The Reading Matrix
Vol. 1, No. 1, April 2001

Allen, G. (2000). Language, power and consciousness: A writing experiment at the University of Toronto. In C. Anderson & M. MacCurdy (Eds.), Writing and healing: Toward an informed practice. Urbana, IL: NCTE Press.
Reviewed by Yuko Hirodo
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education

In this article, Allen (2000) discusses some of the challenges he faced when establishing an effective writing course at a university. He also describes some of the causes of college students' writing problems. He used traditional writing procedures, which focus on grammar and structure, and found discouraging results in terms of student work. According to Allen, universities often force students to make artificial distinctions between academic and creative writing, which results in the absence of content in their writing. His experiments with personal essay writing point to the students' natural drive to make meaning from their writing. This personal essay process allowed for parallel discourse between academic and creative writing, unlike orthodox teaching. The students were encouraged to write prose that makes meaning and attracts readers. As real writers do, they learned how to edit their own writing as well as edit the writing of others. As a result, there were three positive outcomes - increased confidence, knowledge of editing principles, and simplified style.

In the new writing environment, the students demonstrated their originality and reflected on their experiences in the essay. Through the writing process, students came to realize that their lives contain meaning which they can draw upon. The expression of the self and its experience through language resulted in personal growth. The personal essay work they engaged in while in the course not only improved their performance in the writing class, but also improved their writing in other courses. Moreover, the writing improved their confidence and their mental health. Allen's experiments illustrate that with more opportunities and guidance, students will start to communicate with the language and make positive changes in their relationships with themselves and with the world around them.

This article struck a personal chord and enlightened me about what a writing course should be all about. I taught a college English writing course in Japan and also struggled in guiding my students in expressing their personalities and experiences in their writing. They were used to focusing on grammar, and sentence-to-sentence translation was very much ingrained in them through traditional language teaching and learning methods. I strongly agree with Allen's idea that the writing problem in the universities lies in a humanism problem. Just as Allen suggests, it appears that at times, people do perceive the writing problem as a deficiency of learning differences that exist in syntax, phonology, and lexicon between their native language and the target language are perceived as weaknesses. However, they neglect the content of the writing and fail to recognize that the main purpose of writing is to communicate. Therefore, I think one of the major problems of teaching writing is not only the teaching method, but in fact, the problem may have its root in the teachers' perception of writing and how writing should be taught. As Allen said, educators need to establish a facilitating environment so that students write what they want to express. In order to make the students take responsibility for making original meaning in their writings, educators also should be ready to hear the students' voices in their papers and be open to those voices. Otherwise, teaching personal essay work will end up failing. Teachers of composition who have second language writers in their classes may very well relate to the above.

The section of the article that interests me the most is the discussion of the healing potential of personal essay work. Kofie's case is an amazing example in showing how students can adapt the writing process to their individual situations and through language, they can discover and develop themselves. Allen cited Winnicott's term (1965), "transitional space", to explain writing as a creative work of play and within the space, the students can explore and draw links between the writer's inner self and outer worlds as Kofie tried to do. Ban Breathnach (1998) illustrated the "discovery journal" using archaeology in her frame of reference. She describes the journey as exploring the Self and Spirit. A person needs to dig into the verdant field of her/his past as an archeologist of the self in order to excavate the wholeness in the person. To proceed through this discovery journal, she suggests to write down the thoughts and memories that occur to ourselves. Kofie seems to have gone through this spiritual journey to excavate "the True Self" which Allen described. I also believe that telling a personal story is a positive, worth while exercise which enables us to find out who we are. The writing procedure is just like retracing a person's life. To express what was really happening and to be aware of the facts would help people to understand the events in the past and fill in the gaps between the past and our lives today. The moment of success occurs internally when people discover who they are and reach the awareness that there are various things they can achieve. In that sense, the language is what Allen called "the tool of human mind". As he explained, I also believe language has the power to help people to live unconsciously or consciously.

There are several things to consider when implementing this type of personal essay work into a college writing course. As Allen suggested in the article, because some of the students use their writing project as a process of discovering themselves, the teacher must guard against becoming a therapist. I think that is an important point to keep in mind, not to put the teacher into a difficult or inappropriate position. It is sometimes difficult to draw a line between our personal and professional lives when we teach. However, to maintain balance, I believe teachers should clearly recognize their role. Another consideration relates to how we can implement this teaching procedure in second language teaching where the ESL learners' linguistic knowledge is low and needs to be developed in order to express themselves. In that case, this teaching method may be limited; perhaps it can most effectively be used in settings where the students have achieved at least a lower-intermediate level of language knowledge and competence. Finally, the assessment of such personal essays is not discussed in this article. Assessment of expressive writing is crucial and that is another issue to be discussed further before effective implementation can occur.


Allen, G. (2000). Language, power and consciousness: A writing experiment at the University of Toronto. In C. Anderson & M. MacCurdy (Eds.), Writing and healing: Toward an informed practice. Urbana, IL: NCTE Press.

Ban Breathnach, S. (1998). Something more: excavating your authentic self. New York, N.Y.: Warner Books, Inc.

Winnicott, D. W. (1965). The maturational process and the facilitating environment: Studies in the theory of emotional development. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.




































Yuko Hirodo is a Ph.D. candidate in Second Language Education at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education - The University of Toronto. She has taught EFL courses at Ferris University and various other colleges in Japan. Her research interests include the analysis of sociolinguistics and socio-cultural factors in L2 use