Writing Strategies: Differences In L1 And L2 Writing

Author: Sophie Beare


This paper aims to: explore writing strategies in bilingual writers; compare first and second language writing strategies; discuss the results of the study and its implications in teaching second language writing.

This article was added to our website on 18/12/02 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

Table of contents


This paper was originally presented at the Setting the Agenda: Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies in Higher Education conference, 24-26 June 2002.


Recent research into the writing process of second language writers has produced a range of different conclusions. In particular, research done in the last decade in Canada, Iceland, Japan, and USA indicates two different views:

  • Position One: The composing process in first language (L1) is different from the composing process in second language (L2) (Silva 1993).
  • Position Two: Writers transfer their writing strategies from their first to their second language provided they possess second language grammatical proficiency (Berman 1994). Moreover, L2 writing strategies are similar to L1 writing strategies (Matsumoto 1995).

My own research (Beare 2000) done with L2 proficient writers indicates that proficient bilingual (English/Spanish) writers use similar writing strategies in L1 and L2.

Summary of the recent research on differences and similarities in L1 and L2 writing


Silva (1993) conducted empirical research to examine L1 and L2 writing. The subjects involved in his research came from a variety of backgrounds. At least 27 different L1 were represented. The subjects were undergraduate college students in US who had advanced levels of English proficiency and exhibited a wide range of levels of writing ability. Silva points out that his research showed that writers asked to perform in L1 and L2 devoted more attention to generating material in L2 than in L1 and found content generation in L2 more difficult and less successful. Much of the materials generated in L2 were not used in the students' written text (Silva 1993: 661). In addition, Silva found that writers did less planning, at the global and local levels. Global level means the writer is dealing with the topic area from a variety of perspectives. Local level means the writer is dealing with her syntactic and lexical options in the context of her own written text. According to Silva (1993) L2 writers did less goal setting and had more difficulty organizing generated material (the same writers did not have this problem in L1). In general, adult L2 writing was less effective than L1 writing. In terms of lower level concerns, L2 writing was stylistically different and simpler in structure.


Berman (1994) found in researching 126 secondary school students in Iceland, studying English as a foreign language (EFL), that 'many learners transfer their writing skills between languages, and their success in doing so is assisted by the grammatical proficiency in the target language' (Berman 29). Berman used an experimental approach where the subjects were divided into three groups and each group either received L1 essay writing instruction or L2 essay writing instruction or no instruction. The pre- and post-test essay organization and grammatical proficiency scores were analyzed. Berman's results indicate learners' transfer of writing skills from their L1(Icelandic) to L2 (English) and the transfer depends on their English grammatical proficiency; he cautions that we must be careful not to generalize findings made in the second language context to the foreign language classroom, for example, expecting that transfer of academic skills 'will occur' (Berman 39).

Matsumoto's (1995) research in Japan showed that professional EFL writers use strategies similar to those used by skilled native English speakers. The researcher interviewed four Japanese university professors on their processes and strategies for writing a research paper in English as a foreign language (EFL). The subjects were researchers who held degrees in the humanities from American universities and had published articles in both English and Japanese. All of her subjects started learning EFL at the age of 13. Results of her study revealed that these writers followed the same process and used the same strategies across L1 and L2 writing (Matsumoto 22).
An interesting finding in her study shows that none of the interviewed professors reported incorporating L1-to-L2 translation into his (they were all males) research paper writing processes, that is, write in Japanese first and then translate the text into English. Moreover, professors' views on writing in L1/L2 and writing in general were similar. Matsumoto suggests that 'as pointed out by one of the professors interviewed, there must exist something fundamentally common to any act of writing, regardless of the language, that is, something non-linguistic, but cognitive-strategic that helps writers to meet the goal of producing effective and cohesive writing' (Matsumoto 25).

Writing strategies in L1 and L2 (Beare's 2000 study)

My own study (Beare 2000) indicated similarities in writing strategies of L1 and L2 with some minor differences between the native English speakers and native Spanish speakers shown in the research data.


The subjects of this study were eight proficient writers in both English and Spanish. Four subjects were L1 speakers of Spanish whose English was a second language and the other four were L1 speakers of English whose Spanish was a second language. All subjects did their primary and secondary education in their first language and started learning their L2 in secondary school. All subjects did all or some of their university education in their second language. Also, they worked and lived in bilingual environments where English and Spanish were used.

The research was guided by two questions:

  • What writing strategies are used in facilitating content generating and planning during writing by proficient bilingual writers?
  • Are the writing strategies in L1 writing different from L2 writing in the context of content generating and planning?

To provide an overall idea about their writing strategies in L1 and L2, the subjects were interviewed before and after their two writing sessions. They were required to write two essays: one in their first and one in their second language. The time given for each session was two hours. Think-aloud protocols were used during the writing sessions.

Results and analysis

The transcripts from the think-aloud protocols were analyzed. First, the utterances were colour-coded according to what the subject was saying. The categories for planning were based on a modified Haas' (1989) model. If the subject said, 'How do I develop this idea?' - the statement was classified as conceptual planning. If the subject said, 'How do I say that?' - the statement was classified as rhetorical planning.

In answer to the first research question, it was found in content generating that the strategies used were writing drafts, brainstorming, rereading, asking the researcher a question, using the topic, using both languages interchangeably.

In answer to the second research question, it was found that conceptual planning strategies in native English speakers' writing were higher in L1 (19%) than L2 (8%) and the reverse was true for native Spanish speakers' writing (L1 - 24% and L2 34%). In process planning (when writers try to keep on task) results were slightly higher in L1 than L2 for native English speakers and consistent in L1 and L2 for native Spanish speakers. Rhetorical planning strategies of native English speakers were similar in L1 and L2, but native Spanish speakers spent more time on L1 than L2.

