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An alternative evaluative approach for L2/FL composition textbooks. (Language Teaching & Learning).


This article proposes an alternative approach for the evaluation of second/foreign language writing textbooks at all educational levels. First, theoretical and pedagogical foundations for this model are presented. The theoretical foundation is based on cognitive theories of learning and writing, while the pedagogical foundation incorporates these principles in a learner-centered teaching method referred to as Strategy-Based Instruction. Secondly, the proposed approach is described as an evaluation technique: A checklist. Finally, conclusions and recommendations are discussed.

1. Introduction

Second/foreign language evaluation has traditionally been concerned with the design of adequate instruments (such as readability formulas and checklists) to evaluate curriculum materials. However, such procedures have been the subject of numerous criticisms that state their superficiality and inappropriateness for textbook evaluation (Besser, Stone & Nan, 1999; Chambliss, 1994; Chambliss & Calfee, 1989). The main problem lies in the fact that these evaluative methods usually disregard the type of book being used. In other words, science, math, social studies and second language writing textbooks, among others, have been evaluated under the same scope or by a one-size-fits-all procedure. In the case of second language writing, the author believes that a sound evaluative approach may be derived from pedagogical views that rely on cognitive theories of foreign language learning and writing as both a process and a product, and on a learner-centered language teaching method. In this article, such an alternative approach for the evaluation of second/foreign language composition textbooks is described. First, the theoretical and pedagogical principles of this model are defined. In second place, the proposed approach is illustrated as a possible assessment procedure: A checklist. Finally, conclusions and recommendations are discussed. In this article, second and foreign language are referred to as L2.

2. Theoretical Foundation

The theoretical foundation of this model is based on Hayes (1996) views on writing, known perspectives on a process/product writing approaches, research on differences between first language (L1) and L2 writing processes and cognitive theory of language learning. First, writing is viewed as a communicative, generative and intellectual activity requiring a social context and medium, motivation and cognitive processes (Hayes, 1996). These same processes are characterized by three primary functions: Reflection, text production and text interpretation (1996). Reflection refers to what was formerly defined as the planning process. Some sample processes included are: Problem-solving, decision-making, and inferencing (1996). Text production refers to what was formerly defined as translating or the actual production of written, spoken or graphic outcomes (1996, p. 13). Text-interpretation refers to what was formerly defined as the reviewing process and may, for instance involve reading, listening and scanning graphics (p. 13). These processes are very important because writers generate and organize ideas, do the actual writing and revise their texts either conscious or unconsciously.

Another component to be added is the consideration that L2 writing instruction should include a combination of both process and product approaches because L2 writing can simultaneously be viewed as a "meaning-driven" and as a "text-driven" task (Sanou 1992, p. 157) where both process and product are equally relevant.

It is also important to take into account the differences between the L1 and L2 writing processes. For example, Silva (1993) reports that L2 composing is more difficult and not very effective, with more differences in the cognitive functions of reflection, text production and interpretation, such as less planning, more laborious transcribing and less reviewing by L2 writers. In other words, second language writing is "strategically, rhetorically and linguistically different from L1 writing" (1993, p.669) and the strategies used in the functions of reflection, text-production and text-interpretation differ from L1 to L2 (Mitchell, 1996; Ferris and Hedgecock, 1998).

The last theoretical consideration views L2 learning as a process of cognitive skill acquisition and development. As L2 learners become more proficient in their language skills, their ability to simplify, unify, modify or organize cognitive representations improves through the application of diverse procedures, or learning strategies (McLaughlin, 1987). This theoretical framework is of interest because by considering L2 acquisition as a cognitive skill, language learning ability can be described so that the application and use of learning strategies in L2 instruction can be included (O'Malley & Chamot, 1990, p. 19).

These learning strategies are "the steps or actions consciously selected by learners" in order to improve their learning or the use of the target language (Cohen, 1998, p. 5). In this methodology, learning strategies are classified into four categories: cognitive (e.g., summarizing, outlining, grouping), metacognitive (e.g., planning, monitoring, and reflecting), social (e.g., cooperating with others/peer-editing, asking for clarification) and affective (e.g., using relaxation techniques, encouraging one's work) (see Weaver & Cohen, 1997).

