Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 3 : 4 April 2003

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.




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Copyright © 2001
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Exploring the Strategies Used by Second and Foreign Language Learners of English

Shagufta Imtiaz, Ph. D.


This paper aims at exploring the strategies used by Second and Foreign Language Learners of English in composing. The process of second language writing cannot be assumed to be identical as that in the first language. Learners may or may not approach a writing task in the same way as they do in their mother tongue. Moreover, the second language and foreign language learners of English also may differ from one another with regard to the strategies they adopt in mastering writing in their target language. The act of writing is decidedly a cognitive process, and the steps involved in this cognitive process may be identified when we compare the strategies used by Second and Foreign Language Learners of English in composing.


Scholars of written composition have challenged the linear stage conceptions of writing. They argue that the act of composing involves so many processes that its traces are not evident in written products. For them writing remains a complex phenomenon involving the interaction between the reader and the writer. This has been the focus of contrastive rhetoric and cross cultural second language processing. It takes into account what the second language writers bring into the writing situation. The cultural models that the writers bring are knowledge of text structures, topics and compositional procedures.


The challenges to linear stage conceptions of writing have led to advances in knowledge of composing. Composing is viewed as knowledge/thinking problem and is seen as a cognitive process. Research during 1970s and 1980s focused on the mental states of writers, their problem solving strategies, decisions about audience, language use and composing processes. In first language writing one of the pioneering works was by Emig (1971) titled The Composing Processes of Twelfth Graders, which shifted the emphasis from product to process and used think-aloud protocols of writers as data. She argued that the central concern of writing teachers should be composing processes rather than texts. The writing processes of a few high school students were audio taped and analyzed by her.


Another important work contributed in this area is of Flower and Hayes (1981) from the angle of think-aloud protocol, examining the college level writers in the act of writing. Flower and Hayes identify composing as a complex problem-solving activity, responding to a rhetorical situation in the form of a text. Their work, largely known as cognitive process model, represents the internal process of the writer's mind and looks at composing as a complex problem-solving activity. This model, according to Scarmadalia and Bereiter (1986), " . . . appears to do what it is supposed to do, which is to serve as a frame for working out more detailed and possibly more controversial accounts of how the mind copes with writing tasks."

A Recursive Process

Subsequent scholars of written composition have supported the contention of Flower and Hayes' cognitive process model of writing. Their research has demonstrated that writing, far from being a linear process, is a recursive process. The recursiveness in writing makes writing a process, which is continuously evolving, rejecting ideas, which may not be important, and thereby making it a dynamic process of composition. Composing involves plans and processes, which the writer brings to bear on the writing process.


The rediscovery of process has become so important that Kuhn's (1962) concept of paradigm shift in scientific field is regularly invoked for looking into the cognitive processes in writing. Even the teaching of ESL writers has undergone a shift from the product-oriented approach to a process oriented approach. Traditionalists believed that if model texts were given to students they would automatically be inculcated in qualities of good writing.

Scholars, who were protagonists of process-oriented approach, attempted to view how competent writers write, and they concluded that writing was a recursive and generative process. This process approach, which appears to be gaining ground, draws on disciplines like cognitive psychology. Theories in reading too, by people like Robert Anderson, David Rumelhart, Robert Schank, and Robert Abelson focus on readers as meaning makers and seek to establish a connection, between reading, response to literature and composing.

Prior to the work in schema theoretic approaches to comprehension, researchers viewed reading as an act of retrieving information with little consideration to the reader as meaning maker. In fact, one of the best ways to unravel their transactions is writing about reading. This is derived from heuristic, which is used widely in philosophy, psychoanalysis, and in psychological inquiry.


This need for a process-oriented research has begun to be recognized in the ESOL community. Cohen and Hosenfield (1981) have urged professionals in ESL to collect process-oriented descriptions of what second language learners do before deciding what learners need to learn. There have been two ways of obtaining process-oriented descriptions. One is retrospective which is obtained after the reading task is completed and the other is introspective which is obtained during reading. Retrospective reports, however, do not reveal why readers fail to understand or how they process a text. Introspective reports provide a direct view of the reading process.

