Developing Reflective Writing With L2 Learners

As we enter a new year, many people look back over the previous year and set goals for the coming one. This process is called reflection and is a deeply human trait—but how we express our thoughts may be different across cultures, and our students may not be familiar with the ways we as teachers expect them to write about their personal perspectives.

What Is Reflection?

Commonly defined as the process of thinking carefully about ideas, reflection has also received considerable attention in the education literature. Nearly a century ago, Dewey (1933) defined reflection as “an active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that supports it and the conclusion to which it tends” (p. 9). Reflection on one’s own writing is an important step in the development of autonomy and self-editing processes (Hyland, 2019). When writers learn to think about their texts from a reader’s perspective, they can revise and edit without depending on teachers for feedback.

In a previous post, I noted the importance of reflection in the portfolio process, where students need to think about why they’ve selected each piece and what that piece shows about their growth as writers.Reflection is also tied to the development of critical consciousness, or the ability of people to recognize and act on forms of oppression in their lives and societies—a concept developed by Freire (1974/2005). The reflection in critical consciousness pushes us beyond merely thinking about our own lives to seeing how our experiences connect to larger social issues and what we can do to effect change in the world.

What these all have in common is an awareness that in order to reflect, we need to take a step back from our daily activities and consider how what we do and what we think connects to the bigger picture of our lives and society.

Why Teach Reflection in a Writing Class?

Everyone reflects, but not everyone knows how to verbalize that reflection. Learners may never have been asked to explain their thinking to anyone else, particularly in a second language (L2). Students may need an introduction to both processes of reflection and the language for expressing their reflections.

We don’t always reflect on what we do, either, so consciously focusing on our actions and decisions can develop problem solving and writing skills (Avarzamani et al., 2019). Reflection can support critical thinking, helping students see connections among ideas and present suitable arguments for a given context and audience.

Learning to reflect can also help with language development. Dzekoe (2017) connects reflection on one’s writing to noticing (Schmidt, 1990), the concept in second language acquisition of becoming aware of a gap between a particular linguistic structure and what one is currently able to do with language. The majority of students in Dzekoe’s (2017) study found that working in multiple modes (including representing their ideas visually in a promotional poster and using a text-to-speech tool to hear their written work read aloud) while writing helped them notice not only linguistic but also rhetorical problems that they were then able to address in revisions.

How Can We Teach Students to Write Reflectively?

Quick Writes and Exit Tickets

Build reflective habits with frequent in-class writing activities. Many teachers incorporate a daily “exit ticket” in which students think back over the day’s lesson and quickly write answers to the following questions (or something similar):

  • What is one new thing that you learned today?
  • What is something you don’t understand from today’s lesson?
  • What do you want to learn tomorrow?

With regular quickwrites that ask students to think about the day’s lesson and connect to their own goals for learning, students can develop an awareness of what they are doing and how they might approach their writing in the future. The Auburn University Office of University Writing (2019) points out that starting with prompts that access what students already know and keeping the stakes low (or ungraded) can help writers develop their reflective abilities toward more complex reflection activities. They also argue for the benefit of teacher feedback on students’ reflective writing as an essential element of pushing students toward more complex thinking.

Reflective Prompts

Ayres (2015) provides an extensive set of reflective prompts that can be incorporated into a writing class to support students’ development of reflection on both their past experiences and their future/plans. Many of these topics are useful for supporting learners who claim they don’t know how to reflect or don’t have the language to do so.

For example, one task directs writers to make lists of words or phrases that make them happy or angry and then to put the words in order from most to least important. This task could easily be done by learners with limited language proficiency, particularly if they had access to a dictionary. The process of making the list and putting it in order is reflection.

Another activity directs learners to think about themselves from the perspective of another person, thinking about what observations that person might make about them and what questions that person might have for them. Putting themselves in another person’s shoes can help learners start to take a step back from their immediate experiences and see how others might perceive their actions.

Reflection on Writing and Language

In a writing class, learners also benefit from reflection about writing and language. In Dzekoe’s (2017) study, for example, students first wrote a text in a traditional word processor, then created a visual poster to represent the main ideas of their text. At that point, they wrote reflections on how the process of creating the poster helped them see what the main points were of their written texts. After revising the texts, they then listened to what they had written using a text-to-speech app that allowed them to notice grammatical errors and other problems with the language of their texts. The majority of students found that this process helped them improve their texts and better understand the writing process.

