Alister Cumming


Alister Cumming, I work at the Modern Language Center of the Ontario Institute for Studies and Education of the University of Toronto.

Ok, so you’re asking me to look at the models and the---of second language writing. 

Recently I’ve been reviewing the research on this topic and uh, tried to put it into a frame work that distinguishes three aspects of writing that people a, have tended to focus their research on, and that essentially define this field, I think.  One is that writing is a text, it’s a form of written language that’s a, that people produce.  The second is that writing is a process, a thinking process, and a behavioral process, that people engage in.  And thirdly that writing is a---a social, occurs in a social context, and I guess, is a social context itself.    And I think that those are three a----orientations to three fundamental aspects of, of what writing is a, and they also reflect the, the sorts of research that people have done.  And there’s probably an historical progression to that a, that sequence.  That is: twenty or thirty years ago people would primarily have seen writing in a second language in terms of the text features.  The grammar, the vocabulary, the syntax, and that certainly is fundamental, and a-----necessary.  And then at a higher level also, the discourse organization of the, of the text so the retor---rhetorical a construction of the, of the text.  Um, people are still doing lots of research on that and it’s obviously a visible form of writing, but as, as people over the past twenty or so years have started to understand a, what writing is, to research it, to a, develop a, develop our understanding of it more broadly and to build a, teaching methods that relate to it.  A, the, I would say, fifteen or years ago people began to really emphasis the, the processes of composing, what do people think about, how do they plan their writing, how do they edit it, at a more micro level what little decisions do they make.  Particularly important are choosing the right word um, decide---setting goals for oneself, a, determining who’s gonna read it, monitoring your own goals, revising your writing.  Making use of other people to help a, in the composing process.  And then I would way over the last ten or so years there’s been a real push even further to the social context.  To try to understand writing as it occurs (cough) in a, society and work, in classrooms and, from the teaching prospective, to try to set up classroom organization so that it isn’t just the solitary student writing a single draft of an essay. But rather much more a community of people writing who a---assist one another, who a, may provide peer feedback, who create audiences for one another and, in an educational setting, I think teaching and research has tried to prompt a instructors to get students to write for more real purposes or purposeful a meanings or um, reasons that go beyond just assigning a text for a class.  I think another dimension of that social context is the (pause) view of writing.  And particularly important in a second language of a forming identity and, and the attitudes that a people have a, about themselves, a, positioning themselves in the societies that they, they are in or want to move into.  And from the perspective of a minority populations with a---with second language writing of using writing as a concrete tool to help them express their, their position in the society and to learn how to make use of that in more effective ways.

Well, I would say that, I mean you’d asked me about the---what we don’t really have a grasp on in second language writing.  And I would say the---a understanding the, the sheer complexity of those three elements and dealing with them at the same time, or in a shifting alternative a, in a shifting way that um, does justice to the importance of each of those dimensions, I would say is the, is the fundamental dilemma for a teacher.  There are three very complex um, demanding aspects a, it’s hard for a student or a teacher to focus on any one---a---on just on one of them, but to deal with two or maybe three at the same time, uh, is a real challenge.  And not to over emphasis one um, and neglect the others, I think, is the challenge.  In terms of possible area for research, I think too, to set up a, a research um----um design or frame work that a can account for all, all three dimensions in their complexity is a real challenge.  It’s, it goes beyond the a normal an-analytic tools that people uh------usually, usually have at their disposal and, and it in---it requires that, that uh one has a kind of multidimensional perspective, a, multiple sets of information about---from the people as individuals about the texts as they’re written.  About the processes that they go through and the, and the different um ways they interact with other people and their attitudes toward those interactions.

