Charlene Polio on Writing and TESOL Quarterly

Paul Tanner, Shiga University

Paul Tanner: Thanks for taking the time to meet with TLT. I really found Authentic Materials Myths (2017) useful and enlightening, so we’ll start with that topic. Could you explain your definition of authentic materials and tell us why ESL teachers should consider using them?

Charlene Polio: “Authentic materials are those created for some real-world purpose other than language learning, and often, but not always, provided by native speakers for native speakers” (Zyzik & Polio, 2017, p. 1). Of course, “authentic native speaker” is a loaded term, but the idea is that authentic materials have a real-world purpose and are not intended as language learning materials. We are not trying to denigrate materials created for language learning purposes (non-authentic), rather, we want to show that authentic materials are essential and can be used more broadly than teachers might realize.

The key point about authentic materials is that if students are limited to non-authentic materials, they are never going to make the leap to real life. Real language is different than what is found in textbooks; the watered-down, simplified language limits students’ exposure. Frequency in input is really important. With non-authentic materials, you’ll never learn the combinations. As Long (2015) noted, a simplified text may improve comprehensibility at the expense of the real goal of language learning (as cited in Zyzik & Polio, 2017, p. 100). Modification of the original text is a loss of authenticity.

Teachers should consider using authentic materials because it motivates students, helps them develop content, and provides richer input. Regular ESL texts are often “contrived” and prioritize one dimension. They provide a distorted view of grammar, often overemphasizing certain structures at the expense of others. Simplified texts reduce difficulty by controlling lexical items and grammar structures. Elaborating is adding to a text, which increases redundancy and regularity, making the material more complex and improving comprehensibility without removing difficult or unknown items. Authentic texts encourage a focus on meaning (understanding a message created for a real-world purpose); however, teachers can intervene to provide attention to language form.

One way to use authentic materials is “narrow reading,” which involves reading a series of texts on the same topic so that learners will naturally encounter the same vocabulary items more than once. Since high-frequency content words occur more often in related topics, reading about the same topic lowers the vocabulary load placed on the learner. Thus, narrow reading can facilitate the transition to authentic texts.

Do you have any suggestions for teaching the vocabulary for authentic materials?

The teacher should try to promote retention and not just provide definitions or make word lists because they don’t have context. Students should have to search for meanings, and teachers should check to make sure students are using vocabulary correctly. Teachers should consider using dictation for proper nouns and difficult vocabulary. Grammar and vocabulary should be taught together.

How did you decide to focus on writing as a research area?

When I was in graduate school, an influential article by Robb, Ross, and Shortreed (1986) came out. The long-term study contrasted four methods of providing feedback on written error. These methods differed in the degree of salience provided to the writer in the revision process. They found that students who received detailed feedback on all of their errors did not produce more grammatically accurate writing than students who received more minimal feedback. More correction did not result in more accuracy. Rather, more writing resulted in a gradual increase in the quality of writing. Later, Truscott (1996) was also highly critical of error correction. He argued that grammar correction in L2 writing classes should be abandoned since research showed that it was ineffective and had harmful effects. His research was problematic in that it relied on only a few studies, and his reviewed studies used different research designs and methodologies to support his overall generalization.

These studies were pivotal in changing the field and advancing a research agenda. Give them credit for that. Like Krashen, even if you don’t agree with him, his research was pivotal in changing the field and moving it in a positive direction. Now, the second language acquisition perspective looks at how writing helps us learn language, which differs from a composition studies perspective. Another influential person in my education was Barbara Kroll (2003), who was a guest lecturer in my doctoral program at UCLA.

How about now?