The language of reflection, however, can be a potential limitation in its incorporation in a second language writing program. Avarzamani et al. (2019) found that both teachers and students in Iran attributed their limited reflective writing in English to their overall lack of language proficiency, which prevented them from fully expressing their perspectives. Though it is certainly important to help learners (and teachers) develop their abilities to write reflectively in English, I would suggest that we also support translanguaging and multimodal reflection so that students do not have to wait until they have sufficient English to explain what they are thinking. Learners can use all the resources they have to express their views, writing in multiple languages and incorporating visual and auditory elements as well.

What have you done to support your students’ reflective writing? Share your thoughts in the comments section!


Auburn University Office of University Writing. (2019). Reflective writing.

Avarzamani, F., Farahian, M., & Qian, M. (2019). An investigation into EFL learners’ reflection in writing and the inhibitors to their reflection. Cogent Psychology, 6(1).

Ayres, D. (2015) Reflective writing exercises. Learning & Teaching.

Dewey, J. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Houghton Mifflin.

Dzekoe, R. (2017). Computer-based multimodal composing activities, self-revision, and L2 acquisition through writing. Language Learning & Technology, 21(2), 73–95.

Freire, P. (1974/2005). Education for critical consciousness (M. Bergman Ramos, Trans.). Continuum.

Hyland, K. (2019). Second language writing (2nd ed.). Cambridge University Press.

Schmidt, R. W. (1990). The role of consciousness in second language learning. Applied Linguistics, 11, 129–158.

About Betsy Gilliland

Betsy Gilliland
Betsy Gilliland is an associate professor in the Department of Second Language Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi Mānoa, where she teaches courses on second language writing, teacher research, and qualitative research methods to undergraduate and graduate students. Co-editor of the Journal of Response to Writing, she was chair of the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section (2019-2020) and has published in TESOL Journal, Journal of Second Language Writing, and ELT Journal, among others. She was a Fulbright Scholar at the Universidad de Atacama (Chile) in 2018.
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5 Responses to
Developing Reflective Writing With L2 Learners

  1. Thank you so much! your reflection is truly uplifting, and it gives us lots of new ideas! Regarding your question, some time ago, I did diaries/journals for dialogue and reflection which I established with the students to help them understand their learning process and develop learning strategies. Here is the link of the testimonial I wrote:

    • Betsy Gilliland says:

      Thanks for sharing your experiences, Luisa. I’m so glad the diaries helped your students. I think establishing a regular reflective practice is a key piece is developing greater reflection abilities.

  2. Shizhou Yang says:

    What a timely post Bestsy on incoorporating reflection in L2 writing class! I agree that reflection is very important in helping our students to become aware of and take better control of the kind of writers they want to become.

    To respond to your question, in my class, I encourage students’ reflection, particularly at the end of a writing course, in multiple ways. One is getting them to draw pictures, and no words allowed at first, to compare what they are like before and after taking the writing course. After they finish the drawing, they can then write some words, in English or their first languages or both, to describe their change. This is a kind of translanguaging you mentioned, I believe. Another way is to ask my students to select one best sentence from each of their samples from their semester, arranging them choronologically, give them a title, and then write a reflection on how they have changed as writers. The third one is asking students to share their best piece of writing at the end of the semester, and then ask their peers and outside visitors to comment on how the writing has changed their ideas about my students. This way, I encouraged my students to see themselves from others’ eyes.

    This semester my graduate students and I worked on our literacy autobiographies using autoethnography as a method. This writing task, together with other minor writing tasks like weekly journals, also encouraged much looking back among my students. It is truly inspiring to read students’ thoughts about how this process of looking back has changed them.

    Again, really appreciate your post.

    • Usman shah says:

      I apply reflection to writing my research proposal. I follow the following criteria: – writing reflection-describe reflection- critical consciousness and – dialogue reflection. The purpose is to revisit, review the contents and point out its strengths and weakness and using analytical and synthetical approach to the final draft.

    • Betsy Gilliland says:

      Shizhou, I love the idea of wordless reflection. I think it helps learners not feel as intimidated if they aren’t confident in their language proficiency. Being able to separate their ideas from words can allow them to show their ideas more clearly.

      I like your practice of having students select a favorite sentence from each piece of writing, too. That seems like a nice capstone for a course that highlights their strengths in a visual way.

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