Good question.  You ask what, what distinguishes second language writing from mother tongue writing. And I’m, it’s a question I’ve been a, mulling over for a sometime, and I think u-----

OK. You’d ask me a, I suppose to distinguish second language writing from (cough) mother tongue writing, and I’m, I think, ambivalent about that.  Um, I, and on one hand I’d go to, I’d appeal to theories like those that the European so-fi-a Science Foundation had, have voiced in their studies of adult varieties of a---a adult immigrant languages, and say that, that um, things that occur in the second language are really like a different register.  They’re not a, fundamentally different from what occur in a mother tongue, it’s just much as we might speak in, in specialized terms about teaching or, in a way that a person’s not a teacher, um, might speak about them.  Uh, the terms are different, the ways people interact are different, but the fundamental processes are, are the same, and I agree with that.  Uh, on the other hand there are some visible differences between writing in a first and second language.  And I think there are fundamental elem---well I know there are fundamental elements that a, transfer or transpose across, or people just automatically apply, when they, if they know how to write well, and they know how to write, for example, a letter in their mother tongue.  They will use that knowledge and ability to write in the second language.  But they may lack the vocabulary, or they may lack, if it’s a letter, they might not be familiar with some of the polite phrases that go at the beginning of the letter or the end of the letter in the second language.  So, I think one’s tempted to see second language writing as a knowledge lack.  Some kind of knowledge is lacking, it might be the vocabulary, it might be the register, it might be the ability to attend to a, a number of different complex issues at the same time and not have that automatically a, not have a automatic, a, processes for doing that.  And so the a, (cough) one can see second language a writing (cough) as breaking down in some ways, as, as having the problems.  But I think those, those things happen when one learns a new register.  If I’m to train myself to become a video technician, for instance, u-----which I don’t know how to do very well, I’m---I know how to tape record a with an audio cassette, but I don’t know how to video uh tape very well.  And I probably have to learn new elements there and I think the knowledge that I have in one domain would transfer over to the other.  A, so it’s a, I see it largely as a question, as a psychologist might put it, as a question of transfer, what um---how do you---how does one cope with transfer, but that the uh, fundamental processes are-------the same.

OK.  Um, (cough) so you’ve asked me to, to consider work I’ve done on assessment of writing and what advice might be given to a teachers who may not be familiar with the research or theory that um I might have been pursuing in recent years.  And, I guess I can think about a the work for the---devising the framework for the new toful, as it’s, as it’s going to be called, and, and the literature review that’s recently been published about that.  And we tried to a synthesize the, the studies that people have done and to get in tune with a um-----the conceptualizations of writing that exist in the-----current publications.  I go back to something I said before, I think the key things there are to um, to try to understand writing as text a, in the micro level of vocabulary, syntax and the macro level of the discourse and the rhetorical organization of the text.  But also to understand it as a process of a composing, of a-----of thinking about planning ones writing.   Again, at a macro level, a long term process of, of planning, revising, editing, getting feedback.  But at a micro level of a doing things like trying to find the right word or to a set goals for oneself.  Um, and to understand writing as a social, in it’s social context and the dimensions a that a form peoples identity as a person in a different le-raising in a different language, and often a different culture.  I think that’s the challenge for teachers, and I think that’s the challenge for assessment in a context like a developing a framework for a new toful.  The examination itself sets a context which is a rigidly defined.  And in order to be fair to people around the world as the write a common examination and to give them----to set that up in conditions that are the same, a, requires that much of the social context, the different purposes for writing, the difference audiences, and so on, are st---necessarily stripped away from the, from the examination setting.  Similarly to allow people to a, in an examination context, to um----a do the kinds of planning, to draw upon different resources, a, to write about their own knowledge as well as their um, reading, as well as other interactions that they may have with people.  Again to make a common examination in a fair way around the world requires a constraint on those elements of, similarly the sheer amount of time that one might spend writing is restricted in an examination context.  If one wants to have an exam that’s comprehensive and thorough, but that takes place within a reasonable period of time, like three or four hours.  A, therefore the emphasis in that examination setting ends up being on the text, and that’s a----a real difficulty, I think, for the exami---examiners if they think about the educational purposes of text.  The lesson for teachers (cough) is a, that you’re not setting an examination that’s gonna be monitored around the world a, and a, don’t over emphasis just the text element.  It’s important and, and necessary, that’s what writing is typically judged upon, but set up conditions in classrooms where you do prompt students to develop their planning ability, their editing abilities, to try to find the right words.  Do set up situations in classrooms that a---- challenge or a develop s---students abilities to interact with other people and make u---and---s---and knowledge sources particularly.  Um, the one thing I think we’ve been a, doing in um, devising the new toful that is different than the, the previous a version, is to try to integrate reading and writing in a way that is more like the academic context that students a------do usually experience.  So a, we’ve been suggesting, I don’t know what’s gonna be in the final version of the new toful, so I can’t talk about it, but I think I have a pretty good sense that there’s a commitment to include reading and writing tasks.  And, which make use of a some of the cognitive processes that a are important to the composing abilities of students, and do so in a way that corresponds better than the current test does to the um, the um, academic a situations a where people typically, as a student at university, need to read material, synthesize it, and make a statement a, about it.

