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CATESOL Book Review: Effective Second Language Writing By Susan Kasten, Editor

Michelle Skowbo

Book Review – Effective Second Language Writing By Susan Kasten, Editor

Effective Second Language Writing Susan Kasten Editor Maria Dantas-Whitney Sarah Rilling and Lilia Savana Series Editors  TESOL Classroom Practice Series

By Sonia Estima and Kara Mac Donald 

Learning to write well is a challenging task, even in one’s own first language, and it can be much more intimidating in a second language. Also, writing, and second language writing, are not one monolithic skill, but have many distinct sub-skills, like paraphrasing, synthesizing, mastering different registers and so on. The chapter discussions are highly accessible and based within the described context of the author and each ends with a Reflection on the particular information shared with respect to why something was popular with students, change was implemented, and other reasons related to the chapter’s focus.


Chapter One: No Matter Here We’ve Been, Here We Are!, by Susan Kasten

The first chapter is authored by the book editor, Susan Kasten, who provides a brief overview of how the focus for ESL writing shifted from teaching writing through error correction concentrating on the mechanics and accuracy of language to one where the basis of instruction became examining and understanding writing as a process. She also shares the development of ESL writing and its challenge to find an academic domain in which it fits, despite various advancements as a discipline. ESL writing instruction is still often tagged on to other educational programs, like adult education, remedial language arts and general studies. There are also challenges in that distinct rhetorical styles may be prominent in one educational program, but not in another. For example, persuasive rhetoric may be the focus of university writing courses, while traditional rhetoric focusing on form may be the focus of adult education courses. The book’s chapters therefore address a broad range of topics and trends related to second language writing and are structured under four categories: Designing Writing Tasks, Focusing on Academic and Professional Writing Skills, Enhancing Critical Writing Skills and Re-visioning, Revising, and Editing ESL Composition. However, the connecting “theme is the need for clear and meaningful communication between ESL writers and their readers” (p.6)

Designing Writing Tasks

Chapter Two: Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay: A Content-First Approach, By Nigel A. Caplan

Caplan begins chapter one with an explanation why the lockstep five paragraph essay based on an introduction, thesis statement, supporting paragraph and a conclusion, regardless of the actual number of paragraphs in the essay, is so popular as an instructional writing approach. It is straightforward to explain, simple for learners to follow and easy to grade. However, research has shown that this writing approach does not prepare ESL learners with the underlying skills for academic writing in mainstream courses. It doesn’t permit use of higher order thinking skills, where learners engage with creative, analytical and evaluative thinking. These skills are what make learners successful in their writing and academic coursework. Caplan suggests a content-first approach, where learners first learn how to engage with content and analyze it to be able to have something meaningful to share in their writing. However, this approach also presents a challenge, which is identifying a topic that is of interest and familiar to learners, but also is one that the teacher has sufficient knowledge of. Caplan addresses this issue by choosing novels suitable to the students' level and describes the structure of each course, and the process learners go through, where content is taught first, then writing organization, and finally lexicogrammatical  focus.

Chapter Three: Modern Heroes: From Content to Composition via Critical and Creative Thinking, Linda Forrester

The basis of writing instruction, described in chapter three by Forrester, is an integrative approach where various resources are utilized to offer a learning experience that is dynamic and addresses all aspects of the writing process, with opportunity to expand on learning. At his community college, instructors have been linking ESL writing instruction with content courses, as understanding content in academic classes is greatly supported by writing about it, and in turn, learners’ writing skills are more dynamically developed. Another concept discussed is the value of thinking in English when learners are writing because thinking processes are inherently connected to understanding of the content. Additionally, if learners are thinking in English while writing, that avoids the impact of translating from the L1 to English, and therefore English vocabulary and grammatical structures are reinforced through the thinking process as well as the writing process. The writing instruction was theme-based topics of modern-day heroes and students read about various individuals from different articles, texts, and poems, writing in daily journals and producing essays twice a week. Forrester shares the benefit of using a theme-based approach for writing instruction, one of which is that students better retain topic related vocabulary and ideas as they are recycled in various texts. Also by reading diverse forms of writing, narrative, speeches, poems, documentaries, song and movies, learners are exposed to different writing structures, styles and registers. Examining these different texts and materials for common collocation, word roots, grammar use, cohesive devices and other language features provides scaffolding for learners to then produce their essay on the topic.

