Action Research Paper (Final)

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Catherine Addington
Prof. Emily Scida
SPAN 8210: Teaching Foreign Languages
22 November 2016

The Transposition of Rhetorical Skills between L1 and L2 Composition Writing 


While L2 grammatical accuracy is emphasized in postsecondary foreign-language curricula, instructors generally assume that the rhetorical skills required to organize a composition are transposed from L1 writing experience. This study posits that such transposition cannot be assumed, builds on process theory, and finds that a writing workshop conducted in the L2 can aid in that transposition. Specifically, explicit instruction and non-timed practice can improve organization and reduce repetitiveness in timed composition writing. This study also examines whether student success in timed composition writing is a function of affectiveness, or student anxiety levels, in addition to linguistic and rhetorical competence. Limitations of the study are stated.

Key words: process theory/teoría de procesos, foreign language learners/estudiantes de lengua extranjera, writing processes/procesos de escritura, written composition/composición escrita.


In the intermediate Spanish courses at the University of Virginia, students are required to produce two formal written compositions per semester. These compositions are timed and are graded for both accuracy and fluency, or more precisely, well executed grammatical forms and interesting, organized content. While the former is explicitly covered in the curriculum, the rhetorical skills required to organize a composition are generally assumed to be “transposed” from students’ experiences writing in their first language—in this case, English.

This paper posits that such transposition cannot be assumed. This experiment addresses challenges with fluency in writing in one section of intermediate Spanish, which includes 18 students, none of whom are heritage speakers. Specifically, the timed writing element of the curriculum will be used to shed light on the necessity and nature of writing instruction in the context of the foreign language classroom. The timed writing assignments in question will be detailed in the diagnostic and data collection sections of this paper, and the metrics by which students’ writing aptitude will be measured are as follows: clear structural intent (e.g. evidence of outlining), repetition of prompt, and repetition within writing. These metrics have been selected because they are not primarily linguistic, but rather reflective of affective factors and the communicative dimension of writing. In other words, in noting the presence of structure and lack of repetition, instructors can verify that students are engaging with writing as a mode of communication rather than a context for “long-form” grammatical practice.

At the outset of this research, students’ rhetorical skills in their L1 were verified through an analysis of the reflections they wrote at the start of the semester, in which they were asked to discuss their experiences as a foreign language learner. Notably, these reflections were written at students’ own pace outside of class as homework, rather than in-class timed writing. However, these reflections showed clear structure, with each paragraph addressing a single point and fluid transitions connecting them to one another. While some repetition did occur, on the whole, students expressed themselves with facility. It should be noted that both this L1 writing and the L2 writing targeted by this study are prompted in nature, rather than free writing, which inherently limits the scope of this work within composition studies in general.

Students generally did not transpose their organized approach toward L1 writing onto their L2 writing, no matter their grammatical competence or linguistic level. Their short prompted writing assignments, whether in class or on tests, as well as their first formal composition (see diagnostic) often lacked for organization and were mostly written using below-level, simple grammar. Their writing was therefore high, if unambitious, in accuracy and extremely low in fluency, seemingly aiming to fill space with passable Spanish rather than focus on the meaning of the language they were producing. As a result, student writing lacked the coherence and creativity of these same students’ oral work.

Given that these students were rhetorically and linguistically capable in their L1 and linguistically competent in their L2, several questions arise regarding this disparity between modes and between languages: namely, what are the causes of this disparity, and how can teachers at the intermediate level best address them? This experiment hypothesizes that the disparity is primarily affective, and can be addressed with explicit rhetorical instruction and non-timed practice.

Research questions

  1. To what extent is student success in timed writing a function of affectiveness?
  2. Can explicit instruction and non-timed practice improve organization and reduce repetitiveness in timed writing?


A review of research and theory of foreign-language (FL) writing concluded that the vast majority of it is in fact on specifically English as a second language (ESL) writing (Reichelt, “Toward a more comprehensive view”). Furthermore, emergent FL writing theory for all other languages largely takes ESL research as its basis. As such, FL writing theory is relatively nascent and isolated from both broader FL pedagogy and broader composition studies.