These days I recommend Christine Tardy (2019) concerning writing research and a genre perspective. Her work is fantastic, and she is an outstanding writer. The basic principle that underlies genre-based language teaching is that awareness of the forms, purposes, and social contexts of texts will aid in writing development. Genres are typified responses to repeated situational exigencies, meaning specific types of writing are done for a specific purpose. My graduate students love her book. I also recommend Caplan and Johns’ (2019) Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay. A chapter in this book finds fault with the standard five-paragraph essay and offers alternatives to this form. Specifically, the five-paragraph essay genre (and some would find fault with calling it a genre at all) does not extend to other contexts. Why teach something students need to unlearn or something that could be harmful if they try to use it in an inappropriate context (e.g., In this job application letter, I am going to give three reasons why I am qualified.)? By teaching a variety of genres, students learn to analyze them and hopefully apply those skills to future writing tasks. They will see that no real-life genre follows the five-paragraph essay format. This can be done even with beginners by analyzing recipes, thank-you notes, and so on. Yasuda (2011) provided a clear example of how genre-based instruction was introduced in a Japanese EFL class.

Can you provide some general advice for TESOL teachers?

Make sure that everyone is engaged and on task. One of my pet peeves is oral presentations where one person is speaking in front of a class. What are the other students doing? Teachers should incorporate some authentic materials and focus on chunks of language, not just vocabulary. Pre-reading and pre-listening are very important. Students need the vocabulary and grammar, presented in context, and not just lists: review, teach, and preview the difficult reading passages. Try to get students to use new language. This is not always easy but can be accomplished through text-reconstruction activities. Incidental learning can happen, but it can be slow. Having teachers highlight language will facilitate learning.

As a writing specialist, can you explain a little about how you use corrective feedback?

I think students have to pay attention to feedback and do something with it. If students are not going to revise, teachers shouldn’t correct all the errors. You can’t give corrective feedback on every single assignment. Don’t feel bad about that. Have them write, certainly. Use guided editing checklists, and activities that involve students noticing. Have them take responsibility for editing. Teachers don’t have time to give feedback or check grammar on every single assignment. Students can do a few drafts and choose one draft to get feedback on. With specific guidelines, peer review can help students revise their writing.

Tell us about the review process at TESOL Quarterly, and give us some suggestions about what to do or what not to do to get published.

For many journals, situate your study within a theoretical framework.

Select the right journal for your focus.

Try not to be too local. In an international journal, for example, try not to focus on “writing problems of Japanese students.” How can the research be used more broadly? How does the research move the field forward?

Be skeptical of measures of accuracy. Lexical / language complexity has come a long way and is interesting to researchers (motivated by Truscott). How are they measuring accuracy?

Don’t be frustrated. Remember that famous people get their articles rejected all the time. Try to use the feedback you get.

The literature review should synthesize and evaluate studies, rather than just mentioning sources and making a list.

Consider Swales’ (1990) CARS model (Creating a Research Space) and subsequent instantiations, which explain writing an introduction to scholarly research studies.

Causes for rejection include the following points:

The scope is too local.

The writer doesn’t follow the proper format genre-wise.

The literature review is outdated.

The study is not described well enough for reviewers to evaluate it.

Overly general / poor first sentence: “… is a neglected area of research” or

“… is a neglected skill.”

Thank you, Dr. Polio, for taking the time to provide TLT readers with some valuable insights. We hope to see you back in Japan again soon.



Caplan, N. A., & Johns, A. M. (Eds.). (2019). Changing practices for the L2 writing classroom: Moving beyond the five-paragraph essay. University of Michigan Press.

Kroll, B. (Ed.). (2003). Exploring the dynamics of second language writing. Cambridge University Press.

Long, M. (2015). Second language acquisition and task-based language teaching. Wiley-Blackwell.

Polio, C. (2016). Teaching second language writing. Routledge.

Robb, T., Ross, S., & Shortreed, I. (1986). Salience of feedback on error and its effect on EFL writing quality. TESOL Quarterly 20(1). 83-95.

Swales, J. (1990). Genre analysis: English in academic and research settings. Cambridge University Press.

Tardy, C. M. (2019) Genre based writing: What every ESL teacher needs to know. University of Michigan Press.

Truscott, J. (1996). The case against grammar correction in L2 writing classes. Language Learning, 46(2). 327-369.

Yasuda, S. (2011). Genre-based tasks in foreign language writing: Developing writers’ genre awareness, linguistic knowledge, and writing competence. Journal of Second Language Writing, 20(2). 111-133.

Zyzik, E., & Polio, C. (2017). Authentic materials myths. University of Michigan Press.