Session W-5: (Re)Conceptualizing Online Writing Instruction: Designing and Teaching Online Academic Writing Courses for Multilingual Writers


Speakers: Dr. Tanya Tercero (Defense Security Cooperation University), Dr. Jennifer Slinkard (East Oregon University), Dr. Katie Silvester (Indiana University)

Online Writing Instruction (OWI) scholarship has argued for acknowledgement of linguistic diversity in online writing courses saying: “OWI should be designed with the assumption that diversity is always present” (Miller-Cochran, 2015, p. 293). This year’s OWI standing group workshop reminded us of this by overlapping L2 (second language) writing theories to online course contexts. Coming from writing studies and applied linguistics backgrounds, the speakers in this workshop provide important theoretical considerations for online writing instructors.

The Exigency 

Dr. Tercero begins with describing the impetus for this workshop: the creation of online writing courses for international students at the University of Arizona where all three speakers were previously graduate students. This context centers this discussion of multilingual writers as L2 international students throughout the workshop. Using institutional data collected before the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr. Tercero indicates the many online courses international L2 students take to fulfill degree requirements. Participants of the workshop suggested that these numbers indicated that students are managing many commitments, they prefer written English, and that they are already competent writers and readers of academic English. 

Figure 1: Survey results of L2 International students where they indicate how many online courses they have taken.

Dr. Tercero goes on to further describe demographics from her class where L2 international students largely took their first-year composition course after their freshman year, citing a desire to be more comfortable with their fluency in English as a second language in this delay. The presentation continued with an overview of OWI scholarship and asking participants to describe the perceived issues with OWI, the overwhelming response from workshop participants: it’s not seen as rigorous. 

Intersections of OWI and Second Language Acquisition 

Dr. Tercero continues on to describe the intersection of the issues of OWI with L2 writing instruction compounded by learning academic writing and acquiring English at the same time. They introduce Casanave’s (2017) Three Broad Categories for Decision-Making in Writing Instruction for Second Language Writers as a framework for working through this compounded issue of OWI and language acquisition. These categories, according to the presenters, transcend modality, applying to traditional, face-to-face courses and remote learning. As Dr. Tercero describes, “The point is to go through these cyclically to inform your systematic reflection and conscious choice as your teaching evolves.”

The Framework in 3 Contexts

The presenters used this framework to think through L2 writing pedagogy, program development, and considerations and added “online” to each element to stress the particular modality by first reviewing their contexts and then leading participants through work to better understand each category.

Figure 3: Incorporating “Online” into Casanave’s Framework

Beliefs and Assumptions

Figure 4: An overview of Category 1

Dr. Tercero begins the conversation by exploring the first in the framework: beliefs and assumptions. Particularly, through the application of Casanave’s theory to an OWI context led to a project to understand instructor perceptions of L1 and L2 students in their online courses as a way of better understanding course adaptation. Dr. Tercero then described findings from this project that revealed that instructors were not always considering language instruction as a core element of their online teaching and that some even felt that language instruction should not be taught online because of a difficulty in student engagement. There were also built in assumptions that students had a higher level of proficiency in English because they were enrolled in an online course. On the other hand, students reported positive experiences of their online writing courses, noting the kindness of teachers.

Relevant Issues

Figure 5: An overview of Category 2

Following the connection between these theoretical worlds, Dr. Slinkard and Dr. Silvester applied this framework to their local contexts, narrowing in on the second category of the framework: L2 writing pedagogies as they appear in OWI contexts. Dr. Slinkard reflected on assignment design, emphasizing the need for multiple prompts and choice for student assignments and assignments that do not require substantial background knowledge. The developmental course that she focussed on also used a final portfolio assessment and grade students on a Pass or No Pass basis. Particularly, her class addresses calls for more attention to dominant languages and asks students to read texts about the privileges of Standard English and the loss of indigenous dialects, among others. In intersecting with OWI, Dr. Slinkard utilizes multimodality in the delivery of course materials, including verbal feedback, video instructions with written captions, and meeting times in the students’ preferred modality: chat or Zoom.

Practical Realities

Figure 6: A partial overview of Category 3; this category also included emphasis on instructor and student needs

Finally, Dr. Silvester focussed on the third category of the framework about the practicality of teaching multilingual writing courses online. Focussing on flipping a multilingual writing program online during the pandemic, Dr. Silvester details the logistical elements of this kind of modality switch, describing placement processes, the demographic information of the students in the class and the linguistic assets they bring to the course, and the preparation of the faculty teaching in the program. In focussing on providing students with resources and language support, Dr. Silvester began by understanding student needs and then adapted the training program for teachers to meet these needs.

Framework Applications

The workshop then branched out into three different breakout rooms focussed on elements of each category of this framework. The first was about confronting and understanding beliefs and assumptions about teaching L2 students through writing a teaching philosophy. In the second, the group looked at a writing assignment and focused on the relevant teaching issues by addressing the needs of L2 students via OWI context. The third spoke to broader programmatic issues. When breakout rooms wrapped up, there was lively discussion from participants about specific logistical considerations, classroom assignments, and the use of different technological programs. Many lingered on after the completion of the workshop, seemingly indicating the need for online writing instructors to further unpack how to consider their multilingual students. Indeed, I am sure that the field could use future iterations of this kind of work, further complicating the notion of multilingual students beyond and through the lens of international students.


Casanave, C. P. (2013). Controversies in second language writing: Dilemmas and decisions in research and instruction. University of Michigan Press.

Miller-Cochran, S. (2015). Multilingual writers and OWI. Foundational practices of online writing instruction, 291-308.

About Author

Jennifer Burke Reifman

Jennifer Burke Reifman is a 4th year Education Ph.D. student at U.C. Davis with an emphasis in Writing, Rhetoric, and Composition Studies. Her research focuses on technology in the writing classroom, writing program administration, and student identity and agency. When she isn't being a graduate student and writing teacher, she spends most of her time playing with her 2-year old son, tending her backyard garden, or diving into a video game.

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