Hum, that’s an interesting question.  You’ve asked about um, how definitions of language proficiency have changed and a, I think about that in two ways, actually, in respect to two sets of experiences that I have and probably that, that are familiar to other people from other jurisdictions.  One is a, I think what’s conventionally discussed in the main publication about applied linguistics or language teaching that, that the view of um----what a language is and how people learn it, was restricted largely to linguistic definitions.  A, in a, in a fairly narrow sense, morphology and syntax, a----and the vocabulary or lexis of the language.  In the 1970’s there were a number of different models that people proposed and then wrote about in the 1980’s which changed that conceptualization.  Communicative competence is the one that seems to have grasped peoples interest around the world and had a, had a, I think, a great impact in language teaching everywhere recently, and it’s the a, it’s the notion that a---that people use a language to a, communicate purposefully.  And that there---and associated with this idea of every articulation of a model of communicative competence is not, is a multidimensional model of what a language is.  That it’s used for social purposes, that it involves multiple a---media or medium, mediums or media for communicating, reading, writing, listening, speaking, if you like, and that it in---involves different dimensions of language ability at a discourse level, at a mic---ma---at a syntactic level, and a lexical level.  And through the 1980’s I think there were a number of different discussions, or different models that people put forward to, that, that might have had three or four or five or six components of that.  And I think what’s the current model that’s, I suppose, reigned over the last ten or so years, is, is a-----attending to the multidimensionality of language.  Not just to teach grammar, but to see it also as a---a functional a language as a funct---as serving functional purposes, having social dimensions, and also having strategic dimensions to it as well.  I don’t know that there’s any one model or um, conceptualization of proficiency in a second language that reigns at the moment a---th---a over any other a---then to say that one needs to attend to the variety of um, functions, a, structures, and um, dimensions that, that languages have.  The other way that I view this was a, in respect to a, a survey study that I’d done with colleagues a, asking school boards (pause) a, to, a, review the policies that they had for English as a second language students in schools in Ontario.  A, and to do---to look at that over the past ten years and to try to sight how those had, had changed.  And, couple of findings I think are relevant here, and, and probably do reflect an historical trend.  A, one is for the school boards to become more formal in their definitions.  Ten, fifteen years ago people would just, maybe, say: English as a second language student, or English as a second dialect students, and they’d have very large categories a, broad categories that a didn’t a suffice very well.  And then certainly a trend in schools in Ontario was to make more explicit definitions of what student’s abilities were.  And I think along with that in, in more recent years, since I did the study a few years ago, was the um, development of standards a, to guide curricula.  And I think many of the school boards have since then a, a developed their own standards, the a, a Provincial Ministry of Education’s developed it’s own sets of standards, and those have broadened out, to some extent, the um, definitions of what students are.  The other perspective on that though, and the survey found quite distinctly, and I think it’s a, it’s a big issue and, it’s an important one, is an incredible variation from school board to school board, and, in the minds at least of the people that we interviewed and a gathered survey and questionnaire data from, a sense that even within their school boards from school to school, or class to class, that people had different a, definitions of what English as a second language was.  Um, we also looked at French a mother tongue students as well too, and there seemed to be a similar challenge there.  Um, if I probed through that and think about those data, I realized that the school boards and the schools that have been dealing with English as a second language for a long period of time, a, twenty, thirty, forty years, had well developed policies and definitions.  The ones in the, and those would tend to be in large urban areas, um, the ones in the perimeters of cities where the---a---cities are growing and the schools are coming to, coming to understand their a student population better, or where the population’s actually changing, a, dramatically or just coming to terms with those um---definitions.  And then um, small towns, rural areas that may not have many recent immigrants settling in them a, seem to not have sc---the expertise or the experience that would lead them to define a, in terms of school policies and curricula, the um---a, abilities of students in a second language very well.

