An Updated View on the Ethical Treatment of L2 Writers

Institutions of higher learning in many countries—particularly in the English-dominant centre—are more corporatized, more diverse, and increasingly dependent on international students as “revenue generators” in financially unstable times (Tardy & Whittig, 2017, p. 1).

Those that know me know how religiously I quote Silva’s (1997) article, “On the Ethical Treatment of L2 Writers,” because of how powerfully it speaks to the need to resist the deficit-view of L2 writers and writing. It has become a cornerstone of my professional philosophy. And, something that should, frankly, be required reading for any educator that is going to work with multilingual students. I know that I wish I could force some of my colleagues to read and critically engage with the piece. Now, ten years on, the article is really only showing its age because of how much ground the field of L2 writing has covered. Despite this, it’s still an exceptionally relevant piece.

It is still so crucial that Tardy and Whittig (2017) decided to give it a timely updating for its tenth anniversary. They updated the piece by going into each of Silva’s original four points and speaking of the advances in L2 writing and TESOL that have taken place over the past decade. While we know a lot more now, we still have some way to go as far as the ethical treatment of L2 writers. For example, Tardy and Whittig (2017) point to the need to acknowledge that the distinction between L1 and L2 can create the impression of a monolithic population where none exists; furthermore, we must train both specialist and non-specialist alike to be aware of this fact. The community of writers identified as L2 is, perhaps, even more varied than the L1 population. This variation means that L2 writing specialists must take a very nuanced approach to how we talk about L2 writing issues with our colleagues, being careful not to reinforce an oversimplified view of reality.

Granted, this is very challenging. I was invited to give a talk at a writing pedagogies institute at a university in New York. One of their staffers, a person marginally aligned with TESOL, grilled me during the welcome dinner, asking very probing and highly marginalizing questions about L2 writers. Questions like, “In your professional experience, don’t you find that the Chinese students can’t construct good sentences or paragraphs?” Beyond being insulted and not wanting to offend someone who might someday review my reappointment docket, I politely pointed out that, yes, some have this issue. But, so do some so-called native speakers. And, some first-year Chinese L2 writers are actually particularly adroit at sentence construction. Well once I wouldn’t reaffirm their deficit view of L2 writers, they were done with me and with hearing what I had to say. At least that’s the impression they gave off. And, this happens far too often. When we, as L2 writing specialists, don’t reaffirm racist, deficit views of the population with which we closely work, we begin to lose our street cred. But, to that, I must say resist and persist—for the good of the students.

Another important update that Tardy and Whittig (2017) provided was about the writing courses for English as an additional language (EAL) writers, here L2 writers. L2 writing courses must be more than mere grammar and mechanics courses. Indeed, attention to language and to the linguistic expectations of the academy are important. But, the classes we offer must be more than some remedial reading of the Bluebook of Grammar and Spelling. I, frankly, couldn’t agree more. The so-called problem for L2 writers isn’t one of not enough of something; it’s one of too much. And, like one of the X-men with too much power that accidentally destroys half of the town, our L2 writers have to learn how to wield their multilingual, multirhetorical powers in ways that will provide them access to the dominant discourses of higher education. This means that L2 writing classes should focus on helping students to first understand the expectations for written communication in the academy before moving on to making it clearer to them how they can deploy their multilingual resources to play with and to artfully break those expectations in ways that lead to even more potent meaning making with their chosen audiences. Indulge me as I return to the mutant metaphor from earlier. We as L2 writing specialists need to be more like Professor Xavier and less like Warren Worthington II, the developer of the mutant cure to turn all mutants into ordinary people—just like everyone else. That is, we have to work with our students to show them how to channel their abilities to be more effective communicators.

Perhaps the most crucial update, however, was Tardy and Whittig’s (2017) call to for all L2 writing specialists to be advocates for this student population. To resist, on their behalf, the dominant discourses of the university that continue to marginalize and to silence them. Furthermore, to be ethical advocates, we must also equip these students to, over time, become self-advocates. Note, however, that there are many pathways to advocacy. I don’t think they, or I, would suggest picketing the vice chancellor’s office—but, hey if you think that would work… Instead, this advocacy may take the form of raising the awareness of colleagues and administrators about the challenges and benefits of L2 writers and writing, or holding pedagogy development workshops or pushing for inclusive and ethical campus policies.

