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


Interdisciplinary Chats

Since I’ve landed at NYU Shanghai, I have been involved in crossing borders—shuttling between silos in an attempt to support student learning and advanced literacy acquisition throughout their educational experiences. When I first arrived, I was told that something that contributed to the decision to hire me, besides my background in L2 writing and TESOL, was that I had knowledge of professional and technical writing from my time leading development at the Purdue Online Writing Lab. So about three weeks into my first semester, I sat down with the dean of the Silver School of Social Work and we started developing a professional writing seminar that would provide L2 writers with a targeted opportunity to continue working on the literacy skills required to be practitioners in the field of social work. We purposefully designed the course to address linguistic and rhetorical issues, while staying away from creating a remedial grammar and writing course—a fact that I’ve felt the need to remind people of recently as leadership has changed.

During my second year, I was tasked with leading a support project to help our first-year sciences faculty better scaffold students’ acquisition of scientific literacy practices. I contributed to and supervised the development of a bank of instructor- and student-facing resources that covered topics like scientific writing best practices, common organizational patterns and genres in scientific communication, and advice for working with L2 writers in an ethical manner, as well as general guidelines for effectively providing feedback about writing.

Despite the fact that all of this disciplinary border crossing has been such a major part of my career at NYU Shanghai, I’ve got to say that I’ve just come to realize something rather profound. I enjoy engaging with people outside of my discipline. It’s thrilling to discuss teaching with others and to highlight the ways that we can complement each other when it comes to literacy acquisition and development. Sure, it can be frustrating when you feel the need to constantly (re-) justify the importance of what you do—which is helping disciplinary faculty make explicit for students what they have implicitly acquired over years of graduate study and professional engagement—but at the end of the day, I enjoy it. We tend to learn a great deal from each other. And, while there are varying degrees of engagement, just like when teaching, when I reach even just a few of my colleagues from outside my discipline, and we learn from each other about ways to improve how we teach students…well, that’s a major win in my book.

TL;DR: Escape your disciplinary silo often and talk with others about your practice. You’ll both gain something valuable from the experience.

Personal PD (cont.): A New Perspective on My Teaching Philosophy

I’m continuing through the first activity of the TESOL Advanced Practitioner Certificate, which requires you to learn more about a particular aspect of the field. Like the previous entries show, I decided to focus on Computer-assisted language learning, or CALL. As part of my critical reflection on this sustained reading in the area of CALL, I was also required to submit a statement of teaching philosophy for English language teaching (ELT). Since my existing statements are more general, I decided to write a new one focused on ELT and highlighting a new perspective on the philosophy that drives my practice. So, this philosophy isn’t replacing the one that appeared on this site earlier in the month, but it is supplementing it and extending it. They’re both reflections of me and my teaching, but they look at it from different angles.

TESOL Teaching Philosophy

When working with L2 English students, my teaching is grounded in a tripartite framework influenced by the sociocognitive approach to second language acquisition (SLA). First, I believe that all language and learning are simultaneously social and cognitive acts. Second, I believe multilingual students have rich linguistic resources that they must learn to apply to new contexts while managing increasingly complex and diverse cognitive tools. Third, I think that working with students to co-construct knowledge, including knowledge of linguistic systems, can drive student agency and ownership of the learning process. Below, I will discuss what this philosophy looks like in my classes.

Language, as a tool and as an act, is both a social and a cognitive phenomenon. Certainly, we use language for social means–for example, to lay down a social network in a new setting. Likewise, language is also driven and governed by cognitive processes like recursive monitoring. Learning is much the same. We seek to affect mental states, but we do so through a socially negotiated process. In my classes, I strive to make this clear to my students and to help them understand the implications of this view. For example, we can talk about how social context may prime linguistic choice. For example, talking to their classmates about an assigned reading requires one register, while talking to/for a teacher about the same reading requires another. By understanding the influence of the social context on language, we can better understand when and how we can play with language.

The students in my classes are gaining in multiliterate ability every day. I work with them to highlight how this is a strength to be leveraged and not a deficit to be overcome. In my classes, we collaborate to explore how conventions of language work so that they can decide when to deploy their multilingual resources to play with those conventions to make new meaning and to better enact their social identities. In writing classes, for example, we will explore the standard conventions of a genre and how they prime us to make certain linguistic choices. Once we have command over the genre, we can seek out places where we can play with expectations to more effectively make meaning, which may include deploying a localized variety of English over which the student has command to engage in the act of linguistic creativity. First, we do; then, we play because it is in linguistic creativity that new ways of thinking in and about our ecosocial world take shape.

Finally, I firmly believe that learning is the act of co-constructing knowledge with my students. In my classes, this means that I am not the expert. I am the facilitator. I will create educational experiences, and we may encounter places where I do not have the answers. I work to show them that there is nothing wrong with not knowing. Rather, we work together and apply our various experiences, perspectives, and knowledge to come to best-fit answer to our question.


Statement of Teaching Philosophy

As a new semester at NYU Shanghai begins, I’ve decided to make my statement of teaching philosophy public. Below, you will find the current version of my teaching philosophy, which has been heavily informed by Atkinson’s sociocognitive approach to second language acquisition. This teaching philosophy has been updated many times over my career as an educator.