Meanwhile, whereas FL writing research “generally considers cognitive processes in relation to specific writing outcomes such as fluency and accuracy” (Elola and Mikulski 89), actual FL writing instruction is largely focused on accuracy rather than on rhetorical and organizational strategies to facilitate fluency (Lantolf). In other words, writing serves as an “instructional tool” (Hubert and Bonzo 518) in the FL classroom rather than as an actual subject of study. The resulting approach toward FL writing instruction is therefore usually “writing-to-learn,” or designing tasks to elicit grammatical correctness, rather than “learning-to-write,” or emphasis on content over precision and focus on writing as a process (Lefkowitz, et al. 29).

As a result, there is a “lack of a unified sense of purpose for writing in the U.S. FL department” (Reichelt, “A Critical Review” 578), where curricula generally prioritize oral proficiency over advanced writing. The latter is perceived as a “planned language performance” whereas the former is “spontaneous” and therefore more demanding (Bernhardt, et al. 330). Even so, contextualized writing requires genre adjustment and therefore is a valuable “indicator of overall FL development toward upper levels of ability” (Byrnes, et al. 4).

Research into Spanish as a foreign language (SFL) writing instruction is limited, but informative. Elola and Mikulski found that both Spanish as a heritage language (SHL) and SFL learners shared writing process behaviors in English and Spanish, but that proficiency in the language affects accuracy, fluency, planning, and revision behaviors. Their findings confirmed previous studies that L1 writers constantly self-edit, and therefore L2 writers are superficially more fluent but significantly less accurate (Raimes 439). However, L1 self-editing tends to be meaningful, whereas L2 revisions are generally surface-level. Therefore, there is a good deal of room for pedagogical experimentation regarding the writing process in the L2, especially in demanding spontaneous contexts.

Even the very labeling of writing as a process needs to be examined. In a 2010 survey of FL instructors, Hubert and Bonzo defined six theories of FL writing: process theory (composition as discovery and meaning creation), post-process theory (writing as inherently social, not individual, task), strategy instruction (teaching of writing strategies such as translation and advance preparation), explicit error correction (correction of grammatical error as essential to writing assessment, even at cost of student motivation), contrastive rhetoric (comparison of rhetorical patterns in the L1 and the L2 as preparation to write for an audience), and genre approaches (production of texts in a particular cultural setting). While Hubert and Bonzo discarded explicit error correction for its negative effect on learner motivation (519), studies have supported the validity of all six theories in varying contexts.

This study will largely deal with process theory as applied to writing with a focus on, as Hubert and Bonzo put it, “generating, formulating, and refining learner ideas,” treating writing as a “process that can be codified and then taught” (518). Both instructor preference and course policy base assessment not just on a learner’s final text, but also on the effort and success of craftsmanship and revision. Ultimately, this study is limited by the complexity underscored by Ruiz-Funes: all writing performance is a function of task difficulty, language proficiency, and writing expertise (1).

Diagnostic: composition 1

As previously stated, this experiment assesses student writing aptitude as measured by clear structural intent (e.g. evidence of outlining), repetition of prompt, and repetition within writing. Students’ first formal compositions, completed on October 5, 2016, served as diagnostic writing samples. These compositions, of which there are two per semester, consist of a 50-minute period during which students are given a choice of two prompts and required to write a response. These prompts are often based on previous input but are ultimately open-ended, such as a question about the role of technology in their lives based on a story they had read about the decline of books. Students are permitted to use an English-Spanish dictionary during the last 10 minutes of the composition, but no other materials or aids. After instructor feedback, students revise their compositions for linguistic accuracy, but not fluency or content, which forms a substantial part of their grade for the assignment.

