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“Any discussion of ‘‘identity’’ in writing presents a slippery slope. Identity can be defined in terms of how we define ourselves, how others define us, and how we represent ourselves to others. In its singular usage, the term identity represents a monolithic, fixed category of ‘’being’’ (i.e., we are who we are because that is who we consistently are), a view that necessitates further philosophical encounters with Aristotle, Locke, Durkheim, Freud and Barthes, among other such eminent framers of western intellectual heritage. More concretely, however, identity can be seen as plural and dynamic—as an act of ‘‘doing’’ in the process of constructing social identity.” (Oullette 259)

Initially, as I thought about objects of study within second-language writing, I focused on students’ writing as the product of writing instruction and looked to portfolio assessment. However, after my interview with Dr. Kevin DePew[1], I realized I had missed the most important object of study of all in second-language writing, the students themselves. He pointed out that the writer was the primary object of study and that his/her writing was secondary. The goal, he emphasized, was to “help the writer communicate in English” as well as help him/her negotiate to the “expectations of the audience” and the forms that may take. In some instances, this is work to change the expectations of the audience, regarding the potential for language discrimination or language reduction.  He asked how, as writing instructors, can we help the writer, as well as be advocates for the writer? This was my aha moment in reframing my thoughts about objects of study withsocionic-identity-coverin second-language writing.

“The author’s explicit appearance in a text, or its absence, works to create a plausible academic identity and a voice with which to present an argument.  Creating such an identity, however is generally very difficult for second language students.” (Hyland 352)

While portfolio assessment is a popular way to provide feedback both in second-language and composition classrooms, Selami Aydin notes how studies examining portfolio assessment have been “mainly concerned with the decisions of language teachers rather than students’ perceptions” (195). However, she also points to prior research that shows how portfolios can “improve students’ self-confidence, help them learn actively…and motive students” (196). Descriptive words used throughout many of the articles on second-language writing reflect students’ emotional well-being, looking at ways to encourage their individual identities — who they are, as well as how they write.

Scriptorium monk at work

“Understanding of the ways learners give the symbolic meaning to themselves, to their perceptions, reactions, and thoughts that orient their relationship to others provides teachers with critical perspectives of viewing language learners not as L2 learners but as multilingual subjects.” (Kramsch, 18) [6]

One of the major questions in second-language writing is how to provide useful and constructive corrective feedback to students (paper #2). Recognizing how different forms of interaction and feedback affect students’ formation of their writing identity is essential if the goal is encouraging learning and students’ multi-literate capabilities, over viewing their writing as needing to be fixed. Throughout  the relatively short history of second-language writing, moving the focus away from debating grammar (examined in Paper #2) gave room for research to addressed second-language students as individuals, whose perceptions, reactions to feedback and identities were worthy of study.

Xuemei Li points to four “strands of studies” within second-language writing research, with a focus on students’ identities as the fourth strand, noting that they have become integrated only in recent research.[2]  She posits that “research on writing processes has mostly focused on the strategies of writing and learning to write. Writing processes where we can see the evolution of the writer’s identity and beliefs have been less adequately addressed.” Her research examines the “relationship of culture, identity, and beliefs with regard to the writing process” as a way to understand how a learner “reshapes” and “reconstructs” his/her identity “in terms of education and writing” (41). Fan Shen describes how he reconciled his Chinese and English identities in “Identities and Beliefs in ESL Writing: From Product to Processes,” the article that Li views as initiating the discussion for fourth strand research (46). Shen writes that his writing in English was helped through “becoming aware of the process of redefinition” of his identities (94).

Thai storytelling with puppets

Thai storytelling with puppets

“the process by which a non-native speaker learns to write academic text in English at a Western university involves creating a new identity that meets the expectations of the professors or teachers representing the discipline of which the student is becoming a new member. Writer identity in the text inevitably references the author’s cultural heritage, as well as his or her understanding of the ideologies in the host culture” (Shen as cited in Li 46)

 Using social networking sites as a way of exploring how multilingual writers create their “multiple identities” as writers, Hsin-I Chen of Tunghai University argues that better understanding of these practices can inform pedagogy in the classroom by assisting instructors with discovering the “learners’ language learning journey.”[3] Chen points to Lam’s literacy research as it places literary practices within a broader “social process in which language learners/users actively participate, enacting particular social roles and negotiating their situated identities”[4] and stresses that the “identity of the language learner indicates the ways in which language learners understand their relationship to the target language and to the social world” (143).

Viewing identity more broadly within composition studies, Mark Oullette, discusses how plagiarism has been recognized by scholars as “part of literacy practices governing identity construction” in “Weaving Strands of Writer Identity: Self as Author and the NNES Plagiarist” (255). Problematic in non-native speakers however is the established view of plagiarism as a “binary” – asserting that students plagiarize either because of “an absence of ethics or an ignorance of citation conventions” (Howard 788). As second-language students are negotiating identity as they write in English, positioning plagiarism as a breach of ethics is yet another instance in which second-language learners can be challenged. “For NNES writers, [this can] situate them in a double bind, challenged by their developing linguistic proficiency and differing cultural ideologies” (Oullette 256).

Rethinking how plagiarism is taught is certainly a bigger topic outside the scope of this paper and of just second-language writing, but as a hotbed issue within writing studies, it does raise concerns and questions both through the historical ethical binary, as well as application in a digital age of mashups and collaboration. Oullette asks for NNES in a writing classroom, “whether such an ethical discourse provides for a learning environment sensitive to the principles academic communities espouse” (269).

