Paul Kei Matsuda
http://pmatsuda.faculty.asu.edu/
Beyond the Division: The Changing Role of L2 Writing Specialists

From: "On the Future of Second Language Writing: A Colloquium"
Journal of Second Language Writing (2000)


If asked whether I am optimistic or pessimistic about the future of the field of second language writing, I would be inclined to say "neither" or "both." I recognize that both optimistic and pessimistic perspectives have valid points. There are serious problems that the field is currently facing, such as the small number of L2 writing specialists teaching in Ph.D. programs; at the same time, I recognize that efforts are being made at some institutions to prepare the next generation of L2 writing specialists who will advance the knowledge of L2 writing and contribute to the betterment of L2 writing instruction in various instructional contexts. I am not convinced, however, that there is nothing we can do to save the field or that the field will prosper without any effort. My prospect for the future of the field is conditional: Yes, there is a future for the field if and only if we, L2 writing specialists, make the effort to understand the challenges we face and take appropriate actions to overcome those challenges.

One of the best ways to understand the challenges the field is facing—and how those challenges developed and why—is to examine the development of the field in its historical context. My own investigation into the history of L2 writing issues in the 20th century has led me to believe that one of the most important challenges that the field is facing today is the changing role of L2 writing specialists. Traditionally, L2 writing specialists' work has been situated primarily in second language studies and, accordingly, the field has been defined by many as a subfield of second language studies (e.g., Atkinson & Ramanathan, 1995; Santos, 1992). It is no accident that the field of L2 writing has come to be situated almost exclusively in the context of L2 studies; the current configuration of the field of L2 writing was a product of a specific historical condition in the mid-20th century specifically, the professionalization of language teaching and the increase of L2 students in US higher education. However, the situation has changed over the last four decades and some of the assumptions on which the definition of the field is based no longer hold true.  

My goal here is to examine those changes and their impact on the role of L2 writing specialists. I will begin by discussing how L2 writing has come to be situated almost exclusively in L2 studies and how this view is limited. I will then consider the changing role of L2 writing specialists and its implications on the future of the field of L2 writing. 

Second Language Writing as a Subfield of TESOL 

Since the 1960s, the activities of L2 writing specialists have been confined within the disciplinary and instructional practices of second language studies, i.e., examining L2 writing issues in the context of L2 writing programs, teaching L2 writing courses, and preparing L2 instructors to teach those contexts. These traditional roles of L2 writing specialists reflect what I have called the disciplinary division of labor between composition studies and second language studies (Matsuda, 1998, 1999). The disciplinary division of labor is a view of the relationship between composition studies and second language studies, which stipulates that the sole responsibility of L2 writing research and instruction falls upon second language specialists. This view emerged between the 1940s and the 1960s, when both composition studies and second language studies were trying to establish their own disciplinary identity. 

Before writing issues were divided into L1 and L2 components, L2 writing was a concern among composition specialists who attended the Conference on College Composition and Communication, which some L2 specialists have come to describe (inaccurately, I hasten to add) as a conference for "L1" composition specialists. In contrast, L2 specialists' interest was in the teaching of spoken language because language teaching during this period was informed primarily by linguistics, which, until well into the 1960s, saw language as speech and writing as its secondary, if not inaccurate, representation. During the late 1950s, L2 specialists, motivated by their desire to professionalize, began to argue that L2 learners should be taught only by trained specialists. As a result, writing issues were divided into L1 and L2 components and L2 writing became part of L2 studies. Drawing the disciplinary boundary along the L1/L2 distinction made sense at the time because of the assumptions that informed many of the L2 programs–the assumptions that L2 problems in students' language could be identified and removed through a few semesters worth of intensive instruction and that, once students "mastered" the structure and sounds as well as some basic vocabulary, they would be ready to learn to write in composition classes as native speakers do. 

When the responsibility of teaching L2 writing shifted from composition studies to L2 studies in the late 1950s and the early 1960s, however, some L2 specialists came to realize that what they knew about language and language teaching was not enough to prepare L2 students for writing in academic contexts. Thus, the search for L2 writing pedagogy began, making writing an important part of L2 studies. And thanks to the effort of those pioneers in the field, L2 specialists now have a significant body of knowledge–both theoretical and pedagogical–in this area. What they did not realize, however, was that L2 writing instruction could not be contained in L2 writing classrooms that are designed and taught by L2 specialists. On the contrary, it may be argued that more writing instruction is happening outside of L2 writing courses. In the United States, the number of colleges and universities is far greater than the number of intensive English programs (IEP), and, while many institutions now offer L2 writing courses that are equivalent to required composition courses, not all L2 writers who need special support can enroll in those courses. Furthermore, as the ESL population grows diverse in terms of their linguistic and literacy backgrounds as well as their immigration statuses, identifying L2 writers who need to be placed in special L2 writing courses has become increasingly difficult. 