Likely due to the high affective demands of the timed writing process, students’ first compositions focused on grammar and vocabulary at the expense of organization. While students were aware of the rubric ahead of time—which weighs linguistic fluency (thesis, evidence, organization, and lack of repetition) at 55% and linguistic accuracy at 45% (level-appropriate grammar, diverse lexicon, and spelling)—most students’ first compositions did not seem to prioritize fluency. Rather than “importing” their L1 rhetorical skills, students mainly produced coherent but unconnected passages in the L2, resulting in a good deal of repetition.

Figure 1 shows an analysis[1] of student work in the first composition according to the established metrics, using evidence of outlining as a marker for clear structural intent:

Figure 1

Figure 1

The split was even each time: 4 students repeated themselves in the composition, while 13 did not; 13 students repeated the language of the prompt, while 4 did not; and 13 students had evidence of outlining as indicated by topic sentences and transition words. In all cases, however, said outlining was a repetition of the structure of the prompt—i.e. questions were answered in the exact order they were posed. While the resulting compositions were not overwhelmingly incoherent, they reflected a student disposition toward linguistic practice rather than genuine communication—and perhaps a constrictive attitude toward assessment writing. How often would an essay prompt in the L1 produce 17 essentially indistinguishable answers? The goal going forward with this experiment was to challenge students to truly communicate in their writing, to activate their rhetorical skills in order to engage their fullest linguistic capabilities.

Experiment: Spanish writing workshop (taller de composición)

The plan of action to address the problem of incommunicative writing in the L2 consisted of a writing workshop (taller de composición), integrated into the part of the curriculum that addresses opinion expression (subjunctive mood and various conjunctions and prepositions). While the curriculum would provide the linguistic functions that students need to succeed in composition writing, the workshop would add—or rather, activate—the rhetorical skills needed to best employ those new functions. In the workshop, students would be given explicit writing instruction and then provided an opportunity for non-timed practice, using pre-selected news articles as a starting point for free-topic commentaries. (The compositions produced in the workshop were referred to as comentarios in order to distinguish them from the formal, timed composiciones. The same distinction will be made in this paper.)

Advantages of the workshop format include that unlike formal compositions, it is student-directed in both choice of topic and pace of completion. This format is principally driven by student interest, rather than grammatical box-checking, and is therefore primed to elicit the creativity and communicativeness that is the teaching objective of this research. The stages of this workshop, and the objectives of each stage, are detailed below.

Experiment design

The instructor preselected five articles for students to choose from as the starting point for their comentarios. Each article was selected due to a commonality with student interests (majors, extracurricular activities, and shared experiences), so as to best facilitate communicative response. The articles were also lightly edited for clarity and length to be made level-appropriate.

  1. Economía: “Las diez multinacionales que controlan el mercado global de alimentos,” BBC Mundo
    Economics: “The ten multinational corporations that control the global food market,” BBC World
  2. Ciencia: “Trabajar de noche es más dañino de lo que crees,” La Raza (Chicago)
    Science: “Working at night is more harmful than you think,” La Raza (Chicago)
  3. Política: “Así se elige al presidente de los Estados Unidos,” El País (América)
    Politics: “How the U.S. president is elected,” El País (Americas edition)
  4. Deportes: “Los rituales y supersticiones más extravagantes del fútbol,” BBC Mundo
    Sports: “The most extravagant rituals and superstitions of soccer,” BBC World
  5. Arte: “Bob Dylan, un Nobel de Literatura muy controvertido,” El Mundo (Spain)
    Art: “Bob Dylan, a very controversial Nobel Prize in Literature,” El Mundo (Spain)

Underneath each article were three discussion questions to prompt student consideration of the topics presented (linked above).

Writing instruction

On October 24, part of class was dedicated to explicit writing instruction. The goal of this stage was to activate students’ schemata by translating a process they knew from the L1 into the L2, thereby lessening the affective filter and clarifying expectations regarding progress.

Students were given a handout that included an outline of the workshop schedule and process, repeated with detail here. First, the instructor stated the objectives of the workshop as follows:

  1. To give students practice in implementing the writing process (read critically, brainstorm, debate, organize, edit, share) in the target language.
  2. To give students the writing skills needed to meet the course standard for organized composition writing and therefore improve grades on the second composition.
  3. To prepare students for the writing expected of them in advanced-level Spanish “content” courses, if applicable.

