In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Second Language Writing

  • Introduction
  • General Approaches to Research in Second Language Writing
  • Journals
  • Second Language Acquisition Theory and Second Language Writing

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Linguistics Second Language Writing
Robert Godwin-Jones
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 April 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 April 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0286


Second language (L2) writing is the act of expressing oneself in written form in a language other than one’s native tongue (L1). Learning to write in a new language is generally considered to be one of the most challenging aspects of second language acquisition (SLA). It may involve learning a new writing system and will certainly necessitate acquiring some grammatical knowledge and a basic vocabulary in the new language. Baseline literacy assumes L2 learners will achieve a minimally functional reading and writing ability in the L2. In today’s communicative environment, the ability to communicate through digital networks is dependent on those skills. However, the extent to which non-native speakers will be writing in formal or professional registers, with an accompanying need for grammatical accuracy and compositional coherence, will vary with individual contexts. The process of writing in a L2 has been a field of study in applied linguistics and in SLA theory since the middle of the 20th century. The focus has been predominantly on L2 writing in academic settings. In recent years, more interest and research has been directed at informal writing, particularly in online contexts. In formal L2 education, communicative language learning methodology long prioritized development of spoken over written modes of communication. That started to change toward the end of the 20th century, especially as digital environments became more prevalent. In terms of pedagogical practices, the emphasis in teaching L2 writing has traditionally been on achieving grammatical accuracy. However, that shifted under the influence of composition studies, with its focus on ideational and structural properties. That was accompanied by a transition from viewing writing as a product to seeing it as a process. An additional development in L2 writing instruction has been the increased use of models and attention paid to attributes of particular written genres. More recent research has analyzed the distinctive character of L2 writing compared to writing in one’s L1, highlighting cultural factors that influence L2 writers. That follows SLA research generally, which has transitioned from a primary focus on cognitive factors to a sociocultural perspective, in which writing is seen not just in the context of acquired language skills and cognitive faculties, but more broadly as a socially situated communicative act involving an intended reader. Most recently, particular attention is being paid to the incorporation of written texts with other media (multimodality), as well as the mixing of languages in online media (translanguaging).

General Approaches to Research in Second Language Writing

In contrast to learning to speak a language, writing is not naturally acquired. That ability must be learned and practiced. Learning to write is a complex task in any language, but writing in a non-native language presents its own special set of challenges, deriving from possible deficiencies in terms of lexical, syntactic, pragmatic, or rhetorical knowledge. Most of the research conducted on second language (L2) writing explores how that process takes place in formal educational settings, from elementary school to higher education. Less research has been conducted in other environments, such as workplace or immigrant settings. Overviews of L2 writing, such as Leki, et al. 2008 and Hyland 2019, focus on approaches to teaching writing skills, addressing primarily instruction in secondary and university levels, from both a second and foreign language perspective. Other studies, such as Ferris and Hedgcock 2005, have a more narrowly focused orientation, addressing L2 composition at the university level. The overview of Williams 2004 examines L2 writing from the perspective of the principles of communicative language learning, whereas Ferris 2010 considers L2 writing in connection with theories of second language acquisition (SLA). The vast majority of research into L2 writing focuses on English. However, recent studies, such as Canagarajah 2011, take a multilingual perspective.

  • Canagarajah, Suresh. 2011. Codemeshing in academic writing: Identifying teachable strategies of translanguaging. Modern Language Journal 95.3: 401–417.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-4781.2011.01207.x

    Work by a leading scholar in multilingualism, dealing with the use and mix of multiple languages in academic writing.

  • Ferris, Dana R. 2010. Second language writing research and written corrective feedback in SLA: Intersections and practical applications. Studies in Second Language Acquisition 32.2: 181–201.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0272263109990490

    Discusses the central role in both L2 writing research and SLA scholarship of written corrective feedback.

  • Ferris, Dana R., and John Hedgcock. 2005. Teaching L2 composition: Purpose, process, and practice. London: Routledge.

    A widely used, influential, and comprehensive theory-to-practice text.

  • Hyland, Ken. 2019. Second language writing. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781108635547

    Comprehensive guide to issues in L2 writing instruction, focusing on English language learners. First edition published in 2003.

  • Leki, Ilona, Alister Cumming, and Tony Silva. 2008. A synthesis of research on second language writing in English. London: Routledge.

    Comprehensive narrative summary of the field.

  • Williams, Jessica. 2004. Teaching writing in second and foreign language classrooms. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

    An introduction to research and practice in L2 writing instruction. Based on the principles of communicative language teaching and offers insights from multiple sources from SLA researchers.

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