Reflections on Writing

By Ruslana Westerlund

I’ve been thinking about the act of writing for a while now. What is writing? What does it mean to be a writer? What are the linguistic and cultural challenges to writing for multilingual writers? In this blog, I’ll talk about what writing means to me.  I’ll share a few personal challenges of being a bicultural writer as well as what influences continue to shape my view of writing. I will also argue for a more complex view of language development for multilingual learners drawing on Systemic Functional Linguistics. I’ll provide implications for multilingual learners throughout each point.

Those who read my blog know that I am a Ukrainian American who grew up in the 70s and 80s in Ukraine which was then called the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. I went to school in the 80s. I always say that half of my education was Soviet propaganda. Despite that, I have always considered myself a creative writer and have written poems about Mayakovsky and the Communist Party in 10th grade (instead of an exposition with claim and evidence). After emigrating from Ukraine in 1995, I wrote about immigration, the cities I visited, nostalgia, my homeland, and educational inequity of ELs. Then poetry writing came to an abrupt end when I began writing my dissertation and then transitioned to blogging. While poetry was comfortable and cathartic, dissertation writing introduced a wave of challenges, both linguistic and cultural, of which I’ll write below.

Challenge 1: Comfortable Genres

Writing a dissertation was challenging for several reasons. First, it goes back to my 10th grade class when a teacher asked me to write an exposition on the Communist Party as portrayed in Mayakovsky’s poetry. I hated writing expositions. Why? Because it’s hard work! Instead, I asked to write a poem concerning the Communist party to which he agreed. It was a genre I was comfortable with. Exposition required a set of skills that I hadn’t developed.

Implications for ELLs:

For culturally and linguistically diverse learners in your classrooms, we allow them, out of the goodness of our hearts, to write in genres which they would prefer to ease their way into writing, to ease their stress and anxiety. While you may do that at the beginning of their writing development, it is important to remember that we may be doing a disservice to them.  I recommend the three E’s: Expect they can do it, Explicitly teach a variety of genres, and thus, you’ll Expand their writing repertoires. If all students do is write poems about the water cycle in science, when will they engage in the disciplinary literacy of writing in ways which the science discipline values?

Disciplinary literacy is defined as reasoning, thinking, reading, writing, speaking and acting in ways that that discipline values. Science is full of its own set of genres and we don’t need to borrow from language arts if we want to meet the science standards.  The Next Generation Science Standards, Practice 8: Obtaining, Evaluating and Communicating Information is expecting students to write genres that are intrinsic to science and engineering.

NGSS practice 8

The reason for problematizing the “familiar and the known genres” is to expand students’ meaning potential (using Halliday’s concept). If all we ask students to do is only one or two types of genres, we are not expanding students’ repertoires. This also has implications of how we view language development.

The question becomes not how long their sentences are but what they can DO with language and which writing spaces they can occupy.

Challenge 2: Writing Requires Knowledge Building

Another reason my dissertation writing proved to be challenging was because it first required me to build ideas and knowledge of the topic I was writing about. I vividly remember sitting down at my desk and starting to write and I had a very rudimentary level of knowledge on that topic. Because the topic was new to me, my writing consisted of eighty percent of reading, thinking and only then “writing”, typing your thoughts down and revising them constantly.  You can say that’s it’s stating the obvious.  However, we often do that with ELLs.

Being a writer, also means being a reader and a thinker, an inquirer and a seeker.

Implications for ELLs:

We often ask English language learners to write quite prematurely. Supplying them with a set of sentence frames or a graphic organizer is not sufficient if writing requires new knowledge. They need to build the field first, have an experience, develop ideas, listen to a guest speaker, read multimodal texts, develop oral language through a series of interactive activities which help students create meaning together, clarify their thinking, and build knowledge together. This phase of the cycle may take several lessons.  One example of well-scaffolded writing in science can be found here. One approach that illustrates these steps well is called the Teaching and Learning Cycle.

Teaching and Learning Cycle (Adapted from Rothery, 1996)

Challenge 3: Playing Guessing Games 

The other reason for the challenge with my dissertation was that it was a genre I’ve never encountered before. So, my awesome adviser Dr. Sarah Tahtinen-Pacheco suggested I study mentor texts and she explicitly modeled paragraph openers for me in the Methodology section.  I read and made notes of how dissertations were written. In that process, I have noticed to construct knowledge on the topic, generalizations and abstractions were construed through various language resources. The interpersonal is achieved not through emotive appeal but through an objective stance and research citations with a dose of evaluation (e.g. significant body of research, an important issue). In other words, your personal opinions are not stated as “In my opinion….” but through “According to so and so…” ,” A vast body of research claims that… “. Those are still your opinions, however they are stated as facts using the logical appeal through research citation, etc. I’ve noticed that dissertation had a lot of redundancy in it.  Things were repeated many times on purpose.