Why are these strategies important for L2 writing? Because the application of different learning strategies in the different stages of the L2 writing process brings about a series of events that may affect both the cognitive functions and the writing outcome. If student/writers are made aware of how and when to apply appropriate learning strategies, then their writing process will be less difficult, more self-directed and targeted to obtain better writing products. For example, several studies (Wenden, 1991; Johnson, 1992; Aziz, 1995)have demonstrated that the application of these strategies helped in the writing process and its outcome. In the case of foreign language writing, Aziz (1995) found that when foreign language students combined both metacognitive and cognitive strategies, the quality of their grammar increased in their French compositions. Based on these theoretical considerations, the pedagogical base of the proposed methodology establishes the development of cognitive writing functions and linguistic features of the target language through a process/product approach to L2 writing which is aided by the explicit instruction of learning strategies. This pedagogical basis is discussed in the next section.

3. Pedagogical Foundation

The pedagogical basis of the proposed model considers the inclusion of cognitive functions (reflection, text-production and interpretation), learning strategies, linguistic features and process/product-oriented approaches as key aspects in L2 writing instruction as they embrace and condition the writing process and its outcome. Also, this model considers that L2 writing instruction should include strategy training where students are taught how and when to use reading and writing strategies successfully. One way to achieve this goal is through a learner-centered teaching approach, Strategies-Based Instruction (SBI) (see Weaver & Cohen, 1997). This approach promotes explicit strategy-training and continuous reinforcement of these strategies in the L2 classroom (Cohen, 1998). The goal of this language teaching approach is to help L2 students become aware of: 1) how they can learn most effectively, 2) how they can enhance their own comprehension production of the target language and 3) how they can continue to learn on their own and communicate in the target language after they leave the classroom (Cohen, 1998, p.82). Having broadened current views on writing, learning, and teaching, now a method for the evaluation of L2 writing textbooks which reflects these principles can be presented. This assessment approach is discussed in the next section.

4. The evaluation method

This approach integrates the cognitive views of learning and writing with the pedagogical foundation of Strategy-Based Instruction (SBI). Specifically, L2 writing textbooks are evaluated according to the following features: cognitive writing functions, learning strategies, linguistic features, and writing approaches. In practice, this method is implemented as a pedagogical checklist procedure which includes second language acquisition (SLA) and L2 writing components from an SBI perspective. Unlike former checklists (Chambliss & Calfee, 1989), this new technique addresses specific writing processes and features. Depending upon the curriculum or specific objectives, this checklist can be used in combination with other questions or just by itself. An example of such a checklist procedure is presented in the Appendix. It comprises a set of seventeen statements which can be answered according to two weighting scales with regard to the textbook under analysis. For this purpose, we have used Skierso's (1991, p. 441) evaluation system according to which statements are weighed in order to indicate either by number or letter (grade) which elements are required, which are beneficial and which are not applicable. The suggested rating scales are as shown in Tables 1 and 2. See <>.

The evaluator could use either form of assessment or if he/she grades the items by number, these could then be multiplied by the rating for a more comprehensive assessment (1991, p.441). Seen more closely, the first set of statements of the checklist are designed to probe the presence of cognitive writing functions. The second set of statements looks into the type of writing approach (e.g., guided composition or process/product) used in the textbook. Then, the statements consider whether the cognitive, metacognitive, social and affective strategies are applied. Finally, the next set of statements takes into account the inclusion of morphosyntactic, lexical, cultural, and discourse features. Then, the last two sets of statements consider the inclusion of diverse learning strategies and the teaching approach used, i.e., how it comforms to SBI principles.

The checklist is flexible, allowing the addition of statements related to the goals for each specific writing class or the writing level of a given course. The two main contributions of this suggested checklist over others are: 1) the inclusion of language learning and L2 writing components from a cognitive perspective and 2) the inclusion of learning strategies and their training as an essential component in L2 writing textbooks, which can help both instructors and students. In the first case, it serves as a teaching aid and in the second case, it guides students' learning and writing processes, thus enabling them to become more independent learner/writers.