Chapter Four: Writing to Embody: Engaging Students in Written Role Play, by Shawna Shapiro

In chapter 4, Shapiro describes the use of written role plays, where students are writing from another person's perspective other than themselves. For example, she shares a written role play assignment where students wrote diary entries from the perspective of early pioneers traveling west. The value of such writing assignments, referred to as ludic writing or language play, is that they require students to think critically, engage with higher order thinking skills and use creativity. This type of writing permits students a bit of freedom to build fluency in writing as they are not confined by the seemingly strict structure of academic writing. She describes that often writing assignments are either fun and draw on students’ creativity or are focused on cognitively demanding tasks, but not both. Creativity is almost always overlooked in upper-level writing courses with adults, as the focuses on mastering the logistics of academic writing. Although it may seem difficult to incorporate creativity in such upper-level writing courses, she shares an example of how academic thoroughness can be preserved by drawing on different text genres and content topics. Also drawing on students’ negotiation of their L1 and L2 identities and multiliteracies also opens creative opportunities for students to express themselves through written language play activities. The chapter closes with a description and reflection on a written role play assignment she conducted in a university level academic writing course.

Chapter Five: Using Second Language Learning as Content in a University ESL Writing Course, Mark A. James

James, in chapter five describes the use of Content-Based Instruction (CBI) in a university ESL writing course, where students read journal articles on different topics (e.g. the needs of ESL students at English-medium universities), and then wrote about essays on the topic. The value in the CBI approach for ESL writing courses is that frequently students in ESL courses are asked to write about personal experiences narrated from their perspective. However, in other university courses they are required to read a source text and write about the topic to demonstrate comprehension of the text as well as their writing skills. The CBI approach for ESL writing courses scaffolds students’ abilities for mainstream content courses. Also, ESL teachers can select content that is relevant to the students’ experiences and context, making the reading and writing more engaging, while in other courses the content is primarily determined by the course’s nature. In ESL writing classes, teachers can choose articles about community concerns that can range from social, economic, or political concerns, while a modern European history class is constrained to topics related to the course focus. James describes the structural and procedural components of the CBI ESL writing approach he used and how he blended the CBI writing assignments with the topics and focus of the course textbook, and how he worked the writing cycles for each assignment into the semester length. This serves as a model for possible adaptations for readers’ contexts, accompanied by tangible outcomes of the CBI ESL writing approach on learning outcomes.

Chapter Six: Meaningful Writing Opportunities in the Community College: The Cultural and Linguistic Autobiography Writing Project, by Gloria Park

ESL students infrequently have opportunities to write about their multilingual and multicultural selves and experiences as immigrants. This distances students from developing interest in writing. Therefore, the author chose to develop a Cultural and Linguistic Autobiography project for her adult ESL students, where they described themselves and their experiences coming to the United States/an English-speaking country. Park, herself, shares her experience of a conventional writing course she took that offered topics that had no connection to her own L1 and English identities. So, she wanted to offer topics to ESL writing students that drew on their experiences and engaged them with reflecting on their multiple identities. She then shares the beginning of launching the CLA project at the community college where she worked, its rationale, and sample writing prompts. The chapter is brief, but brings highly impactful considerations for not only developing students’ writing skills, but also for building a safe space where their experiences are acknowledged and valued, and where they can explore their own dynamic identities and experiences.

Focusing on Academic and Professional Writing Skills

Chapter Eight: Media Participation as and End Point for Authentic Writing and Autonomous Learning, Stephen Soresi

The author describes how writing skills can be enhanced by having a real-world entity for language learners to which they submit their writing pieces, rather than simply to the teacher for grading or to their classmates for sharing. Soresi shares the authentic writing activity structure he uses with EFL Japanese students., where they submitted their writing pieces to different media outlets, such as letters to the editor, reader forums and essay contexts submissions. Prior to submitting the essays to media outlets, each student’s work went through three levels of review: The first a peer review based on a rubric that was provided, the second general overall feedback from the teacher, the third, an in-class vote for the best essay. Students based on feedback received revised their weekly essays. The feedback was focused on macro-level discourse errors, cohesion and developmental clarity, rather than grammatical issues as the sentence level. Students became heavily autonomously engaged in the writing and revision processes, as Japanese students are familiar with following and completing a course textbook, often writing one cumulative course essay and receiving a final course grade. One practice described is that students were required to meet increasing sentence count requirements on each revision and were required to use a mix of simple, compound, and compound-complex sentences to vary the discourse pattern and build their ability to express their ideas in different ways. Suggestions for conducting peer review sessions and the corresponding rubric geared toward evaluating the essay at the discourse level are shared. Considerations on which media sources may be most appropriate for students are shared based on experience with his students.