Then, students were informed of the expectations for the workshop commentaries: they were to be three paragraphs or 250 words long at a minimum, and each paragraph should contain a topic sentence and supporting statements. The overall comentario should also have a thesis from which the rest of the argument flows.

Finally, the instructor discussed guiding principles for writing in the L2. Specifically, students were encouraged to use the structures they knew from class rather than to translate more complicated structures from the L1. While students were encouraged to take risks and especially to acquire personalized vocabulary, they were urged to see writing as an opportunity to practice and showcase their existing grammatical skills. For example, if students wanted to use the perfect future tense, which they had not yet learned, they could opt for the immediate future tense, which they had: ir + a + infinitive. While researching new grammatical structures for individually paced writing is a completely valid way for some students to acquire new linguistic abilities, the ability to approximate or paraphrase is more useful to strengthen for timed writing compositions. As homework over the weekend, students were asked to read and choose an article to discuss in the following class.

Conferencing/Group discussion

On October 26, students engaged in group discussion. The goal of this stage was to ensure comprehension and elicit creative responses among students, produced through communication with their peers. While this stage has no directly corresponding stage in timed writing, it was structured to make students aware of the many possible answers to the same prompt, and therefore encourage creativity in future writing.

Students were organized into three groups: Group 1 had chosen the article on sports (n = 6); Group 2 had chosen the article on science (n = 7); and Group 3 addressed the other three articles, economics (n = 2), politics (n = 2), and art (n = 1). The instructor guided the group discussion in several steps.

First, students were asked to identify the point of debate. What is this article about, and what is most interesting about it? As an example, the instructor provided a model: “This article is about the personalities of animals. The most interesting part was the attempt to rank some as better than others.” In groups 1 and 2, the focus was on identifying the key areas of interest, since the students were all familiar with the article at hand. However, students in group 3 were asked to present the topic of their chosen article to the students who had not chosen it before identifying the areas of interest together.

Next, students were asked to use their ideas regarding the most interesting part of the article to formulate a “central question” to which their comentarios would respond. The instructor continued the example of the article about animals’ personalities, saying a central question could be “What is the ideal pet?” Each student was asked to write his or her own central question, but students were encouraged to share their ideas and help one another come up with or refine their questions.

As the final phase of group discussion, students were asked to share opinions or answers to their “central question” and propose them to the group. (The instructor’s example here: “Obviously cats are the ideal pet, because…”) They were also given this time to address the provided discussion questions if they so chose, mainly as fruit for debate that could then spark refining or enhancement of students’ initial ideas.


After group discussion, students were given time to write an outline individually. The goal of this stage was to train students to organize their writing, and to implement rhetorical strategies they knew from the L1 in the L2. The instructor invited students to include the following elements in their outlines:

  1. Central question (title)
  2. Response to central question (thesis statement)
  3. Topic sentences for each paragraph
  4. Supporting statements for each topic sentence

As homework, students were asked to use their outline to finish and bring a draft for next class. (This counted as a homework grade, and was graded on the basis of completion.)

Peer and instructor feedback

On October 28, part of class was dedicated to peer review. The goal of this phase was to highlight the usefulness of reviewing one’s work, whether it be peer review in a workshop setting or leaving time for self-review during a timed composition. Students were assigned partners who worked on a different topic and were instructed to read, mark, and discuss their partner’s comentario, giving constructive, concrete feedback.

While the idea was to give feedback on the other student’s writing—that is, their argument and ideas—many students mistook the role of feedback as solely linguistic in nature, and therefore did not have much to say. When asked to share something they liked about their partner’s comentario, only one student volunteered feedback, complimenting the fluidity of his partner’s writing.