Yeah, well, you’ve asked me to reflect on the Canadian situation, the American situation in view of a, standards for curricula and language education.  And that’s a topic that’s a near and dear to my heart, a---and I think a very important one.  Um, throughout the world there’s been a movement uh-----last ten or so years, to a, try to articulate benchmark standards or outcomes or um, statement---attainment a, level statements for students in a---all forms of education and languages and language education has a, engaged in this quite actively.  The situation in Canada and the United States are somewhat similar I’m---I---I might say, in a----in an interesting, many other respects they’re lots of differences, um, and they’re similar in the sense that um, a----education is relatively decentralized a, and the standards movement has been a way of centralizing a more gaining----a---setting uniform standards across different jurisdictions.  So, people characteristically talk about education in North America, and Germany is the other country like it, as being very decentralized.  That school boards and or districts a---make a---lots---most of the important decisions about what the school policies are.  I think the standards movements, in some places, has certainly been a way of making that cohere nationally or by state or, in the case of Canada, a---across the provinces.  Canada---e---a---s constitution actually does not permit the federal government to enter into any, in any way what so ever, into education.  It is entirely a, a jurisdiction of the province.  In the United States, I understand, you’ve got some responsibility at the----board or state level, and a little bit more responsibility at a national level.  What’s happened in some of the Canadian provinces are a----um, people have used the standards as a way of exercising control over the, a, school a, system in a both positive and negative way.  The positive side of it is in the interests of equity or fairness, and to develop the capacities of school boards that may not be engaged in some of the more progressive um----steps or a, changes in education.  And the, a negative sense is to kind of homogenize or a, a, put everybody on to the same a, playing field.  I think, I, I’d like to pick up a little further on that because I think I, there’s a negative and a positive side to the standards a-----movements too.  The positive side is that they make clear (long breath) a----to teachers, to students, to families, to other communities that interact with education a---what the goals of learning might be, and typically, at certain key points in the, in the learning process.  So they can be educational and they can be, I think, purposeful in the sense of guiding people toward a---what they want to do and being clear about it.  A----on the negative side, a, most of the standards that have been formulated, in respect to languages, really just focus on students proficiency.  And of course what students do, a---is only part of the educational context.  Um, I think the Teasel (?) Standards, for instance, have been somewhat unique in doing that, but also developing a standards for teaching and trying to promote standards for what conditions or resources should exist in schools.  And so they’ve broadened out the a---conceptualization of what a curriculum or an educational context is.  But, on the whole, the emphasis of these attainment levels or benchmarks or standards, is really kind of like an assessment instrument and they put the owe ness of responsibility onto the student, and they neglect to take into account how important the teaching is.  And therefore, a, they’re not sufficient guides for teachers, and a---a real problem, and this is, I think, a serious one, is: the research to try to validate these is almost nonexistent.  A, people---in almost every circumstance where people have developed attainment standards for language um----learning, it’s done by professional consensus, groups or committees, or groups of people come together, a, they think they know what students should know, and then they draft those and then they consult with other people and they try to refine them.  But, hardly ever have those standards been matched against what students actually do, and therefore there’s----I’m---the---there’s a very shallow a---validity to them.  The---what, what they represent has been attained only by professional consensus and not by empericaling um, empirical research, or any systematic way of trying to make sure that they correspond to what people really do.  And that’s really k---worrying because they often set out a large framework which plots the---a---s---a, benchmarks or the steps or sequences that students may go through.  And those sequences may not be the real ones that they do at all.  