5. Limitations

Although the presented assessment procedure aims to select the best possible writing textbook, this method does not include all aspects of the learning process as evaluation variables. In other words, when selecting a textbook, teachers should also consider students' characteristics and needs (e.g. motivation, age, gender, cognitive style, previous language background, strengths and weaknesses of these students, and proficiency levels among other areas), classroom environment, curriculum objectives, the school and their own teaching style as essential elements of their assessment and selection. The proposed method is meant to be a complementary or optional guideline which can be expanded and adapted to specific course objectives and needs.

6. Implications and conclusions

In this article, an optional assessment method for the evaluation of L2 writing textbooks has been described. This article suggests that an appropriate L2 evaluative approach should be the result of a comprehensive pedagogical process, which in turn is supported by solid research on L2 learning and writing. In this case, the proposed approach is derived from cognitive theories of language learning and L2 writing, and SBI instruction methodology. First, the cognitive functions are viewed as the starting point that regulates all activities. Second, the inclusion of learning strategies and their training addresses the differences found between individual learners within the classroom. Third, by developing linguistic features in the L2 writing class, the writing process becomes an amalgam of a process/product continuum where both outcomes are equally important.

As a conclusion, this article suggests that L2 writing instruction and evaluation should include these aspects in order to give students more tools in their learning/writing processes. As a result, the relationship between learner/writer and curriculum materials will become more interactive and communicative. Moreover, these materials will show "vividness" and "liveliness" (Graves, Pren, Earle, Thompson, Johnson & Slater, 1991) because students will react to and with these texts in different classroom assignments. In particular, if L2 writing instruction and textbook content incorporate strategy training, then L2 writing will be less difficult and more enjoyable for the students. Learners will be able to apply these strategies, regulate their learning process and obtain better writing outcomes.


Aziz, L. (1995). A model of paired cognitive and metacognitive strategies: Its effect on second language grammar and writing. Dissertation Abstracts International, 56(5), 1637-8A.

Besser, D., Stone, G., & Nan, L. (1999). Textbook and teaching a lesson from students. Journalism and Mass Communication Educator, 53 (4), 4-17.

Chambliss, M. (1994). Evaluating the quality of textbooks for diverse learners. Remedial and Special Education, 15(4), 348-362.

Chambliss, M., & Calfee, R. (1989). Designing science textbooks to enhance student understanding. Educational Psychologist, 24(3), 307-322.

Cohen, A. (1998). Strategies in learning and using a second language. New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.

Ferris, D. & Hedgcock, J. (1998). Teaching ESL composition: Purpose, process and practice. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Graves, M., Prenn, M, Earle, J., Johnson, V., & Slater, W. (1991). Improving instructional text: Some lessons learned. Reading Research Quarterly, 26(1-2), 110-122.

Hayes, J. (1996). A new framework for understanding cognition and affect in writing. In C. Michael Levy and Sarah Ransdell (Ed.), The science of writing (pp. 1-28), Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erbaum Associates.

Johnson, K. (1992). Cognitive strategies and second language writers: A reevaluation of sentence combining. Journal of Second Language Writing, 1(1), 61-75.

Mitchell Scott, V. (1996). Rethinking foreign language writing. Boston, MA: Heinle and Heinle Publishers. O'Malley, J. M., & Chamot A. (1990). Learning strategies in second language acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sanou, S. J. (1992). Composing in French as a foreign language: Case studies of four advanced graduate students' constraints accomodation strategies. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Minnesota.

Silva, T. (1993). Toward an understanding of the distinct nature of second language writing: The ESL research and its implications. TESOL Quartely, 27, 657-677.

Skierso, A. (1991). Textbook selection and evaluation. In M. Celce-Murcia (Ed.), Teaching English as a second or foreign language (pp. 432-453). Boston, MA: Heinle and Heinle Publishers.

Weaver, S. & Cohen, A. (1997). Strategy-Based Instruction. A teacher's training manual. Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition. (CARLA). Working Paper Series No. 7.

Dr. Cuhat, a former EFL teacher, works as an Assistant Professor of Spanish. Her research interests involve second language acquisition/learning and L2 writing.
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Author:Olivares-Cuhat, Gabriela
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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