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WAC and Second Language Writing: Cross-field Research, Theory, and Program Development

WAC: Closing Doors or Opening Doors for Second Language Writers?[1]

Abstract: Written by a WAC program director and second language writing studies scholar, this article raises questions about how second language writers are faring in WAC programs and the extent to which the fields of second language writing and WAC are informed by each other's scholarship. In this article, Cox draws from her review of 26 journal articles and book chapters on L2 writers to first share how WAC programs look and work from the vantage point of L2 writing scholars and the L2 students impacted by WAC curricula, and then share representations of L2 writers and writing in WAC literature. She concludes by recommending that WAC scholars and administrators advocate for second language students, offering concrete suggestions for WAC scholarship to become more inclusive of L2 writing scholarship and WAC program administration to become more linguistically and culturally inclusive.

By all accounts, the Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC) movement is, as Christopher Thaiss and Tara Porter (2010) argue, "alive and well." Reporting on their 2008 survey investigating the health of the WAC movement, which replicated a survey conducted by Susan McLeod and Susan Shirley in 1987, Thaiss and Porter state that 64% of the responding U.S. institutions of higher education reported either having or planning to begin a WAC or Writing in the Disciplines (WID) program (p. 541). These survey results revealed significant growth in the number of WAC programs in the 22 years since McLeod and Shirley's survey. Referring to the results of the 1987 survey, Russell (1991) commented, "The WAC movement far surpasses any previous movements to improve writing across the curriculum, both in the number of programs and in the breadth of their influence" (p. 291), a statement that is even truer today given the Thaiss and Porter findings. Indeed, proponents of WAC have much to be proud of; writing-intensive courses, faculty workshops, writing fellows programs, and other WAC-related programming have proliferated in colleges and universities across the US. As Terry Myers Zawacki and Paul M. Rogers attest in their introduction to Writing Across the Curriculum: A Critical Sourcebook (2012), over 40 years of WAC/WID research has demonstrated that WAC has been "successful in improving teaching and learning in the challenging environment of higher education" (p. 1) — opening doors to knowledge-making, active learning, and communication for students across the curriculum. However, it isn't clear that the same holds true for second language (L2)[2] students. Literature emerging from second language writing studies, I will argue, reveals WAC as a program that can close doors for L2 students. In this article, I draw from my review of 26 journal articles and book chapters on L2 writers and WAC to share first how WAC programs look and work from the vantage point of L2 writing scholars and the L2 students impacted by WAC curricula, and next how L2 writers and writing are represented in the WAC literature. I end the article with suggestions for ways that WAC scholars and administrators can be more inclusive of L2 writing scholarship and students in our field and on our campuses.


This review draws from an annotated bibliography I conducted on WAC and L2 writing, published as a WPA-CompPile Research Bibliography (Cox, 2010). To locate sources, I conducted searches using ERIC, pored through edited collections, and used the bibliographies of articles to identity additional sources. I restricted my focus to articles and chapters[3] based on studies conducted in U.S. contexts, and exempted articles focused on first year composition (FYC), even if focused on a WAC/WID approach to FYC[4]. While the larger CompPile bibliography includes studies of writers in graduate school and the workplace, I have limited the scope of this article to studies focused on undergraduates, as graduate writing is outside the scope of practice of many WAC programs. I also limited my review to studies published after 1990, as the early 90s are generally agreed upon as a period which marked new interest in L2 writing and the recognition of L2 writing studies as a discipline (see Matsuda, 2003). From this list, I then separated sources into those emerging from second language writing studies and those emerging from WAC/WID studies, a determination I made based on where the piece was published, the piece's target audience, and the scholar's disciplinary orientation (see Appendix A). I realize that this categorization is a somewhat subjective process, as it is possible for a scholar to focus on both L2 writing and WAC, as I attempt to do in my own scholarship. However, despite some blurred lines, separating studies in this way reveals powerful differences in the positioning of the author(s) and goals of the study, as I will discuss below.

L2 Writers and WAC: From the Perspective of L2 Writing Studies

In my review of articles emerging from L2 writing studies, I focus on those that provide insight into how curricular elements of WAC, specifically writing proficiency exams and increased emphasis on writing in undergraduate courses, affect L2 writers. For WAC scholars, writing proficiency exams are generally not considered a hallmark of WAC programs; indeed, Charles Bazerman and his co-authors, in their Reference Guide to Writing Across the Curriculum, disavow writing proficiency exams in their chapter "Assessment in Writing Across the Curriculum," saying:

WAC in its very principles challenged the traditional assessment based on general skills displayed in undifferentiated testing situations. WAC highlighted that there were many different forms of writing that varied from discipline to discipline, and what counted as good writing for a literature class would not pass muster in a physics lab, and vice-versa. Moreover, WAC points out how closely forms of writing are tied to the knowledge and activities mobilized in any writing task. Finally, WAC points to the active construction of learning and knowledge by the student in the course of writing, so that it is not appropriate to measure writing simply against a fixed standard. (p. 120)

Yet, however much WAC scholars and administrators may disavow any association with writing proficiency exams, these exams are often associated with WAC by those outside of our field and, further, are often one of the most visible features of our programs for students who struggle with these exams and those who advocate for these students, as displayed in several of the articles emerging from L2 writing studies.

Research on L2 writers' struggles with writing competency exams began with Ann M. Johns' often anthologized 1991 article "Interpreting an English Competency Exam: The Frustrations of an ESL Science Student." In this article, Johns uses a case study approach to examine why a L2 student writing successfully in upper-level courses in the major would repeatedly fail a writing proficiency exam. Through interviews with a L2 science undergraduate, comparison of the student's writing in response to the writing exam prompt and to a biology assignment, and analysis of the writing instruction the student received within composition courses and courses across the curriculum, Johns presents a portrait of a system gone awry and opens questions on the ethics of administering writing proficiency exams to L2 students.