Statement of Teaching Philosophy (Last Update: 9 August 2017)

When it comes to teaching, two thoughts drive my practice. First, that it is my job as their instructor to make myself, as their teacher, obsolete. As terrible as this planned obsolesce sounds, it is a necessary transformation for the learner. The second is that I need to seek out ways to link classroom experiences to what might come next for the student in both their academic and professional lives. To address these guiding notions, there are some key moves that I make in my classroom, whether it’s an L2  composition workshop, an undergraduate humanities/linguistics course, or a graduate professional writing seminar.

The first move that I make is to work towards creating a community of learners. This is important for many reasons. First, it allows students to connect with others who are sharing similar experiences in a potentially new educational context. For L2 students this allows them to begin making peer connections with others that are entering a Western university. For graduate students, it is a part of cohort building. Moreover, creating a functioning community of learners fosters increased “buy-in” around learning activities. This buy-in comes about because the students can and do have a voice in course-related decisions, which can help shape their learning. In my graduate professional writing seminars, for example, students are welcome to help plan the flow of the course to better meet their out of class writing needs. Finally, building a community of learners can contribute to increasing the level of accountability for the students, as failure to meet course expectations may impact the community and their relationship to it and not just the student/teacher relationship. In peer review activities for example, inability to come prepared to participate is not just an issue of not meeting course expectations but is also a potential disruption of community bonds.

During class, there are two ways that I assist learners in understanding and actualizing their agency. The first is by aiding students in uncovering that knowledge construction, of which writing is an important part, is an iterative, negotiated process. This is done by showing students how genre and audience expectations form a dialogue that heavily influences writing and the rhetorical situation to which they are responding. I then work to show students the ways in which their knowledge of the rhetorical situation and their multidialectal/multilingual competencies may allow them to challenge expectations in a manner that facilitates more effective communication. Second, students in my courses encounter scaffolded learning. By moving from simpler to more complex assignments that build off each other, students are better able to see how the diverse skills and knowledge that they possess can be called on and interconnected in novel ways. This scaffolding also enables students to transition more efficiently to being independent communicators and lifelong learners.

Finally, guiding students towards increased agency requires fostering effective student/teacher communication. This is done primarily through written commentary on their work. While I will comment on errors that hinder meaning or on higher order concerns, I do not mark every error that I encounter. Doing so encourages students to seek out other errors on their own. This allows the students to gain practice in identifying problems in their own writing. It also helps to highlight that, in the end, they are accountable for the quality of their work. Conferencing throughout the semester is critical to the learning in my courses. These meetings give the students the chance to address areas of opportunity that they have identified in their own writing and to better guide their instruction in such a way that it becomes personally relevant. This brings me to my final point of fostering classroom/real-world connections.

Highlighting the links between writing skills and the real-world communication demands that students will face takes on an increased importance in my sophomore and graduate classes. Therefore, I seek out novel ways to make this lesson more salient for my students. For example, in my undergraduate humanities/linguistics course, I target some of our class assignments on the students’ use of language. The second assignment sequence focuses specifically on how students use language to construct identity in online contexts. In this sequence, they must move away from merely reporting experiential, real-world data and towards using linguistic theory to make sense of that identity performance in a more objective manner. For my graduate professional writing seminars, I have often required my social work graduate students to work with live grant CFPs to write a sample grant proposal. This document is then heavily revised so that students can include it in a professional writing portfolio that they can share with potential employers.

Personal PD (cont.): The Case for CALL in a Re-mix/Mash-up World

Kessler, G. (2013). Teaching ESL/EFL in a world of social media, mash-ups, and hyper-collaboration. TESOL Journal, 4(4), 615-632.


In this invited article, Kessler provides a sustained argument for teachers to set aside their misgivings about the technological revolution in English language teaching. He adroitly points out that our students live in technological spaces that mediate not only their understanding of their ecosocial spaces but also their views towards learning and their language practices. As this is the case, teachers must come to embrace technology mediated language teaching and seek to integrate it into their practice. To help with this, Kessler provides links to many applications that teachers might find useful. He extends this data dump by providing a rationale for each item he included in his listing, weighing both pros and cons. He also provides a four-point list of actions teachers need to take to better integrate technological interventions with their practices.


For me, this was a very energetic piece by a CALL apologist that I’ve known professionally for some time. That being said, there were many useful aspects of this article. The first is the resources that he directs readers towards. To help the reader jump start their own cognition about CALL’s place in their teaching practice, Kessler provides not only a summary of the resource but suggestions for its use in language teaching. This makes Kessler’s piece infinitely more useful than other pieces that tend more towards being a wall of links. Also useful were his guidelines for approaching technology in the classroom. He encouraged educators to do four things: (1) to focus on pedagogy first, (2) to allow classroom practice to mirror real-world use, (3) to no obsess with becoming an expert of the technology, and (4) to ease into using new tech in teaching.

His second and third points are of particular importance. Allowing classroom practice to mirror authentic use allows students to more immediately see the application, the relevance, of what we’re teaching them. It can also be used to highlight how things like register and medium can influence how our interlocutors parse a message. The third part, not being expert, is instrumental. It’s a well-known maxim that our students will almost always know more about the latest tech than we do. Don’t let that hold you back. Rather, let it push you forward. By allowing students to showcase what they know and can do with new technologies in the classroom, you may be helping to actualize student agency over their own learning, a feat that can lead to increased motivation to carry out educational tasks and to buy into lifelong learning, which is what all effective language learners/users seem to understand—learning a language is a lifelong affair. There is no moment of arrival and completion.