Do There Really Have to be Two Sides? A Possible Path Forward for Translingual and Second Language Writing Scholars

Dana Ferris

A few years ago, I had an email exchange with a younger scholar of my acquaintance, Jay Jordan of the University of Utah (who has given me permission to share this story and use his name). He asked for my insight on the tensions he was perceiving between translingual (TL) scholars in the rhetoric and composition world and scholars in the specialized (sub)field of SLW, saying this:

From there, I opined that the problems between the two camps were less about specific ideologies or pedagogies and more about perceived disrespect by each group of scholars from the other. I went on to say that, for SLW experts,

There is definitely a “we were here first” aspect to this complaining (hostility?) that is not productive. . . . However. . . . We do know some stuff that they don’t—not because we are smarter but because that’s what we have specialized in and intentionally studied. Turf and “here first” don’t matter, but expertise does matter.

(Ferris, personal communication, August 21, 2014)

When I was asked to consider contributing to this volume, the dialogue I’d had with Jay immediately came to mind. As I thought about it, I realized that even five years later, I still (mostly) feel the same way now that I did then: Why not work with the translingual advocates rather than fighting them? The goal of this chapter is to map out some ideas for a way forward to better understanding and, ideally, collaboration. I begin with some reflections on my own experience and positionality with regard to the TL and SLW camps. I then take the liberty, as a senior scholar who’s had a front-row seat (and sometimes a ballroom dais seat) for the TL/SLW tensions, of offering advice to both groups.

Background My History

I am an applied linguist who has always, since my earliest days of teaching and doing research, focused on writing (see Ferris, 2016). As many other SLW specialists would agree, this profile can make one feel like a bit of an outlier. Linguists are often puzzled by my interest in writing. Writing studies scholars are surprised by my interest in language.

In graduate school, I was part of a minority cohort of applied linguistics students within a large and prestigious theoretical linguistics department. It was always clear that many of the linguistics faculty thought we were pretenders who didn’t really belong there. My first academic position after receiving my degree was in a large English department in which the literature faculty held all the leadership positions and the majority of the votes. The TESOL/applied linguistics faculty were a powerless minority whose presence was tolerated (someone had to deal with those ESL students, after all!) but not at all welcomed. The composition/rhetoric faculty in that department were similarly marginalized (see Heckathorn, 2019).

From talking with peers who had gone to graduate school and/or held academic positions elsewhere, I found that this pattern was ubiquitous: Many (most?) applied linguistics/TESOL professionals and writing studies professionals, at least in the United States, have painful histories of being disrespected and ignored in their home departments. Reflecting on this range of my own experiences and those of others reminds me that when one has felt powerless in an academic setting, the pain of real or perceived professional disrespect can rise to the surface quickly. It’s instructive, in thinking about the present topic of tensions between TL and SLW scholars in the U.S., to remember that the scars of the past may influence individuals’ reactions in the present.

TL and SLW Scholarship: Sources of Tension

Over the past decade, I have attended presentations on TL philosophy and research at a range of academic conferences, have read a good deal on the topic, and have spoken about and written on it myself (Ferris, 2015). My observation from both formal and informal interactions on the TL/SLW divide is that people’s feelings are hurt. My feelings have been hurt. The offense has been felt on both sides, and there are some good reasons for those feelings of umbrage. When someone tells you, either in a conference presentation or a journal article, that your field is “ending” (Canagarajah, 2013) or is now subsumed under the umbrella of their newer field, it’s hard not to get defensive. Conversely, when young TL researchers trying to break into a new field are told that they haven’t done their homework and offer nothing new to pedagogical discussions, they feel that there is no seat at the scholarly table for them. It hurts—all of it. And when you’re feeling hurt, offended, disrespected, and dismissed, it can be hard to listen well to opposing perspectives, let alone come to a meeting of the minds. That is just human nature.