Michael Janopoulis followed up on Johns' study with his 1995 article "Writing across the Curriculum, Writing Proficiency Exams, and the NNES[5] College Student," in which he uses the writing proficiency exam as a lens for examining L2 writers' experiences with writing across the curriculum. Janopoulis reviews the literature on how faculty across the curriculum treat L2 writers in relation to their writing to argue that a majority of faculty provide extra time for L2 writers to complete written assignments and reward "good faith effort" when assessing L2 writing (p. 45). Yet, Janopoulis argues, these approaches are ineffective in preparing L2 writers for writing proficiency exams (WPEs), for "this double standard places NNS[6] students at risk when they take WPEs, which presumably are graded on an objective system normed to standards of native speaker proficiency" (p. 46). Janopoulis, then, sees this problem that L2 students face as not only located in the writing proficiency exam, but in faculty's lack of support for L2 students' development as writers as they write across the curriculum.

There are relatively few studies focused on the experiences of L2 writers in courses designated as writing-intensive. One that stands out is Wolfe-Quintero and Segade's 1999 chapter "University Support for Second-Language Writers Across the Curriculum," based on a study in which the authors interviewed 29 L2 students enrolled in WI courses in 16 majors as well as 16 faculty instructors of WI courses representing 10 majors to assess student and faculty perceptions of writing support available to L2 students. Major findings of the study were that faculty were largely focused on sentence-level issues in L2 student writing, felt that these students should have more ESL education before being admitted into WI courses, and penalized L2 writers and L1 writers equally for grammatical issues in writing. Wolfe-Quintero and Segade spend some time discussing ways that faculty across the curriculum could improve their support of L2 writers through assignment design and responding to drafts, but also comment that, at research-intensive universities, "it is difficult to reach instructors whose primary concern is their research, who may have little time or interest in pedagogical self-development, and who may not be philosophically committed to the benefits of WI courses" (p. 201). The rest of the chapter focuses on ways that writing centers and first-year writing programs can better support L2 writers.

Many of the articles that I reviewed focused on L2 writers' experiences in courses that, though not designated as writing-intensive, placed an emphasis on writing. One such study emerged from an action research project: Vivian Zamel's 1995 CCC article "Strangers in Academia: The Experiences of Faculty and ESL Students across the Curriculum." Zamel, motivated by requests by faculty for workshops on what they termed the "ESL problem" (p. 507), surveyed and interviewed faculty and L2 students to uncover faculty perspectives on L2 writing and student experiences across the curriculum. Results showed that faculty conflated what they termed "bad language" with "insufficient cognitive development" (p. 509), equating linguistic ability in a second language with intelligence. Faculty respondents indicated that it wasn't their role to support L2 writing development, arguing that this learning should have taken place in ESL courses, and, if it hadn't, then the students would be "closed off from participating in intellectual work" in courses across the curriculum (p. 510). Of the 325 surveys completed by L2 students, Zamel reported that "the majority of the students' responses described classrooms that silenced them, that made them feel fearful and inadequate, [and] that limited possibilities for engagement, involvement, [and] inclusion" (p. 512).

Much of the research that details L2 writers' experiences across the curriculum has been conducted by Ilona Leki. Her 1995 article "Coping Strategies of ESL Students in Writing Tasks across the Curriculum" was one of the first to present case study research on L2 undergraduates writing outside of first year composition and ESL courses. In this landmark study, Leki presents data from case studies of five international L2 students in their first semester at a U.S. university, analyzing the strategies these students used to write successfully in their courses; all were all ultimately successful, but at great costs. We see Ling, a business major from Taiwan, struggle with an assignment in a geography course that "required an implicit and sophisticated knowledge of everyday U.S. culture that was far out of the reach of a student just arrived in the US" (p. 241). We see Julie, a business major from France, negotiate a history assignment that asked her to focus on a novel's representation of U.S. southern women in the 1950's – another assignment that assumes deep cultural and historical knowledge of the US – by "rewriting the terms of the assignment," namely ignoring the instructions and instead focusing on the female character in the novel that most interested her (p. 243). The most poignant scene in the article is one in which we hear Jien, an education graduate student from China say, "I feel, Oh, what I have, I am really an outsider . . . . I didn't do what others do. I don't know!" (p. 245) after seeing her score on a review assignment and learning about how her classmates had approached the same assignment. To complete a two-page review of an article, Jien first sought out models in professional journals, and then completed three handwritten drafts of the review, during which she whittled five pages down to two. Her review received a score of 2 out of three, with the point taken off for inappropriate citation style, and, in class, she learned that her classmates simply drew on personal experience to complete the assignment.

In her 1999 article "Pretty Much I Screwed Up: Ill-Served Needs of a Permanent Resident Student," Leki presents a case study of Jan, an undergraduate who is gaming the system of school, by "cut[ting] literacy corners" (p. 22) such as turning in the same paper to different teachers, turning in the same homework again and again to the same teacher, and intentionally using his ESL identity to buy time and not fulfill requirements of writing assignments. Jan is often rewarded with A's for these approaches and is seen as a good student by his teachers. Leki uses this case study to turn a critical eye on U.S. higher education, which allows for these loopholes and doesn't, at least in this case, live up to its self-definition of fostering a curriculum of critical thinking and writing across the curriculum.

In her 2001 article "'A Narrow Thinking System': Nonnative-English-Speaking Students in Group Projects Across the Curriculum," Leki examines how L2 students fare in group work and shows that native English speaking students routinely disregard comments made by L2 students, due largely to their lack of confidence in L2 students' ability to make meaningful contributions. This article is not focused on writing but has implications for how ESL writers fare in writing groups and during peer review, two common approaches used in writing-intensive courses.

In her 2003 article "Living through College Literacy: Nursing in a Second Language," Leki argues that writing in courses in the nursing major is often experienced by L2 students as a "necessary evil, an obstacle to get beyond" (2003b, p. 82). Drawing from a case study of a nursing student, Leki analyzes the kinds and amount of writing this student completed for courses, as well as the weight of these writing assignments in course grades; interviews the student on writing experiences in the major and during practicum experiences in a hospital; and interviews nursing faculty on why they assign writing and how this writing compares to writing by professional nurses. Based on this evidence, Leki argues that writing was given undue importance in this major, as the writing assigned did not match the writing students will do professionally, and that oral communication rather than written communication was more relevant in this profession. However, it was classroom writing assignments that caused the L2 student profiled in this case study and her professors to doubt whether the student should progress in the program.

