The complexity and variability of the development of writing in a second language have motivated extensive theoretical and empirical research of relevance for language learning and teaching. Whereas there is abundant evidence about what develops in writing (e.g., linguistic aspects in texts, writing strategies, processes, and motivation) and why it develops (e.g., learner maturation, instruction, feedback), comparatively less is known about how writing development occurs. Understanding how learners of English as a second/foreign language (ESL/EFL) develop their writing skills has grown in interest given the dominance of English as the current leading language for academic and non-academic communication.
The present study investigates EFL learners' writing development in a foreign languages pre-service teacher education programme at a Colombian university. Drawing on the extensive body of ESL/EFL writing literature that has examined the complexity of writing development from distinct yet rather isolated angles and theoretical traditions, this study adopted a multi-lensed approach to investigate writing development as a writer-text-context compound.
Methodologically, the study responds to calls for counterbalancing the partiality for quantitative cross-sectional studies of academic texts of groups of writers in EFL writing development research. Thus, it adopts a mixed-methods approach that investigated the participants' writing development over a 16-week academic semester. The quantitative phase examined writing development differences in groups from three curricular stages of the programme (initial = 31; middle = 29; final = 40; N=100) through a non-academic writing task and a questionnaire. The qualitative phase examined the developmental trajectories and the factors affecting the writing development of six individual learners (three higher scorers and three lower scorers selected from the three curricular stages) using interviews and six texts produced by each participant over the semester. Three independent raters evaluated the texts in the two phases of the study using a rubric developed for this study to reflect the comprehensive view of writing by including text-, writer-, and reader-related writing dimensions. The interviews and questionnaires provided data about writing development that cannot be seen in the texts. Email letters were chosen as a representative non-academic genre used by ESL/EFL learners in the context examined and globally.
The findings showed significant differences across the groups. They revealed various developmental trajectories across the various writing dimensions and individual writers, associated with long- and short-term factors influencing EFL writing development. These findings cast light on what develops, why it develops, and how development occurs at both group and individual levels in an EFL situation. It was found that writing progress is limited but significant, nonlinear, and resulting from an interplay between contextual and individual
characteristics (e.g., L1, family, instruction, personality, motivation, proficiency, and age). It
was also found that writing development is also linked to interactions between writing facets (e.g., content, task, genre, language, authorial voice, audience awareness, language, readability, writing situation) in a way that resembles a self-organising system (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008a).
While the present study was exploratory, the comprehensive view adopted provides a better
understanding of writing development to inform EFL writing research, teaching, and
assessment. The complexity and variability of writing development remind L2 writing
researchers, teachers, and evaluators that, as the writing progress is not linear, having times in which there is no evidence of progress, or and at times, apparent regression, caution is needed in the evaluation of EFL learners' writing proficiency.