However, as I outlined in my 2014 email response to Jay and in my 2015 College English article, and as I affirmed by putting my name on the 2015 open letter in College English on the topic (Atkinson et al., 2015), I believe that some of the points of disagreement between the TL and SLW perspectives have potentially serious consequences if pushed to their logical extremes. To give just one prominent example, before the emergence of TL as a movement, there had already been several decades of “erasure of language” (Donahue, 2018; MacDonald, 2007; Matsuda, 2012) in composition theory and research, based primarily on the argument that formal language instruction “doesn’t work” to improve student writing (see, e.g., Hartwell, 1985). The TL perspective sometimes adds to this already counterproductive trend with the argument that actively promoting any kind of standard written code in the writing classroom is an abusive form of linguistic imperialism. One practical consequence of this argument, intended or otherwise, is that preservice writing instructors do not receive the content or pedagogical knowledge needed to analyze students’ written language and suggest ways for them to use language more effectively for their communicative purposes. This in turn can cause writing instruction to fall short of helping students harness and refine their linguistic repertoires so that they can be successful in their academic and professional communication in the future.

As a researcher and author who has taken an interest in the linguistic aspects of building writing competence (see, e.g., Ferris, 2011, 2014; Ferris & Hedg- cock, 2014), I am concerned about the emergence of a philosophical worldview that in some circles scornfully dismisses the option of any language-related instruction or feedback. This is just one example from my own area of interest of how TL and SLW scholarship can clash in their real-world practical applications. My point here is simply to observe that tensions between the two camps are not always based on hurt feelings or wounded pride but rather, at least sometimes, on concerns about how positions that perhaps haven’t been thought all the way through could actually have negative consequences for students.

The Path Forward

For both groups of scholars, the first step on the path is to recognize our shared interests and values (Matsuda, 2014). These include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • • Understanding that a monolingual/English-dominant orientation is counterproductive and valuing multilingualism,
  • • Resisting deficit language and implicit or explicit suggestions that students whose primary language is not English are a problem or a burden,
  • • Recognizing that English is a world language with regional distinctions and that what is “standard” in one region may be quite different in another, and
  • • Accepting that language changes constantly and that there is no stable or “correct” variety.

These values speak both to the nature of language itself and to attitudes that educators should (or should not) hold toward multilingual users of English and other languages. They are important and they are shared by TL and SLW scholars. Having said that. I’d like to turn to some advice for scholars in both groups so that we can move away from our “two sides” toward our shared values. These suggestions address both the hurt feelings I mentioned earlier as well as what I view as at least somewhat legitimate critiques or concerns.

Advice to the TL Scholars2

Consider Doing More Research

One of the persistent objections of the SLW camp to TL scholarship is that it is not adequately located in decades of previous work in applied linguistics (sociolinguistics in general and World Englishes in particular) and education. Writing studies has generally tended to overlook the research contributions of SLW, even on closely related topics (e.g., peer response in the writing classroom). The same has been true with the early TL work—when one peruses a reference list at the end of a chapter or article on TL, it is unusual to see many, or any, references to sociolinguistic work. For SLW scholars, such instances illustrate the point that TL scholars have not acknowledged the work of others who have trodden the same scholarly ground (see Matsuda, 2013, for an eloquent discussion of this point). To many, this erasure of applied linguists feels disrespectful and even arrogant, as if the only scholars worth reading and citing are in writing studies and the only scholarship worth mentioning began in the first decade of the 21st century. If one is going to be a serious scholar in a particular area of study, one has to do the work—and not all of the work was done, most likely, by people one already knows and routinely sees at conferences.