After class, the instructor gave feedback to each student on their comentario, either by posting a comment on their e-Portfolio or by email (when the comment feature was not available). The focus of this feedback was the content and organization of each comentario, always pointing out at least one positive aspect and one area of improvement. A few exceptional students who totally met the course’s standard for compositions in their comentarios received positive feedback on their organization and therefore only got constructive feedback on linguistic accuracy, which was not mentioned to the other students except when communication was totally impeded. This served as positive reinforcement of their organizational skills, but it may have distracted from the rhetorical, not linguistic, focus of the workshop.

Group publication

Using peer and instructor feedback, students were asked to revise their comentarios and post the final version to their e-Portfolio on October 31 for a homework grade on the basis of completion. The instructor then used JooMag, a free digital publishing platform, to turn the students’ comentarios into a class magazine. The link to view the magazine was then sent to the students so they could enjoy seeing their classmates’ work. The magazine was also shown in class on November 2 and posted on the course site for them to be able to read.

The goal of this stage was to encourage creativity by showcasing their writing as truly accomplished—which it genuinely was. While only a few students showed enthusiasm at seeing their work in this context, any sense of accomplishment is valuable in reducing affectiveness and building confidence. While unlisted to the general public, those interested in the research can view the class magazine at[2]

Data collection

Post-workshop survey

On November 2, students completed an anonymous post-workshop survey in English. Students were asked to self-report on their strengths and challenges in writing in Spanish, give feedback on various elements of the workshop, and express what they learned from the experience and what remains to be worked on.

When students were asked to self-assess their writing abilities in Spanish, they most commonly named organization as a strength (n = 8) and grammar as a challenge (n = 10). Though the survey was anonymous and therefore student self-assessment cannot be compared directly with instructor assessment of the final composition, the number of students who identified organization as a strength (n = 8) maps relatively well onto the number of students who showed structural intent (n = 7, see composition 2):

Figure 2Figure 2

The eight students who identified organization as a strength in their writing described it in such terms as their ability to write “logically” and “cohesively.” One student specified, “I think I’m pretty good at organizing my thoughts in such a way that I structure my writing in Spanish in the same way I would in English.” Meanwhile, those who named fluency emphasized their ability to get the “point across” and be “easy to read.”

Of the ten students who identified grammar as a challenge for them in writing, three expressly mentioned “minor details” or “simple” mistakes as an issue, listing examples such as por vs. para, ser vs. estar, spelling, and accent usage. The five who identified vocabulary as a challenge said it inhibited their ability to “accurately express my ideas” and to “go in depth.”

All 18 students expressed that they felt more confident about the second composition after having completed the writing workshop, with varying degrees of affirmation. Five said that all practice leads to improvement, and three specified that they felt they were better able to organize their writing due to the workshop. Others mentioned increased grammar competence, analytical practice, and clarified expectations regarding composition standards in the course. But three students, while confident about their writing skills, felt that the workshop was not necessarily tailored to their needs. They felt the workshop was redundant, reiterating skills they already had, and ultimately irrelevant to the goal of improving their composition grade since the workshop structure did not mimic the timed format of the formal compositions.

Figure 3 tallies students’ assessment of specific elements of the writing workshop.[3]

Helpful Unhelpful
Writing Instruction 10 3
Brainstorming 11 4
Group Discussion 13 5
Peer Feedback 5 7
Instructor Feedback 17 0
Group Publication 3 9

Figure 3

One student opted not to mark any element as unhelpful, saying, “Nothing was unhelpful, maybe just unnecessary.” That said, some conclusions are evident: students were generally positive about the teacher-centered aspects of the workshop (writing instruction, instructor feedback) and drafting process (brainstorming, group discussion) but uninterested in the communal elements (peer feedback, group publication).

