Supporting L2 Writers with Online Writing Labs

In the spring of 2012, I began my first appointment in academic administration. I was appointed to be the content coordinator of the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL). It was a bit of a shock, as I didn’t expect to beat out some of my peers from the Rhetoric and Composition program for the position, but the senior leadership at the Purdue Writing Lab were eager to expand some of the L2 writing resources. So, between my background in management outside of the academy and my specialization in L2 writing, I was a good candidate. This was an exciting appointment for me. And, it showed me the potential of online writing resources to support second language writers.

I held that post from 2012 until I finished my Ph.D. in 2015. During my time in this post, I learned a great deal about how OWLs can support L2 writers, and I have become a vocal advocate for OWLs expanding to other national contexts. In today’s blog update, I’m going to share some of my thinking and learning on this topic. I’ll begin by discussing how OWLs can support L2 writers and I’ll wrap up by talking about why I think they should be encouraged “take flight” in other national contexts.

OWLs & Supporting L2 Writers

Since their creation in 1994, OWLs have increasingly included resources specifically targeted at L2 writers to help guide them through the cognitively and linguistically demanding task of composing in the target language. The Purdue OWL’s ESL section includes some resources about composing for U.S. university assignments, business writing in Indian and China Englishes, and a primer on the central concepts of composition in American classrooms. Excelsior College’s OWL ESL section offers a series of workshops on issues that arise throughout the writing process, and they include some animated videos to reinforce the learning.

As wonderful as these resources are, and as many hours as gets poured into their creation, they are always created with a set audience in mind. At the Purdue OWL, the Land Grant University Mission required us to consider how these resources could first be useful to the Purdue University and the Indiana State communities. This means that there will always be the need to change or scaffold these resources before using them in L2 classrooms outside of these contexts. It’s important to be aware of, however, how licensing and copyright may constrain your options in some of these regards.

One of the primary areas that need modification is in regards to Lexile level. A study that I carried out in 2013, and which will appear in Asian EFL Journal next month, shows that many teachers report that their students, especially in the EFL context, have difficulty with some of the language used in online resources—even ones specially designed for L2 writers. This means that classroom teachers will need to dedicate time in class to introducing and defining critical metalanguage about writing, terminology that is typically rather common across these resources. It also means that some of these resources may be more appropriate to helping the teacher prepare for class, and not just giving them to students.

Another way that OWLs can help L2 writers is by helping them to gain agency over their educational experiences. OWLs can be beneficial in this regards by serving as a repository of resources to which students can turn when they are in need. Also, they can allow students to personalize their learning by providing them with a bank of educational resources that cover a range of topics and writing contexts. By helping students to take more agency over their learning OWLs may also contribute to student success and retention at the University level (see Mercer’s “Understanding Learner Agency”).

Why OWLs Should Expand to New Contexts

Since taking over the Purdue OWL, I have been an advocate for OWLs expanding to new contexts. This belief began after a series of conversations with writing lab administrators in Poland and in Japan. During these conversations, I learned about the expansion of writing centers to Asia and Europe. Many of these writing centers followed the U.S. model, making use of peer tutoring and low-stakes conversations about students’ writing to create a safe place for student-writers to work on improving their writing.

OWLs are a logical extension of this growth of in-person centers. And, I would argue, that they help address the affective barriers that the act of writing and revising may raise in ways that physical writing center may not be able to. For example, many of our students have grown accustomed to computer-mediated exchanges. By moving the tutorial and instructional resources to digital spaces, it moves the exchange more closely into the students’ comfort zone. Now, while I firmly believe that we should challenge our students to step outside of their comfort zones, not everyone is ready to do this. For these students, OWL resources can be invaluable. This is one of the reasons that I would love to see more OWLs come online in national contexts across the globe. It makes writing, even in the L1, more affectively accessible. And, it may serve as a vital connection to the writing center that might not occur otherwise—a link which could eventually lead to face-to-face tutorials as the student grows more confident in their writing.

The second reason is that I believe national OWLs can serve a vital function in addressing aspects of writing—especially local L1 writing and multilingual writing—that things like the Purdue OWL and the Excelsior OWL have just been ill-equipped to address strictly from a human resources perspective. A Chinese OWL, for example, could discuss writing strategies and expectations for writing business letters in Chinese, or for using China English to communicate to international and multilingual audiences that the Purdue OWL can’t really hope to replicate. Also, a Chinese OWL could help the millions of L2 Chinese learners across the globe. Heavens knows I’d love a reliable resource to turn to that could guide me through writing a proper business email in Chinese!

Source Articles

Mercer, L. (2011). Understanding learner agency as a complex dynamic system. System, 39(4), 427-436.

Paiz, J.M. (2016). Extending the writing center: Online writing labs as sites of engagement and students learning. [plenary address]. European Writing Centers Association: Łodz, Poland.

Paiz, J.M. (2017). Uses of and attitudes towards OWLs as L2 writing support tools. Asian EFL Journal, 19(1), 56-80.

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