Silva’s “On the Ethical Treatment of L2 Writers”: Still Very Relevant

I began teaching second language (L2) writing courses for international students in 2009 at the University of Toledo. As part of the graduate instructor training, those of us in the MA TESL program were required to read Tony Silva’s (1997) “On the Ethical Treatment of L2 Writers.” Reading this article proved to be an important event in the formation of my teaching philosophy and my professional orientation. This article had such a profound impact on my burgeoning professional identity that it led me to eventually consider a Ph.D. at Purdue University, working under Tony Silva in their English as a second language (ESL) writing program.

Silva approached this topic with such lucidity and cogency that I was hooked on his view of the field of L2 writing. Now, as the resident L2 writing specialist at Shanghai New York University (NYU Shanghai), I share this article with any of my colleagues that come to me to discuss issues with L2 writing and writers. I readily acknowledge the linguistic and rhetorical challenges that L2 writers face. However, I also regularly see how those that have not specialized in either L2 writing, applied linguistics, or TESOL often immediately cast L2 writers as deficient, as less than. This is a view that, frankly, says more about the educator coming looking for a quick fix than it does about the student who is in need of targeted, thoughtful, and in the case of Silva (1997), ethical academic support. So, I’ll often have them read this article before we meet to attempt a shift in perspective.

I find this article so potent, even after ten years, because of the two major takeaways from the article.

  1. L2 writers come to our classes with a wide range of linguistic and rhetorical tools in their writer’s toolbox. As educators, it’s up to us to help them learn how to use those tools for academic communicative purposes in skillful ways.
  2. L2 writers have the right be treated ethically by proper placement into courses that will support their emerging multilingual skills and not cast them as deficient, or less than, their so-called native-speaking peers.

Silva (1997) discussed the need to treat L2 writing and writers ethically in higher education. He began by talking about the unique linguistic, cultural, and rhetorical backgrounds from which many L2 writers come. In doing so, he pushed back against the deficit view of L2 writers and writing by underscoring the fact that it’s not a problem of less with L2 writers, it’s a “problem” of more. They come to the classroom with more linguistic tools from which to choose, more rhetorical traditions from which to compose, and more cultural experiences from which to draw. From this view, the role of the ethical educator changes from remediation to reacclimation. That is, the educator working with L2 writers must work to help them to understand better the range of communicative options available to them and how to make appropriate linguistic and rhetorical choices that will facilitate written communication.

To address how to treat L2 writers ethically, Silva (1997) outlined four major areas where L2 writers and writing may need additional instructional or institutional support. Briefly, they are: (a) being understood, (b) being placed in appropriate learning environments, (c) being provided with proper instructional support, and (d) being fairly evaluated. Regarding the first of these, Silva argued that L2 writers have the right to be appropriately understood by the educators that will work with them. This means that higher education professionals at all levels must necessarily be adequately trained in understanding the impacts of their burgeoning multilingual abilities on tackling advanced literacy and academic tasks at the college level. This means that we must accept that L2 writers are different from their monolingual, L1 peers (externally) and that they are also very different from each other (internally). That is, there is no monolithic population of L2 writers. Instead, L2 writers are nuanced populations that each face a unique set of linguistic, rhetorical, and acculturational challenges. Silva built on this line of thought by pointing out that L2 writers have the right to be placed in appropriate learning contexts. In this case, he was speaking against the “bait and switch” of enrolling a student in a course called something like Intro to University Writing but that uses a syllabus that was more literary criticism than it was writing and rhetoric. Regarding his next point, Silva (1997) advocated for L2 writers to have access to educational professionals that have been trained in how to work with this unique population. Not providing proper training on working with L2 writers can lead to overwhelmed educators, which may further marginalize this community. Finally, he pointed to the need to evaluate L2 writers fairly. That is, educators should not expect their writing to be exactly like their monolingual, native-speaking peers. They must come to distinguish between genuine error and written accent. If we’re more than willing to accept spoken accent, we must begin also to accept a written one.

Closing Comments

If you haven’t read this piece, you must. Then, you must critically reflect on it and on your own practice. This is one of the few pieces that I have come back to every few years to reread and to reconsider. There’s a reason why this reading is so often included in graduate seminars. There’s also a reason why this piece was the target of an update on its tenth anniversary in a brilliant article written by Christine Tardy and Erin Whittig (2017), which will be discussed in my next contribution to ELT Research Bites. TL;DR: Go read Silva (1997)!


Silva, T. (1997). On the ethical treatment of ESL writers. TESOL Quarterly, 31(2), 359-363.

Tardy, C. M., & Whittig, E. (2017). On the ethical treatment of EAL writers: An update. TESOL Quarterly [The Forum], doi:10.1002/tesq.405.

Joshua M. Paiz on Twitter
Joshua M. Paiz
Lecturer at NYU Shanghai
Joshua M. Paiz holds a Ph.D. in TESOL from Purdue University and is currently a lecturer and L2 writing specialist at NYU Shanghai. His research interests include L2 writing, SLA, identity in applied linguistics, and critical issues in TESOL.

3 thoughts on “Silva’s “On the Ethical Treatment of L2 Writers”: Still Very Relevant”

  1. I’m very appreciative of this post and the various references. I’m a second-career, second-year MA TESOL student at Northern Illinois University, working with L2 writers in the university’s core freshman-comp sequence as well as our ESL Center. I tend to deemphasize structural issues and give priority to them finding their voices in the L2, which, as the post suggests, will be “accented.” Typically, I find that confidence and motivation come from being able to “translate” – without using that term – their experiences and opinions into a new tongue. Perhaps I am overaccommodating, but I’m also being honest when I say that there is much to praise in what they bring from their native lands. We’re lucky that they wish to be here.

    1. Certainly, the experiences and perspectives are fantastic. I just wish American Universities A.) provided them with adequate support to justify the extra fees they often pay, at Purdue University it was an extra 2000$ a year; and, B.) that they would be set up not just for academic success but to become leaders and to add their voice back into the system in a way that is institutionally valued.

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