Chapter Nine: Multitext Synthesizing in Research Writing, by Amina M.B. Megheirbi

Chapter nine addresses teaching ESL students how to integrate various outside source content and link them to the topic and/or arguments into their own writing. Such academic and research writing is a learned skill, even for L1 English speakers, and needs to be explicitly taught. This was further confirmed by the author’s research on EFL students at her runiversity. As a result, the author designed short writing projects for her English for a specific purpose science course to assist them in developing their abilities to synthesize and integrate outside source material into their essays. Each of the short writing projects were based around a topic, three or four related journal articles and an outline structure for the writing piece. A summary of the Synthesizing Model based on the short project is described, which consists of students reading each article, and taking notes based on guided questions, followed by making connections between the articles, which results in the students coming up with their own synthesized concept to draft into the writing. The instruction provided is to guide the students and not prescribe or control the process, evolving from explicit guidance in the early stage of learning to indirect supportive guidance in the latter stages. The chapter outlines the steps in the process from pre-writing to the final stages of revising, editing and publishing.

Chapter Ten: It May Be Possible to Teach the Use of Hedging in EFL University Writing, by Jingiing Qin and Erkan Karabacak

Chapter ten delves into the challenges of teaching the use of hedging in academic writing to EFL university students in China. Academic writing is characterized by the use of hedging with words like might, could, seem, suggest, propose, possibly, and other devices that allow the writer to modify and moderate their assertions. Qin and Karabacak note that although hedging is essential to academic writing, it is often not noticed by ESL and EFL students since it is not a very salient aspect of the text. When composing academic papers, these students fail to properly control the tone of their statements. Qin goes on to describe a series of exercises and activities aimed at helping students first notice the use of hedging in English academic writing, and then begin to employ hedging in their own writing. Students were later given two editorial texts with opposing views of a topic, and asked to analyze, take a position, and produce an argument of their own. An additional important step of this activity was the use of peer review to help students notice the use of hedging and encourage students to employ hedging in their work. Some potential challenges mentioned by the authors include the amount of time required from teachers to find appropriate authentic materials for their students, and the fact that different disciplines, and different sections of a paper may use different patterns of hedging. But, in spite of any difficulties encountered, the authors were very optimistic of their course outcomes and students reported positive responses and felt more confident on their ability to convey their ideas and write an academic paper.  

Chapter Eleven: Service Learning and Writing with a Purpose, by Denise Vaughn

Chapter eleven describes the work done by students engaged in providing service for a non-profit local community organization in support of the learning objectives of a precollege writing course. Service learning is promoted as a means to engage students in developing not just their language and writing skills, but also to work on raising their awareness of their community and its issues. Students develop a sense of civic engagement and leadership skills, and at the same time work on their academic coursework in a meaningful way.  Drawing from the theories of adult learning, Vaughn proposes service learning as a means to address the need for access to resources out in the world, having a voice to express their own ideas, having the power and autonomy to take action, and creating a bridge to the future. The chapter calls attention to the additional need to remain mindful of and meet State Language Requirements, and goes on to describe the steps, the process and the challenges encountered in their program, to include the need to find the appropriate organization site for each student, based on their interests and future career goals. Vaughn also discusses how assessment can and should be adapted to the specific nature of service-based learning, both graded and non-graded. Assessment should include teacher feedback as well as self-reflection to help raise students’ awareness and help them develop greater autonomy to direct their own learning in meaningful and purposeful ways. 

Chapter Twelve: From the Classroom to the Boardroom: Grammar and Style Across Genres in ESL Professional Writing, by Jennifer Haan and Karyn Mallett 

Chapter twelve explores the unique characteristics and challenges of teaching professional writing, based on the experiences from a Purdue University business writing course. Grounded in the theoretical principles of genre-based instruction, the projects presented follow the underlying assumption that real-world writing assignments are used to guide students from the classroom setting to the types of writing needed for the workplace. For each project described, the authors highlight both the macro- and the microlevels of textual analysis. The first example is drawn from the Employment Project, where students were asked to create a resume based on given criteria. In this project, students must attend to the unique genre of resume writing. At the macro level, they must understand what is considered inappropriate information for a resume, such as physical attributes like height and weight, or family and religious affiliations, and other contrasting expectations from different cultures. At the microlevel, students are exposed to the particulars of sentence construction and the unique use of fragments and parallel structure of resume writing, and then moving to the specifics of word choice to convey strength and competence. Following the resume writing, students were asked to write a cover letter. Again, the authors analyze the macrolevel with the cultural understanding of the audience and purpose of the cover letter; and at the microlevel, the understanding of sentence structure, business idioms and specific professional language used. 