Ilona Leki has been one of the loudest critics of the emphasis on writing in undergraduate programs, and she makes her argument most explicitly in "A Challenge to Second Language Writing Professionals: Is Writing Overrated?" (2003a). In this provocative essay, Leki asks, "What are the consequences, particularly for L2 English students, of placing such a high value on writing?" (p. 315). Leki draws from a range of L1 and L2 writing scholarship to argue that there is little evidence that writing (over other skills such as speaking, test-taking, preparing presentations, and quantitative literacy) is of primary importance for success in college or the workplace. She questions the basic assumptions that drive L1 and L2 writing programs: that writing is personally fulfilling, that writing helps students learn disciplinary content, that students will need to do a great deal of writing in other college courses, that students will need to write well in English for the workplace, and that writing is important for citizenship. Leki challenges both L1 and L2 writing scholars to question whether our assumptions about the value of writing have caused us to overemphasize the power and importance of writing for students. Leki's main targets in this article are writing proficiency exams and first year composition programs, targets obvious in this next passage:

Those who love writing, place it at the center of their intellectual lives, and want others to do the same, have won out at the moment. Writing exams and required freshman composition courses are accepted by the educational community and by the public. But what do these courses and exams do to the people subjected to them? Over the last five years I have asked students to think of a writing experience that stands out in their minds and talk about it — actually, write about it. The majority of the stories they have told recount tales of trauma and cruel exposure of fragile egos. Those who did the hurting did so in the name of the importance of writing. (p. 327)

Leki is not directing her comments at WAC here, but her comments raise important questions. Is it possible that WAC administrators and scholars, like our colleagues in L2 writing studies and first year composition, place the same overemphasis on writing? Have we paid more attention to the potential benefits of integrating writing into curricula than the possible costs to some students? If we are paying attention, what possible costs for L2 students should we be attending to?

The studies I have reviewed here from a L2 writing perspective point to two areas: First, an increased emphasis on writing in the undergraduate curriculum and on writing proficiency exams can lead to increased barriers for L2 students. Second, faculty across the curriculum who teach with writing may create inequitable conditions in their classrooms for L2 writers in the ways they assign, respond to, and assess writing. The argument, then, that emerges from this review of the L2 literature is that WAC has increased emphasis on writing across undergraduate programs without creating mechanisms that help L2 students succeed as writers and without creating faculty development programs that offer training in working with L2 writers. If WAC increases the amount of course learning and assessment that happens through writing without, at the same time, combating the inclinations of untrained faculty to pass L2 writers along, to penalize them for their "written accents," and/or to assess them based on U.S.-centric assignments, WAC has then, by default, "closed doors" for L2 writers. But, as will be evident from my review of articles focused on L2 writing that have emerged from WAC scholarship, WAC has been aware of the need to be more inclusive of linguistically and culturally diverse students and has been reaching out to L2 writing scholarship in an attempt to "open doors" for these students.

L2 Writers and WAC: From the Perspective of WAC

I turn now to representations of L2 writing emerging out of WAC research, again limiting my focus to articles that portray undergraduate writers and programs. In reviewing this literature, I identified only five such articles: three calls to action, a qualitative study on an L2 student and her instructor, and an action research project.

The first call to action was made by Paul Kei Matsuda and Jeffrey Jablonksi in their 2000 Academic.Writing article "Beyond the L2 Metaphor: Towards a Mutually Transformative Model of ESL/WAC Collaboration." Here, the authors argue that the metaphor often used in WAC that characterizes all students as L2 students when writing in unfamiliar discourses renders L2 writers invisible in WAC programs and elides the additional challenges L2 students have when writing across the curriculum. Matsuda and Jablonski call for a rethinking of this metaphor as well as increased collaboration between WAC and L2 specialists, by reaching out to ESL specialists on our own campuses and in the field by participating in TESOL and L2 writing conferences and symposia.

This call was followed by one made by Johns in her 2001 chapter "ESL Students and WAC Programs: Varied Populations and Diverse Needs," in which Johns provides WAC administrators with an overview of the research on L2 writers and suggestions for better supporting L2 writers across the curriculum. Johns' chapter was published in Susan H. McLeod, Eric Miraglia, Margot Soven, and Christopher Thaiss' well-known WAC for the New Millennium: Strategies for Continuing Writing-Across-the-Curriculum Programs (2001), the first WAC collection to call attention to L2 writers. In the introduction, McLeod and Miraglia include a section on "Changing Student Demographics: Non-native Speakers of English," in which they make a compelling case for the need for more research on L2 writers in WAC:

WAC techniques that work well for native speakers do not work at all for ESL learners. Teachers in the disciplines who are told they do not need to know about grammar in order to use writing in their classes feel betrayed when faced with a non-native speakers' grammatical and syntactic tangles in the writing-to-learn assignments. Many WAC directors themselves feel at the edge of their competence in dealing with such situations. Yet little research has been done on ESL and WAC. (12)

Johns' article in their collection expands on this call, while also providing information and resources for WAC administrators and researchers, covering such issues as differences among immigrant and visa L2 students, L2 acquisition, error, and contrastive rhetoric. She then provides approaches for analyzing how and where L2 students are taught to write in a university as well as suggestions for better supporting L2 writers across the curriculum.

The third and most provocative call was made by Jonathan Hall in his 2009 WAC Journal article "WAC/WID in the Next America: Redefining Professional Identity in the Age of the Multilingual Majority." Drawing from data depicting the fast rise of linguistically diverse students in K-12 and in higher education, as well as the trend toward globalization in the workplace, Hall calls for nothing short of a paradigm shift within WAC, with recognition that L2 writers are not at the margins but are part of the mainstream of college student writers in the US:

We need to challenge ourselves to make a transformation in our own thinking, procedures, and pedagogy, as well as in our own professional identity, that is just as radical a shift for us as the one we have been asking of our colleagues in the disciplines. Just as WAC requires a transformation of traditional content-based pedagogy, meeting the challenge of teaching multilingual learners well requires as thorough and fundamental a transformation of WAC. (p. 33)

Hall calls on WAC administrators to prepare for this "New America" and transform WAC by shifting faculty development programming to be fully inclusive of L2 writers and by shifting WAC as a field by "re-educat[ing] ourselves" (p. 42), for which purpose he provides a list of resources from L2 writing studies.