TL;DR: Read Silva (1997) and Tardy and Whittig (2017)!

Source material

Silva, T. (1997). On the ethical treatment of ESL writers. TESOL Quarterly, 31(2), 359-363.

Tardy, C.M., & Whittig, E. (2017). On the ethical treatment of EAL writings: An update. TESOL Quarterly, doi: 10.1002/tesq.405


Automated Writing Evaluators (AWEs) in L2 Writing

Later today, a guest blog that I wrote for ELT Research Bites will come online. In that posting, I discuss how the Global Masters in Social Work (gMSW) program at NYU Shanghai decided to make a premium version of Grammarly available to our students free-of-charge, and I summarize a recent study that looked at student attitudes towards automated writing evaluators (AWEs) like Grammarly. In today’s blog post on Applied Linguistics (Re)Coded, I’m going to reflect a little more on AWEs and their (possible) role in L2 writing.

First, allow me to say that I was entirely in support of the gMSW program’s decision to roll out Grammarly to its students—L1 and L2 English users alike. I should also note, that I am an adjunct lecturer at the Silver School of Social Work in the gMSW program. However, I was also vocal in stating that we had to properly train students on how to integrate the AWE into their writing practice in a critical way. Far too often, students view AWEs as mere checking tools (see Cavaleri & Dianati, 2016; Reis & Huijser, 2016). Also, students have been known just to click, click, click through the suggested changes, to accept them with little thought as to how the recommended alterations might impact meaning and stylistics in their texts (ibid). Both of these practices drastically reduce the potential efficacies of AWEs—first, as learning tools; and second, as writing improvement tools. So, there are a couple of things that need to be kept in mind when scaffolding students’ use of AWEs.

For L1 and L2 writers alike, there is the need to highlight the fact that many advanced AWEs such as Grammarly, PaperRateror After the Deadline, aren’t just checking tools; they are also great learning tools. One of the reasons that I’m such a fan of Grammarly is because I can hover over a suggestion to learn more about why the AWE flagged it as a potential error. I can then see examples of other sentences with similar mistakes; and then, I can reflect on what I’ve written to decide whether or not it’s actually an error that needs to be addressed. Also, every week Grammarly sends me an email that lists my top-five errors (e.g., faulty parallelism, improper article use, etc.), which I can then use to identify a pattern of errors in my writing. After identifying the pattern, I can then begin actively to hunt them down in future writing. Both of these features are great tools for learning and not just for checking.

The second issue, however, is a much harder one to deal with. Novice writers tend to see AWEs as a silver bullet to fix their writing. I tell my students the same thing I tell early-service educators and researchers, “There’s no such thing as a silver bullet, so quit wasting your time.” The only way to improve our writing, our practice, or our research is to invest the time in it that it needs to be nurtured. This means critically reflecting on what we’re doing, the tools we’re using, and the successes and failures we’re encountering. Students must be taught to use AWEs critically. AWEs are, despite how advanced they’ve become, pretty stupid things that can only check for what they’ve been programmed to monitor for. And, even then, they’re only as good as the code that makes them run and the databases and corpora that serve as their foundations. So, you must look into all the suggestions that they make to inform your revision decisions. There are some cases where an AWE will make recommendations that actually change the intended meaning of a sentence, or that will introduce new error into the text. Likewise, there are somethings that the checker simply will not catch. So, it’ll never replace an additional set of human eyes.

I’ve been using the premium version of Grammarly for about a year, and will likely fork over the 140$ for another year. Since I’ve started using it, I’ve become more confident in my writing, and I’ve added an additional—and necessary—level of revision to my work. I actually got a compliment on my writing and style from an editor for an article that I submitted to their journal (an article that was also my first “accept with minor revisions”). But, that’ doesn’t mean that error doesn’t still creep into the writing. Clicking through the AWE doesn’t solve all the problems. It helps, for sure. But, you must always go through multiple rounds of revision and review. And, you can never replace a second set of eyes.

This post has been edited with the help of Grammarly, and I’m sure you still might find a floating error here or there that I missed because I was in a hurry to run downstairs for another cup of Starbucks.

source material

Cavaleri, M., & Dianati, S. (2016). You want me to check your grammar again? The usefulness of an online grammar checker as perceived by students. Journal of Academic Language & Learning, 10(1), 223-236.