Why is identity as an object of study important within second-language learning? Chen asserts that it is students’ development of identity within their multilingual discourse that helps “foster their personal growth as multilingual subjects, and engages their real life practices and purposes” (163). She sees further study of online literacy practices necessary, as “these practices provide insights into how [students] present themselves in relation to others in Internet-based discourses and how they engage online, linguistically, socially, culturally, and historically” (164).

As objects of study, recognizing the differences in students’ cultural and social backgrounds and how these are reflected in their writing in English can be of benefit, as Shen stresses that “the process of learning to write in English is in fact a process of creating and defining a new identity and balancing it with the old identity” (101). Not only acknowledging, but appreciating these differences is essential in helping the student navigate his/her multilingual identities and I wonder how thinking more about identity could impact all writing classrooms, as there continues to be more diversity across higher education.[5]

old-map “In the contexts of global English language learning, the ability to use Standard Written English usually symbolizes affluence, good education, and high social class—important social capital (Bourdieu). As a result, in these contexts language learners desire to acquire such a powerful discourse. This desire to belong to an imagined community (Norton) of prestige usually encourages L2 students to invest in forms of writing in a second language that reconstruct their identities in the pursuit of symbolic value in U.S. classrooms.” (Liu & Tannacito 355)


Works Cited & Further Reading

Aydin, Selami. “EFL Writers’ Attitudes and Perceptions toward F-Portfolio Use.” TechTrends 28.2 (2014): 59-77.

—. “EFL Writers’ Perceptions of Portfolio Keeping.” Assessing Writing 15.3 (2010): 194-203.

Chen, Hsin I. “Identity Practices of Multilingual Writers in Social Networking Spaces.” Language, Learning & Technology 17.2 (2013): 143-70.

DePew, Kevin E., & Miller-Cochran, Susan K. (2010). “Social Networking in a Second Language: Engaging Multiple Literate Practices through Identity Composition.”  Reinventing Identities in Second Language Writing. Eds. Michelle Cox, Jay Jordan, Christina Ortmeier-Hooper, & Gwen Gray Schwartz. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2010: 273–295.

Hyland, Ken. “Options of Identity in Academic Writing.” ELT Journal 56.4 (2002): 351-358.

Lam, Ricky. “Promoting Self-regulated Learning through Portfolio Assessment: Testimony and Recommendations.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education (2013): 1-16. Web.

Li, Xuemi. “Identities and Beliefs in ESL Writing: From Product to Processes.” TESL Canada Journal/Flevue TESL du Canada 25.1 (2007): 41-64.

Liu, Pei-Hsun Emma, and Dan J. Tannacito. “Resistance by L2 Writers: The Role of Racial and Language Ideology in Imagined Community and Identity Investment.” Journal of Second Language Writing 22.4 (2013): 355-73.

Ortmeier-Hooper, Christina. “English May Be My Second Language, but I’m not ‘ESL’.” College Composition and Communication 59.3 (2008): 389-419.

Ouellette, Mark A. “Weaving Strands of Writer Identity: Self as Author and the NNES ‘Plagiarist’.” Journal of Second Language Writing 17.4 (2008): 255-73.

Shen, Fan. “The Classroom and the Wider Culture: Identity as a Key to Learning English Composition.” College Composition and Communication 40.4 (1989): 459-466.

Romova, Zina, and Martin Andrew. “Teaching and Assessing Academic Writing via the Portfolio: Benefits for Learners of English as an Additional Language.” Assessing Writing 16.2 (2011): 111-22.

Ruecker, Todd. “Challenging the Native and Nonnative English Speaker Hierarchy in ELT: New Directions from Race Theory.” Critical Inquiry in Language Studies 8.4 (2011): 400-22.



[1] Interview, September 24, 2014, Dr. Kevin E. DePew, Associate Professor of English, Old Dominion University.

[2] The four strands, according to Li are 1) Studies on comparative rhetoric; 2) Studies of the writing processes and strategies of ESL writers; 3) Studies of beliefs about language learning, education and writing; and 4) Studies involving the notion of identities in ESL writing.

[3] Chen cites numerous other scholars who have written on second-language students’ formation of identity in face-to-face communities but notes that how students form their identity in online communities has not been as widely explored as of yet: Pavlenko & Norton (2007), Norton (2000), Kramsch (2000), Greenhow & Robelia (2009), DePew & Miller-Cochran (2010)

[4] Wan Shun Eva Lam. “Second Language Literacy and the Design of the Self: A Case Study of a Teenager Writing on the Internet. TESOL Quarterly, 34 (2000): 457–483.

[5] Christina Ortmeier-Hooper’s article “English May Be My Second Language, but I’m not ESL” addresses the resident ESL student, often identified as “Generation 1.5” – those students who had some U.S. secondary schooling, but speak a second language at home. She posits that all of the terms, “ESL,” “ELL” and “Generation 1.5” are “fraught with all kinds of complications for resident students and for us as compositionists” (390).  She draws from the work of Robert Brooke and identity negotiation; Erving Goffman and theories on performance and social identity; as well as Linda Harklau and her case studies involving Generation 1.5 students and their “ambivalent identities as immigrants.”

[6] Claire Kramsch. The Multilingual Subject. What Language Learners Say about Their Experience and Why it Matters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.