The one article I identified as presenting qualitative data is Stephen Fishman and Lucille McCarthy's 2001 study "An ESL Writer and Her Discipline-based Professor: Making Progress even when Goals Do Not Match." This article is part teacher-research and part case-study, as it is written alternatively by Fishman, the teacher of an introduction to philosophy WI course, and by McCarthy, who interviews a L2 senior math major enrolled in this course. From Fishman we hear, "The level of Neha's papers seemed shockingly below that of the other 24 students in my Intro class, all of whom were native speakers" (p. 193). As evidence, Fishman gives examples from the student's writing displaying grammatical issues, as well as beliefs on gender roles and religious issues that varied greatly from his expectations. Fishman describes himself as feeling "handcuffed": "My class was designated ‘writing-intensive,' and it was my job to certify that students who passed it were reading and writing Standard American English at the college level. I simply had no idea how, in a matter of 14 weeks, I could bring Neha's reading and writing in English up to the level of her better-prepared classmates" (p. 194). From McCarthy, we gain insight into Fishman's curricula, which included assignments McCarthy described as "designed with American students in mind," and reading and writing expectations that would be challenging for even well-prepared L1 students (p. 200). From McCarthy's interviews with Neha, we learn that she had anticipated an "easy A" in this course, based on her experiences in first year composition, which focused on "multi-draft personal essays drawing on her narrative skills" (p. 202). She certainly didn't expect the comment from Fishman she received early in the semester: "Fail. It is a struggle for me to follow your writing. I cannot understand what you are trying to say. Please get help at the writing center" (p. 204). Neha ultimately passed the course with a C, but Fishman felt that he had lowered his standards in order to award this grade (p. 210). In the conclusion, Fishman and McCarthy reflect on the aspects of his pedagogy that seemed to be most effective for Neha, particularly writing-to-learn activities that included peer interaction.

The one article I identified as emerging from an action research project is Terry Myers Zawacki and Anna Habib's 2010 chapter, "'Will Our Stories Help Teachers Understand?' Multilingual Students Talk about Identity, Academic Writing, and Meeting Teachers' Expectations." Zawacki and Habib present data from interviews with 26 L2 writers from across the curriculum on their experiences with academic writing, as well as with faculty representing fifteen disciplines on their experiences with and perspectives on L2 student writers. In this article, Zawacki and Habib present voices from their interviewees that reveal ways in which L2 writers negotiate tensions related to voice and originality, tacit expectations and conventions of disciplinary writing, and aspects of Western academic writing that some L2 students reported as "liberat[ing]" but others saw as asking them to leave much "by the wayside" (p. 68). Not only is this study part of a larger action research project -- a project that has resulted in an institutional publication and website entitled Valuing Written Accents: Nonnative Students Talk about Identity, Academic Writing, and Meeting Teachers' Expectations – but it was conducted by a research team composed of WAC, writing center, and English Language Institute professionals, the first such collaboration in this literature review.

Advocating for L2 Writers through WAC: Research and Practice

If the message emerging from studies by L2 writing scholars is "L2 undergraduates are struggling with writing proficiency exams and writing in courses across the curriculum," then the message from studies by WAC scholars is "we'd like to serve L2 writers better." Seen as a whole, the studies I have reviewed here create a map of the many opportunities available to WAC/WID professionals for advocating for L2 students. As Thaiss and Porter's survey shows, WAC is a highly visible program on many campuses and is therefore ideally situated for creating real change for L2 writers. In this section, I will first address what WAC can do as a field to be more inclusive of L2 writers, and then I will focus on what WAC directors can do to advocate for L2 writers on their own campuses.

The first step is for WAC, as a field, to take more seriously its role in conducting research on L2 writers. As indicated by this review, there is a paucity of research on L2 writers emerging from WAC scholars and published in venues readily visible to WAC specialists, such as the journals Across the Disciplines and The WAC Journal. The research I've reviewed in this article conducted by L2 writing specialists provides a good beginning point for WAC scholars, as it provides important insights into the experiences of students as they write across the curriculum. However, L2 writing scholars conduct their research from a different vantage point and with different goals than would WAC scholars. As stated in many of the studies I reviewed here, the L2 writing scholar is often positioned in the university as an instructor within or director of an ESL program, a program that runs courses positioned as entry points for students into the university, into a first-year writing program, or into specific disciplines. As Leki states in the preface to Undergraduates in a Second Language: Challenges and Complexities of Academic Literacy Development (2007), the purpose of much of her research has been to understand what types of writing students do across the curriculum, where they struggle with writing, and what they carry with them from their ESL writing courses in order to better shape the curriculum of the ESL program. WAC scholars, positioned in the university as administrators of writing-related initiatives and leaders of faculty development, would ask very different questions, or perhaps ask some of the same questions, but with different goals and for different purposes. I then add my voice to Matsuda and Jablonski, Johns, and Hall's calls for WAC scholars to include L2 writers in WAC research, a change that may also impact WAC theory. Silva, in his landmark study "Toward an Understanding of the Distinct Nature of L2 Writing: The ESL Research and Its implications," argues that, based on his review of 72 studies of L2 writing, "L2 writing is strategically, rhetorically, and linguistically different in important ways from L1 writing" and that bringing together L1 and L2 theories of composition would "inform and enhance L2 theories of writing by providing them with a true multilingual/multicultural perspective, by making them more inclusive, more sensitive, and ultimately, more valid" (p. 201). Research on L2 students writing across the curriculum could similarly enrich WAC theory.

