The Problem with English Writing Instruction

A friend of mine wanted to join a PhD program in Applied Linguistics. He hoped to become a linguist, and to work on developing second language reading and writing instruction. He had a meeting with a leading professor in the field, and asked him about the current state of second language writing research. The professor’s response was, “Writing education changes very slowly.”


We have been told that technology is changing education. There have been many articles written about this. Second language writing instruction seems like a natural place to apply new technologies to learning. I hope it helps, because being a writing teacher can be difficult. Often, getting students excited about the writing process represents a significant challenge.

I would like to make the case here that one reason writing instruction is a challenge is because, fundamentally, students don’t understand what writing is. Because of this, writing for a class doesn’t feel real to students. There is often no purpose (outside of a good grade) that makes the difficult process of writing feel like it’s worth the effort. Technology can help with this.

Writing is difficult for everyone. This is the reality. When I say “writing,” what I really mean is “stating ideas clearly in written form.” In any language, for any person, this can be a challenge.

Many English language students want to improve their writing skills.

For some, their reasons are very practical. As the internet has taken over more and more of the personal and professional aspects of our lives, people are often required to communicate in writing through various mediums (like text messaging or emails), and for various purposes (communicating with a client, or making plans with a friend).

For other students, the reasons are more complicated. They want to pursue higher education in an English speaking country, or they want to publish a longer piece of writing for a native English speaking audience. Regardless of their goals, the writing process discourages many English language students.

However, there is hope.

writing_process_2I have observed that language students generally, and English students in particular, seem to misunderstand how the writing process works.

To be honest, I blame language tests.

There is no denying that much of English language student’s writing preparation is concerned with passing language tests. Often, these tests offer a writing prompt or topic, and the student is required to write a detailed response to that topic within a fixed period of time.

The problem is that learners walk away with the incorrect idea that “good writing skill” involves the ability to write something within a fixed period of time, and have it come out perfectly. There is the idea, in other words, that fluent writers in a language will be able to produce a perfect response to a test prompt, with few or no errors, and with perfectly articulated ideas.

The reality, of course, is very different.

Whether you’re a native or non-native English speaker, your writing will need time and multiple drafts in order to improve it. The idea of writing something very quickly and immediately publishing, or submitting it, is ridiculous. Students should be learning to shape their ideas into something other people will understand and, hopefully, respond to. Again, writing is a slow process, but many students don’t know this, which is unfortunate because student’s beliefs about their writing can directly influence their professional lives.

Here’s an example: One of my former students went to graduate school in an English speaking country. His English is quite good, and his writing was good enough to pass the written examination at the end of his graduate study. Did he make grammar errors on this examination? Absolutely, but the organization and presentation of his ideas was enough to pass the test.

Now, he works in his home country, and is required to use English everyday at work. He makes presentations regularly, and has to submit reports to his bosses in English. These presentations and reports are, as in many companies, the result of collaboration between colleagues. This means that there are plenty of opportunities to share drafts of reports and get feedback on presentations before delivering them.

Yet, my student is resistant. He won’t work with his colleagues. He doesn’t want to reveal that he still makes grammar mistakes in his written English. He thinks this will reflect poorly on him because, he believes, if his English was really good enough, then he would be able to write a report without needing anyone to read it over before he submits it.

This attitude is incorrect. It’s as incorrect for him as it is for his native speaking colleagues. Of course, you should ask someone to look over your report before you submit it. Of course you should, especially if it’s important. With time and experience writing such reports, he may need less and less help, but in general, outside input is an invaluable part of the writing process.

But, my student still resists. And I suspect he’s not alone.

I think one of the biggest problems with English as a second language writing instruction is that the reality of writing—the iterative process, the inevitability of errors, and the necessity of feedback—is easy to forget or convolute. As a writing teacher, I have tried to communicate these ideas to my students. I know a lot of teachers do. But it can often feel like students don’t get it.

This has led me to wonder if a part of our message is wrong or incomplete. What’s missing?

Well, for one, writers have editors. All of them do. I have an editor for this blog. When I submit papers to journals, those papers have editors. Professional writers submitting work to major publishing houses have editors.