Even when students are placed in appropriate L2 writing courses, L2 writing instruction continues in other writing programs because students do not learn to write once and for all; rather, the acquisition of L2 literacy—just like the acquisition of L1 literacy—is a lifelong and recursive process that continues after students leave L2 writing classes. Thus, L2 writing instruction frequently takes place in required composition programs, basic writing programs, professional writing programs, writing across the curriculum programs and writing centers. Yet, writing instruction in non-L2 writing courses and programs remains, for the most part, uninformed by the field of L2 writing. While there have been some exchanges of theoretical and pedagogical insights between composition studies and second language studies—especially during the late 1970s and the 1980s—L2 writing research and instruction have continued to be seen as the business of L2 specialists but not of composition specialists. In other words, the definition of L2 writing as a subfield of L2 studies has limited the L2 writing specialists' ability to influence disciplinary and instructional practices outside the domain of L2 studies. 

The Changing Role of L2 Writing Specialists

To provide an adequate instructional environment for an increasing number of L2 writers who will continue to be enrolled in non-L2 writing courses, we can no longer rely on the L1/L2 distinction as a guiding assumption for determining the scope of our activities. Since the presence of L2 writers in the instructional domain of composition studies is a given, all writing teachers are potentially, if not already, L2 writing instructors. Recognizing this situation, some L2 writing specialists have begun to argue that composition specialists need to incorporate L2 perspectives into their disciplinary and instructional practices (e.g., Matsuda, 1998, 1999; Silva et al., 1997; Valdes, 1992). Furthermore, some efforts have been made to integrate L1 and L2 writers (e.g., Healy & Hall, 1994; Matsuda & Silva, 1999; Reichelt & Silva, 1995/1996; Roy, 1984). While mainstreaming L2 writers into writing courses that are designed primarily for L1 writers can be problematic (Atkinson & Ramanathan, 1995; Braine, 1996; Ramanathan & Kaplan, 1996a, b), such placement practices can be beneficial if the course is taught by an instructor who has a background in both L1 and L2 writing, and if appropriate adjustments are made.

Will these changes threaten the status of L2 writing specialists? Will there be fewer jobs for L2 writing teachers? Not necessarily. Despite these changes, the need for a writing component in intensive language programs will continue to exist. Furthermore, as composition studies integrate L2 perspectives into its disciplinary and instructional practices, the need for L2 writing specialists is likely to increase. First, as the number of L2 writers increase in various writing courses, writing programs will need more instructors with a background in L2 writing instruction. Second, L2 writing specialists will be needed to prepare teachers to work with L2 writers effectively. Third, L2 writing specialists will be needed to participate in the development of writing programs that are L2-friendly. Fourth, L2 writing specialists will be needed to prepare instructional materials that are appropriate for composition programs that enroll L2 writers. Fifth, L2 writing specialists will be needed to create new knowledge about L2 writing and writing instruction in various instructional contexts and to present the knowledge in ways that are accessible to teachers and researchers without a background in L2 studies. Finally, L2 writing specialists will be needed to prepare the next generation of L2 writing specialists in graduate programs in both composition studies and second language studies.

To play these roles effectively, however, L2 writing specialists need to learn a great deal more about the instructional and disciplinary practices of composition studies. It will not be an easy task because of the "cultural differences" between composition studies and second language studies, which have evolved separately over the last three decades (Atkinson & Ramanathan, 1995; Santos, 1992), but not making the effort to communicate with composition specialists will be detrimental both to the field and to our students. Since the presence of L2 writers in non-L2 courses is inevitable, composition specialists will have to respond to this situation sooner or later—with or without our help.

In considering the future of the field of L2 writing, I have focused on the interdisciplinary relationship between composition studies and second language studies in the North American context. However, this issue is not without implications for L2 writing specialists in other contexts. First, L2 writing specialists—regardless of their disciplinary, institutional, or geographic contexts—need to learn more about composition studies and its theoretical and methodological assumptions and practices. Since many of the theoretical assumptions and methodological orientations that inform the field of L2 writing originated in the context of composition studies, a critical understanding of L2 writing theory, research, and instruction requires some knowledge of composition studies.  

Second, L2 writing specialists—and L2 specialists in general—need to pay more attention to metadisciplinary issues. What I have discussed here is but one of many challenges that the field of L2 writing is facing or will face in the future. To assess the significance of those challenges in various contexts and to take appropriate actions, we need to engage in metadisciplinary discourse—i.e., self-conscious inquiry into the nature and the history of the field and its activities. If L2 writing specialists are willing to be reflective about and responsive to the conditions surrounding our disciplinary and instructional practices, we can be optimistic about the future of the field of L2 writing.


Santos, T., Atkinson, D., Erickson, M., Matsuda, P. K., & Silva, T. (2000). On the future of second language writing: A colloquium. Journal of Second Language Writing, 9(1), 1-20. doi:10.1016/S1060-3743(99)00022-3

Updated on April 28, 2013