One method that has been propounded here is the prewriting technique (Spack 1984), which encourages the student to say something. Spack further says that students should be taught to write down their ideas quickly without being concerned about surface errors and form. Matters of correctness and form need to be left for the revision and editing stage (Flower 1985).


Very little response has been given to teachers' response of their students' writing. Teachers view students writing as products to be judged and evaluated. Their responses do not take into account the writer's intention and the actual playing out of that intention in the process of composing (Rose 1983). Teachers remain concerned with accuracy and error identification. Error identification appears to be ingrained in the habitual practices of second language teachers who perhaps by reason of perceiving their role solely as instructor of formal aspects of "language", restrict their activities to operations exclusively within the domain of formal training rather than that of cognitive development (Cumming 1983).


The process of second language writing cannot be assumed to be identical as that in the first language. Learners may or may not approach a writing task in the same way as they do in their mother tongue.

Earlier L2 studies had been concerned with trying to grasp the nature of L2 composing process. It was only later that L2 researches focused their attention on specific composing behaviours, types of L2 writers and significant features which patterned the behaviour of the writers.


Keeping in view the process approach to writing the present paper attempts at finding out the differences in composing between an EFL and ESL learner and also proposes to study the different stages in the writing process of ESL and EFL students with a view to:

  1. Exploring whether thinking preceded writing and whether changes were being made while writing.
  2. Finding out about the pauses during writing and the reasons for it.
  3. Finding out the points highlighted in the process of rewriting the text, and
  4. Looking into similarities and differences in their writing strategies.


Our respondents comprised both the ESL and EFL learners. There were in total 48 subjects taken up in this study which were equally divided into two groups - ESL and EFL. Of the 24 subjects falling in the ESL group, 12 were males and the other 12 were females. Similarly, the EFL subjects were equally divided into two halves on the basis of gender.

The ESL learners were undergraduates belonging to different parts of India and enrolled in B.A and B.Sc. courses offered in Aligarh Muslim University.

The EFL learners were also undergraduates, who came from different countries for pursuing their studies in different arts and science streams. None of them had English as a second language. Out of a total of 24 students, 6 were from Iran, 6 from Jordan, 6 from Indonesia and 6 from Palestine. The gender ratio of the subjects belonging to five different countries, however, remained constant (1:1).

Our respondents from both the groups were initially asked to write about their country in about 2-3 paragraphs, highlighting whatever they considered important. After having finished the first draft, they were asked to write a second draft on the same topic and the changes were observed. This was followed by a questionnaire that had a number of Yes/No questions and some other questions demanding short answers. The questionnaire was designed in such a way that different strategies and techniques of writing employed in pre-writing, writing, and post-writing stages can easily be discerned in the analysis.


The analysis and interpretation of data were carried out in two parts. The first part dealt with the analysis of the questionnaire served to the ESL and the EFL subjects, while the second part dealt with analysis and interpretation of the first and second drafts of the text written by these respondents on a common topic.


When the topic for writing was given, what idea came to your mind?

When looked into the analysis of the questionnaire, it was found that both ESL and EFL respondents displayed certain similarity of pattern in their answers with regard to questions included in the Pre-Writing Stage (Stage-I), which basically revolved around the issues of thinking and writing. By and large there was consensus among them when they responded positively over the questions pertaining to pre-writing stage. However, with regard to the initial question of the pre-writing stage ('When the topic was given, did any idea of what was to be done, come to your mind?') ESL and EFL responder were different. While the responses of ESL males and females were similar, the EFL males and females quite sharply differed in their response.

How do you normally write? Was there any stop in the flow of writing?

Questions included in the During Writing and Post-Writing Stage (Stage-II) evoked both similarity and differences in the response of our subjects. When asked to respond to the question "How do you normally write?" (Q.1: Stage-II), both the categories of our respondents marked a great deal of unanimity. However, the differences appeared when it came to dealing with question regarding stop in a flow of writing or some kind of a communication breakdown during the process of writing (Q.2: Stage II). While our EFL subjects largely felt that during the process of writing there is a sudden stop in the flow (20: 4), the opinion of our ESL respondents, on the other hand, remained divided. Half of them, who were predominantly represented by the male subjects, felt that there is a stop in the flow of writing, while the other half, which had a predominance of the female subjects, felt that it was not so. Interestingly even among the EFL subjects, the male representation dominated over their female counterparts (12: 8).