Reis, C., & Huijser, H. (2016). Correcting tool or learning tool? Student perceptions of an online essay writing support tool at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University. Show Me the Learning. Adelaide, AU: ASCILITE.

Expat Teachers as Language Learners

The semester has begun at NYU Shanghai, and I was sitting at my desk staring out the window with a lukewarm cup of Nescafé in my hands. I had just finished reviewing a few chapters on articulatory phonetics and general phonology to prepare for my seminar the next day. And, my mind was wondering from what to read next—perhaps something for the article that I need to revise and resubmit before 1 December—to the colleague that had upset my morning flow by turning a standard greeting into a chance to vent for fifteen minutes. My thoughts were interrupted by the ping of my email inbox. So, I dragged my mind back to the present and took a look at what had arrived. Perhaps, it would be a request for more materials in class. Or Maybe, it would be an invitation to another meeting or to serve on another committee.

Luckily it was an announcement that the September issue of Asian EFL Journal was out. I try to keep up on the reading in my field; so, I browsed the T.O.C. to see if there was anything worth adding to my queue—which is finally under 30. The very first article sucked me in by the title, “Always the Other: Foreign Teachers of English in Korea, and Their Experiences as Speakers of KSL.” I immediately downloaded the article, not even bothering to vet my decision by reading the abstract. I knew I needed to read this piece.

I’ve written a few posts on this blog looking at the life of the migrant (expat) faculty member (the most recent can be found here). I write about this topic for two reasons. First, it is my current lived reality. I shuttle back and forth between China and the U.S. according to the academic calendar. Second, you don’t see that much work done in TESOL or English-facing Applied Linguistics about so-called native-speaker teachers (NESTs) acculturating to a new culture, let alone the NEST as a language learner in their own right. The relative absence of work on this topic is deafening once you realize it’s there. Seeing Grey’s (2017) entry in the Asian EFL Journal, I simply knew that I had to read it.

I can’t say that there was anything overly surprising about what Grey found. His primary finding was that the foreign teachers in his sample actively pursued L2 Korean proficiency to help them acculturate to their new country and to help carry out identity and affiliative work with the socially significant others (e.g., co-workers, friends, potential lovers, etc.). Many of his participants reported that Korean language proficiency was necessary to integrate fully into their workplaces and local communities. Also, they reported still being set apart because they did not phenotypically present as Korean or East Asian. This set them up as constantly other, especially when their interlocutors responded poorly to their linguistically facilitated performance of social identity.

I must admit that there were places where I was frustrated with Grey’s respondents. At times the simultaneously seemed to want to be integrated into Korean society and to enjoy still the rights and privileges of being outside it—and, make no mistake; all of us expats live in a bubble of privilege in our respective host nations. Said another way, they seemed to want to have their cake and eat it too. But, I acknowledge that feeling. There are times that I, too, wish that I had sufficient language skill in Chinese to more fully, and smoothly, interact with my Chinese neighbours, colleagues, and peers. But, I also acknowledge that I am a guest in this country and that I will always—for better or for worse—be American and not Chinese.

What’s groundbreaking about Grey’s work isn’t his findings, which I come to expect as an expat teacher myself. What is groundbreaking is the shift in focus to the NEST as a language learner. This is something that needs so much more attention. This is made even truer when we consider his findings in relationship to teacher-training and graduate programs, which should prepare ELT professionals for the genuine possibility that they may move abroad for work. So, if you’re an expat faculty member, or you’re a teacher-trainer/MA-TESOL professor…read it, now. Assign it to your students. Discuss it. Come to terms with it. Work to extend it.

Source material.

Grey, S. (2017). Always the other: Foreign teachers of English in Korea, and their experiences as speakers of KSL. Asian EFL Journal, 19(3), 7-30.


Personal PD (Cont.): Mobile Learning in the Japanese Context

Obari, H., Goda, Y., Shimoyama, Y. & Kimura, M. (2010). Mobile technologies and language learning in Japan: Learn anywhere, anytime. In S. Levy, F. Blin, C.B. Siskin, and O. Takeuchi (eds.). WorldCALL: International Perspectives on Language Learning (pp. 38-54). New York: Routledge.