A related issue, and I think a real shortcoming, is they tend standardize everything and they don’t account adequately for variation, and a----for people working in English as a second language, in this continent, it’s characterized by variation a, so people from different language backgrounds, people with different educational um, backgrounds, different socioeconomic opportunities, different um----ways of valuing literacy or education a, are all squeezed into the same categories.  And a---and a standard, by definition is, a, difficult a---if you want to hear yet another a---element that a, I think is, is really limited, the-m-is that a, the implementation of standards is seriously constrained by almost no research into how teachers use them.  I’ve done a couple of studies and case studies in schools in Ontario and found the variation extraordinary; from teachers who have never read them and don’t use them, a---, don’t even think they’re valuable, to teachers who use them--- rigorously, intensively, or extensively, to plan their classes, and to a, inter-relate their assessment a, practices with their classroom activities and the overall syllabus that they use for their courses. The disturbing element about that though, even among the people who use them (long breath) extensively, is that they all seem to do them---do so in unique ways.  A---I say that’s disturbing, not because there’s any problems with the way that they’re doing them, but because they’re not standard.  And it just goes completely counter to the idea of standardizing things, each person adapts them in a unique way.  And I think that’s a real area where people need to a, (breath) need to a----develop research and understand better a, what these standards are at this point in history they’ve just usually been proclaimed as a large framework and a, and people have left them at that.  But a, there’s a lot of work ne---needed---that needs to be done to understand how students use them, how they correspond to, a, students real abilities and their progressions in learning.  And yet another area is their impact, people don’t understand, because there hasn’t been the research to, a, done to see what effect they really have on the classroom.  Do they help students learn, do they help teachers teach, in what ways, a, and what ways might they be problematic.

Um, asked me to talk about, a, research on the zone of proximal development and I’ll phrase it very much as a story, a, but a, ----.  Two, two and a half years ago a student that was working with me named, Hussan Masadji who is now in Turkey, a---asked me if he---if a---I, I wanted to work with him on some data that he had with his son um---, who’d been a---se---he’d moved from Iran and a been studying in Toronto to do his doctorate, and he’d (breath) collected his son’s a dialog journals, a, with the teacher over the first couple of years of school.  And a, we started to look through the u’s, and a, he wanted to do a, kind of a linguistic analysis of the progression of the sons um, language journey.  And I thought how that’s been done before and a-----I started to think about work that I’d read of Joy Patens on dialog journals, and (breath) some ----I guess the opportunity that they offer for a teacher and a student to interact in a very focused way, where the student can set the agenda for learning and the teacher respond to it.  And I started to think how they might represent a, an example of a zone of proximal development in Vegotski’s (?) a, turn the, I guess in this country you say ZPD, but ZPD is what (laugh) I was about to say, a zone of proximal development a, refers to the space, if you like, that the teacher and the student, a, interact in and where the, a, teacher responds to the students, a, abilities to a, and potential to a further their, their proficiency, to put it in the broad terms of the, um, second language research.  And it struck me that um, the very few case study examples that exist in the second language literature, but there’re lots of people saying that they’ve ----done something in the students zone of proximal development or advocating that a, that teaching should be directed a, in that, in that way.  So we looked at a----a---these dialog journals that had been a---constructed by the student and the teacher over the period of about a year and a half, and tried to figure out a, how we could see them as a, a construction of a zone of proximal development, and it struck me, (breath) first of all, that this is a long term data set that’s already there documented for us.  We, of course got the permission of the teacher afterwards, but we hadn’t, we, in fact, didn’t bias the teacher in advance, a, by suggesting we’re gonna do this research.  A, we weren’t able, though, to look at the other context other than just the, the text that the students and the teacher wrote. And, we looked at a, previous studies and came across one by Roger Shy that a had looked at the functional dimensions, what a sorts of language functions were being realized in dialog journals in another context, actually with older students.  And well, I think we found a, in, in our study was this real interesting process of give and take between the teacher and the student.  