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Second language writing in its common usage has two distinct functions. On the one hand, it is a catchall term that encompasses writing in any language other than the writer’s “native” language (a problematic term in itself, I realize). On the other hand, it also means writing that is done in contexts where the target language is the dominant language outside the classroom, especially when it is contrasted with “foreign” language writing. (Matsuda 450, 2013)

Before the 1940s, teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) was not considered a profession in itself, although teaching English to Native American students occurred as early as the 19th century (if not earlier!). Paul Matsuda, Professor of English and the Director of Second Language Writing at Arizona State points to the 20th century and J. Raleigh Nelson at the University of Michigan in 1911 as offering the first class in English specifically for international students. While a few of the major universities offered ESL classes; many did not, using instead what Matsuda terms a “sink-or-swim approach to language learning” in the classroom (1999, 702).

In reviewing the work of composition historians in the field,[1] Matsuda sees no second-language “component” in their work, positing that “ESL writing has not been considered as part of composition studies since it began to move toward the status of a profession during the 1960s” (700). This references the separation of teaching ESL from teaching composition as a “disciplinary division of labor,” occurring as a result of the belief that “teaching writing to ESL students falls upon professionals in another intellectual formation, second-language studies, or more specifically, Teaching English as a Second Language (TESL)”(700).

In the early 1900s, “letter writing” was viewed as the most advanced writing that second-language learners would need. However, with Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy in 1933, and a subsequent conference in 1939, the focus of teaching English to second-language students become more prominent and led to the establishment of the English Language Institute at the University of Michigan in 1941. Matsuda points to this opening as “one of the most significant events in the history of TESL in the United States” (702). Prior to the ELI’s opening, “it was commonly believed that anyone whose native language was English was qualified to teach English to nonnative speakers” (Matsuda 702, 1999).

Tony Silva calls the time period after 1945, “the beginning of the modern era of second language teaching in the United States” (11). It was during the 1940s to 1960s, that the “language of speech” view became dominant through the work of Leonard Bloomfield and Charles C. Fries with second-language learning interest resulting from national security interests as totalitarianism moved into Latin America (Matsuda 15, 2006). There were early assumptions by both Charles Fries and Leonard Bloomfield that “students would be able to write once they mastered the structure and sounds of a language” (Matsuda 16, 2006). Bloomfield drew from both Fries and Otto Jespersen, but still focused on spoken, not written language, with his publication of Outline Guide for the Practical Study of Foreign Languages in 1942. From these early methods came the audiolingual approach to teaching students in ESL and foreign language classrooms (Matsuda 16, 2006).

Silva references “controlled composition” as having its roots in this time period (12). Second-language writing became part of ESL programs in the 1960s, but few teachers were trained for second-language learners, as it was often viewed as remedial instruction as spoken instruction was what had been the focus. Silva sees this time as being “filled by the ESL version of current-traditional rhetoric”[2] by bringing grammar and Kaplan’s contrastive rhetoric into the ESL classroom (13). ESL moved to process-oriented teaching in the classroom, mirroring L1 composition pedagogy, but this too had its drawbacks, as Silva recognizes that critics of this approach see an “omission of approach” and wish for more focus on ESL composition within an “academic discourse community (16).

Differences between applied and structural linguistics related to the professionalism of the field during the 1940s-1970s, provided disagreements as to “how” ESL was taught. From the applied linguists of the 1940s, professionalism was a group concern and elicited a sense of belonging.  For Fries and structural linguists at UM, professionalism was the “application of the principles of linguistics” – the beginning of the use of applied linguistics in referencing the teaching of language (Matsuda 704, 1999). Fries saw applied linguistics as “hierarchical,” with linguists at the top – focusing on the production of teaching materials that used “scientific linguistic research” (704). With the creation of Language Learning: A Quarterly Journal of Applied Linguistics in 1948 by Michigan ELI, “Michigan professionalism” became the tacit teaching methodology in ESL development.

While histories of second-language writing appeared in the 1960s, it was not until the 1990s that second-language writing recognition “emerged as an interdisciplinary field situated at the crossroads between second-language acquisition and composition studies” (Matsuda 7, 2006) and became an integrated part of the [second-language writing] curriculum in higher education. (Matsuda 15, 2006). Composition and ESL studies began to align more closely as it became apparent that second-language writers did not become fluent with just a few semesters of instruction and that student writing was a concern throughout the curriculum (Matsuda 23, 2006). Early Basic Writing instructors and publications focused on “traditionally excluded students” and how to improve their access to higher education, aligning with ESL in discussions and research. Matsuda cites early recommendations that included using the Michigan ELI[3] materials focusing on spoken language, since no other materials were being used at that time (17, 2006).

While the “Students’ Right to Their Own Language” Committee was formed in 1971 and passed by the Executive Committee of CCCC that same year (Smitherman 22), it wasn’t until 2001 when the Conference in College Composition and Communication (CCCC) and the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) adopted the “CCCC Statement on Second-Language Writing and Writers.” This was also endorsed by Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). Since that time, it has been revised (2009) and is now a part of the Committee on Second Language Writing’s 2016 Charge 3 for “Distributing and helping members use the revised (2009) Statement on Second Language Writing and Writers.” In their 2014 Spring, the committee update notes, “[t]he linguistic diversity of our students is further intensifying” and “[t]he Committee on Second Language Writing plays an important role in raising the awareness of the issue of linguistic diversity in the writing classroom, providing insights into the internationalization of writing studies, and in providing resources for writing teachers and scholars.”