Similarly, the work of TL scholars has thus far been more theoretical and philosophical than it has been empirical (see Atkinson & Tardy, 2018; Gevers, 2018; Schreiber & Watson, 2018, for recent discussions of this point). In his piece on TL pedagogy, Gevers (2018) observed that suggestions are provided for TL approaches to writing instruction that haven’t been adequately investigated through research. TL scholars should undertake classroom research projects to examine student views about TL approaches, the observable impact of TL practices on their writing development, and long-term effects of TL- focused instruction on students as they move beyond the first-year writing class. Outside of classroom-based studies, there could also be institutionally based studies on how the TL worldview is received and applied by faculty in the disciplines and administrators. Such research programs should mix methods and could include survey and interview studies, focus groups, text analysis, and longitudinal case studies.

Respect the Expertise of SLW Specialists

If a TL scholar sees something happening in an SLW setting that they don’t understand or that they believe they disagree with, the appropriate first step is not to attack or criticize but to ask questions: Why do you do it that way? Have you always done it that way, and if not, what has changed? Is there research about SLA or SLW that supports this practice? Often (always?) there are also institutional or political constraints that govern how programs operate; hearing that history might help place a particular decision or practice into a broader context. TL scholars should not, however, jump to dark conclusions about the competence or motives of SLW experts. It is always safest to begin with the assumption that most educators want the same thing—what is best for their students—and that most professionals are competent and qualified to do their jobs. Operating from a posture of mutual respect is always a better place to start.

Advice to the SLW Scholars

Don't Dismiss TL Researchers

One way in which younger TL scholars have been wounded is by attacks on their competency, their preparation, and their work ethic: They haven’t done the reading. They’re appropriating key terminology and unnecessarily making up new labels for old concepts. They haven’t supported their philosophical ideas with actual data, and their pedagogical suggestions are underdeveloped and nothing that SLW specialists haven’t already been doing for years. In short: Their work is that of lightweights, of interlopers trying to shove their way into already existing fields of knowledge without putting in the actual effort required to become experts.

As I implied in the previous section, some of these criticisms have a legitimate basis, if perhaps being somewhat overstated. At the same time, TL scholars also bring expertise into the conversation, backgrounds in rhetoric, composition, and the humanities that inform the writing studies field and with which at least some SLW scholars are not intimately familiar. Rather than trying to, as Jay Jordan put it in our 2014 email exchange, “circle the wagons,” SLW experts should find ways to welcome TL scholars into the shared conversation about the best ways to support multilingual students in our classes and programs and to be their advocates within our larger institutions. This collaboration could take a number of forms, from professional development events to reading groups to curriculum and assessment committees to jointly designed and implemented classroom research projects, special issues of journals, or edited volumes such as this one. There is plenty of work to be done, but there needs to be shared willingness to respect and listen to one another for any of it to happen.

Develop Common Pedagogical C round

As the director of a large EAP program for multilingual first-year university students, I would sometimes be asked by administrators on my campus why I didn’t just “train some graduate students” to teach our developmental L2 writing courses rather than hiring more expensive faculty. I would explain that teachers in our program needed expertise in both composition and linguistics— particularly about the developmental processes that novice L2 writers in EAP settings experience—and that I couldn’t just “set up a table at the Saturday farmers’ market to find teachers.” SLW scholars and program administrators, by virtue of their training and experience, know that teaching L2 writers is a complex endeavor that involves intersecting skill sets—from rhetorically informed, genre-aware first-year writing theory and pedagogy to linguistically informed insights about second language and literacy acquisition.

Some TL scholars may not have much hands-on experience with modern SLW pedagogy and will sometimes assume that it is all about grammar and obsessed with errors (Atkinson & Tardy, 2018). In my own department, the EAP leadership works closely with the entry-level (basic) writing (ELW) director and the FYC director. We have already reconfigured our EAP curriculum to make it more vertically aligned with the basic/FYC programs that follow it, and we are in the process of cooperatively designing a new placement process that will serve all new first-year students, whether they begin in EAP, ELW, or FYC courses. Such alignment is not always easy and takes some work, and, as described previously, willingness on both sides to listen before criticizing.