Any reasons for the communication breakdown? Reason for the stop in the flow of writing?

When asked about the reasons for this communication breakdown during the process of writing (Q.3: Stage-II), a large number of EFL subjects emphatically suggested that it has been due to their lack of adequate vocabulary (18:6) and shortage of expression (17:7). The ESL subjects, on the other hand, felt that shortage of idea is mostly the reason for this handicap (22:2). The inability to generate ideas or having a shortage of idea is a factor which marked a sharp divide among the EFL subjects (12:12). Although both our male and female ESL respondents did agree that lack of adequate vocabulary is not a strong factor to reckon with (6:18), they differed in their opinion with regard to shortage of expression. While our male ESL respondents felt that this factor does contribute towards the communication breakdown during the process of writing, the other half equally responded in negative.

Other reasons for a sudden stop in the flow of writing

When further asked to identify some other reasons which can be attributed to a sudden stop in the flow of writing (Q.4: Stage-II), a large number of our EFL respondents left this question unanswered (16:8), while some of them very candidly admitted that language problem and lack of confidence have also been equally responsible for this (8:16). This has, of course, not been the case with our ESL subjects, who largely felt that more than language problem and confidence it is the lack of knowledge of subject - matter that also, at times, contributes towards communication breakdown during the process of writing. Interestingly, most of our ESL respondents (14:10) also indirectly admitted that when they stopped to think while writing, then certain "unnoticed logical contradictions in ideas" and "wrong framing of sentences leading to communication gap" between the writer and the reader became apparent and, consequently, these caused a stop in the flow of writing.

What do they mean by thinking before writing?

With regard to their understanding of the expression "thinking before writing" (Q.5: Stage-II), both our ESL and EFL respondents expressed their proper understanding of the meaning of this expression. However, some of our EFL respondents (8:16) suggested that this expression basically meant "to have a peace of mind" or "peacefulness in writing", which, they felt, was important before one indulged in writing.

Focus on the significance or suitability of the idea

There remained unanimity of opinion among the EFL and ESL respondents with regard to questions 6 and 7 from Stage-II, which revolved around the issues like what is being thought before one writes and the kinds of ideas that come to mind when topic is given. Thinking before writing among both the categories of respondents not only entails topic, organization and presentation of ideas, but also a concern to "make a good beginning (or introduction) for a better impression on the reader". In response to the question "What kinds of ideas come to your mind when the topic was given to you?" both ESL and EFL respondents agreed that besides how, why and what concerning "significance of the idea" and "suitability of expression", it also largely "depends on the topic".

The possibility of changing ideas midstream

The question dealing with the frequency of change in ideas evoked mixed reaction (Q.8: Stage-II). While a good number of ESL respondents and small representatives from ESL group felt that they do "quite often", "quite a number of times", "sometimes" or "once at least" change their ideas "depending on the topic" or their "experience related to the idea" (14:10), some ESL speakers and a large number of EFL respondents responded almost negatively thereby, suggesting that ideas are "very rarely", "not very often" or "never" changed.

What motivates changing ideas midstream?

When asked to identify or suggest the reason as to why they change their ideas (Q.9: Stage-II), both our ESL and EFL respondents equally justified their respective positions. For the defenders of CHANGE in ideas "prominence" remains a crucial reason particularly when one "wishes to highlight all aspects of the topic so that it may cover the entire range" (ESL respondents) or "when one feels like giving prominence to one idea or a thing over others" (ESL respondents) or when one wants to "highlight or give prominence to best and important things or ideas" (EFL respondent).

Why no change, or only very rare changes midstream?