WAC research on L2 writers may begin with questions raised by Guadalupe Valdes (1992) in her article "Bilingual Minorities and Language Issues in Writing: Toward Professionwide Responses to a New Challenge." Several of her questions are worth quoting directly here:

We may also begin our research with a question that Hall poses: "How can we develop differentiated instruction methods so that both monolingual English speakers and MLLs [multilingual learners] simultaneously have a rich and satisfying classroom experience in the same writing classroom?" (p. 45). Many L2 writing scholars have argued that "good teaching is good teaching" — for both L1 and L2 students. Take, for instance, this argument by Zamel (1995):

What ESL students need—multiple opportunities to use language and write-to-learn, course work which draws on and values what students already know, classroom exchanges and assignments that promote the acquisition of unfamiliar language, concepts, and approaches to inquiry, evaluation that allows students to demonstrate genuine understanding—is good pedagogy for everyone. (p. 519)

Like Zamel, in my own work as a WAC director, many faculty have told me that they learn the most about teaching by working with L2 students, because their own assumptions about tacit knowledge and tacit expectations in assignments come to light. Further, this line of argument is used to convince faculty across the curriculum that it's worth their time to focus on teaching L2 students, as this knowledge will help them in teaching all their students (see Patton, this issue, for example). However, we must still recognize that there are differences in teaching L1 and L2 writers. Some of these differences are highlighted by Leki (1995), who describes a writing assignment that would be "an appealing assignment for the U.S. students in the class" but "required an implicit and sophisticated knowledge of everyday U.S. culture that was far out of the reach of a student just arrived in the US for the first time from Taiwan" (p. 241). The assignment asks students to interpret the socioeconomic class of a fictional U.S. neighborhood based on "certain personal characteristics, whether for example, they drink Budweiser or Heineken, read GQ magazine or Track and Field, drive a Dodge or a Saab." This problem-solving approach would be considered "good teaching" if not considering international L2 students. The project demands creative thinking and interpretation, analysis and synthesis, and the application of classroom-learning to real world situations. This is all good -- for U.S. students or L2 students who have lived in the States for a while.

Zamel (1995), too, highlights a writing activity that would be reasonable for L1 writers but would challenge L2 students for whom cognitive processing in multiple languages slows down writing. An art professor quoted by Zamel says, "I cannot give a good grade to a student who can only generate one or two broken sentences during a ten-minute slide comparison" (509). For L1 students, 10 minutes may be enough time to write a couple of sentences comparing a couple of images on slides. But not for many L2 students, for whom cognitive processing in two (or more) languages slows down writing. We must begin including L2 writers in our studies of the effectiveness of disciplinary writing assignments, writing-to-learn activities, and writing support activities, such as peer review, to begin addressing Hall's question, and to challenge the truism of "good teaching is good teaching."

Hall notes that, though the fields of L2 writing studies and WAC have begun to recognize each other's research, the fields have not entered into what Matsuda & Jablonski (2000) have referred to as a "mutually transformative relationship." My literature review reveals that few studies on L2 writers writing across the curriculum either refer to literature emerging from outside of the researcher's disciplinary home, whether that be linguistics or composition-rhetoric, or refer to programs outside of researcher's campus home, whether that be WAC or ESL. In this review, only Zawacki and Habib's article represents a study that emerged from a collaborative research team of WAC, writing center, and ESL program leaders. Of the studies emerging from L2 writing, only one article—Vivian Zamel's "Strangers in Academia (1995)—referred to WAC as a program. And she does so in passing, noting that conversations with faculty who approach her, as the ESL program director, with concerns about L2 writers, "often lead to a consideration of the same kinds of pedagogical issues that are at the heart of writing across the curriculum initiatives" (p. 517). Though much of her article is devoted to directions for faculty development, Zamel never mentions the need to collaborate with WAC specialists or draw from WAC scholarship. Interestingly, Fisher and McCarthy's article on the experiences of a WI teacher and L2 student mentions neither WAC nor ESL programs or initiatives and draw from only a handful of sources in L2 writing.

As part of the goal to enter into this "mutually transformative relationship" that both Hall (2009) and Matsuda & Jablonski (2000) call for, WAC should also begin including L2 writing in its reviews of research relevant to WAC and WID. An early example of an attempt to include an L2 perspective is David R. Russell's "Where Do the Naturalistic Studies of WAC/WID Point? A Research Review" (2001). However, the article he references was focused on a graduate student, although many qualitative studies of L2 undergraduate writing across the curriculum were published by the time this review was written. And in his review of this article – Christine Casanave's "Cultural Diversity and Socialization: A Case Study of a Hispanic Woman in a Doctoral Program in Sociology" (1992) – Russell emphasizes the student's difficulty negotiating the "conflicts between disciplinary and personal values" in her disciplinary writing (p. 268) rather than focusing on L2 writing issues. Bazerman et al (2005) include a section on L2 writing in their Reference Guide to Writing Across the Curriculum under "New Programmatic Directions." However, unlike other sections of this book, this section does not draw specifically from studies related to WAC but instead summarizes general information about L2 writing. Again, studies of L2 writers writing across the curriculum are not acknowledged. Zawacki and Rogers' Writing Across the Curriculum: A Critical Sourcebook takes a step in the right direction by including two articles focused on L2 writing, Zamel's "Strangers in Academia" (1995) and Matsuda and Jablonski's "Beyond the L2 Metaphor" (2000). Including references to L2 writing scholarship in these larger reviews of WAC scholarship will position L2 writers as part of the purview of WAC, rather than as peripheral to WAC program administration and scholarship. This move may also lead L2 writing scholars into the scholarship of WAC, as relevant L2 writing scholarship would now be contextualized within WAC scholarship.

Finally, WAC should begin collecting demographic information about linguistic diversity when conducting other large-scale assessments of students. For example, the data emerging for the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) partnership with the Council of Writing Program Administrators (WPA) on the relationship between student writing and engagement with learning has proven powerful evidence for the role of WAC programs in student learning[8]. However, at this point in time, the demographic data collected by NSSE does not include questions related to linguistic diversity, though it does collect data related to other types of diversity, such as gender and race. Had this demographic been included, we would be able to see how L2 students perceive their experiences with writing in relation to engagement. Questions might include ones focused on home language, number of years studying in the US, or number of years writing in English. Linguistic diversity is a type of diversity often left out of assessment (see Harklau & Siegal, 2009, p. 30), but collecting such data will give WAC even richer information about its success for empowering both L1 and L2 students.

These steps would move WAC as a field toward embracing L2 writers and L2 writing scholarship. As program directors and campus leaders, there is also much that WAC specialists can do to transform their own campuses. The studies reviewed here point to a need for collaboration among WAC program administrators with TESOL specialists and other campus advocates for L2 writers, a need for faculty development related to L2 writing, and a need to be sensitive to the challenges experienced by L2 students related to writing, a sensitivity that can transform writing assignment design, in-class writing activities, and writing-to-learn assignments. The suggestions I describe below would ultimately transform a WAC program and campus culture to become more inclusive to linguistically and culturally diverse students, thus opening doors for L2 writers to using writing as a way of learning, a way of communicating within disciplines, and a way of engaging with knowledge.