Asked to elaborate specifically about the helpfulness of peer and instructor feedback, students responded:

1 2 3 4 5
Not helpful at all Less helpful than needed Somewhat helpful Very helpful Extremely helpful
0 students 0 students 6 students 10 students 2 students

Figure 4

The major discrepancy was students’ distinction between instructor feedback, which they found generally helpful, and peer feedback, which they considered lackluster. Two students identified linguistic incompetence as the problem: “Peers were not able to spot a lot of my grammar mistakes” and “It’s hard for peers to understand all you wrote with your use of a dictionary.” Three other students mentioned lack of effort, saying they got vague, brief, or unconstructive feedback from their peers. But two students thought peer feedback was of some use: “talking it through is the best way to learn for me” and “My peer feedback wasn’t super detailed but it caught mistakes.” Most significantly for this project, no students mentioned feedback on content while explaining their responses, but six mentioned grammar.

Finally, when asked to list their remaining doubts regarding writing in Spanish, students mainly named issues of linguistic accuracy:

Figure 5Figure 5

Students also had several suggestions about ways to improve each step of the process, which will be discussed in Drawbacks and Limiting Factors.

Composition 2

On November 7, students completed the second graded composition of the semester. Figure 6 analyzes the second composition using the same criteria as the first:

Figure 6

Figure 6

The major difference is in the structural changes. Although fewer students showed clear structural intent (i.e. evidence of outlining) relative to the first composition (n = 7 as opposed to n = 13), students were organizing their writing in new and varied ways rather than simply repeating what was in the prompt. Whereas 13 students repeated the prompt in the first composition, only 1 did so in the second. Meanwhile, repetition within the composition held steady (n = 4).


Data analysis

Student performance clearly improved on the second composition, and students reported high levels of confidence regarding organization, suggesting at first glance that affectiveness was significantly lowered and writing correspondingly improved. However, the affectiveness may have lowered because the writing improved; that is, low affectiveness is just as likely an effect, not a cause, of well-organized writing. Moreover, several students reported that they had high levels of confidence in their writing going into the workshop, and a majority of the class still feels a lack of confidence in their command of Spanish grammar. That suggests a certain level of affectiveness persists, even when assessed mainly on rhetorical aptitude (in which they are confident) and not linguistic accuracy (in which they are not). The experiment may have served to conform student writing to the standards of this particular class, but it did not necessarily achieve its broader learning outcomes. A closer look at some of the flaws in the experiment could be a starting point to improve upon it.

Drawbacks and limiting factors

Experiment design

While a few students (n = 3) took the time in their surveys to express enthusiasm for having been able to choose their own article and topic, instructor pre-selection did limit the amount of authentic input that students encountered in the context of the workshop. Students may have benefited from the input provided by searching for their own articles, particularly on topics that more specific to Spanish-speaking culture. Lina Lee’s blogging experiment highlighted the effectiveness of allowing true freedom of topic in facilitating cultural competence as well as reading and writing fluency. This would have been particularly important to this experiment, since student interest was meant to be a key motivating factor. Still, pre-selected topics more closely mimicked the timed writing process for which the workshop was meant to prepare students, and requiring that topics be authentic to Spanish-speaking culture may have raised the affective filter rather than lowered it. Similarly, the discussion questions included with the articles undercut students’ ability to freely and creatively generate their own inquiries, but even so, this mimicked the format of the timed writing prompts. Both of these issues indicate that while the experiment made progress in achieving the learning outcome of improving performance on timed writing compositions in this particular course, but neither the experiment nor the compositions necessarily achieve their long-term goals of improving student fluency in writing.

Another basic experiment design flaw was a lack of accountability. Since the workshop entailed very low-stakes assessments (i.e. completion only) and was largely completed outside of the classroom, students may not have gotten as much out of the process as they needed, and expressed a lack of motivation. Time limitations also significantly affected this experiment, which was conducted as a supplement to a full curriculum, and thus some tasks were given as homework that may have been better suited to the classroom. For instance, one student suggested that participants should “read the articles initially in groups to identify main and supporting arguments together.” This would have given students an opportunity to practice critical reading skills and identify the rhetorical structures they were being tasked with producing. Another student suggested that the outline be turned in, so as to keep students accountable for actually doing it as well as to get feedback from the instructor on organizing their thoughts. Still another productive element would have been in-class freewriting, which would have more closely approximated the timed composition writing experience as well as “forced” students to approach writing as a fluency activity.