The upholders of NO CHANGE or VERY RARELY CHANGE position, on the other hand, take a strong support from the expression "thinking before writing". In case of both our ESL and EFL respondents the answer with regard to the question WHY? remained common: "because thinking has already been made before writing" (ESL) or "ideas were already planned before" (EFL). Some even suggested that such an exercise leads to "sheer confusion" as "one gets confused as to which one to write first, since all the ideas are equally important". Two of our EFL subjects, however, considered their weakness in language to be the reason for not being able to change their ideas. They felt that "another better suitable expression is not available because of language problem", hence it is "not possible to change ideas". This opinion of theirs gets vindicated from their response to the questions 2-3 and 4 from Stage-I.

The question of revision

Close to the issue of change in ideas is the question of revision. Hence our respondents were pointedly asked about the items which required proper checking at the time of revision of the text or written material (Q.10: Stage-II). To this both our subjects equally agreed that all the three items listed in the questionnaire, namely, sentence structure, vocabulary, and style, demanded proper checking.

The question of rewriting

When it came to dealing with rewriting and the possibilities of bringing about changes in the same paragraph, if rewritten for the second time (Q.11: Stage-II), majority of our respondents (both ESL and EFL) accepted that they will consciously indulge in making CHANGES, while there were some from the EFL group who agreed to make "very small changes" when asked to rewrite the same paragraph. There were still some very small number of EFL respondents who decided not to respond at all ("no response") in this regard.

The question of establishing clear links between ideas

In addition to the types of responses as mentioned above (namely Changes, Partial changes, No responses at all), our respondents also considered "reshuffling of ideas by establishing clearer links between them [ideas]" with a view to either "make it homogenous and more rounded off" (ESL respondents) or adding something more (EFL respondents) or "deleting unimportant points and inserting related points" (EFL respondents) as important points that can be used in rewriting or if one were asked to rewrite the same paragraph. Both the ESL and EFL respondents unanimously felt that rewriting is important as "sometimes disjoined ideas do remain unattended" in the unrevised and/or first draft of the text or a paragraph.


In the second part of the data analysis, a comparison was made between the two drafts of the text written by the same respondent on a common topic. Both the first and the second drafts, the length of which was almost the size of a foolscap (similar to legal size) paper, were compared to look into the similarities and differences in the written-output of our respondents and also to see if there existed any difference in the use of writing techniques employed by both ESL and EFL subjects.

Commonly shared/adopted changes

A closer analysis of the text revealed that both our EFL and ESL respondents shared certain characteristics with each other in their attempt to bring about certain changes, when asked to rewrite the same paragraph. The changes made by them were either with regard to arrangement of sentence construction or with regard to addition of new words and phrases with a view to making the expression look better. Both these changes were in the style of presentation.

At times certain changes were brought in the beginning of a paragraph or a sentence starting with new factual description of an idea. Here a new set of words and phrases were introduced which were originally not used in the first draft. All these have been either for stylistic reasons or for giving a good impression to the reader. Sometimes use of emphatic expressions, for example, though, as a matter of fact, however, etc. (as part of the responses like "adding something more" of our EFL respondents), or deliberate change in the order of factual description ("deleting unimportant joints and inserting related points") can also be seen in the second drafts of both our respondents, which are basically suggestive of bringing out the "prominence' of ideas.

The problem of the synonyms

What did EFL and ESL respondents not particularly share was with regard to the use of synonyms. Almost all the second draft of the ESL subjects showed a frequent replacement of vocabulary items whereby a better appearing and more appropriate synonyms were used to replace their equivalents used in the first draft. This was, however, not been the case with the EFL subjects and a very few of them (4:20) displayed any such change.

Some EFL respondents introduce a completely a new set of information in the second draft

Interestingly, if one compares these changes with the response given by our subjects in reply to Question 11 from Stage II, one finds that, by and large, these changes vindicated their response. The close approximation between the response and the apparent changes brought about in the second draft can further be seen even in those cases where our respondents have left the answer to the question 11 either blank ("no response") or suggested that "very small changes" were brought in. The second drafts of these respondents neither showed any change in style of presentation nor in the ordering of factual description. In fact, some of the second drafts of EFL respondents were significantly different. What remained significant in these drafts was the introduction of a completely new set of information couched in a new set of language, which, in fact, is as original as the first draft.