A, the dialog journals offer an opportunity for the student to say: this is what I want to state to the teacher, and the teacher to say: I’m interested in reading this, and to create what the people call a inter-subjectivity between people, which seems to be integral to a zone of proximal development.  And we watched in the same sort of controlled context, we could look in these dialog journals to see how this occurred over time, and what changes took place.  And this process of give and take was really characteristic where the teacher just seemed to be sympathetic to, and understanding of, the students expressions, but to just push him on a little bit further to say a little bit more about what his ideas were.  And a, I think an interesting example was when we looked at the instances where the student was just reporting.  This is a very young student, just in the first year of school, so he would say things like I, I woke up this morning and temperature was so and so, and I a, walked outside and I did this.  And so he’s just reporting on events and then the teacher would, over, a, one or two exchanges, kind of accept that.  But then she would----pose some questions, or try to get him to analyze a little bit more, or give his opinion a little bit more, or slowly prod him on.  And so that this zone of proximal development, the state on inter-subjectivity between this teacher and this student was just being edged forward, in a routine way, which is---standard pattern of communication was (breath) was involved, but to---to just extend the language abilities.  And then as we looked through the date we’d see that the student was picking up some of these things and this is where it got real interesting, I think, and, again, the examples were constrained by the limited English that the student had, and, and his young age, but um, you could see the student picking up some of these questioning techniques that the, that the teacher was doing, and the students start to question the teacher, a, in it too.  Now I don’t wanna say that the dialog journal, per say, was responsible for this, it seemed to be the form in which this was happening.  There may be many things in the classroom in the context that we’re leading to, a.  But this is the sort of process that we saw.  And I think dialog journals are (breath) a, a vital way in which teachers can relate directly to their students, become sensitive to, to their interests, a, appreciative of them, and to just slowly and carefully push them along and like, try to extend their abilities as, and that makes for---an interesting and, I think, a useful teaching (breath) approach, but also a, an example of the zone of proximal development.

You’re asking me about the development of teacher a, to teach English as a second language in respect to writing as a particularly?  Um, and I, on the one hand, I think, we don’t know very much.  I think it’s a---um quite an untapped a, area, and a, unstudied and a, something that’s really integral a, to learn more.  On the other hand, I think there’s some indications a-----some principles, some particular studies that might point in some directions a, to take a---I, as this is a question I don’t think I can answer well, or comprehensibly, I wish I could, and um, I think um, shou---we should know a, much more about.  Um, one is that people build on their successes, or what they know how to do well.  And I think, and, working with, with teachers both---- pre-service or in an initial teac---an initial teacher education programs, and also in-service, and we are emptying (?)  people who may be experienced teachers to work with second language students.  This issue seems to come up all, constantly and to be vital, um. (breath)  So if one is an experienced writing instructor or a mathematics instructor and is now working with second language students I think a key message is to um, not to---this does not require reorienting everything that one does, but rather to a, make explicit, particularly in respect to the language issues, a, so that they’re clear to the students, a, what a, what language requirements are involved, and what knowledge structures or organizational expectations one might have.  I think that’s a very important element. (breath) I can look at it in respect writing as well in terms of studies I’ve done re---looking at how people respond to students writing, who are initial teachers in, in learning, just learning to do that, and people who are very skilled at it. (breath) Some, but certainly not all, some people who are just learning to respond to students writing might tend to correct everything that’s on the page, and they kind of build on the knowledge that they have of editing.  And so they might have edited their own work or edited other people’s work.  Well it’s very skilled instructors wh---responding to students writing tend not to do that, they tend to be much more purposeful in what they um, what they offer as responses to students write in.  