English as a Second Language (ESL) and first-year composition are still frequently administered separately by different departments and with “different sets of objectives, teaching practices, and research” (Matsuda 26, 2006). Pointing to continuing needs within the classroom, Matsuda writes that “Second-language students in first-year composition continue to encounter curricula, assignments, and assessment practices that are not designed with their needs and abilities in mind, and even the most conscientious of composition teachers often have not been given access to the background or resources to make their instructional practices more compatible with their students” (2, 2006).

From the time of Silva’s 1990 article, pedagogy has moved both the L1 and ESL classrooms toward critical discourse communities and English for specific purposes as evidenced by initiatives in Writing across the Curriculum (WAC) and Writing within the Disciplines (WID) throughout academic curricula. As second-language writing has not had its own “instructional domain,” as part of applied linguistics and other disciplines, it is sometimes viewed as the “evolving discourse community” where perspectives are shared (Matsuda 26, 2006). Belcher points out that there are research gaps studying how EAL writers fare in their many content-area classes in English at medium universities and how they grow as they move through their programs of study” (135).

What has the history of ESL brought us in 2014 and where do we go now, looking ahead? Belcher sees “far less attention paid…helping novice L2 academic writers learn to independently analyze varying context-specific genre expectations” and recognizing adult L2 learners that have needs beyond academic writing (428). Pointing out that there is still “surprisingly little …known about what actually happens in classroom with L2 writing students,” Belcher stresses “learner autonomy” as a way to move students’ writing outside just a writing classroom, echoing L1 writing concerns as current research explores ways to engage students and encourage writing for different discourse communities and in different “writing contexts” (as cited in Belcher 131, 134; 2012).

Finally, Matsuda proposes second language writing as a “transdisciplinary field” with “a proactive call for continued advocacy and activism on behalf of students” (450). Looking at second-language writing in this way, thinking of how the field transcends individual fields, instead of intersecting them  is worthy of further discussion. What differences can transdisciplinary offer second-language writing within Linguistics, Composition, and other areas of English Studies? Or is it just interdisciplinary with a different name?

Works Cited

Belcher, Diane. “The Scope of L2 Writing: Why We Need a Wider Lens.” Journal of Second Language Writing 22 (2013): 438-439.

—. “Considering What We Know and Need to Know About Second Language Writing.” Applied Linguistics Review 3.1 (2012): 131-150.

“CCCC Statement on Second-Language Writing and Writers.” NCTE: CCCC. Jan. 2001, Revised Nov. 2009. <www.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/secondlangwriting>. 15 September 13, 2014.

Matsuda, Paul K., Michelle Cox, Jay Jordan, and Christina Ortmeier-Hooper, eds. Second-Language Writing in the Composition Classroom: A Critical Sourcebook. Bedford/St. Martin’s: Boston, 2006. 14-30.

—. “Response: What is Second Language Writing—and Why Does it Matter?” Journal of Second Language Writing 22 (2013): 448-450.

Silva, Tony. “Second Language Composition Instruction: Developments, Issues, and Directions in ESL.” Second Language Writing: Research Insights for the Classroom. Ed. Barbara Kroll. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. 11-23.

Smitherman, Geneva. “Students’ Right to Their Own Language: A Retrospective.” The English Journal 84.1 (January 1995): 21-27.

For Further Reading on the History

Journal of Second Language Writing 22 (2013). “Disciplinary Dialogues.” and “Selected Bibliography of Recent Scholarship in Second Language Writing.” 425-459.

Matsuda, Paul K. “Second-Language Writing in the Twentieth Century: A Situated Historical Perspective.” Second-Language Writing in the Composition Classroom: A Critical Sourcebook. Eds. Paul K. Matsuda, Michelle Cox, Jay Jordan, and Christina Ortmeier-Hooper. Bedford/St. Martin’s: Boston, 2006. 14-30.

Silva, Tony J. and Paul Kei Matsuda. Landmark Essays on ESL Writing. Mahwah, NJ: Hermagoras, 2001.

About the Field


Journal of Second Language Writing


TESOL Quarterly



Second Language Writing Interest Section, Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) International Association

Committee on Second Language Writing and the Second Language Writing Interest Group at the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC)

American Association for Applied Linguistics


TESOL’s Second Language Writing Interest Section

Symposium on Second Language Writing 2014

OWL @ Purdue – ESL Teacher Resources

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[1] Composition’s influential historians mentioned by Matsuda include James Berlin, Robert Connors, Susan Miller and David Russell.

[2] Current-traditional rhetoric developed in the late 19th century and emphasized product over process writing, stressing grammar and usage (punctuation, spelling and syntax). While still used in many schools, it has been replaced with more process and user-focused methods of pedagogy. For a summary overview of CTR, see James Berlin and Robert P. Inkster. “Current-Traditional Rhetoric: Paradigm and Practice.” Freshman English News 8.3 (1980): 1–14.

[3] Charles C. Fries became the director of the first intensive language program at the University of Michigan in 1941.