EMPIRICAL RESEARCH ON SECOND LANGUAGE WRITING IN CHINA: A THEORETICAL, METHODOLOGICAL, AND PHILOSOPHICAL ANALYSIS
Second language (L2) writing teaching and research in China have enjoyed a rich history and have had remarkable achievements. However, the extensive L2 writing literature created in China has not yet been analyzed comprehensively from theoretical, methodological, and philosophical perspectives. This research synthesis provides a metadisciplinary and historical analysis of empirical studies on L2 writing in China that were conducted over the past 40 years by concentrating on the theoretical, methodological, and philosophical aspects of this scholarship. This study was set out to answer three research questions: 1) what major theories have been used in L2 writing research in China, and what changes can be identified regarding theory usage; 2) what major methodologies and methods have been adopted in L2 writing research in China, and what changes can be identified regarding methodology usage; and 3) how do theoretical and methodological changes reflect the changes in the philosophical bases of L2 writing inquiry in China?
The data in this study are 660 empirical research articles on L2 writing that were published in 15 top peer-reviewed applied linguistics journals in China from 1978 to 2017. Each article was read carefully by the researcher to identify its theory and methodology and was classified into one of the four categories, Instruction, Writer, Text, and Assessment, based on its primary research focus. Theory identification followed a data-driven thematic approach (Braun & Clarke, 2006), meaning that the researcher drew on exact information provided in each article as much as possible. Methodology identification framework was developed by adapting similar frameworks in the field (Hyland, 2016; Polio & Friedman, 2017). Disciplinary roots of the identified theories and research approaches of the collected studies were also identified and analyzed. All identified information was stored on a spreadsheet for reporting and analysis.
Regarding theory usage, the results show that a wide range of theories have been used in empirical L2 writing studies in China. Over 40 theories were identified in each of the following three subject matter categories: Instruction, Writer, and Text; 15 theories were identified in Assessment. In Writer and Assessment, more theories with cognitive orientations were adopted. In Instruction, theories with social orientations outnumbered theories with cognitive and socio-cognitive orientations. In Text, functional orientations were more prominent. With regard to theoretical changes, there were signs indicating increase in socially-oriented and socio-cognitively-oriented theories in Instruction and Writer; however, the majority of the studies were conducted under the process-centered tradition. The methodology identification results reveal that three methodologies were adopted by empirical L2 writing studies in China: Experimentation, Textual Analysis, and Case Study. Experimentation was the most frequently adopted methodology in studies in Instruction, Writer, and Assessment. Textual Analysis was adopted the most in studies in Text. Overall, Writing Test, Written Text, Interview, and Survey were the most frequently used methods in all empirical L2 writing studies across subject matter categories. The results also show an underrepresented status of qualitative approaches in empirical L2 writing studies in China. No significant change was found regarding methodology/method adoption over time.
Based on the results, I argue that empirical L2 writing research in China largely remains in the positivist paradigm, although there were signs indicating a potential positivist to relativist paradigm shift. I also argue that, considering the uniqueness of language studies, the meta-paradigmatic accommodation perspective seems to work better than the paradigm shift perspective in characterizing the developmental trajectory of L2 writing research in China. By implication, this study increases L2 writing researchers’ metadisciplinary awareness of the current theoretical, methodological, and philosophical status of empirical L2 writing research in China and provides research gatekeepers with concrete evidence for making better-informed decisions on actions toward greater disciplinary balance and integration.