Editing itself is a skill. I would argue it’s a very different skill from writing. It involves, to a certain extent, the ability to look at a piece of writing objectively. How can students learn this level of objectivity? Is it even possible for them (or anyone) to learn to apply this objectivity to their own work? Since English language learners learn structure at the same time that they’re learning to communicate their ideas, I sometimes wonder: should they learn to be editors first, and then learn to write later?

Another thing is, writers have audiences—real audiences. A teacher is not an audience. Your classmates are not an audience. At least not really. In some cases, real audiences won’t know you. They may know your ideas, but they don’t know you. In this case, the audience will judge your writing based on how useful your ideas are to them—and this will relate both to how the information is communicated, and how good the ideas are. But of course, in most cases, especially in professional settings, your audience will know you. However, unlike in a classroom, the audience will have a real stake in what you’re writing. If you’re writing a report for your company, the information, and the significance of that information, will matter to a whole lot of people in very practical ways. This authenticity of purpose, to be honest, is difficult to replicate in the language classroom.

writingI’d like to suggest that technology can bring authenticity both to the writing process and give students a reason to write. There have been some wonderful research studies done by a researcher named Rebecca Black, who currently teachers at the University of California, Irvine. In these studies, Dr. Black looks at how English language learners develop their writing ability through contributing to online fan-fiction blogs. Fellow readers on the blog gave students feedback both on the language and the content of their posts. In turn, students were able to adjust their writing to develop a wider readership. The process of refining their writing skill was actually connected to a real communicative task, and they could learn to read related pieces of writing objectively, and evaluate them.

I often think that what educational technology really allows teachers to do, is give their students a more immediate connection to the world of ideas. Then, with a little bit of time, students can even be encouraged to participate in that world of ideas by making a contribution of their own. This desire to make a contribution is, I believe, I basic foundation for learning to write. Now, how can make this a bigger part of second language writing instruction?


  1. Rachida says:

    Great article but one thing that was missing for me is the influence of L1 and it’s impact on the writing in L2. I have struggled with it myself because my L1 has to be complex, elaborated and not for an audience whike English is simple and not elaborated and has to be understood by an audience!


  2. I have found an interesting article abaut writing in a second language.
    It was written by Dr.Alasdair Archibald.
    Writing is not only the process the writer uses to put words to paper but also the resulting product of that process. This process and product are also conditioned by the purpose and place of writing (its audience and genre). Writing in a second language is further complicated by issues of proficiency in the target language, first language literacy, and differences in culture and rhetorical approach to the text. Instruction in writing can effectively improve student proficiency in a number of key areas. Approaches to instruction have variously targeted process, product and purpose of writing. More recent approaches both to its teaching and assessment recognise the need to integrate all aspects of writing.

    I would like to share with you because I agree with it.


  3. I agree with the fact that many current views of what constitutes writing are incorrect. I would add that seeing writing as a skill to be separately learned or separately taught probably doesn’t help either. Just as being able to listen effectively in a second language helps you develop your speaking in the language, reading skills and writing skills are also powerfully linked,

    Enabling students to understand how texts and genres are created, jointly deconstructing those texts, and then jointly and then individually creating new texts is at the heart of Sydney School/ Systemic Functional Linguistic approach to literacy which is equally applicable in EFL/ESOL settings. This genre as pedagogy approach has transformed literacy teaching in Australia and begun to address inequalities of previous approaches. For a very useable guide see: Peter Knapp one of the authors has very generously uploaded the old edition but the updated and improved version is available

    I am amazed at the level of language sophistication this approach enables in primary school and secondary students. They understand language on a grammar and genre level beyond my own level and produce quality writing.


    • Hi Chas,

      Sorry for our late reply! Thanks so much for sharing these great resources. We think getting students to access our video corpus and compare usage of words / expressions right here on EnglishCentral is an excellent idea also. Just search for a word, expression, idiom and learners are shown examples of that form in video. Also available through the learners My Words page.

      Thanks again for your contribution.



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