Researching Second Language Writing

As writing teachers, we read research other people have conducted. During our studies, professors assigned us journal articles and books describing observations of classrooms, analyses of students’ written texts, and interviews with teachers about their work. If you are like I was during my MA degree program (and for many years thereafter), you may have thought research should be large scale, using complicated computer programs to analyze thousands of written texts, or that all research projects should lead to groundbreaking new theories of how we teach and learn to write.

It wasn’t until I started studying for my PhD that I understood how individual teachers without specialized training could conduct meaningful research that was interesting beyond their own classrooms. In this blog post, I briefly review some commonly used methods for researching second language writing and then offer readers recommendations for conducting research themselves.

How Has Second Language Writing Been Researched?

My early perception of applied linguistics research was of quantitative studies that reported results in graphs and charts. Large-scale studies often collect writing samples from hundreds of student writers, sometimes across multiple time periods, and analyze them for aspects of language or structure. Some studies introduce an intervention (such as a particular approach to written corrective feedback) to evaluate its effectiveness on writers’ revisions or subsequent texts. Analyses draw on either human coders looking for specific text features or computer tools that can recognize and count particular linguistic structures. From these quantitative studies, we have learned how writers develop control over grammar, increase vocabulary and lexical complexity, and learn to write within specific genres. We need such large-scale studies to make broader generalizations about how written language develops and how writers change over time.

Many large-scale studies are experimental or quasiexperimental, however, meaning that they are conducted by researchers who may not see learners in real classrooms. Other types of research attempt to dig more deeply into the experiences of fewer learners through methods such as interviews and observations. One approach to understanding writers’ processes is to have them “think aloud” while drafting a text. The writer plans, writes, and revises while being recorded talking about what they are thinking. Because we can’t see into someone’s mind, this approach gives us a sense of not just what writers do but why they do it. Writers could also keep a diary of their thoughts while writing or be interviewed while looking at a text they had just created. Classroom observations can capture the social processes of learning to write if researchers focus on what students do, who they talk with, and what questions they ask, for example.

These are just a few of the many areas covered by the broad label of research on second language writing. I recommend you check out these books for more information:

Why Do Research?

If so many people have already done so much research, why should a busy writing teacher do more? I believe that teachers benefit from doing their own research because the process gives you a deeper understanding of your students within your specific context. No two classrooms are the same, even in the same school or city, so doing research can help you figure out how to teach your particular group of students at this moment. At the same time, doing research in your classroom can help you understand your context better so that you can approach the next term with confidence that you have some approaches that work within your school and city. The results of your research can also assist your colleagues and other writing teachers who may have similar students or similar challenges in their teaching contexts.

Action Research: How Writing Teachers Can Research Their Own Practice

Teacher research, as the name suggests, is research done by teachers on their own teaching and their students’ learning. When done carefully, it can produce findings that are useful beyond the teacher-researcher’s classroom. The cyclical process of action research can be both immediately useful and valuable long term when shared publicly.

Action research focuses on investigating a “problem” in teaching that you think can be changed through applying some sort of intervention. Research problems do not have to be problematic, but should be something you want to address by altering your approach to teaching. After identifying a problem, determine an action you can take. Interventions can be a one-time activity, a new daily routine, or anything else that you think will help students learn better.

What makes this research (rather than just good teaching) is systematically documenting how the intervention works with your students. Collect data in the form of observations of your classroom, the texts students create, or interviews with your students to get their perspectives on the new activities. Analyze these qualitatively looking for patterns and quantitatively looking for change, triangulating across forms of data to see if a pattern in one source of data is confirmed or contradicted in another. For example, if your students said in a survey that they loved the new activity, but in their writing you see that they still haven’t learned the desired content, you may need to figure out why engagement didn’t lead to higher levels of mastery. Having identified a new problem, you can start a second cycle of action research to attempt to resolve this issue.

What you learn from your action research study of your own classroom can be meaningful to other teachers, which is why Burns (2010) suggests that the final step be to share your findings with others. This can be done locally, such as in a teachers meeting at your school or a conference presentation, or more broadly, through writing up your findings for a publication like the TESOL Journal or your TESOL affiliate newsletter. If you have a colleague dealing with a similar problem, consider collaborating to see if an intervention works equally well with your separate groups of students. For more information, check out the webinar on action research in writing that I presented to the TESOL Second Language Writing Interest Section a few years ago.

Have you conducted research on your own teaching of writing? What forms of research on writing do you find most useful in your own teaching? Join the discussion in the comments section below!


Burns, A. (2010). Doing action research in English language teaching: A guide for practitioners. Routledge.

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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One Response to
Researching Second Language Writing

  1. Amira says:

    What is the best way to prepare to take the ESOL Praxis? Is there any study material that is highly recommended among the ESOL community? Anything online?


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