The second project described by Hann and Mallet is the Community-Based Service-Learning Project, where students were asked to write promotional materials for local businesses. Once again, the authors describe the two sides of the macro- and the microlevel issues to be addressed, from inappropriate shifts in register, to lack of cohesion in collaborative writing, and the particulars of including visual elements in the text, and the microlevel of grammar and parallel structure. Students in both projects had very positive feedback and felt the course prepared them well to face the challenges of the real-world. 

Enhancing Critical Writing Skills

Chapter Thirteen: Discourse Analysis: Bridging the Gap Between Linguistic Theory and Classroom Practice in Writing Classes, by Peter McDonald

The next two chapters form a new section of the book focusing on raising students’ critical writing skills. In chapter thirteen, McDonald discusses the use of Discourse Analysis (DA) in writing courses at a university in Japan. DA’s relevance to the classroom setting starts with the identification and understanding of common patterns in the structure of different genres of text. McDonald pays particular attention to the problem-solution text pattern. Introducing students to  four basic questions to help them recognize text  structure: 1. the situation, 2. the problem, 3. the solution, and 4. the result. Students first analyze the problem-solution pattern in various texts provided by the instructor, including authentic materials. Gradually students use this same matrix to begin creating their own paragraphs and writing assignments following the problem-solution pattern. McDonald also stresses the need to include a critical approach to the analysis of texts. He discusses the introduction of a series of reflective questions to help raise students’ awareness and provide them the tools to discover, discuss, and evaluate texts; and later be able to apply it and express their own ideas.  

Chapter Fourteen: A Case for Writer-Generated Annotation, by Holli Schauber

In chapter fourteen, Schauber proposes the use of a student annotation system as a means to raise awareness and help students improve their academic writing. Annotations are a common strategy used in writing courses to draw students’ attention to problems in the text. The difference here is the annotations are made by the students to analyze their own writing. Annotations are used to provide students with strategies to evaluate their writing regarding clarity, cohesion and coherence and develop greater autonomy as writers through reflection and self-monitoring. Schauber’s work described in this chapter takes place at a basic composition course at a university in Switzerland. The annotation technique is divided into three parts or tasks – starting with a set of guided questions to guide learners how to analyze their own writing, followed by the generation of a list of the different types of sentences used in the text, and finally ending with the students annotating their own work with the labels they created in step two, and then adding the explanation for why each label was used and the function it serves in the text. As a result of this learner-generated annotation system, the text revision process was markedly improved, and students developed greater awareness and autonomy as writers. The chapter ends with several examples of the questions and labels used, and sample annotations made by students. 

Utilizing Technology in the Writing Curriculum

Chapter Fifteen: Wiki Writing Web: Development of a Web Site to Improve Writing Motivation in Exam Courses, by Christopher A. Baldwin

Chapter fifteen begins the next section of the book, exploring the use of technology in the writing classroom. Here Baldwin examines how web editors, or Wikis, can be used to help students improve their writing skills. Drawing from a social constructivist perspective on learning development, the chapter offers some suggestions and insight for helping students develop their writing skills. Baldwin highlights the importance of writing feedback and peer review and the need to go beyond the surface level in error correction and editing. The author describes a project in a private language school in Italy, using a Wiki, a website with a text editor that allows users to add and edit content by typing directly on the page.  Teachers involved in this project reported a very positive experience, although it did require some training on the mechanics of the site.  The success of the Wiki in teaching writing was shared by both teachers and students, who felt more motivated to work on the site, and encouraged by the ease of providing feedback, plus the collaborative nature of the platform, enabling students to help and be helped at the same time. Some of the drawbacks noted by the author include the technical requirements and limitations depending on the availability of computers and the Internet in the classroom and at home, as well as the need to ensure teachers are familiar with the tools and the principles guiding their practice. 

Chapter Sixteen: A Chain Story Blog, by Najla Malaibari

Malaibari shares her experience using Blogs (electronic website texts consisting of short journal type entries) in the language classroom. While journal writing has been used in the language classroom for a very long time, the electronic blogging alternative presents some advantages not available in the standard pen and paper old format. Starting with the ease of editing and the ability to collaborate in real time, blogs can help encourage students to undertake writing as a process and promote recursive peer editing. Malaibari used a group chain story blog activity, where students worked in groups of three to create and manage a blog, including the use of images, audio files and external links. Student feedback was very enthusiastic and revealed an increased awareness and a sense of having an audience – students were no longer writing exclusively for their teacher to read. Knowing others would be reading their work promoted a stronger desire to produce their very best work. Some students even received comments on their blog entries from outside the classroom, further encouraging them to want to continue writing.  How to best set up the use of blogs in the classroom will also depend on the technical aspects of each school setting, the number of computers available to the class and whether students must share a screen or work independently. Malaibari also provides a sample rubric teachers can adapt for their own use. 

