Teaching and Researching Writing.

Ken Hyland. Longman, London, 2002, x + 248pp.


Most ESL careers journey through the territory, and I welcomed a review of Ken Hyland's book as a chance to revisit the province of writing. As coordinator of an ESL writing section in an English literature department in the 1980s, I had the sense that a discipline of writing was coming together under the aegis of applied linguistics. Treating writing as a process, analyzing the process with tools from cognitive psychology, moving error out of its dominant position, working within a framework of empirical research (much of it classroom based), publishing the results in a number of new journals – all this seemed promising.


The volumes in the Teaching and Researching series of which this is one are state-of-the-art updates on reading (Grabe & Stoller), motivation (Dörnyei), translation (Hatim), listening (Rost), lexicography (Hartmann) learner autonomy (Benson), and of course writing (Hyland). These are grouped under the designation Applied Linguistics in Action, whose themes include (1) demonstrating the relations between theory and practice in each area treated, (2) inviting and equipping teachers to undertake action research within their own institutions, (3) setting out the main lines of existing research within each area, (4) indicating the main issues and controversies, and (5) describing samples of successful research and research-based implementations. The series seems designed to help teachers get on with their MA's and participate in the ongoing professionalization of our field.


Focusing now on Ken Hyland's volume, I was surprised how far the field of writing seems to have moved in the past few years. There are a few echoes of the issues that dominated writing textbooks and classes in the 1980s, but many new issues have cropped up and some old ones apparently gone away. Error does not get an entry in the subject index. Nor do former standbys lexis (or vocabulary or diction), revision, or organization. In the other direction, genre gets 32 and context 25. Do these indicators suggest that ESL writers have in the meantime overcome their problems with grammar and diction leaving only the finer points of writing in different genre communities and task contexts? On further examination, I noticed that cohesion/coherence had 5 index entries and feedback 22, some reassurance of a familiar world.


The book begins with a conceptual overview of writing which unfolds within a tripolar scheme of perspectives (the writer, the reader, and the text itself). This framework is (fairly loosely) employed to describe and critique a wide array of approaches to the teaching of writing, with some understandable overlap. For example, is the currently popular genre approach mainly about disclosing characteristics of texts themselves, or mainly about helping learners conform to expectations of readers in discourse communities? In this section, I began to see that the author would promote some approaches over others—and not always the choices I would have made. The first approach he discusses, text as explicit, autonomous object, is not really described as much as dismissed for being acontextual, mechanistic, and correctness-oriented.  The second, text as discourse, i.e., within a context and for a purpose, is given a full and mainly positive description with only occasional pro forma quibbling.


The three-way classification scheme seemed initially familiar, mainly because I had mistaken it for a development of Kinneavy's (1971) classic preface to the modern pedagogy of discourse, which also employs a triangle of complementary emphases to frame a description of this most complex of human activities. But the triangles are not the same, and the difference is interesting. The earlier triangle envisioned the signal itself in the middle of the triangle, with the encoder, the decoder, and the reality encoded on the three sides. In the present scheme, missing is the relation of any or all of the components to reality, in other words writing as representation.


I was struck by this omission, since in many a writing course I had found that a semester or two of writing instruction did not help learners much with grammar, style, or lexical expansion, but it could help them quite a bit with their ability to encode relevant pieces of reality. From "Write a paragraph so a reader can choose the right picture" to "Write a lab report so that a reader can put together what happened," these were tasks that learners could eventually succeed in, as well as tasks that could contextualize grammatical and lexical (and genre convention) feedback. Focusing on the text-reality link seemed to correspond to the most interesting reading theory at the time, that of van Dijk and Kintsch (1983) whereby the deepest levels of text comprehension resulted in the construction of a mental representation known as a situation model, that is, an accurate re-creation of the state of affairs encoded by the writer. It also seemed to correspond to interactionist programs of instructed language acquisition, which proceeded largely via learning tasks with tangible outcomes (such as reconstructing a flower garden from individual picture descriptions, as in Doughty & Pica, 1986).


What replaces the focus on representation in current approaches, I concluded, is mainly a focus on the reader side of the scheme, on readers and their expectations and on the desirability of helping learners fit in with these. As I have mentioned, the notion of genre looms large in the present treatment; the subtext throughout the book is that teachers of writing should help their learners become aware of the genre/register codes and restrictions of the particular academic and other communities they are seeking to join—despite regular warnings against adopting a simplistic genre-recipe-book approach. I do not find so much emphasis upon genre convincing. I have not seen the proof (and none is offered here) that genre imitation or even awareness is the most important thing an academic learner needs to know.


Do members of genre communities themselves value signs of genre control in their students' writing over clear sentences conveying clear ideas? The experiment I was longing to meet, as the themes of the book developed, was one where learner texts with and without the benefit of genre compliance would be compared for success with essay-graders in a real academic department. Would genre features, or the usual clarity, correctness, and control of adequate vocabulary, be seen as most promising for a future in an academic department? I doubt there is any teacher of academic writing who could not predict the answer. A recent study by one of them (Errey, 2000) ranked 24 factors of success in satisfying academic readers’ requirements across four subject areas. Clustering near the top were content information and ability to represent this information clearly and explicitly “without assuming that the reader, as expert, was omniscient, and that statements did not need full explanation.” In other words, academic writers have to learn specifically not to assume too much shared context, as might be appropriate in conversation, and instead produce something resembling an explicit, unambiguous, and (yes) autonomous text. Clustering nearer the middle of the success factors were grammatical accuracy (number 10) and punctuation (14), with appropriate register well toward the bottom (16).