Learn from the wealth of research that has been conducted on L2 writing. Learning from L2 writing scholarship is the first step a WAC administrator needs to take in order to become a campus advocate for L2 writers and reshape a WAC program to become more linguistically and culturally inclusive. It can be intimidating to cross disciplinary boundaries and enter another field of knowledge, but there are several resources available to ease this process:

Connect with other groups on campus that advocate for L2 writers such as ESL specialists, an international student center, an academic support center, the writing center, a diversity office or advocacy group on campus, and ethnic studies programs. It is important to learn the landscape of L2 advocacy on your campus before proceeding. Some of these groups may have already begun researching the L2 writers on your campus, research you can learn from. These groups may also be interested in collaborating with WAC to advocate for L2 writers, such as co-sponsoring programming, putting together financial resources, or coming together in a more formal group, such as a committee, task force, or advisory board.

Collaborate with other groups on campus to offer support for L2 writers writing across the curriculum and in graduate programs. Examples of such support include stand-alone writing courses for L2 graduate students, writing fellows programs that include training in supporting L2 writers (for an example of a writing fellows program in an international context, see Ronesi, this issue), and writing groups specific to particular disciplines or graduate students.

Work to change the institutional landscape for L2 writers though curricular changes and through increasing the visibility of L2 writers and multilingual faculty. Examples include:

Gather data about L2 writers on your campus from institutional research, the writing center, area school profiles provided online by the Department of Education (see, for example, profiles of Massachusetts schools at http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/), and/or surveys of students at your institution to create a picture of L2 students on your campus. For a powerful example of one such survey, I have included one developed by Angela Dadak (printed here with permission), used to survey students in their first year composition program (see Appendix B). You can then present this information to faculty during meetings and workshops. For an example, see one I developed with TESOL specialist Yulia Stakhnevich at BSU, the "WAC Coffee Break: ESL Writing" handout posted at http://www.bridgew.edu/WAC/Spring2007Events/Handout.doc.

Conduct research on L2 writers on your campus by surveying and/or interviewing L2 writers on their writing histories, writing experiences on your campus, and what they would like faculty to know about them as writers. This kind of action research can lead to powerful conversations about L2 writers on your campus and can provide information that you can draw from during faculty development workshops. For an example of this type of work, see Terry Myers Zawacki, Eiman Hajabassi, Anna Habib, Alex Antram, and Alokparna Das' Valuing Written Accents: Non-native Students Talk about Identity, Academic Writing, and Meeting Teachers' Expectations ( http://writtenaccents.gmu.edu/monograph/valuing-written-accents-second-edition.pdf).

Offer workshops and/or brown bags on L2 writers and writing during which you present information about second language writing, L2 writers on your campus, or simply ask faculty to share their experiences with L2 writers in their courses. A powerful film that can be used to launch conversation is Writing Across Borders, written and directed by Wayne Robertson and funded by the Oregon State University Center for Writing and Learning and OSU's Writing Intensive Curriculum Program. The film features L2 students discussing their experiences with writing across the curriculum as well as L2 writing scholars on different aspects of writing in a second language. For more information, go to http://cwl.oregonstate.edu/writing-across-borders.

Create ways to differentiate between L2 writers and native English speaking students during assessment. Many campuses conduct a variety of surveys and other assessments, such as campus climate surveys and assessments of student experiences in WI courses. Unfortunately, linguistic diversity is a type of diversity often not captured in assessment, as I mentioned above. Being able to differentiate data according to linguistic diversity will provide a richer picture of L2 students' experiences on your campus.

Make resources on L2 writing and writers available to faculty. The bibliographies I mentioned above may also be shared with faculty across the curriculum during faculty development workshops or through your WAC website. In addition, the following resources are ones that faculty on my campus have found useful:

Bring up L2 writers during all conversations about writing. Include discussion about L2 writing during workshops, meetings, or conversations with faculty. Include L2 writing concerns in discussions about assignment design, peer review, assessment, or helping students write with sources. If you bring samples of student writing to a workshop, make sure that at least one sample is from an L2 writer. It is also important to run workshops and discussions exclusively focused on L2 writing, but, by including L2 writers in all conversations about writing, these writers are made more visible and envisioned as part of, not apart from, the student body, and therefore part of all courses and programs across campus.


Advocacy for students is an element of WAC that has been part of its mission from the start. In "American Origins of the Writing-Across-the-Curriculum Movement," Russell (1994) reminds us, "The WAC movement, like the tradition of progressive education it is ultimately a part of, was born out of a desire to make the mass education system more equitable and inclusive" (p. 19). Positioned at the crossroads of teaching and learning as agents of institutional change, WAC professionals are key to making our institutional landscapes, classrooms, and assessment practices more equitable and inclusive for L2 students. I end with the words of Danling Fu (2007), who writes persuasively about the need for secondary content-area teachers to mentor L2 student writing:

Writing is the most challenging skill for ELLs [English language learners], and it is the least taught to them. From elementary to graduate school, I have heard frequent complaints from instructors that their ELLs just can't write. But we rarely ask if they have even been taught to write, or how they have been taught to write, or if they have had any teacher in their schooling that helped them express what they wanted to in writing through English. We must take the time to teach writing more seriously to English language learners. When this happens, our students will grow as writers and as people. (p. 242).


Appendix A - Articles and Chapters Reviewed

Author(s) Article Title Year Published Venue Target Audience/evidence
Fishman, S. M. & McCarthy, L. An ESL writer and her discipline-based professor: Making progress even when goals do not match 2001 Written Communication WAC scholars / published by a WAC scholar in collaboration with a philosophy professor
Hall, J. WAC/WID in the next America: Redefining professional identity in the age of the multilingual majority 2009 The WAC Journal WAC scholars / published in a WAC journal
Johns, A.M. Interpreting an English competency exam: The frustrations of an ESL science student. 