And this is, I guess, the second principle that I’ve got, is an extraordinary variability.  I don’t think there’s any one set of advice that I could give to any (breath/cough) any group of people who are gonna be teachers, it’s the teachers---have extraordinarily different beliefs a---and kinds of skills and abilities, and the-there is not, probably, a common expertise that people develop as teachers.  I think that’s a, (breath) a mistaken notion a, there may be a core a, there may be certain qualities of um----um knowledge and ability that people might develop, but I don’t think there’s anything like a common basis for that.  When I’ve interviewed teachers or writing, for instance, (breath) even in one study we looked at a---and very intensively observed teachers and found that to teach in fundamentally um---similar ways, and organize their classrooms in similar ways, but when we asked them about their beliefs about writing (breath) they were really dramatically different.  They were to---all very experienced teachers, some people thought m---grammar and a, rhetoric was important, some people th---didn’t think it was important, they thought composing processes were important then, a, one sees a, you know, a range of um, (breath) range of a beliefs and kinds of knowledge and experience.  (long pause)
Teach---I guess a third principle (interrupted)    um, I was going to say, another thing I found in working with teachers in trying to innerva---introduce innervations or changes that teachers don’t change very much once they’ve become established in their routines.  A, they (breath) like to do what they know how to do well, and that propels what they’re doing.  I guess that relates back to my first point about um, building on people’s success, so.  Even where teachers of writing, for instance, might have adopted and---an innovation and a, really like it, a, they tend to incorporate it---that into their overall routines for teaching, and that becomes, over a period of a few weeks or so, a, just one elem---a---a new innovation just becomes one element in what they’re, what they’re doing.  I’d kind of sum up on that question, I do---teaching is so complex a, that I don’t think there’s any one good answer to um, helping people become teachers.  I think it’s a---it’s substantive knowledge, it’s practical knowledge, and it’s experience that a, is crucial.

So, I was about to say that I, uh, set up a study, uh, about a year and a half ago when I was on sabbatical and knew I’d be traveling to different countries in different parts of the world and I wanted to try to see how experienced writing instructors of English, either as a foreign language or as a second language, um, were organizing their courses, assessing their students, uh, conducting their classes and, uh, I also wanted to look at how people were doing that in university academic context and immigrant settlement programs.  So, the countries that I knew I’d be going to and I’d set up contacts for were three English dominant countries, Canada included, but also New Zealand and Australia and then, uh, three countries where English is essentially a foreign language, Japan, Hong Kong, although I guess it’s not a country, but, uh, it had just recently become part of China then, and, uh, and Thailand.  Uh, and I’d wrote--written to, um, directors of, um, large programs at the universities in those countries and asked them to nominate several very experienced, highly regarded instructors of English as a second or foreign language writing for me to interview and I interviewed these people asking them how they taught their courses, how the curriculum was organized, how they assessed their students and I’d expected to see, and I was curious to try to find out what the differences might be  between the immigrant settlement programs and the academically oriented ones and between the foreign situation where English is a distinctly foreign language, not usually spoken in the community, but outside an international language, if you like, and situations like, uh, Australia or New Zealand or Canada or English Canada, at least, where English is widely spoken and people are often, uh, immigrants or settling in the community.  And the kind of surprising thing was that the degree of commonality that I found.  I didn’t find any systematic differences, uh, between those, uh, situations.  I found some other differences, uh, but--and--and that may be a factor of--of my looking at very experienced, very skilled, highly regarded instructors who often had moved around the world and were in tune with the theory and the research and what people should do and so they were seen, they were teaching in quite, quite similar ways.  The two ways that things did differ, uh, which was unexpected and--and cut across these contexts, uh, were where their writing was treated as an independent ability, whether the course was just a writing course, if you like, or whether it was integrated with the, uh, other aspects of language in the program.  