The second chapter is entitled “Key issues in writing." These include some surprises like “how writing expresses identity” and “how writing expresses social relationships” that presumably were not chosen from a survey of classroom instructors' top dozen concerns. Not included, on the other hand, is effectiveness of error correction—an injustice to writing teachers who, as far as I know, continue to spend much of their lives responding to errors and wondering if the effort is wasted. Similarly absent is assessment—a very problematic matter that no writing teacher has the liberty of ignoring. Of the issues that are treated in this section, I found the treatment of some of them to be debatable. How writing is related to speech is treated first. The discussion looks at some approaches that trace the difficulty of learning to write to the inherent nature of text. Text, compared to speech, the argument goes, must be more explicit, must rely less on shared context, cannot profit from immediate feedback, and so on. The author is dubious about this diagnosis, arguing that the supposed dichotomy between text and speech has been overemphasized by “the great dividers.” His main evidence for this seems to be the existence of the many hybrid forms that anyone can think of, such as e-mail letters (speech written down) or news broadcasts (writing spoken aloud). Hyland implies that the text-speech distinction is not all that important in teaching writing (as compared to genre distinctions, which are very important).


This view flies in the face not only of classroom experience but also of a great deal of solid, practical research on ESL writing. For example, it ignores Cummins' (1979) distinction between Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) and Cognitive and Academic Language Proficiency (CALP). Within this framework, many literacy problems have been shown to stem from learners' understandable tendency to write as they speak, i.e. to their lack of familiarity with explicit, reduced-context, text-based language (regardless of its exact modality in particular instances). It also ignores several learner corpus studies (e.g., in Granger, 1998) which also show that students’ writing problems are often related to their unfamiliarity with text or text-like language. A notable error in this section is the author’s claim that "no single dimension of comparison can separate speech and writing" (p. 51). One such dimension regularly documented and replicated is lexis, with speech dominated by very frequent words (90% of tokens are first-thousand items) and the vast majority of text types characterized by a demonstrably more elaborated lexicon (70-80% of tokens are first-thousand items).


With a conceptual framework established, the author proceeds to a description of some actual writing courses that show the workings of his concepts and issues (Chapters 3 and 4). His framework is, on the whole, useful in highlighting what is interesting in the various course designs. Missing, however, is anything about how it could be used to evaluate their effectiveness. This section also assumes a somewhat troubling them-and-us perspective in the description of how instructors functioned in some of these novel writing courses. Some instructors resisted course designers' new grammar terminology (p. 103); some were frustrated by not being allowed to correct errors (p. 110); some were reluctant to donate increased marking time for “multiple redrafting” (p. 95); some might have their “common perceptions about how writing should be taught” challenged by their students’ access to computational writing tools (p. 127); some could be “in danger of treating genre conventions as normative and static” rather than as offering students “a guiding framework for producing texts by raising their awareness of the connections between forms, purposes and participant roles in specific social contexts” (p. 44). Who can blame them?


Chapters 5 and 6 move on to research practices and cases. Here, the discussion is interesting, largely empirical, and largely familiar. Matters related to identity, social relationships, genre and others that had previously been centre-staged suddenly make way for concrete questions such as these: Can learners be trained to give each other useful feedback? What are the writing needs of nurses? What are the characteristics of business email? What is the incidence of hedging in a learner corpus as opposed to a comparable native speaker corpus? What thought processes accompany revision and restructuring in an L2 writing task? What actual uses do students make of written feedback? These fascinating studies are presented clearly, with doable follow-up ideas to reshape questions or extend findings. In other words, when it came time for the book to deal with concrete studies, many of the frameworks and issues of the earlier chapters suddenly seemed quite remote, even irrelevant.


Thus, there is a broken link between the theoretical and practical parts of Hyland’s book, two things the action theme was supposed to bring together. But then, the link to a companion Internet website “providing valuable teaching and learning material” (p. ix) leads merely to an advertisement.




Cummins, J. 1979. Cognitive/academic language proficiency, linguistic interdependence, the optimum age question and some other matters.  Working Papers on Bilingualism, No. 19, 121-129.


Doughty, C., & Pica, T. 1986. "Information gap" tasks: Do they facilitate second language acquisition? TESOL Quarterly 20 (2), 305-325.


Errey, L. 2000. Stacking the decks: What does it take to satisfy academic readers’ requirements? In G. Blue, J. Milton, and J. Saville (Eds.), Assessing English for academic purposes. Bern: Peter Lang.


Granger, S. 1998. Learner English on computer. London: Longman.


Kinneavy, J. 1971. A theory of discourse. New York: Norton.


van Dijk, T., & Kintsch, W. 1983. Strategies of discourse comprehension. New York: Academic Press.





Tom Cobb

Dépt. de linguistique et de didactique des langues

Université du Quebec à Montréal

Montréal, Canada

E-mail address: cobb.tom@uqam.ca