Implications for ELLs:

English learners need to learn that different genres are construed through different language choices depending on the field (what we are talking about), the audience (who we are talking to), and the mode (the channel of communication), all guided by the purpose. For a more expanded explanation, see here.  One teacher commented that arguments in language arts are not the same as arguments in science.  No one is interested in your opinion in science.  You have to use evidence to back up your claim. But students are often left to figure out that mystery on their own because rarely do we engage our students or ourselves in the metalinguistic comparisons of genres in how the disciplines define them.

Challenge 4: Know Your Audience

When I was writing my dissertation, I had a particular audience in mind.  I was writing to teachers and researchers and my language choices had to match my audience.  I remember learning not to assume that people knew much about my topic and that required of me to explicitly relate the knowledge in such a way that it would help my readers learn from my dissertation.

To help students write to a particular audience, ask them to reflect on how they speak to different people. Students can contextualize language use by reflecting on how we greet different people (a principal, our friends in the lunchroom or our family members at home). We, as their teachers, can bring that language awareness to the surface and bring it into writing.

Here are some differences in the language choices my son makes. These examples illustrate different choices of words for two different audiences. My son, who is a sixth grader, allowed me to share this language with you, my readers. He said, when I text my friends or talk to them, I don’t use the language in the left column.

Friends Frens (my son’s language used in Instagram and texting because it’s the “Twenty One Pilots thing”)
Peers You guys
Adolescents Teens
Exhausted Pooped
Energized Hyper
Thank you! Thx
So eager Dying to…
Good-looking girl Shawty
Awesome Lit

When asking my 6th grader if he carries those words into writing from texting, he gave the “Duh” look and said, “No, mom. I know that those words are for my friends. I know my teacher’s expectations.” He also knows his mom’s expectations! Look at the example below. Remember: field, tenor, and mode? The mode is the same (texting) but the audience is different (his mom) and the tenor is to appeal to his mom, so use of research in texting is intentional because of those two variables. I bet you he doesn’t cite research to his friends.

text from Nicky.png

Implications for ELLs:

The question becomes, “Do English learners who represent various cultural practices and worldviews, know what’s in our heads as a teacher?” Way too often, we ask them to be mind readers. We say “Write an argument persuading your principal that we need more playground time”, and give them a sentence frame “I think… ” “In my opinion…” or a graphic organizer. But we rarely provide explicit instruction by deconstructing mentor persuasive texts to analyze the authors’ choices. How do authors “sound convincing”? What is that language?  How do authors present opinions in a “neutral, authoritative” way? How do authors create logical appeal? Or the emotive appeal? How does language construe those appeals? Below are some examples of language choices for arguments with examples for those three appeals.

(Source: Westerlund, R. (2016). Focus on Writing with a Purpose. WCER, Madison, WI.)

Discourse Dimension:
  • Connectives to sequence claims (e.g., first, second, third, finally, in conclusion, to summarize, therefore) to present counter-claims (e.g., however, nevertheless, on the other hand) to show relationships of similarity or difference (similarly, moreover, nevertheless, despite this, on the other hand).
  • Summary statements used to pull ideas together
Sentence Dimension:
  • A variety of tenses may be used depending on the purpose (past tense to summarize past, present tenses to state the present, if-then clauses to state real or imagined effects)
  • Modality to present arguments or claims as possibilities rather than facts (it is likely that, it may be that)
Word/Phrase Level Dimension:
  • Topic-specific vocabulary (racism, segregation, racial divide, hatred) to speak with authority
  • Evaluative language indicating writer’s personal belief or stance (e.g., it is extremely unlikely)
  • Emotive language to create emotional appeal (e.g. devastating, heart-wrenching)
  • Language referring to research or statistics to create logical appeal (e.g., research studies have found that… Twenty percent of students reported that…)
  • Language to create moral appeal (e.g. it is our duty to…)
  • Language choices to connect with the audience (e.g., peers v. adolescents)
  • Modal verbs to call to action (we must act now, we should not stop…)
Instructional implications: How can I make these language features more explicit to my English learners? What activities should I consider to help my ELs choose language specific to audience?