Chapter Seventeen: Authentic English Through the Computer: Corpora in the ESOL Writing Classroom, by Vander Vianna

Chapter 17 draws from the principles of corpus linguistics and how English corpora (collections of large amounts of texts that can serve as a sample of how a language is used and collocated) can be used by both teachers and students to inform their writing.  Vianna draws his examples from private English schools in Brazil and highlights the fact that many English teachers around the world are not native speakers of English and may not be able to rely on their native speaker intuition when reviewing their students’ writing. A corpus provides concordance examples of how a given word is used in context and can be a great tool for teachers and students alike. Students may, however, experience some difficulty at first in knowing how to use corpus data and require assistance with such writing activities. Working with corpus data stresses a shift to focus on form, which Vianna contends should not be ignored when trying to help students become more accurate and better able to express themselves.  The chapter provides some examples of English language corpora available on the Internet for free, which is unfortunately not the case for most collections.  Corpus-based writing activities can be used to help students gain greater confidence and autonomy in their ability to self-reflect and edit their work. 

Re-visioning, Revising, and Editing ESL Compositions

Chapter 18: Revising the Revision Process with Google Docs: A Classroom-Based Study of Second Language Writing, by Soo Hyon Kim

The last two chapters in the book address the need for revising and editing in the writing process. Chapter 18 explores the challenge of getting students to revise their work. Often novice writers tend to limit their revisions to minor and superficial changes, not fully understanding the writing process and the value and purpose of revising. This chapter reports on the use of a web-based collaborative editing program, Google Docs, to help students better understand and effectively revise their writing. Kim reports on her experience from a university ESL writing course, emphasizing the recursive nature of the writing process and the specific needs of L2 learners.
The chapter goes on to explore the use of technology to enhance students’ revision process, and how it has changed the way people write. New online applications allow writers and reviewers to work collaboratively and synchronously on the same document, simplifying the need to send documents via email or print format multiple times. Kim explores how these functions in Google Docs can encourage students to continue working on their writing projects, going through several iterations of revisions, and using the power of teacher feedback, peer review, and collaborative writing, all in the same document.  

At the end of the course, the overall assessment of the benefits of using Google Docs was positive and students did show improvement in their revision skills. However, it is still important to note the role of the teacher in encouraging and facilitating the process. Simply directing students to go to Google Docs may not be sufficient for them to fully appreciate and become effective writers. Ultimately, it is still the teacher’s responsibility to help guide students through the process. 

Chapter 19: Great Expectations: Whose Job is it Anyway? By Donald Weasenforth, Margaret Redus, and Nancy Ham Megarity
The final chapter addresses the expectations students often have that the teacher should be the one to correct their work. The authors discuss ways to promote student autonomy and help develop students proofreading and editing ability and confidence. The work described takes place at the community college level, in an academic ESL program, with the aim to prepare students to transfer to a university. The chapter focuses on ways to develop Learner Autonomy, to provide students with the appropriate resources and strategies to enable them to become more independent over time. 

The first tool the authors discuss is the need to use Diagnostic Results as a teaching tool. Teachers should start by assessing the level of readiness of their students both regarding their own writing skills, as well as their editing skills; and start by raising their awareness of academic expectations as well as the need for collaboration involved in the writing process.  To develop their textual revision skills, students need to work on their ability to identify the errors in their own writing, starting with the most critical issues, and focusing on one type of error at a time. 

Another tool explored is the use of Editing Logs to help students identify patterns and record their progress. This progress is assisted with the teacher’s gradual encouragement and scaffolding. Another important aspect addressed is the role of having an audience for one’s work and using peer review and feedback, incorporating collaborative learning principles to help students take charge of their own learning.  Teachers should also spend some time working on training students on editing strategies and provide needed resources for content knowledge regarding the language, grammar, vocabulary, as well as writing skills. 

Finally, the chapter ends with a reminder and suggestion that assessment of the students’ progress in their editing skills should also be gradually transferred from the teacher to the students, so they may become more independent and autonomous learners, which should be the goal of all education.  
The book is a comprehensive resource for teachers offering various approaches for designing writing tasks for both academic and professional writing skills with a focus on critical writing, utilizing technology and the revising process. It can be read from start to finish as a form of professional learning, but the different focus sections offer chapters that can be referenced individually to meet instructional needs at a particular time. This makes the book a great text to have on hand to refer to again and again.