There was also a lack of accountability on the part of the instructor, which made it hard for students to measure their own abilities and know what to focus on going forward. Other than the limited feedback and completion grades, students did not have much substantial feedback on their participation in the workshop. In the survey, one student suggested that the instructor give a provisional grade for what students would have gotten had the comentario been a formal composición, which would have been an effective way of giving students the awareness they need to make further progress.


The most problematic parts of the experiment were by far group discussion and peer feedback. One student raised the issue on the post-workshop survey: why have such a communal workshop if the compositions are ultimately entirely individual? The stated goal of the group discussion stage in particular was to demonstrate the diversity of possibilities to a single prompt and therefore encourage creativity, but students may not ultimately have the luxury of considering multiple points of view during a timed writing exercise. A more individualized workshop experience may have been more beneficial to the learning outcome at hand, particularly encouraging students to consider and address potential objections to their argument.

In addition, the feedback process was insufficiently scaffolded. Many students assumed the feedback process was for proofreading only, and they were not specifically told what to look for. Students should have been guided through the process of reading their peers’ work just as they are guided through any other reading: by asking them to define their expectations, execute during-reading tasks, and produce a response. It would have been especially helpful to ask students to identify their partner’s thesis, topic sentences, and supporting ideas, and to highlight any areas where more evidence was needed or the argument was unclear.

Even when students did grasp the more thematic and rhetorical nature of the intended feedback, they were not necessarily equipped to give it. For example, one student pointed out that it was difficult to engage in peer review with her partner, who had worked on a different topic, since they did not have the background information to judge the other’s work. The instructor pointed out that this observation was in fact good feedback, because it meant that her partner needed to add more introductory information to make his writing clear to his audience. Still, this exchange highlighted a lack of clarity regarding the purpose of the comentarios. The intended audience of the comentario was nebulous at best, which may have affected students’ ability to write with purpose and precision.

Finally, instructor feedback was insufficient in that it occasionally veered into linguistic accuracy rather than maintaining the stated focus on fluency. This was counterproductive to the learning outcome of lowering student affectiveness in writing contexts.

Data Analysis

There is no real way of controlling for improved linguistic knowledge in this experiment. The students clearly improved their writing before the second composition, but this may have been due more to their progress in grammar, exposure to the language, and other classroom experiences over the weeks between the two compositions rather than to the workshop itself. Not only would students gain more linguistic and cultural tools to employ in their writing, but they would also be able to devote less attention to now-mastered grammar concepts and be able to focus more on rhetorical effectiveness.


Let us revisit the research questions posed at the beginning of this paper. To what extent is student success in timed writing a function of affectiveness? The experiment ultimately did not test this question precisely enough to verify any claims, but two major developments shed some light on it. First, several students reported that the workshop primarily improved their writing by clarifying expectations, a significant way to reduce student stress in assessment situations. Second, the structural creativity shown in the second composition indicates that students were confident enough to take risks. It does not quite follow that lowered affectiveness strengthens writing, but it certainly does not hurt.

As for whether explicit instruction and non-timed practice can improve organization and reduce repetitiveness in timed writing, the experiment results support the hypothesis that they certainly can. The experiment’s specificity to a particular curriculum and its corresponding grading standards severely limit the scope of such findings, but students’ improvement on all selected metrics of writing competency indicates that the presumption with which this paper began ought to be reconsidered. Students may not be expected to automatically “import” their writing skills from their L1 into their L2 any more than they can truly “import” their conversational style or sense of humor, but they can be empowered to identify and work at those skills. The question arises: even if a student successfully transposes their writing skills into the L2, how can they best optimize their writing skills for that language? Further inquiry into the pedagogy of rhetorical style, as a sort of written pragmatics, would be of great service as foundations are laid in the intermediate language classroom.

