Reading and Writing in a Foreign Language Research Paper
In this essay I will review first Cumming’s study of writing expertise and second-language proficiency and then Victori’s study “An analysis of writing knowledge in EFL composing: a case study of two effective and two less effective writers.”
Cumming (1989) investigated the writing expertise and second language proficiency of 23 French-speaking students who were in the age from late teens to early twenties. The participants were assessed for writing quality and second language quality in three writing tasks. Writing in a second language is closely related to writing in one’s first language. Many studies have shown that people tend to transfer and use the same approaches or strategies for second language writing as they do in their first language. So procedures such as planning content, revising texts, using thinking strategies, and so on are similar in both the first and second language of the writers (Cumming, 1989, pp. 81-83).
Some researchers claim “that the constraints of writing, without full proficiency, in a second language may impose psychological limitations on people’s abilities to conceptualise their intended meanings and its organisation as discourse” (Freedman, Pringle, and Yalden, 1983, p. 10, cited in Cumming, 1989, p. 85). Cumming (1989, p. 86) points out that the small number of participants in research studies of second language writers is and has been a problem because it is difficult to draw any valid general conclusions on the basis of such small numbers.
In his study Cumming investigated: 1) the qualities of texts produced; 2) the attention devoted to aspects of writing during decision making; and 3) the problem-solving behaviours used to control writing processes (p. 87). The participants had three different levels of writing expertise, and two different levels of ESL proficiency. They were studying in a bilingual programme (English/French) at university. The participants were divided into three groups depending on their writing expertise in their mother-tongue: 1) professionally experienced writers (n=5), 2) average student writers (n=8), and 3) basic writers (n=10). In the professional group there were two authors who had published books in French. The three others in the group of professional writers were experienced writers of work related reports, articles, reviews, and letters. The basic writers had many deficiencies in their abilities to produce written text. The average writers were in between the two other groups of respectively professional and basic writers. The participants were divided into two levels of ESL proficiency that were intermediate and advanced based on an oral interview test (Cumming, 1989, pp. 87-88).
The study used thinking-aloud utterances from the participants while writing. The think-aloud protocols, which were tape-recorded, were transcribed and analysed. The quality of the written compositions were assessed and marked for their content, discourse organization, and language use (Cumming, 1989, pp. 89-92). The think-aloud statements were analysed and divided into five categories according to which aspect of composing they belonged to. The categories were: language use, discourse organization, gist, intentions, and procedures for writing. The protocols were also analysed for problem-solving behaviours which the statements seemed to indicate. The problem-solving categories were: thinking which involves knowledge-telling, problem identification, problem resolution, and heuristic search strategies for evaluating a problem (Cumming, 1989, pp. 93-95).
The participants who were expert writers and advanced ESL learners received the highest marks for their compositions. The professional writers performed at a much higher level than all the other participants. There was a clear difference between the marks for language use achieved by the intermediate, and the advanced ESL participants who were experienced writers (Cumming, 1989, pp. 95-98). The advanced ESL learners who were also expert writers scored the highest marks for language use, while the intermediate ESL participants who were also expert writers scored merely the same marks for language use as the average student writers. So the study points to the level of ESL learning having significance for the participants’ results regarding language use (see Cumming, 1989, p. 98, fig. 3).
The expert writers who were only intermediate ESL learners scored lower marks than average students on the letter task for both discourse organisation, content, and language use (Cumming, 1989, pp. 96-98). This may be said to be a surprising result but Cumming does not comment on it in his paper. He focuses on the high marks achieved by the expert writers who are also advanced ESL learners.
All the participants paid most attention to gist in their writing according to their statements in the think-aloud protocols. There was a great difference in the problem-solving behaviours of the participants in the study. Basic writers only referred to heuristic search strategies in 2 to 16% of their think-aloud comments, while the expert writers mentioned heuristic search strategies in 29 to 55% of their statements. The basic writers often mentioned problem identification without resolution or heuristic searches (Cumming, 1989, p. 107). In their approach to writing the basic writers lacked self-control or self-regulation whereas the expert writers seemed to use well formed scripts for their compositions with rhetorical plans or goal-directed planning.
The expert writers used two different strategies for planning. Some of them used advance planning, and others used emergent planning. The advance planners were used to writing technical reports, while the emergent planners had a background as creative and literary writers (Cumming, 1989, p. 114). The inexperienced writers seemed to use a “what next strategy” and lacked a major plan for their writing. Some of the inexpert writers just wrote down everything that came to mind without any reflections or modifications (Cumming, 1989, p. 113).
Victori’s (1999) study analyses how the beliefs or metacognitive knowledge (MK) held about writing relates to differences in English as a foreign language (EFL) writing skills. Victori claims “that it is the strategies and general writing processes that primarily separates successful from less successful writers'' (p. 538). Furthermore, Victori states that research on writing, reading, memorization, and L2 acquisition has found “that problems in the learner’s approach ultimately reflect a deficiency or lack of awareness of the requirements and processes involved in undertaking the task – knowledge that has been generally referred to by various researchers … as metacognitive knowledge” (Victori, 1999, p. 538).
The participants in the study were four Spanish undergraduate students taking advanced EFL courses at the University of Barcelona. They were 18 to 21 years of age and all English major students. They were two skilled writers and two less-skilled writers. The students were asked to write an argumentative essay and they were tape-recorded while they wrote the essays. The think-aloud method was used for collecting data (Victori, 1999, p. 539). The MK (metacognitive knowledge) of the participants was classified according to Flavel’s (1979) general taxonomy which divides MK into three categories of knowledge: 1) person knowledge (the knowledge one holds about oneself and others as cognitive processors); 2) task knowledge (the knowledge that one has about the information and resources needed to undertake a task, as well as about the nature and degree of effort performing it); and 3) strategy knowledge (the knowledge concerning what strategies are likely to be effective in achieving certain goals and undertaking certain tasks (Victori, 1999, p. 539).
Person knowledge was divided into three sub-categories: 1) motivation; 2) self-concept; and 3) writing problems. The results showed differences on two of the variables reported, namely self-concept and writing problems. The participants’ motivation for writing in English was similar. The two skilled writers reported having a better self-concept and a higher degree of confidence in writing than the two less-skilled writers. However, this was mainly the case when writing in their L1 and not so much when writing in English. The participants also differed on the kind of writing problems that they had. The skilled withers focused on global text-level problems (e.g. writing coherently and having to re-structure ideas after having evaluated them) whereas the less-skilled writers mainly focused on local text-level problems (e.g. vocabulary and grammar problems, such as using the right tenses and prepositions) (Victori, 1999, p. 541).
Task knowledge was divided into three sub-categories: 1) text knowledge; 2) concern for purpose; and 3) concern for the audience. The two pairs of participants differed with regard to text knowledge. The skilled writers agreed that a good essay should contain “good and interesting content, characterized by clarity of ideas, a coherent discourse and grammatical correctness” (Victori, 1999, 541).