Written Communication L2 writing scholars
Johns, A.M. ESL students and WAC programs: Varied populations and diverse needs 2001 WAC for the new millennium: Strategies for continuing writing-across-the-curriculum programs WAC scholars / written for an edited collection focused on WAC
Janopoulis, M. Writing across the curriculum, writing proficiency exams, and the NNES college student 1995 Journal of Second Language Writing L2 writing scholars / published in journal focused on L2 writing
Leki, I. Coping strategies of ESL students in writing tasks across the curriculum 1995 TESOL Quarterly L2 writing scholars / published in journal focused on L2 issues
Leki, I. “Pretty much I screwed up”: Ill-served needs of a permanent resident student 1999 Generation 1.5 meets college composition: Issues in the teaching of writing to U.S.-educated learners of ESL L2 writing scholars / written by a L2 writing scholar for an edited collection targeting L2 writing and FYC
Leki, I. “A narrow system of thinking”: Nonnative-English-speaking students in group projects across the curriculum 2001 TESOL Quarterly L2 writing scholars / published in journal focused on L2 issues
Leki, I. A challenge to second language writing professionals: Is writing overrated? 2003 Exploring the dynamics of second language writing L2 writing scholars/ published in edited collection focused on L2 writing
Leki, I. Living through college literacy: Nursing in a second language 2003 Written Communication L2 writing scholars / focuses on “the difficulty of attempting to organize L2 literacy courses to meet the eventual literacy needs of L2 writers in courses across the curriculum” (p. 82)
Matsuda, P. K. & Jablonksi, J. Beyond the L2 metaphor: Towards a mutually transformative model of ESL/WAC collaboration 2000 Academic.Writing: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Communication Across the Curriculum WAC scholars / published in journal focused on WAC
Wolfe-Quintero, K. & Segade, G.  University support for second-language writers across the curriculum 1999 Generation 1.5 meets college composition: Issues in the teaching of writing to U.S.-educated learners of ESL Administrators of ESL first year writing courses and writing center administrators/ emphasis on disjuncture between types of writing and support in ESL FYC courses and WI courses and role of WC in addressing this
Zamel, V. Strangers in academia: The experiences of faculty and ESL students across the curriculum 1995 CCC WAC scholars and L2 writing scholars / published in mainstream composition-rhetoric journal and focused on faculty development, though examples of faculty development emerge from an ESL program, not a WAC program
Zawacki, T. M. & Habib, A. “Will our stories help teachers understand?” Multilingual students talk about identity, academic writing, and expectations across academic communities 2010 Reinventing identities in second language writing WAC scholars and L2 writing scholars / refers to “us as WAC practitioners” (p. 70) when referring to the chapter’s authors and readers

Appendix B - Language Use Survey

Language Use Survey Example

Language Survey Example - page 2


Bazerman, Charles, Little, Joseph, Bethel, Lisa, Chavkin, Teri, Fouquette, Danielle, & Garufis, Janet. (2005). Reference Guide to Writing Across the Curriculum. West Lafayette, IN: Parlor Press and the WAC Clearinghouse.

Bruce, Shanti, & Rafoth, Ben. (Eds). (2009). ESL writers: A guide for writing center tutors. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Casanave, Christine. (1992). Cultural diversity and socialization: A case study of a hispanic woman in a doctoral program in sociology. In Denise E. Murray (Ed.), Diversity as resource: Redefining cultural literacy (pp. 148-182). Alexandria, VA: Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages (1992).

Cox, Michelle. (June 2010). WAC-WID and Second Language Writers, WPA-CompPile Research Bibliographies, No. 8. WPA-CompPile Research Bibliographies. Retrieved from http://comppile.org/wpa/bibliographies/Bib8/Cox.pdf. 20 May 2011.

Fishman, Stephen M., & McCarthy, Lucille. (2001). An ESL writer and her discipline-based professor: Making progress even when goals do not match." Written Communication, 18(2), 180-228.

Fu, Danling. (2007). Teaching writing to English language learners. In Thomas Newkirk & Richard Kent (Ed.), Teaching the neglected "R": Rethinking writing instruction in secondary classrooms (pp. 225-242). Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Hall, Jonathan. (2009). WAC/WID in the next America: Redefining professional identity in the age of the multilingual majority. The WAC Journal, 20, 33-49. Retrieved from https://wac.colostate.edu/journal/vol20/hall.pdf. Retrieved 20 May 2011.

Harklau, Linda, & Siegal, Meryl. (2009). Immigrant youth and higher education. In Mark Roberge, Meryl Siegal, & Linda Harklau (Ed.), Generation 1.5 in college composition: Teaching academic writing to U.S.-educated learners of ESL (pp. 25-34). New York: Routledge.

Janopoulos, Michael. (1995). Writing across the curriculum, writing proficiency exams, and the NNES college student. Journal of Second Language Writing, 4(1), 43-50.

Johns, Ann M. (1991). Interpreting an English competency exam: The frustrations of an ESL science student. Written Communication, 8, 379-401.

Johns, Ann M. (2001). ESL students and WAC programs: Varied populations and diverse needs. In Susan H. McLeod, Eric Miraglia, Margot Soven, & Christopher Thaiss (Eds.), WAC for the new millennium: Strategies for continuing writing-across-the-curriculum programs (pp. 141-164). Urbana, Illinois: NCTE.

Leki, Ilona. (1992). Understanding ESL writers: A guide for teachers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann-Boynton/Cook.

Leki, Ilona. (1995). Coping strategies of ESL students in writing tasks across the curriculum. TESOL Quarterly 29(2), 235-60.

Leki, Ilona. (1999). "Pretty much I screwed up": Ill-served needs of a permanent resident student. In Linda Harklau, Kay M. Losey, & Mary Siegal (Ed)., Generation 1.5 meets college composition: Issues in the teaching of writing to U.S.-educated learners of ESL (pp. 17-43). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Leki, Ilona. (2001). "A narrow system of thinking": Nonnative-English-speaking students in group projects across the curriculum. TESOL Quarterly 35(1), 39-67.

Leki, Ilona. (2003a). A challenge to second language writing professionals: Is writing overrated? In Barbara Kroll (Ed.), Exploring the dynamics of second language writing (pp. 315-332). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Leki, Ilona. (2003b). Living through college literacy: Nursing in a second language. Written Communication 20(1), 81-98.

Leki, Ilona. (2007). Undergraduates in a second language: Challenges and complexities of academic literacy development. Boston: Routledge.