While this can be a challenging endeavor, it is possible because SLW, TL, and writing studies scholars have a lot more in common than they may realize. They share a commitment to the writing process, to meaningful tasks that engage students and build their confidence, to teaching for transfer, and to helping students become rhetorically aware and flexible through genre-focused pedagogy rather than through traditional essay writing. If one examined the curricular objectives and class syllabi of FYC, basic writing, and EAP courses in our program, one would find far more similarities than differences in approach.

However, as I noted earlier, a key difference that has become a sticking point between TL and SLW scholars is the EAP classroom’s additional and intentional focus on language acquisition and development. In my context, we have navigated that difference with three simple steps. First, we sit with TL colleagues and together look at writing by students in our EAP program—their placement writing samples, their final course portfolios—and we talk about ways in which the student texts differ from those written by native/monolingual writers at higher levels and where there might be gaps in knowledge that could be addressed via instruction and effective feedback. Second, we discuss ideas from current research about reading-writing connections, about the crucial nature of vocabulary development for L2 literacy, and about ways in which grammar instruction and corrective feedback can be introduced authentically in SLW classrooms without diminishing the importance of other writing class objectives. Third, we demonstrate—through our syllabi and other course materials and through visits to our classes—what we actually do rather than what they think we do. Once we have gone through those steps of discussing our observations about student writing, talking about ideas from the SLW literature, and making our pedagogical practices more transparent, it becomes evident that there is actually very little for the two sides to disagree upon.

Conclusion: Focus on Shared Values Rather Than Defending Turf

It is typical, especially in teaching-oriented fields of study, for fads, trends, and bandwagons to come and to go. In one of the first major collections on SLW

(Kroll, 1990), Silva talked about the history of SLW to that point, describing it as “a merry-go-round of approaches that generates more heat than light” (Silva, 1990, p. 18). Another example is a famous Forum exchange in TESOL Quarterly in 1988, in which one author (Horowitz, 1986) railed against the process approach rapidly taking hold in L2 composition, and other authors defended it and pleaded that it not be quickly discarded in favor of an even newer trend (English for Academic Purposes). Today, product/process/EAP approaches co-exist in SLW, often in the same program and even in the same class or textbook. It turned out that there were useful elements to the old, the new, and the even newer.

The TL/SLW standoff is a bit different from internal TESOL or SLW squabbles in that it involves, at least to some extent, scholars and ideas changing fields and crossing disciplinary boundaries, specifically those associated with rhetoric and composition entering a world that has been primarily inhabited by applied linguists. This has led to counterproductive dynamics in which the “old guard” looks suspiciously upon “the new kids in town,” who in turn try to make space for themselves by dismissing what has come before them as being out of touch, old-fashioned, and defensive. The tension is exacerbated by the differing research methodologies and the distinct epistemological traditions that writing studies and applied linguistics derive from and ascribe to (Atkinson & Ramanathan, 1995; Silva & Leki, 2004). It is not surprising, when one pauses to consider where these scholars have come from—both their personal and disciplinary histories of marginalization and their varying views of what constitutes evidence—that there might be mistrust, belligerence, and resulting hurt feelings.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. We all want the same things. We want linguistically diverse student writers to thrive in our classes and programs and beyond them. We can and should unite around the goal of helping our institutions, our colleagues, and our fields understand truths about language and language acquisition and the implications of those facts for the diverse student populations that we serve. We should unite around our advocacy for those principles of linguistic justice. Those are extremely profound and very significant commonalities. No one needs to win this battle because there is no morally right or wrong side to the fight. We should let the hurt feelings and wounded pride subside, and we should try to move forward as scholars; program and disciplinary leaders; and, most importantly, as teachers.


  • 1. In this email exchange, and at other points in this chapter, “L2” is used as shorthand for “second language”—in other words, interchangeably with “SLW” for “second language writing.”
  • 2. In this email exchange, and at other points in this chapter, “L2” is used as shorthand for “second language”—in other words, interchangeably with “SLW” for “second language writing.”


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