Moreover, the writing process used by these bilingual (English/Spanish) writers fits the knowledge-transforming model (Bereiter and Scardamalia 1987) for both their first and second language as shown in fig.1 below. Bilingual writers are defined in this study as speakers/writers who are proficient equally well in their first and second languages, in a work environment and in social situations. These writers wrote in both languages in their work place. Also, they were considered bilingual by their employers. In addition, they were given a test in L2 writing before they could join the study. The score required for the study was Band 9 (British Council ELTS Test). They all had that score.

Figure 1

One of the participants' beginning pages of think-aloud transcription.

L1 (English) L2 (translated)  
Reads the topic Reading the topic (Problem Analysis)
'I have to read it again' Rereading the topic (Problem Analysis)
'I can't think in these terms' 'Okay no problem' (Problem Analysis)
'I think Canada is unique' 'First it would definitely be gender' (Content Knowledge)
'I think of cultural differences' 'In English we don't have genders' (Content Knowledge)
'I can argue that as a...How do I say this?' 'I can't remember how to say this' (Rhetorical Problem)
'Scrap that' 'I will have to look it up' (Problem Analysis)
'history...history... Okay historical motivation' 'I always get interested in the words I look up'

(Rhetorical Problem)
(Content Problem)

'Okay, back up here' Rereads the topic (Problem Analysis)
'Canada...with the Spanish society' 'Other people have difficulties in...' (Content Problem)
'that doesn't make sense' 'What do you call that?' (Rhetorical Problem)


First, the findings of this study confirm Matsumoto's results that proficient bilingual writers use the same strategies in L2 as in L1 writing. In Matsumoto's study and my study the subjects were fully bilingual so that they cannot be considered second language learners.

Next, the findings also confirm Berman's views: writers transfer their skills from L1 to L2, illustrating that the writer's thoughts are 'not tied to a particular language but are transferable across languages' (Berman 1994: 30), provided, of course, that writers are proficient in their second language.

Subjects' perception of their writing processes may not be correct (Torrance 1996). During the interview, the subjects were concerned about their grammatical correctness in their L2 and with the writing style in both L1 and L2. However, the research data did not indicate these differences. Rather the similarities were evident. The differences, if any, were noted between the two groups (native English speakers and native Spanish speakers). The differences may be explained by the differences in how writing is taught in schools. Native Spanish speakers completed their secondary education in their native countries and native English speakers completed their secondary education in Canada.

Although there are similarities between L1 and L2 writing strategies used by the same individual, there are noticeable variations between individuals. These variations are perhaps based on several factors (Beare and Bourdages, forthcoming). They may be caused by 'variations in ordering of rules in the production system that is essentially common to all writers' (Torrance 1996: 285). Torrance gives the second reason as that of a more fundamental individual difference as in Galbraith (1992) study. Another reason given is a difference in 'writers' perceptions that are self reported by writers when questioned by researchers' or a difference that is 'fundamental to the individual process that is more of a function of the tasks the writer performs' (Torrance 1996: 285).

Finally, the study poses the following question: what are the implications for learners and teachers of a second language? With high proficiency levels in L2, the learners may transfer their writing strategies as evident in this study. But for students at lower proficiency levels, the teachers may need to help them with their second language writing skills in order to transfer their skills from their first language.

Cumming (1989) points out that as proficiency in the language improves, the writer 'becomes better able to perform in writing in his/her second language, producing more effective texts.' (Cumming 1989: 118) Thus, if writers are highly proficient in their second language, especially knowledgeable about the rhetorical structure in their second language, and experienced in writing in their first language, the transfer of skills may be expected. Proficient writers do not translate from L1 to L2 (Matsumoto 1995). 'It is conceivable that whatever thought a writer generates before writing can be expressed in a variety of ways not tied to a particular language. It would follow that, to the extent that thoughts are transferable across languages, people should be able to apply the skills and knowledge that they have acquired in their first language writing to their L2 writing' (Berman 1994: 30).

In conclusion, the above findings of the described research are applicable to the language groups under enquiry. Caution must be taken when one applies the findings to the second language learners who are still in process of learning and may not possess full proficiency of the second language; therefore, the expectancies of transfer of skills have to be modified depending on the context.


Beare, S. (2000). Differences in Content Generating and Planning Processes of Adult L1 and L2 Proficient Writers. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Ottawa, Canada.

Beare, S. & J.S. Bourdages, (forthcoming). Writing Strategies: Differences in L1 and L2 in Proficient Writers. In preparation for Rijlaarsdam, G. general editor of Writing Series, Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Berman, R. (1994). Learner's transfer of writing skills between languages. TESL Canada Journal 12 (1): 29-46.

Bereiter, C. & M. Scardamalia (1987). The psychology of written composition. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Assistant Publishers

Cumming, A. (1989). Writing Expertise and Second Language Proficiency. Language Learning. 39 (1): 81-141.

Galbraith, D. (1992). Conditions for discovery through writing. Instructional Science, 21: 45 -72. Reprinted in M. Sharples (ed.) Computers in Writing: Issues and Implementation. Dordrecht: Kluwer Associates

Haas, C. (1989). How the writing medium shapes the writing process: Effects of word processing on planning. Research in the Teaching of English. 23: 181-207.

Matsumoto, K. (1995). Research paper writing strategies of professional Japanese EFL Writers. TESL Canada Journal, 13 (1): 17-27.

Silva, T. (1993). Toward and Understanding of the Distinct Nature of L2 Writing. TESOL Quarterly, 27(4): 657-677.

Torrance, M. (1996). Strategies for familiar writing tasks: case studies of undergraduates writing essays. In Rijlaarsdam,G., van den Bergh, H., Couzijn, M. (eds). Theories, Models and Methodology in Writing Research. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 283-298.