The Reading Matrix
Vol. 2, No. 1, April 2002

Landmark Essays on ESL Writing
Tony Silva and Paul Kei Matsuda Eds. (2001)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xiii-265.
ISBN 1-880393-18-2

Reviewed by Amy Dayton
University of Arizona

At one time, the history of second language writing research may have only been of interest to ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers and researchers. Today, however, with more and more non-native speakers on U.S. college campuses and in mainstream writing classrooms, almost all writing instructors occasionally find themselves in the position of "ESL teacher." Thus, a growing number of writing professionals needs to be aware of history, theory, and pedagogy in ESL writing. In a recent installment of the Landmark Essays series, Tony Silva and Paul Kei Matsuda present a collection of articles that trace the field from its origins in structural linguistics through the major developments of the last four decades. Although this series has typically targeted professionals in rhetoric and composition, Landmark Essays on ESL Writing is intended for professionals in both composition studies and ESL. In the introduction, Silva and Matsuda explain that "despite the efforts of some writing specialists and ESL specialists to fill the gap...the differences between the perceptions and expectations of specialists in these two intellectual formations...have not been easy to reconcile" (p. xiv). This collection is designed to bridge the distance between them. It is an important contribution to both fields, as it is accessible, clear, and relevant to a wide audience.

The book begins with the origins of ESL writing research in structural and text linguistics. The first two studies reflect a concern with practical issues in the teaching of writing. In a 1962 essay, Anita Pincas presents classroom activities based on the "controlled composition" model, in which students are expected to master forms correctly through repetition and avoidance of error. Robert Kaplan's well-known article, "Cultural Thought Patterns in Inter-Cultural Education," the foundational study for research in contrastive rhetoric, shows that writers from different language backgrounds employ culturally specific strategies for organizing their texts. Although Kaplan has been criticized for his narrow focus on the paragraph level and his somewhat simplistic generalizations about cultural differences in writing, his work remains essential reading for research in contrastive rhetoric.

Other articles in the collection reflect the evolution of contrastive rhetoric since Kaplan. John Hinds argues that rhetorical differences between languages are a result of cultural assumptions about who is responsible for creating a text's meaning, and he presents a typology of languages according to whether they are writer-responsible or reader-responsible. In "Research Frontiers in Writing Analysis," Ulla Connor draws on L1 process theories to argue that an L2 model of writing must emphasize both process and product. Connor introduces the method of topical progression analysis to demonstrate that a text-analysis approach can be effective in a process-oriented class. While Connor's article represents a shift toward the process model, Joan Carson's 1992 study reflects a growing awareness of the sociocultural aspects of writing. In her study of writing in China and Japan, Carson examines the process of literacy acquisition in both cultures through her analysis of the social roles of writing, linguistic aspects of the languages, and the history and practice of schooling. A final article on contrastive rhetoric, by Paul Kei Matsuda, presents both an overview of research to date and a dynamic model for pedagogical applications.

Many of the essays reflect the influence of L1 theories on L2 scholarship. Vivian Zamel critiques the controlled composition approach, arguing that we must view writing not as a product of habit-formation but rather, as a complex process that emerges out of student expression, purpose, and rhetorical situation. Ann Raimes refines the notion of "process-oriented" writing by demonstrating that the writing process is not a linear model with clearly predictable and ordered steps, but rather, a recursive one. While these essays reflect the influence of L1 composition theories on ESL research, they also reflect an awareness that the two fields have separate paradigms; Raimes in particular cautions against "treating students like native speakers of the language" (p. 30). Finally, Tony Silva's article, "Toward an Understanding of the Distinct Nature of L2 Writing: The ESL Research and Its Implications," reviews the research on L2 writing and identifies important differences between the two fields, ultimately re-affirming that while ESL writing research can learn a great deal from L1 research, we must be mindful that ESL students have unique needs and purposes for writing which make them different from L1 writers.

The more recent essays reflect a growing concern with ethical and political issues in the teaching of writing. These issues include the role of the writing class at the university and the practice of critical pedagogy. Most of these authors assert a pragmatist position over an overtly critical or ideological approach; this is despite the fact that many ESL researchers do advocate critical pedagogy approaches. In "Ideology in Composition: L1 and ESL," Terry Santos critiques the literature on critical pedagogy for its neglect of the pedagogical implications. In the "Responding to ESL Students' Texts: The Myths of Appropriation," Joy Reid argues in favor of giving directive assistance to students, cautioning that an over-exaggerated fear of appropriating students' texts can prevent teachers from giving effective feedback. Although Santos and Reid both argue convincingly for pragmatic approaches, the collection could have benefited from including the perspectives of critical pedagogy in ESL. (In the other volume that they co-edited, On Second Language Writing, Matsuda and Silva do include one critical pedagogy perspective, an article by Sarah Benesch).

The book's other topics include the connection between reading and writing, the role of WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum,) and assessment. In her 1988 article, "Initiating Students into the Academic Discourse Community: How Far Should We Go?" Ruth Spack argues that a humanities approach is more appropriate for ESL writers than a discipline-specific curriculum. If teachers focus on general writing skills, students can transfer those skills to their work in other disciplines. Supporting Spack's view of the writing class as a place where students should learn general academic discourse, Daniel argues against the teaching of literature in the ESL classroom. Because the majority of ESL students are not studying literature, he claims that a variety of texts from various genres proves most useful to them. Another essay on reading, by Iloni Leki, critiques the unclear role of reading in the L2 classroom and argues for the integration of reading and writing instruction. Finally, the anthology tackles the issue of assessment. In her essay, "Interpreting an English Competency Examination: The Frustrations of an ESL Student," Ann Johns examines the construction of writing tests through a case study of one student. She raises the question of whether writing tests are fair and valid for L2 writers. Liz Hamp-Lyons and Barbara Kroll outline a number of important issues in ESL writing assessment, including reader training, test construction, validity and reliability, assessment methods, essay prompts, scoring procedures, and portfolios.

The book's sixteen essays cover a wide range of important topics. Teachers and researchers in both composition studies and ESL will benefit from the historical perspective that it provides. Although this collection will be a valuable resource for any ESL teacher or researcher, the landmark approach does have its limitations. The book neglects some important issues; for example, with the exception of Ann Johns' study, no qualitative or ethnographic research is included. The essays represent the history of ESL writing only through the eyes of teachers and researchers; students' voices are rarely heard. Moreover, the discussions of ESL writers are limited to international students, without acknowledging the many populations of ESL writers, including language minority Americans and the Generation 1.5 group of students who have been educated in the U.S. but remain ESL learners. Perhaps, though, these omissions are a result of the "landmark" approach because it is only in recent history that ESL writing research has become more attentive to these issues. For the most part, these "landmarks" are indeed important milestones in the development of an evolving field.


































Amy Dayton is pursuing a PhD in rhetoric and composition at the University of Arizona, where she teaches basic writing for ESL students and coordinates tutor training at the campus Writing Center. Her research interests include ESL writing, assessment, community literacy, and the history of ESL education.