Our students are capable of learning that when we write, we make choices and those choices, including pronoun use, active or passive voice, modals “represent relations between writers and the world we live in. Word choice and sentence structure are an expression of the way we attend to the words of others, the way we position ourselves in relation to others” (Micciche, 2004, p. 719).

An approach to making writing expectations explicit is described in the research study by Myhill and her colleagues (2016) Writing conversations: fostering metalinguistic discussion about writing. They use Carter and McCarthy’s distinction between the grammar of structure, which is concerned with language a system of grammatical structures and the grammar of choice which describes how those grammatical structures construe different meanings. The article describes an approach of using dialogic teaching to talk about language choices we make as writers, to develop metalinguistic awareness in students to help them move beyond writers as users of structures and into writers as decision makers about their choices of language.

The dialogic approach encourages teachers and students to talk about writing and

  • ask students to reflect on the choices they make and justify their choices
  • support writers to see the connection between the grammatical feature and its effect in shaping meaning
  • encourage language play and language contextualization.

Writing is also talking about writing and reflecting on the choices we make and how they impact our readers. Writing involves thinking about the reader. Being able to engage students in a dialogic talk about writing has implications on the teachers’ capacity to recognize and manage metalanguage about writing.

Challenge 5: The Loss of The Inner Voice

After overcoming linguistic challenges of the structure of the dissertation and the order of the sections – that’s when I discovered that each institution has its own preferred style for organizing the textual features of the dissertation genre and that they are not universal – I have come face to face with a much bigger challenge, that of cultural style of writing required by an American dissertation genre. I became acutely aware of that when the edits came back which were mainly about the types of sentences that were allowed. They had to be short sentences with maybe one or two coordinating conjunctions. I remember writing long-winded sentences with several embedded clauses drawing on what I thought was good writing in my Master’s Thesis in the Cherkassy University I had graduated from. I remember resisting that convention because to me it wasn’t just writing different types of sentences. Writing in that genre was similar to putting on clothes that you didn’t feel comfortable in. But you have to wear that suit for people to take you seriously at a job interview before you even say a word.

So, writing in L2 is best described as what Pavlenko and Lantolf (2000) said of second language learning as “participation and (re)construction of selves”. In their article, the authors argue for the inadequacy of the acquisition metaphor and propose language as participation metaphor. While the acquisition process merely focuses on us acquiring grammatical structures, the participation process stresses contextualization of language use and engagement with the certain community. It means taking on those values and practices and not merely using L2 grammar. So, when we write, we choose to participate in that culture. Pavlenko describes that stage as the loss of one’s inner voice.

If we want to understand multilingual learners’ challenges more comprehensively, we need to see beyond their grammar and sentences and into those spaces where cultural tensions happen. This may be more true for the adolescents than younger writers who are figuring out their identity and writing becomes a contested space for them. The contestation may include both the language choices and the gains and losses during the process of writing in another language.

Writing in another language also means writing in another culture.

All of the challenges listed can become opportunities. By challenging students to step out of their comfort zones and write for a variety of purposes and in a variety of contexts, we expand their range of spaces they can occupy. By teaching how to contextualize language, we give space to sociolinguistics in our classrooms because it’s already there represented by our students who speak various languages and dialects. By making language choices explicit through a systematic approach, we empower them to recognize when someone tries to manipulate them with messages on billboards and advertisements. By engaging with adolescent writers about the gains and losses of writing in another culture, we allow for critical conversations about the intersection of language, culture, and identity.


Micciche, L. 2004. “Making a Case for Rhetorical Grammar.” College Composition and Communication 55 (4): 716–737

Myhill D., Jones, S. & Wilson, A. (2016). Writing conversations: fostering metalinguistic discussion about writing. Research Papers in Education, 31(1), 23-44, DOI: 10.1080/02671522.2016.1106694

Pavlenko, A., & Lantolf, J. P. (2000). Second language learning as participation and the (re)construction of selves. In Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 155-177

Westerlund, R. (2016). WIDA Focus on: Writing with a Purpose. WCER. Madison, WI


One thought on “Reflections on Writing

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  1. What a brilliant post. Thank you, Ruslana, for opening a window into your world and what you’ve experienced. It sent shivers up my spine. Can’t wait to re-read it.

    Liked by 1 person

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