An Updated Take on the Ethical Treatment of L2 writers

Earlier this month, I offered a throwback research bite by discussing Silva’s (1997) article that called for the ethical treatment of L2 writers and writing. This piece has always spoken to me as a professional and as an L2 writing specialist. So, you can imagine the inhuman squeal of delight when I learned that this article had received an update on its 20th anniversary.

Thanks to some critical distance, the update hits just as hard and is just as relevant as the original. This distance comes from both the elapsed time and the fact that it was written by two L2 writing specialists who were critically reflecting on Silva’s work in relation to their own practice. This critical reflection was fueled by an understanding of a field that has moved past the nascent moments of its birth into a maturing, global on. In many ways, the update extends the relevance of the original and grounds it more firmly in an emerging tradition of activist approaches to writing program administration a la Linda Adler-Kassner (2008). Below are a few key takeaways from Tardy and Whittig’s (2017) update on the ethical treatment of L2 writers.

  1. We must move beyond the simple categorization of L2 writers and writing, relying on something other than passport or visa status to make placement decisions.
  2. We must work to align instruction and evaluation better so that what we teach in classes actually prepares students for summative and formative assessments that they will face in the university.
  3. We must be prepared to act as advocates for L2 writers to prevent the university from continuing to marginalize this population and their multilingual abilities.


Tardy and Whittig (2017) set out to update Silva (1997) and to renew the call to advocate for the ethical treatment of L2 writers and the products that they produce. They began by outlining philosophical stances on ethics and morality and by pointing out that ethics are locally construed. Therefore, numerous ethical dilemmas come with trying to advocate for the ethical treatment of multilingual student populations. They argued that the first step in the appropriate and ethical treatment of the multilingual student population is to ensure that we, as professionals, and our colleagues who work with them really understand the uniqueness of this group. This often requires us to work to raise awareness about the non-linear nature of language acquisition and how differing rhetorical and linguistic traditions may influence the process of composing academic, technical, and professional writing.

They then moved on to extend and update many of Silva’s original points. Regarding instruction, they renewed the call to ensure that L2 writers are given instruction that is appropriate to their educational and linguistic needs. They pointed out that this is complicated by traditional approaches to viewing international students as a monolithic population with similar educational requirements. Tardy and Whittig (2017) argued that we must trouble these perceptions by highlighting the nuance and difference that exists in this community. Regarding appropriate instruction, they made many actionable recommendations. For example, they reminded the reader that multilingual writers often pull on a variety of linguistic, cultural, and rhetorical resources when composing and revising their work. This means that our instruction should attempt to help these students to leverage this excess of skills better.

Tardy and Whittig (2017) concluded by first reexamining issues of assessment and then injecting a new concern into the discussion—the need to act as an advocate. Regarding assessment, they highlighted the need to address local concerns in the assessment process. That is, standardized, one-size fits all approaches may disadvantage many L2 writers. Moreover, standardized assessments raise the issue of alignment between instruction and assessment—a fraught point to be sure. If we teach to the test, then we begin stripping away teacher agency and raise the specter of deprofessionalization for the field of L2 writing. However, Tardy and Whittig (2017) pointed out that to meet our ethical imperative, we must necessarily seek alignment between what and how we teach and how the students will eventually be assessed by other. They concluded by calling on all L2 writing specialists to be prepared to advocate for L2 writers and their multilingual products. Specifically, they advised that educators (and administrators) must be ready to take a stand for L2 writers to have access to resources that will scaffold their L2 literacy acquisition and university success; that we must be prepared to provide a voice for these students by speaking on their behalf; and, by directly challenging institutionalized forces of marginalization.

Closing Comments

Those that know me know that I’m an aggressive, and somewhat unprofessional, reader—one prone to florid marginal notes. This was the first article that I’ve read in years where I’ve felt the need to put an overly enthusiastic and cheerful appellation in the margins. Next to their comments about advocating for students, in big blue letters and six exclamation points, I wrote “YAS QWEEN!!!!!!”—a turn of phrase used by hip youth to show a strong positive reaction or agreement. So, you can probably imagine that if I simply insisted you go out and read Silva (1997), I must do the same for Tardy and Whittig’s (2017) update. It is as potent as the original and with the benefits of 20 years of development in the field of L2 writing.


Adler-Kassner, L. (2008). The Activist WPA: Changing Stories about Writing and Writers. Boulder, CO: University of Colordo Press.

Silva, T. (1997). On the ethical treatment of ESL writers. TESOL Quarterly, 31(2), 359-353.

Tardy, C. M., & Whittig, E. (2017). On the ethical treatment of EAL writers: An update. TESOL Quarterly. 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.

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