of the nature of writing as a part of the wider scheme of second language acquisition theory. One of the earliest paradigm breakers was Kaplan, (1966) who proposed the idea that paragraph and sentence structures were both language and culture specific, suggesting that context played an important role in developing and teaching L2 writing skills. Kaplan’s proposals also led to the realization that “writing is much more than orthographic symbolization of speech; it is, most importantly, a purposeful selection and organization of experience” (Arapoff, 1967, p.33).
Later, Zamel, (1976) argued that high-level L2 writers were in fact similar to L1 writers and could benefit from instruction emphasizing the process of writing rather than the structural confines of writing. Various intervention strategies subsequently emerged including formative feedback, multiple draft composition, and peer analyses. These methods of promoting writing as a process-based event were especially popular during the early 1980’s (e.g. Raimes, 1983). The 1990’s saw the rapid development of ESP and EAP courses which signified yet another shift in theoretical opinion. If instructors could provide language specific tuition bound by context, then students would need to be aware of the multitude of writing contexts that were available to them and how each one differed. The 1990’s was very much a boom period for L2 writing research with Leki & Silva (1992) observing the “explosion of interest in research on composition in a second language” (p.3). This period was also marked by the creation of ‘The Journal of Second Language Writing’ in 1992 indicating “the maturing scholarly communication in the field” (Tannacito, 1995, p.5).
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