Works Cited

Bernhardt, Elizabeth; Molitoris, Joan; Romeo, Ken; Lin, Nina; and Patricia Valderrama. “Designing and Sustaining a Foreign Language Writing Proficiency Assessment Program at the Postsecondary Level.” Foreign Language Annals 48.3 (2015): 329–349.

Byrnes, Heidi; Maxim, Hiram H.; and John M. Norris. “Realizing Advanced Foreign Language Writing Development in Collegiate Education: Curricular Design, Pedagogy, Assessment.” Modern Language Journal 94 (2010): i-235.

Elola, Idoia and Ariana M. Mikulski. “Similar and/or Different Writing Processes? A Study of Spanish Foreign Language and Heritage Language Learners.” Hispania 99.1 (2016): 87–102.

Hubert, Michael D. and Joshua D. Bonzo. “Does second language writing research impact U.S. university foreign language instruction?” System 38.2 (2010): 517–527.

Lantolf, James P. “The Syntactic Complexity of Written Texts in Spanish as a Foreign Language: A Markedness Perspective.” Hispania 71.4 (1988): 933-940.

Lee, Lina. “Fostering Reflective Writing and Interactive Exchange through Blogging in an Advanced Language Course.” ReCALL 22.2 (2010): 212–227.

Lefkowitz, Natalie; Reichelt, Melinda; Rinnert, Carol; and Jean Marie Schultz. “Key Issues in Foreign Language Writing.” Foreign Language Annals 45.1 (2012): 22–41.

Raimes, Ann. “Language Proficiency, Writing Ability, and Composing Strategies: A Study of ESL College Student Writers.” Language Learning 37.3 (1987): 439–468.

Reichelt, Melinda. “Toward a more comprehensive view of L2 writing: Foreign language writing in the U.S.” Journal of Second Language Writing 8.2 (1999): 181-204.

Reichelt, Melinda. “A Critical Review of Foreign Language Writing Research on Pedagogical Approaches.” Modern Language Journal 85.4 (2001): 578–598.

Ruiz-Funes, Marcela. “Exploring the potential of second/foreign language writing for language learning: The effects of task factors and learner variables.” Journal of Second Language Writing 28 (2015): 1–19.

Honor statement

  1. All student work reproduced or discussed in this paper is reproduced or discussed with the informed consent and written permission of the student in question.
  1. On my honor as a student, I have neither given nor received aid on this assignment.

Catherine L. Addington

Reflection on peer review

Cassandra’s review and feedback on my paper was invaluable. Besides some advice on wording and citations in various sections throughout the paper, her main contribution to my thinking was to point out that it was necessary to examine the timed composition itself and its validity as an assessment. For instance, when I mentioned that most students took their organizational cues directly from the prompt, repeating the questions and structure in identical order, she pointed out that students were also instructed to “answer all parts of the prompt.” Therefore, it may be unreasonable to expect them to come up with an alternative organizational structure, and to use their repetition of the prompt as evidence of lack of rhetorical skill or communicative intent. I think she has a point, and I revised that section accordingly.


I have already done some self-assessment in the body of the paper itself regarding issues in experiment design and project focus. My only remaining uncertainty regards my research questions. I am not sure the same experiment can address both whether affectiveness is the primary determinant of student success in timed writing and how best to reduce the former in order to improve the latter. I ultimately focused on the improvements rather than the affectiveness question, but I felt it was important to show the development of my thinking in the paper.

Overall, I am proud of my action research, mainly because of the workshop’s benefits for my students. It really helped me grow as a teacher to see how I could put skills from my own career (writing and journalism) at the service of my students. Meanwhile, it was important for my students to realize that they can discuss complicated topics and produce writing in the target language at the university level.


[1] The total number of participants in the experiment is 18. However, one student failed to turn in a diagnostic composition and therefore his work is excluded from the corresponding data (i.e. composition analyses).

[2] This link is shared with the permission of the participating students, and with last names removed.

[3] Students were not required to answer all questions, or all parts of each question. Therefore not all survey questions will have 18 respondents.

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