In this chapter, the authors presented the material conditions for mobile Computer-assisted Language Learning (m-CALL) in the Japanese context and explored the efficacy of mCALL implementations for English language learning. They showed that a majority of college-aged students at Japanese universities owned a mobile device (~94%) and that of these students over 60% preferred to use their mobile devices for language learning activities, ranging from lexicon expansion activities to listening comprehension activities. Based on some small-scale exploratory studies, the authors found that students, except for liberal arts students, all had marked gains in linguistic skills after experiencing mCALL interventions.


The biggest take away from this piece was that CALL interventions should meet students where they are at. Increasingly, in Asian contexts at least, this is on mobile devices while on the metro, while queued up to buy food, or even while watching TV. The prevalence of mobile devices in our students’ lives has substantial implications for how we design and implement our CALL tasks, as not every website will be immediately mobile friendly, nor will every file type be equally accessible on mobile devices. It is a critical takeaway when we consider the ubiquity of high-powered smart devices that our students use. Having said this, this chapter had many flaws that made it difficult to follow, and that decreased its potential impact. Most critically, it just tried to do too much. The authors summarized five different studies that they carried out but didn’t go into enough detail for them to be useful. They presented some charts and figures that were never fully explained, which made it difficult to see their relevance to the argument that they were trying to advance.

Personal PD (cont.): Blended Learning in Higher Ed Language Education

Now that I’m back in Shanghai, it’s time to get back to work on my TESOL Advanced Practitioner’s certificate, AKA: This year’s PD project. As promised, I’m going to continue “live” blogging my way through by first sharing the outputs of each stage of the certificate program. First, I’m compiling an annotated bibliography of readings in the area that I wish to grow in—in this case, Computer-assisted Language Learning, or CALL. Below, you’ll find the next entry. If you want to see other entries in this series, use the search box to find titles that contain “Personal PD” in them. Enjoy!

Ticheler, N., & Sachdev, I. (2010). Blended learning, empowerment, and world languages in higher education: The Flexi-Pack Project for “languages of the wider world. In S. Levy, F. Blin, C.B. Siskin, and O. Takeuchi (eds.). WorldCALL: International Perspectives on Language Learning (pp. 163-171). New York: Routledge


In this chapter, the authors explored the creation and adoption of flexi-packs, digitally delivered language learning support lessons that depended on multimodal resource delivery, and the impacts on students and teacher motivation. They argued that flexi-packs allowed educators to create a blended learning environment by deploying tools that met students in their time of need and gave students control over how they used the support resources. It should be noted, that the flexi-pack content and structure was always tied to specific pedagogical imperatives in the live classes for which they were created. The authors went on to provide an outline for what should go into an effective flexi-pack module: e.g., clear learning objectives, multi-modal, authentic resources, review material, etc. They concluded by providing a view of how flexi-packs influenced students and teachers, reporting positive results from both populations and marked positive impacts on learner motivation.


This article introduces the notion of flexi-packs as ways to give students greater control over their learning. They argue that doing so will facilitate increased student motivation in engaging with language learning. However, I fear that they missed the mark here. It’s not just about control over learning. What needs to happen with all CALL interventions is that students are guided to taking increased reflective agency over their learning. That means structuring lessons and materials in such a way that students come to understand how their eco-social environments prime them make individual choices and how this may impact learning. Students need help to become critically aware of the tools that they use to support their language learning/acquisition endeavors and how these tools will feedback into their linguistic performances in their eco-social worlds.

While I appreciate that the authors firmly grounded the creation of flexi-packs in the pedagogical imperatives of the classes that they support, I can’t help but notice the overly optimistic tone that they take towards their subject. I’m all for technologic supports for language learning—I use many myself—but there is little talk about how flexi-packs can move beyond the institution to support language learners worldwide—allowing the universities to provide a free service to their increasingly global constituents. Nor does this article adequately discuss the shortcomings of flexi-packs. For example, from my work on the Purdue Online Writing Lab, I know that students make use of these resources and feel that they have learned something, but time and again you see the misapplication of the learning in ways that produce errors. This issue is one that needs to be considered more fully in CALL research.