And--uh, and across all those different, uh, geographic regions and--um, and types of, uh, programs, there were some people where their curriculum was organized in one way or another.  That’s interesting in its own right, but what happened with the very, uh, I guess independent courses was it tended to restrict the definition of writing more to a skill, uh, a narrower definition wherein the independent, uh, or interdependent integrated curriculum context people tended to see writing and reading and to relate it and to have a broader conceptualization of it,  to just put it roughly,  at least that was a rough tendency.  The other distinction was where languages--uh, writing wasn’t identified for specific purposes.  If, um, the, uh, course might be for engineers, uh, writing for engineers or in the immigrant settlement context writing for business purposes as opposed to treating writing generally and, um, the specific purpose orientation had the benefit of focusing people clearly on what was to be learned and achieved and to be able to assess that quite discreetly and distinctly.  But it tended to reduce the definition of writing to a skill, also to a narrower conceptualization and similarly, the--when I asked people what their students achieved and what kinds of learning that came out, they tended to have quite narrow definitions of what had been achieved, they maybe got better at grammar or learned a certain rhetorical structure, they knew how to do certain things.  In the, uh, more general purpose courses, uh, what I saw, and this was, I think, the most, um, pronounced result from the study was that people were actually doing very different things when they said they were doing general purposes.  They weren’t doing the same things, they were, uh, conceptualizing writing in respect to composing processes or in respect to rhetorical organization or in respect to, uh, creative writing or in respect--so there was an extraordinary variation across those purposes and to the--the--the extent that these people all seemed very good at what they were doing, there was no doubt about that, uh, but that they were doing quite, quite different things and then the kinds of, uh, assessment that they implemented, if they implemented assessments, some didn’t, and the kind of achievement that they saw their students making were really quite different to the point where you think if you’re taking a writing course in one context you might be, even in the same institution, uh, you might be getting something very different from instructor to instructor.

Uh, boy, the immediate--being asked about where we are now in terms of writing and writing practices and the--the sort of immediate responses that I asked people about what their--what they were doing I didn’t, uh, systematically observe their classes and I didn’t systematically gather achievement data so I--I think where we are is trying to conceptualize writing in a way that is essentially--we need to do so in an--in terms of an educational model that accounts for how people teach and what they believe about their teaching, how students learn, the kinds of curriculum--educational structures that they’re involved in and the sorts of achievements that they make out of that, I think we need, uh, I think where we are in history--this point in history is that we need fuller educational models, uh, to account for second language writing instruction and research tended--has tended to focus just either on the student or on the teacher or on the curriculum, uh, but we need to integrate all of those and we also need to understand that in respect to, uh, the social contexts pe--what people use writing for outside of the language classroom in respect to academic study or their  work or interacting with their communities.

Well, you asked me what I’d wish you asked me about, but I--my immediate response was I don’t think I have a soapbox, uh, to tout other than the need to--to research, uh, and uh, develop theories in a--in a fuller and more comprehensive way.   And I feel that about writing in a second language as I do for other aspects of, uh, language education and even education more broadly that--that we don’t know enough about what it is that we do and so much of  the work in education is just in providing the course or, uh, getting through--from the students’ perspective getting through the tasks and the assignments, from the teachers’ perspective getting through the course providing the, um, classes to the students that we don’t have enough, uh, opportunity or structures to analyze and reflect on what we do and to develop a knowledge base of concepts and theories and an imperical base of research that we can review and compare from place to place in order to be able to understand that.  So, when we talk about our experiences, that’s largely what we’re talking about, our own per--our own reflections of our own, uh, our own experiences, what we have done rather than, uh, pointing toward verification of these things or, uh, an understanding of, uh, that--that goes beyond our own situations.