Differences in techniques adopted

The first and second drafts of the ESL and EFL respondent were also closely compared for looking into the differences in the use of techniques of writing particularly with regard to cubing techniques employed as an invention strategy in the prewriting stage. It was found that while the first draft of most of our ESL respondents had elements of description, application and argument, their second draft, on the other hand, exhibited the use of other cubing techniques like comparison, association and analysis. This was, however, not the case with EFL subjects. Both first and second draft of most of our EFL respondents revealed the use of only description, application and argument as part of cubing techniques. There were exceptionally few EFL subjects who used other cubing techniques in their second draft as well.


The analysis of the data reveals both similarities and differences in the use of strategies employed by the ESL and the EFL learners in writing. While they shared with each other in their response to certain questions revolving around the issue of thinking and writing (Stage-I and Stage-II) or as to how does one write (Stage-II) or the kinds of ideas that come to mind when the topic is given (Stage-II) etc., they differed with each other with regard to other details involved in During Writing and Post-Writing stages.

There has also been an instance when both our respondents provided a mixed reaction in response to a question related to frequency of change in ideas. Subsequently, when they were asked to identify or suggest reasons for changing or not changing their ideas, they came up with mixed response in justification of their respective position with regard to change. What was common among the takers of NO CHANGE VIEW, which included both ESL and EFL respondents, was the strong backing of the dictum "think before you write". For they felt that they had already thought well in advance before they plunged into writing, hence there is no room left for changing ideas.

The defenders of change, on the other hand, attributed "prominence" to be the main reason. It is with a view to bringing "prominence" in ideas that both ESL and EFL respondents displayed the use of certain emphatic expression and deliberate change in the order of factual description in their second draft. The other reason considered crucial for upholding the NO CHANGE VIEW, which, however, remained exclusive to the small sample of EFL subjects, was their weakness in language.

In fact, language problem has been considered to be the reason for a sudden stop in the flow of writing. Besides language problem, "lack of confidence" has also been suggested in this regard, which, nonetheless, has its roots in language. Even the inability of the EFL respondents to replace certain words from the first draft by using the equivalent synonyms in their second draft has largely been on account of language- "lack of adequate vocabulary" and "shortage of expression" (response of the EFL respondents).

Although for the EFL subjects language may have been the factor for communication breakdown during the process of writing or inability to use the synonyms in their second draft, emergence of a completely changed second draft comprising new set of information couched in a new set of language may not be on account of language problem alone. It may be largely on account of differences in the cognitive processes in writing which has induced difference in the perception of the "rewrite" notion. What becomes evident from the second draft of some of the EFL respondents is their misplaces sense of understanding of the word "rewrite". Most of them understand the word "rewrite" in the sense of "WRITING AFRESH".

A closer analysis of the first and second draft of both ESL and EFL respondents reveals that besides the stylistic and impressionistic reasons for bringing in changes in the second draft, as suggested by both our respondents, there is also a strong factor pertaining to "consciousness in writing", which has mostly been the case of ESL subjects.

The "consciousness in writing" factor, which largely emerges from the dictum "think before you write", has prompted the ESL subjects (and a very small number of EFL subjects as well) to strike at some comparison, or establish some association with other related ideas or facts, or even analyze the stated facts. Comparison, association and analysis occur only when there is consciousness in writing. It is due to "consciousness" that proper thought is given to writing by either making it "more homogeneous, more rounded off" or letting "the sentences look more continuous" or "coherent" in order to make it look stylistically better and give a good impression to the reader.

Most of the ESL and EFL writers totally ignore the invention technique in the prewriting stage of the writing process either because they underestimate the importance of preparation or because they simply do not know how to plan to write. In fact more than these reasons, perhaps it is more so because of strong oral tradition which is being shared by both ESL and EFL respondents. The primacy given to orality over writing has deeply affected the process characteristics of writing. Thus, in spite of their claims in negative with regard to questions 1-4 from Stage-I and question 1 from Stage-II, both the ESL and EFL writers write in one go without giving a proper thought to their writing.


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Shagufta Imtiaz, Ph.D.
Women's College
Aligarh Muslim University
Presently Post-Doctoral Fellow, Central Institute of Indian Languages
Mysore 570006, India