Matsuda, Paul Kei. (2003). Second-language writing in the twentieth century: A situated historical perspective. In Barbara Kroll (Ed.), Exploring the dynamics of second language writing (pp. 15-34). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Matsuda, Paul Kei, & Jablonksi, Jeffrey. (2000). Beyond the L2 metaphor: Towards a mutually transformative model of ESL/WAC collaboration. Academic.Writing: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Communication Across the Curriculum.Retrieved from https://wac.colostate.edu/aw/articles/matsuda_jablonski2000.pdf

McLeod, Susan, & Miraglia, Eric. (2001). Writing across the curriculum in a time of change. In Susan H. McLeod, Eric Miraglia, Margot Soven, & Christopher Thaiss (Eds.), WAC for the new millennium: Strategies for continuing writing-across-the-curriculum programs (pp. 1-27). Urbana, Illinois: NCTE.

Russell, David R. (1991). Writing in the academic disciplines, 1870-1990: A curricular history. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.

Russell, David R. (1994). American origins of the writing-across-the-curriculum movement. In Charles Bazerman & David R. Russell (Ed.), Landmark essays on writing across the curriculum (pp. 3-22). Davis: Hermagoras Press.

Russell, David. R. (2001). Where do the naturalistic studies of WAC/WID point? A research review. In Susan H. McLeod, Eric Miraglia, Margot Soven, & Christopher Thaiss (Ed.), WAC for the new millennium: Strategies for continuing writing-across-the-curriculum programs (pp. 259-298). Urbana, Illinois: NCTE.

Saenkhum, Tanita & Matsuda, Paul Kei. (May 2010). Second Language Writing and Writing Program Administration, WPA-CompPile Research Bibliographies, No. 4. WPA-CompPile Research Bibliographies. http://comppile.org/wpa/bibliographies/Saenkhum_Matsuda.pdf. Retrieved on 24 July 2011.

Silva, Tony. (1993). Toward an understanding of the distinct nature of L2 writing: ESL research and its implications. TESOL Quarterly 27(4), pp. 657-77.

Sternglass, Marilyn. (1997). Time to know them: A longitudinal study of writing and learning at the college level. Boston: Routledge.

Thaiss, Christopher, & Porter, Tara. (2010). The state of WAC/WID in 2010: Methods and results of the U.S. survey of the international WAC/WID mapping project. CCC 61(3), 534-570.

Valdes, Guadalupe. (1992, 2006). Bilingual minorities and language issues in writing: Toward professionwide responses to a new challenge. Reprinted in Paul Kei Matsuda, Michelle Cox, Jay Jordan, & Christina Ortmeier-Hooper (Eds.), Second-language writing in the composition classroom: A critical sourcebook (pp. 31-70). Boston: Bedford / St. Martin's.

Wolfe-Quintero, Kate, & Segade, Gabriela. (1999). University support for second-language writers across the curriculum. In Linda Harklau, Kay M. Losey, & Meryl Siegal (Eds.), Generation 1.5 meets college composition: Issues in the teaching of writing to U.S.-educated learners of ESL (pp. 191-209). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Zamel, Vivian. (1995). Strangers in academia: The experiences of faculty and ESL students across the curriculum. CCC 46(4), 506-521.

Zamel, Vivian, & Spack, Ruth (Eds). (2004). Crossing the curriculum: Multilingual learners in college classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Zawacki, Terry Myers, & Habib, Anna. (2010). "Will our stories help teachers understand?" Multilingual students talk about identity, academic writing, and expectations across academic communities. In Michelle Cox, Jay Jordan, Christina Ortmeier-Hooper, & Gwen Gray Schwartz (Eds.), Reinventing identities in second language writing (pp. 54-74). Urbana, IL: NCTE.

Zawacki, Terry Myers, & Rogers, Paul M. (Eds.). (2012). Writing Across the Curriculum: A Critical Sourcebook. Boston: Bedford / St. Martin's.


[1] Many thanks to Christina Ortmeier-Hooper, Terry Myers Zawacki, and Michael Pemberton, whose comments, suggestions, and insights greatly enriched this essay. And many thanks to Angela Dadak for permission to print the survey she developed to gather information about L2 students' writing experiences at American University.

[2] In this article, I use the term "second language" (L2) to refer to students who use English as an additional language. I use this term knowing that it is problematic, as students may use English as a third, fourth, etc, language. However, the term "second language" is the term most often used in second language writing studies, and thus by using this term, I connect this study to a particular tradition of research and theory.

[3] There are three book-length works that include a focus on L2 students writing across the curriculum. Marilyn Sternglass's Time to Know Them (1997) follows nine students from basic writing into courses across the curriculum, and two of these nine students are L2 writers. Vivian Zamel and Ruth Spack's edited collection, Crossing the Curriculum: Multilingual Learners in College Classrooms (2004) begins with a revised version of Zamel's article, "Strangers in Academia" (1995), which I review here, and brings together narratives by L2 students on their experiences with academic writing and by cross-disciplinary faculty based on their experiences working with L2 writers. Ilona Leki's Undergraduates in a Second Language: Challenges and Complexities of Academic Literacy Development (2007) follows four L2 students from an ESL writing course into courses across the curriculum; it is this larger study that provided the data for three of Leki's articles and chapters that I review in this article: "Pretty Much I Screwed Up" (1999); "A Narrow System of Thinking" (2001); and "Living through College Literacy" (2003b).

[4] For a comprehensive bibliography on second language writers and first year composition, see Tanita Saenkhum and Paul Kei Matsuda's "Second Language Writing and Writing Program Administration," WPA-CompPile Research Bibliography #4.

[5] NNES means non-native English speaking.

[6] NNS means non-native speaking.

[7] Valdes uses the term "functional bilingual" to refer to L2 students who have acquired sufficient proficiency in their second language; this group would include most L2 college students.

[8] Note, for example, Paul Anderson, Chris Anson, Bob Gonyea, and Chuck Paine's "Powering Up Your WAC Program: Practical, Productive Ways to Use Assessment Data from NSSE's Consortium for the Study of Writing in College," 10th International Writing-Across-the-Curriculum Conference, Bloomington, IN, May 21, 2010.

Contact Information

Complete APA Citation

Cox, Michelle. (2011, December 21). WAC: Closing doors or opening doors for second language writers? Across the Disciplines, 8(4). Retrieved from https://wac.colostate.edu/atd/ell/cox.cfm